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BEST OF 2013, Fritz Liedtke
Portland, OR
Projects: Astra Velum, a series exploring the beauty of flawed human skin, with its freckles and scars overlaid upon us like a thin veil of stars; and Skeleton in the Closet, a series of intimate portraits of women and men struggling with the secrets of anorexia and bulimia, covering a wide spectrum of age, gender, ethnicity, and social status.

© Fritz Liedtke

© Fritz Liedtke

Fritz Liedtke explores human frailty and flaws in two intimately personal photo projects, Skeleton in the Closet and Astra Velum. The freckled-faced portraits of his latter series are painstakingly printed as photogravures, sandwiched with a delicate layer of handmade Japanese paper, which gives the images a subtle glow from within.

“More than once, while I was making pictures for Astra Velum, women thanked me for making something beautiful out of what they often viewed as an imperfection,” Liedtke says. “At its essence, Astra Velum explores the beauty of flawed human skin, with its freckles and scars, overlaid upon us like a thin veil of stars.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Fritz Liedtke: I’ve been photographing since I was in junior high, but I started my business when I was in art school, in 2001.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

FL: Two years now.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

FL: I love photographing people, and telling human stories through powerful images. My favorite work is environmental portraiture, but I also enjoy fashion, editorial, and portrait assignments of all sorts. I try to keep my interests varied, so my work isn’t repetitive and I don’t burn out.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

FL: I’m a big fan of shallow depth of field, so I’d have to say my current favorite pieces of equipment are my fast primes.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

FL: I’ve always had a knack for putting people at ease in front of a camera, and people recognize and appreciate this. In taking a photograph, I want to do something more than just create a pretty picture — I want to tell a story, or give the viewer a window into my subject’s life. I like to do things a little bit different. I find myself less and less enamored with the current trend toward the mundane, or with imagery that relies on sex appeal to sell stuff. I’m more interested in images that breathe life, that make good use of light, and that make me say “Wow!” when I look through the viewfinder.

ASMP: Both the Astra Velum (“veil of stars”) and Skeleton in the Closet series address very sensitive issues. What was the origin of each series? What prompted you to create these bodies of work?

FL: When I was 17, in that year of transition from college to high school, I struggled with anorexia. I didn’t know it at the time; I was just trying to be as good a student as I could be, and didn’t want food or thoughts of food to get in my way. It was about control. Thankfully, a college counselor helped me think through things, and become healthy.

Fast forward 14 years, when I was searching for my next project to pursue, and this idea of exploring eating disorders just wouldn’t leave me alone. That’s where Skeleton in the Closet began. I wanted to explore the subject of eating disorders as an artist, to tell people’s stories.

The Astra Velum project started in San Francisco. I was photographing there, and one evening was at a pub with colleagues and friends. One of the guys brought his girlfriend, covered in the thickest freckles I’d ever seen. I was intrigued, and asked if I might take her portrait; she hesitated, but finally said yes. So I photographed her on the sidewalk by the light of the neon signs, and it turned out to be my favorite portrait of that entire year.

Back in Portland, I slowly began seeking out and photographing freckled women and men. As I did so, some of them told me stories of feeling ashamed of their freckles, as if they were an imperfection, something to hide or erase. This intrigued me, and it became the focus of the series: creating something beautiful out of something people viewed as a flaw.

ASMP: What were your initial expectations in undertaking each series? Did you have a long-term plan when you first started?

FL: When I began the Skeleton series, I sat down and wrote out a project proposal for myself. I thought through what I was after, and how I might go about it; I also wanted a document I could share with others, which would explain and legitimize what I was doing. I knew that I wanted to photograph people with eating disorders, to combine these photos with text, and that I wanted to create painterly, textural images. From there, forward, of course, the project took on a life of its own. But having this document helped me stay focused.

The Astra Velum project was a more intuitive pursuit. I knew I wanted to photograph people with freckles; how I’d go about finding the people, photographing them, processing the images and displaying them was an evolutionary process.

