Recently, on my trip to Philadelphia, I was fortunate enough to stop by Elsa’s studio in New York. She was, in fact, finishing up a portrait session for her celebrated series “Capture of the Soul.” It was excellent to see her process before getting to interview her for this very series. I got to see her take the photo which became “A Portrait of the Old Woman” (pictured below). From both an artistic and technical perspective, I can honestly say it was the most breathtaking portrait I have ever seen.
David Allen: OK, I suppose we should get this out of the way—there have been a lot of people upset about this series, claiming it’s not real photography.
Elsa Reid: That’s not a question.
DA: Fair enough. Can you explain why this is, in fact, photography.
ER: I’m tempted to say “because I’ve deemed it so” and leave it at that.
But, I know, that’s not what people want to hear. It’s funny, really, that the people complaining the most about my work are other photographers. I’ve heard things such as “perhaps it’s art, but not photography,” or “even if it is photography, it’s not portraiture if there is no discernible person in the finished product.”
But, it was an honest questioning of the definition of “portrait” that led to this series.
DA: And what is the definition exactly?
ER: Forgive my rudeness, but I want to get this right.
[pulls out phone and searches]
“a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders”—That the “especially” is there tells me that it needn’t be necessary. So, in the strictest sense, a portrait is a photo of a person. And, naturally, that got me questioning the nature of man.
If man has a soul—And I really believe he does, not in a religious way, but in an “otherwise we’re a bag of cells” kind of way—If he has a soul, than our physical appearance is such a small, fleeting part of who we are… I guess even if souls cease to exist when we die.
So, defining a picture of a person to simply be a representation of their physical appearance at a certain time is extremely short-sighted and limiting.
DA: Are you arguing that your photography qualifies as portraiture because it somehow records the soul.
ER: I wish! I think it’s a step in that direction, however small of one.
DA: That’s interesting. Can you explain your process a little and how you believe it accomplishes this?
ER: Sure. I guess, I should start with the first photo I ever took in the series, my untitled: self-portrait. [pictured right]
I had recently bought a new camera, set it up in the studio, and took a photo of myself as an initial test. It was the first photo I had ever taken with the camera.
Like I said, I had been considering what it looks like to actually portray a person. It sort of hit me. Cells die, regenerate, change. The soul is unique. There’s this problem in digital photography where there is no unique image. It can be copied as many times as you want and it will be the same.
I wanted it to be unique, like the soul. I took the camera, opened it, removed the sensor and framed it. The only thing that sensor has ever captured is that one photo. I think it represents me more than any print ever could.
DA: What happened to the camera?
ER: I destroyed it.
[laughs to herself]
DA: What’s so funny?
ER: I’m just thinking about how this might sound. I don’t want people to think I take myself too seriously because I take my photography seriously. So, yeah, destroying the camera is a really important part of the whole thing.
I know I sort of already said this, but our cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. In this way someone, physically, is in no way the person represented in a photo. A photo preserves the memory of a bag of cells which have probably all died by the time the thing gets framed.
I think destroying the camera after one photo emphasizes the true nature of a person; and it’s that which I want to capture. Each work in the series is a sensor which has only been used once.
DA: I know I just witnessed a shoot. I was actually impressed in the time it took you to choose your one shot for that sensor. But, what’s to keep you from just framing a bunch of sensors and claiming that they’re portraits without ever using them?
ER: Artistic integrity, I suppose.
[pauses in thought]
People criticize my work as not photography. Those same people often present photographs which have been heavily manipulated with a computer. I’m not sure where the integrity is there. My photos are photosensitive devices. They couldn’t be any more “photo” if I tried.
In this way, I think, this series qualifies as photography more so than a print. A print is ink on paper. And, in this digital age, that wasn’t photo sensitive paper. It’s usually just expensive paper. How is ink on paper photography?
Magritte’s “treachery of Images”—you know, the pipe with the writing that says “this is not a pipe”—his treachery of images is often seen as ironic. It’s the least ironic painting there is.
DA: How is that?
ER: It is literally paint on canvas. You can’t smoke the stupid thing. It’s not a pipe, it’s a representation of one.
DA: I’ll be honest, I’m a little lost. Are you saying that what most people see as photos aren’t really photos because they are literally ink on paper?
ER: … or pixels on a screen, but yeah, basically.
I am extremely grateful to Elsa for her time and this enlightening interview. I know it will have me questioning my own photographic endevours moving forward. Her work can be, of course, found at her site elsareidphotography.com or on Instagram as @elsareidphoto.