Every picture tells a story: the photos of Jessica Lange

The actress’s work can be seen in an exhibition at the Butler museum.


vindicator entertainment writer

Jessica Lange is attracted to the mystery a photograph can hold.

“Subconsciously, I am drawn to those moments where it’s not clear what is happening,” the Oscar-winning actress told The Vindicator in a telephone interview from her home in northern Minnesota.

Lange’s photographs can be seen in an exhibition that opens Thursday at the Butler Institute of American Art. The actress will also be the special guest at a gala party Thursday evening to mark the museum’s 90th anniversary.

The 60-year-old Lange has dabbled in photography for much of her life as an outlet for her creativity. But her hobby entered the public realm with the publication of her first book of photographs in November.

“50 Photographs” (Powerhouse Books, $50) demonstrates Lange’s textured, high-contrast style with 50 black-and-white prints that she had taken at locations throughout the world.

Each photo raises questions in the viewer’s mind: What just happened? What led up to the moment? Each hints at a story that will never be told.

The Butler exhibition is just the second public showing of Lange’s work. The show, also entitled “50 Photographs,” was on display late last year and earlier this year at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York.

Louis Zona, executive director of the Butler, saw the exhibition in New York in January. He was so moved that he decided to bring it to Youngstown.

“Jessica Lange represents distinguished achievement in both [the performing arts and the visual arts],” said Zona. “While her work in film has garnered great praise, her talents as a photographer are also outstanding. The work extends the rich tradition of American photographic art in that it is both highly original, as well as technically accomplished. It captures moments in time, the photographer’s rich and diverse experiences freezing and amplifying those moments. Great art does that.”

Zona said he loves the spontaneity of Lange’s work and her innate sense for visual organization, as well as her use of dramatic light and dark, and reliance upon rich textures.

“There is also a quality of the surreal in much of the work, almost as if the story is not finished,” he said. “The work draws us in and then asks us to complete the message. Some of the works recall the classic photography of the masters and some of it is strongly reminiscent of the imagery of Felini. I could not be more thrilled with her work.”

The subjects of Lange’s photographs are never shot in full face; instead, they are partially concealed, or looking away, unaware of the camera.

Lange said her love of mystery — and her reluctance to intrude on others’ privacy — compels her to frame such moments.

“The mystery of photography attracts me,” she said. “I love not knowing what it is. This, coupled with my own timidity, has led to my style of photography.

“I take photos on the fly,” she explained. “I have an inability to put a camera in someone’s face. I am always hoping they won’t notice that I took their picture. I’m not invading anyone’s privacy.”

The camera itself also holds mystery to Lange.

“Photography is elusive,” she said. “It captures a moment that otherwise wouldn’t be remarkable — and you don’t always know you have it. Like sometimes you shoot a roll of film and can’t wait to see a certain frame. Then when you do, it’s mediocre. You probably don’t even print it. But there’s another frame on the same roll that you don’t even remember shooting, and that’s the one.

“It’s the alchemy of it.”

Lange’s film career took off in 1976 when she starred in Dino De Laurentiis’ remake of “King Kong.” She won Academy Awards for her work in the 1982 film “Tootsie” (Best Supporting Actress) and 1994’s “Blue Sky” (Best Actress). Her Broadway credits include a turn as Blanche Du Bois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1992 and as the mother in “The Glass Menagerie” in 2005.

Most recently, she starred in the HBO film “Grey Gardens,” which was released in April.

Despite the attention she’s getting for her photography, she has no expectations or goals.

“I don’t think of myself as a photographer,” she said “It really is much more a great pleasure of mine. It’s informal. It was never a preference that was driving itself. Acting has been my focus for the last 35 years. Photography is just a pleasure, and there was no end game in sight, like, for example, to have my work in an exhibition. I don’t know if suddenly I have different direction. If another book or show comes out of it, great. But I’m not looking for anything.”

Lange said she will continue to pursue photography at the same level. To illustrate her casual approach, she said, “someone once asked me ‘what is your theme?’ and I said ‘I didn’t know I needed one’.”

She loves photography because “it is the antithesis of film or stage work. I can do it privately and on my own time. It is a personal, solitary way of expressing myself.”

Lange has been a collector of black-and-white photography for more than two decades. Her favorites hang throughout her house, she said, providing a constant, if not subconscious, source of inspiration and influence.

The photographs in her book and exhibition were selected as part of a process of piecing together a loose narrative.

“There’s a thread that runs through them, in style or subject matter,” said Lange. “Some of the photos were touchstones and we worked from them to see what works, but not to make them sequential ... we didn’t want to make it too comfortable or easy to follow.”

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