ASMP: Although similar at their core, as portraits of people with issues about their bodies, please describe any connections you’ve discovered between these two series. From your point of view, what are the differences between them?

FL: If you take a look at my personal work overall — including these two projects, as well as my explorations of adolescence in Quite Normal and Welcome to Wonderland — you’ll sense my compassion for the displaced, the lonely, the broken among us. Everybody has a history, everybody has secrets, everybody hurts. This is what I end up being drawn to, and is the connection I see in these projects: I give people an opportunity to be honest about their hidden lives and to create beauty from ashes.

ASMP: How did you connect with the people you photographed? What were the most important criteria for photographing (or not photographing) individual subjects?

FL: For both projects, I found people in a variety of ways: people I knew, referrals from people I knew, people I met at parks or parties, posts on Craigslist.

With the Skeleton project, I would meet with and photograph anyone willing to talk with me about their eating disorder. In the course of our conversation, I was looking for two things: a part of their story that I could illustrate in a photograph, and a story or theme I hadn’t yet covered in the project.

For the Astra Velum series, my selection process was more intuitive. If I was intrigued by someone’s appearance, I’d photograph them. I probably photographed four times as many people as those who made the final cut (including both men and women).

ASMP: What were your potential subjects’ reactions when you first approached them to request their participation and discuss the series with them?

FL: In the Skeleton project, people were usually approaching me, in response to a referral or a post. So they had already decided they were willing to talk. (Although not all who talked with me ended up being willing to be photographed, and I respected their wishes.)

For Astra Velum, most people were flattered that I wanted to photograph them. I’m gentle and kind in my approach, and I think people can sense that they can trust me.

ASMP: You mention that your subjects spoke with you on a very personal level, sharing stories that must have been painful for them to reveal. Did you go into these projects expecting to hear especially personal and emotional stories?

FL: I’ve discovered over the years that if you ask people good questions, and then shut up and listen to them, they’ll tell you all kinds of things. People want to be heard and to be understood, and I do my best to listen and understand. So yes, I expected to hear personal stories, although I didn’t force them or dig for them. I just let people share what they were open to sharing. I am frequently in awe of what people will share if you let them.

ASMP: How did you prepare for the emotionally charged interaction, and how did you react when people shared such intimate details with you?

FL: Two things helped me with these conversations: First, I’d had a bout with an eating disorder in my past, which built some instant rapport; second, I have a fairly realistic view of human nature, which means that not much surprises me. That’s not to say I’m not moved by what people say; I am. But in conversations like this, it’s important to let people know you hear and accept them, without judgment or surprise, and they’ll continue to share.

Putting it this way sounds almost clinical, as if I were proposing a method for making people reveal their deepest secrets. This isn’t about methodology; I actually care about these people. Some are my friends. Some I love very deeply. I ached and prayed for all of them. A few weeks were very difficult for me, as I processed their stories and tried to offer what little encouragement I could toward their healing.

ASMP: Did you conduct formal interviews and record audio of the stories that subjects told you?

FL: I took notes as we talked, but didn’t record our conversations. I think having a microphone present would stifle some people’s openness. Early on, I’d ask the subject to write a few paragraphs after we talked, to tell the portion of their story that I’d illustrated in my photograph. Over time, I discovered that many people don’t like to write, so I began transcribing, during our conversations, the sentences or paragraphs I would use for the text portion of each piece.

ASMP: How many people have you photographed for each series and over what period of time?

FL: For Skeleton I interviewed around 100 people, and photographed close to 80 over five years. For Astra Velum, I probably photographed 40 people over several years.

ASMP: At what point did you feel that you had photographed “enough” people for each series and feel that each of the series was complete? Or, do you plan to continue with the work?

