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The Dramatic Imagery of Jessica Lange by Ieva Bluma


Jessica Lange is a true Hollywood legend and one of the greatest actresses of our time.  She has won two Oscars, three Emmys, five Golden Globes and multiple other awards.  Perhaps many people are unaware of the fact that she is also a very accomplished and talented photographer, winner of the prestigious Lucie Award in 2012.  I spoke to the artist in Barcelona, shortly before the opening of her  exhibition “Unseen,” and the presentation of the accompanying and eponymous book of photographs Unseen.

What are these pictures?, I ask.
Oh, things that I see, she replies.

“I find photography a most mysterious process – capturing that moment in time and space, elusive and fleeting, and crystallising it.” – Jessica Lange

We have always admired Jessica Lange as an actress.  We recognise her from her memorable roles in King Kong, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Tootsie, Frances, Blue Sky, Grey Gardens and dozens of other films.  More recently she has been known for her hugely successful portrayal of four different and powerful characters over the course of four seasons of the hit television series American Horror Story.  So it is interesting to discover the Jessica Lange is also a very talented photographer.

Lange has a fascinating and sharp photographic eye, with a real ability to capture life and turn it into an artistic mystery.  Her sense of composition and framing is very strong, present, balanced and detailed, and yet her images offer space and freedom that allow her to express fragility, vulnerability and loneliness.  The photographs create poetic mysteries that connect to people’s emotions and resonate.  This makes Jessica Lange’s realist images almost abstract, and her work does much to activate human imagination.

I was delighted to visit Ms Lange’s exhibition in Barcelona, “Unseen,” and to meet with her for a personal interview about her art.  As a painter and photographer myself, I found this to be a unique opportunity to engage in a creative conversation with the talented Jessica Lange

Ieva Bluma:  Your images are very artistic and well-composed, and the use of light and shadow is incredible.  There is so much that is going on in our photography, and I feel that it is the same as when you perform as an actress.  There are so many emotions and layers in your acting, even when you are still and don’t talk.  I think it’s the same with your photography – even if there’s a bare space in the image, it is still full of mystery.  Do you create your images by instinct, or do you plan the details ahead of time?

Jessica Lange: I’m always shooting on the street without setting anything up.  I think framing and composition is partly luck, but also there is this split second where you compose your frame and put what you want in it, and this is instinctual.  What appeals to me is the negative space or the centre of focus.  It’s a very personal and emotional reaction to what I’m seeing in the moment.  I take the camera and snap the shutter because there is something in the environment, something in the light, something in a gesture of a person or a moment of connection between people that touches me emotionally.  It comes out of instinctual moments and I think the things which interest me as a photographer are the same things, I find interesting as an actress – observing, watching, looking and being present so you don’t miss things.

I.B.  You have talked before about how, as an actress, you are constantly being observed, and you mentioned that photography is like an antidote to acting, because it allows you to become the observer.  Your images seem very cinematic, with a focus on light and shadow.

J.L.: It is cinematic, and I think because I’ve spent decades in a front of movie cameras watching great cinematographers working and understanding the power of light and shadow and how these create drama of the moment, because of that subliminal training I have had in almost 40 years as an actress, that’s what I look for in my photography.

I.B.: Any cinematographer with whom you particularly loved to work?

J.L.: There are so many, but I especially love to work with Sven Nykvist, who I think is one of the best cinematographers ever.  (Ed.: Nykvist worked with Lange and Jack Nicholson on “The Postman Always Rings Twice” in 1981, and also worked with Ingmar Bergman for many years)

I.B.:  I see many similarities between your performances as an actress and as a photographer.  There is so much emotional intensity and drama, but also vulnerability and fragility in your pictures.  How do you reflect on that?

J.L.:  What’s great about photography for me is that a lot of it complements acting.  You can only do good work if you are present in the moment and if you’re actually aware.  It’s the same way with acting.  If your mind is somewhere else, the work is not good.  I think it is the same with photography.  It has to be absolutely immediate and present.  I print my photographs with the negative line, and I never crop anything; it’s exactly what it was in that exact moment.

I.B.:  You have also talked about being especially attracted to darkness and drama as an actress.  Is this why shadows often play a bigger role than light in your photographic work?

J.L.:  I like the mystery of it.  I like what’s hidden, and it’s the same with acting.  What you reveal and what you withhold is what makes acting interesting.  If everything is revealed, then there is no mystery.

I.B.:  I see many hidden elements in your images – children hiding, people behind things, etc.

J.L.:  I like the ambiguity of the moment, when you don’t know what’s going on, and I find that people interpret it very differently.  Some people see danger in it, and some people see a mother and a child playing.  I’m just drawn to things that aren’t completely lucid.

I.B.:  Loneliness is very present in your images.  I wonder what kind of loneliness it is.

J.L.:  We all have different aspects to our nature, and loneliness is a big one in mine.  I read a great quote by this poet, Marianne Moore, not too long ago, and she said, “the cure for loneliness is solitude.”

I.B.:  As an artist, you embrace solitude in order to create.  Is this also the case when you’re working on your photography?