FL: There came a point in each project where I felt like I was beginning to repeat myself, and that’s when I stopped. Once I felt satisfied with the work I had created, the actual photography tapered off. Although I still occasionally find someone I want to add to each project, and occasionally do so. For instance, I had a very difficult time finding men willing to talk about and be photographed in relation to their eating disorders. So, when I was recently shooting an assignment in Los Angeles, and a Native American/Jamaican/Irish/Muslim man offered to participate, I went with it.

ASMP: In what kinds of settings do you photograph subjects? Do the subjects choose the setting or do you?

FL: For Skeleton, each photograph was an illustration of one part of the subject’s story. I usually tried to photograph them immediately after we talked, so the ideas were fresh. I also didn’t want to repeat myself, so I tried to make each image unique, and also to stay away from obvious metaphors, such as scales or mirrors. With these things in mind, I’d talk over my idea with the subject, and then we’d head to an appropriate location and photograph, sometimes picking up props or clothing on the way.

For Astra Velum, I usually photographed the subjects in my backyard with natural light and a simple camera-lens combination.

ASMP: How do you ensure that subjects are comfortable in front of the camera? Do you photograph them alone for the sake of privacy, or do you work with assistants?

FL: For me, putting people at ease is perhaps more important than all of the technical considerations that go into creating an image. I talk with them, listen to them, and give clear directions. More often than not, I prefer to work alone on projects like this (although with minors, I always have someone else present). This maintains my rapport with the subject, and creates a sense of safety for them.

ASMP: Please tell us about the equipment you use in these projects.

FL: For these particular projects, my gear selection was often quite simple. Originally I shot Skeleton on medium format Polaroids, but eventually switched to digital. Both projects were ultimately shot with Canon 5D/5DII gear, primarily natural light, and a few lenses: 50mm 1.8, 28-75mm 2.8, and some Lensbabies.

ASMP: Why did you choose a sepia tone for the Astra Velum series and how do you tone the images? Is this done in-camera or in post-processing?

FL: I worked for months on the ‘back end’ of the AV images, trying to get a look that seemed right. I tried collodion, modern tintypes, and a few other things, but they were too difficult to control. In the end, I settled upon digital files that were processed in Lightroom to emulate the orthochromatic look of collodion.

Next, I searched for an appropriate method of printing and presenting the images. I was tired of the flat, mechanical look of digital prints and remembered how much I’d loved the texture, tone, and moodiness of photogravures I’d seen. I found a class taught by local photogravure master Russell Dodd, and the very first print we pulled took our breath away. It was stunning, and I was hooked. Having studied printmaking in art school, I remembered the chine collĂ© process, and decided to add that into my prints. The Japanese paper added both a warmth and a glow to the images that was perfect. Both the sepia tonality and the texture of the photogravures harkened back to turn-of-the-century images, of which my own freckled photographs were reminiscent.

ASMP: For Astra Velum you engaged the assistance of a writer and a book artist to create a limited edition book. How did you find these collaborators? Please describe what the bookmaking process entailed.

FL: I’d wanted to make a book for years, and this was the perfect opportunity both to publish Astra Velum, and also to collaborate with other artists. I frequently bemoan the solitary nature of working as a photographer, so collaborating with other people who are exceptional at what they do was exciting.

Gina Ochsner is an author with several books to her name, as well as a Guggenheim and NEA grant recipient, an author of stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and a list of other awards. We’d studied writing together in college and had kept in touch since then. She wrote a wonderful essay for the Skeleton in the Closet book, and I asked if she’d like to consider writing something for Astra Velum as well. Having a history with freckles herself, she was happy to do so, and the result is a beautiful, personal addition to the book.

I’d worked with bookmaker Rory Sparks on a few projects in the past; she created the boxes and titles for both the Skeleton and Astra Velum limited edition print portfolios. So we started talking about what it would take to make a book. It was a lot of work. We discussed binding options, costs, cover materials, endpapers, interior papers, and more. After we’d put together a plan and a budget, she started ordering materials (including a custom paper) and putting together the cover, while I started printing the images for the interior. (I had to print around 600 sheets…). I also designed the layout of the book, and Rory letterpress printed the text pages. In the end, we made an edition of 25 books, plus five artist proofs.

We set out to make something that was more than just a collection of photographs, but rather was an art object in itself. I think we accomplished this. Aside from the beautiful reproductions of the images, and the stunning cover that shimmers like stars in the night sky, the book has a heft and weight to it that feels just right in your hands. For this reason, it’s been making its way into museum and private collections around the country.

ASMP: You also sell prints from the Astra Velum series. Do you make the prints yourself or did you have someone else print them? Do you edition your prints?

FL: The photogravures that I print by hand are limited to an edition of 30 per image.

ASMP: Did you show your subjects other people’s portraits or just their own? What has been the reaction to these images, both from the subjects and the wider public?

FL: I always give prints as gifts to people I work with in these projects. I don’t really ask them what they think of the final image; if they want to share their thoughts, that’s fine. But often I’m photographing these difficult subjects, such as eating disorders and body image, and I know that what I create as art may not necessarily be a flattering portrait.

ASMP: In your opinion, what benefits did being part of your projects bring to the lives of your subjects?

FL: When I embarked on the Skeleton in the Closet project, I was simply trying to explore the subject matter and create beautiful, powerful photographs. What I hadn’t anticipated was how the project would benefit both participants and viewers. I’ve had a number of participants write to me later and say, “Working with you on telling my story was the turning point in my struggle to get healthy.” That still surprises me, but I’ve seen this at work over and over again in my work: Listening to people, and giving them a chance to tell their stories, is powerful medicine.

Viewers share similar thoughts. I get e-mails or notes at gallery shows from people who say they hear their own voice in these stories, and that they no longer feel alone. Others who haven’t struggled with eating disorders relate how reading through the 75 stories in the series has given them a real understanding and empathy for those struggling with these debilitating disorders.

ASMP: Conversely, what — if anything — have these projects brought to your commercial work or your standing in the fine art arena? Has either series benefited your business?

FL: When I was in art school, I was concerned that if I shot commercially, my fine art work would end up looking like the work I was paid to do. I’ve found the opposite to be true. My commercial work keeps me technically savvy and in practice, which elevates the quality of my personal work. And my personal work keeps me pursuing new techniques, new ideas, new projects, which also informs my commercial work. It keeps my commercial work from looking like everybody else’s photographs.

ASMP: How do you balance your commercial photography business with these fine art projects?

FL: Keeping a healthy balance is very important to me, and I feel a sense of responsibility to steward my life as an artist. I do so by drawing a line in my life that I call “enough.” It would be easy for me to be a workaholic, and to get lost in making money. Instead, I’m intentional about making time for art, even if it means not being the biggest and the most well known talent in my commercial work. I work hard when I work, but I place a high value on having time in my life for art, family, service and travel. It’s an economy that nurtures sanity.

ASMP: What’s next for you in terms of both your fine art and commercial work?

FL: Working in photogravure helped break me free from what I often feel is a sterile, mechanical environment of photographic printmaking. I love the control and flexibility of digital photography, but honestly, a photographic print usually leaves me underwhelmed. Very rarely have I looked at a paper print and thought, “That is gorgeous, and I want to own it and put it on my wall.” Not so with photogravure and other alternative processes. I frequently look at tintypes, ambrotypes, orotones, daguerreotypes, and marvel at the beauty not just of the image, but of the physical product itself. I feel the same way about good painting and printmaking. The object are gorgeous, and you can tell the artist was present in its making.

My current explorations in personal work continue down this path, as I play with translucence, light, paper, ink, collage and other materials and methods.

In commercial work, I am adding more video to my offerings. I’ve worked in video since I was in junior high, working on productions at the local community television station. I also studied video in art school. But until recently, video wasn’t something clients really wanted from a photographer. I’m excited to be able to bring this back in to my repertoire and tell compelling human stories both in stills and video.

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