J.L.:  What’s wonderful about photography is that even if I’m alone, it’s different than being alone doing nothing.  If I’m alone, even in a strange place, and I have my camera, it becomes something active.  I’m engaged somehow, and that makes all the difference.

I.B.:  You particularly love shooting in Mexico?

J.L.:  Yeah, I love shooting in Mexico.  It’s like the entire country has been uplifted by some amazing cinematographers.  I have a very strong emotional connection to Mexico, it’s a bit like a love affair.  Every time I get to Mexico, it fills me up with a tremendous amount of joy, sorrow and all the spectrum of emotions.  For me, Mexico is one of the most magical places for  ritual, daily life, street life, people – it all has mystery and magic to it.  I always experience Mexico like one of the most fascinating places in the world.

I.B.:  I was also fascinated by glowing light in Mexico and the changes in it that are so dramatic.

J.L.:  Yeah, it’s beautiful.  I have never seen any place like that.  Also in the Nordic countries, in the winter period, you get this kind of amazing, sublime light.  It creates something very magical.  I’m always drawn to that.

I.B.:  Is life also more uncivilised and genuine in Mexico?

J.L.:  There is life on the street which makes it very easy to be a photographer.  All you have to do is go out and walk around, and there are a dozen things to photograph.  That does not happen in a lot of places anymore.

I.B.:  I see a lot of broken elements, and when light interrupts, your image becomes magical; it illuminates.  Do you feel you also illuminate the darkness?

J.L.:  I don’t know if it’s a question of being deliberate, or it’s just the emotional that I’m drawn to.

I.B.  You sometimes include dolls and masks in your pictures.  Are you interested in the human versus the artificial?

J.L.:  I guess I am.  I find it interesting.

I.B.:  Your images are very poetic.  Have you considered writing poetry that is related to your images?

J.L.:  Oh, I’m not a poet.  I think you have to have special talent for that, and I don’t think I’ve got that.

I.B.:  As an actress, you play so many different emotions at the same time.  My favourite among your movies is Frances.  I have seen it many times, and every time I watch it, I discover something new.  The same is true with your photographs.  The more you see them, the more you discover, and I think that’s magical artistry.  It seems like the broken elements of the human soul come together and create a mystery.  How do you reflect on that?

J.L.:  Oh, thank you.  That’s very nice to hear.  The thing which makes acting interesting, for me anyhow, is the idea of layers – playing different things in the same moment.  For me, acting and photography are connected.

I.B.:  You’ve always been such an innovative artist.  Have you made any new discoveries lately in your photographic work?

J.L.:  I really love old printing techniques, and I am now working with a photogravure series.  Photogravure is an intaglio printmaking or photo-mechanical process whereby a copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatine tissue which had been exposed to a film positive and then etched, resulting a high-quality intaglio print which can reproduce the detail and continuous tones of a photograph.  It gives another dimension and structure to my photographic prints, which I find very exciting.

I.B.:  What are your future projects in acting and photography?

J.L.:  As far as acting, I’m going to do a couple of films, but since they haven’t been announced yet, I don’t want to talk about that.  But then I’m going to do a production that I did in London 14 years ago of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into the Night next winter in New York.  And in photography, I’m working on a new series of photogravures, and also a project that involves a kind of  road trip.

I.B.:  What is your most important creation?

J.L.:  My children.

I.B.:  You have always been an artist on your own terms, following your dreams and vision.  Would you change something in your life if you could?

J.L.:  If I could, I would change everything (laughs).  I actually thought about that earlier this year.  I could quit everything I’ve ever known, everything I’ve ever done, and do something outside of the frame of my experience, like become a falconer.  Wouldn’t that be great?

I.B.:   What do you dream about?  What do you want to achieve in this point of your life?

J.L.:  You kept the big one for last.  My dreams … really at this point of my life, I want to find a way to be still.  My whole life has been a whirlwind of movement and action  I’m by nature so restless, but now, more than anything else, I want to find some kind of stillness.  That’s what I want.

Jessica Lange, photographer

Jessica Lange has been collecting photographic art for many years, is fascinated by photographers such as Manuel Bravo and Walker Evans, and briefly studied photography at the University of Minnesota, where she stayed only for one semester before leaving for Paris with her soon-to-be husband, the photographer Francisco Grande.  She did not seriously consider photography, however, until more than two decades later, when her then partner, Sam Shepard, bought her a Leica camera.

Lange always shoots with a Leica M6 and loves the whole process of developing film and the mystery of the unknown.  At first she photographer her children as they were growing up.  Later on she brought her camera with her when travelling in the United States, France, Italy, Romania, Russia, Mexico, Scandinavia and Africa.  Her first public showing of photographs was not until 2008, when, encouraged by her artist friends, she published her first book, 50 Photographs, accompanied by her first exhibition in New York.  Jessica Lange has gained a substantial reputation as a photographer, having published three books of her black-and-white photographs.  She has exhibited her photo art in the United States and Europe.

Jessica Lange’s Unseen is curated by Anne Morin  The book Unseen by Jessica Lange is available on

Ieva Bluma is painter,photographer and freelance writer –,based in Copenhagen,Denmark

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