Home as Lens
Home as Lens
About a decade into her career as a commercial photographer, Leslie Williamson needed a break. She’d been shooting portraits, shops, and travel destinations for a variety of commercial and editorial clients, but something was missing. That’s when she decided to draw on her passion for people who make the world more beautiful and interesting – architects, designers, artists, and craftspeople. From that impulse sprang a number of personal photography projects, the 2010 book Handcrafted Modern, and a column for the New York Times’ online T Magazine. Now, as she is putting together a sequel to Handcrafted Modern, we asked her to tell us what she has learned about creative people from photographing their spaces.
A couple of years ago, you published Handcrafted Modern, a gorgeous book of photographs of the homes of midcentury designers – icons such as Russel Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eva Zeisel. What are you working on now?
I have just returned from spending most of my spring and fall in Europe shooting the second book in the Handcrafted series. The focus again will be on midcentury architects’ and designers’ homes and studios. Handcrafted Modern Europe (as it is tentatively titled), along with my People Watching column, is my main focus at the moment.
On top of that, my project on the evolution of a number of craftspeople – Kay Sekimachi, Paul Loebach, and Maria Moyer among them – is taking shape and going international. Plus a project on my grandmother and her home will probably be finished in 2013. Hers was the first home I ever photographed in depth, and in the process I ended up knowing my grandmother in a completely new way. I hope to have a gallery show of that with an accompanying book.
Throughout all of this, I continue to document the homes of creative people – especially those of the mid-20th century, an era whose artifacts are quickly disappearing. When I find out about a house that is being dismantled or sold, I try to conjure up a way to travel to it and document it. I am building a library of these homes that I will one day leave to the Smithsonian or something; it feels like a race against time. And then, of course, I have my commercial work for clients.
You’ve said you are not a photographer of interiors but rather a photographer who creates portraits of people through their homes. What’s the difference between those two roles?
Well, clearly, I am a photographer of interiors. But as I see it, there are two levels of interiors shooting. One is simply a focus on aesthetics – and I love beautiful interiors as much as the next person. But I come from a portraiture background, so maybe that is why my view of a home is more about the person who lives there. I view a space as a window into the person or people who live there – home as a portrait of self. On a basic level, the choices someone makes in her home – the books on the shelves, the objects she chooses to have out, what she collects, the style of furniture and so on – all paint a portrait of who she is more fully than any portrait of her face could.
Can you give an example of a time when you were surprised by something in an artist’s environment – say, you had an idea about the artist that was changed by something in the person’s home or studio?
The first thing that comes to mind is when I was shooting Bauhaus founder and architect Walter Gropius’ home. I loved and was inspired by his work, but I also was a bit intimidated by him. He always looked so stern in portraits, and his legend was just so big. He founded the Bauhaus, for goodness’ sake! But when I photographed his home, my view of him softened. He gave the best bedroom in the house – the one with the veranda – to his daughter. When I saw that, all I could think of was, “Oh, what a good dad!” It humanized him for me.
This is what I tend to do: I home in on things in people’s spaces that humanize them – what is on the nightstand, which chair is worn out from repeated use. Those are the little things we all have in common.
From your experience shooting the homes of artists, can you generalize about how they might differ from others’ homes?
A lot of artists come to their homes with an aesthetic agenda of sorts. They already know what they like and they have a way they want to see it. So there are collections that are specific to their inspirations. But I hate to generalize. There are plenty of artists whose aesthetic is reserved for their work, and they need to live in a blank white box. And then there is someone like British painter Francis Bacon, whose studio was absolute squalor. You just never know what you are going to find. But it is all fascinating to me.
What spaces – or even corners of rooms – have been most memorable to you?
Usually there is a point in each house where one shot or area or object deepens my connection with the person or people living there. It can be the strangest thing sometimes, like the overlay of moisture rings from a cup on a desk. An example would be in the home of Robin Petravic and Cathy Bailey, the owners of Heath Ceramics. There is this funky little wooden battleship on the table in their living room. It is made so roughly, but I just love it. And it turns out Robin made it when he was a little boy. Their house is filled with great collections, but that is probably my favorite thing in the house. And I love that they have it sitting out every day.
Recently, you’ve been shooting in Europe. Are there differences between the homes you’ve captured there and those in the United States?
There are the really basic differences, like the fact that many people live in much older buildings, so that changes the look of things. People tend to live in smaller spaces, too, and therefore live with much less. I have to say I really like that. It feels like there is less accumulation and overconsumption in Europe, and I see that in the homes. Understatement is more popular than bling. But these are all generalities. The glorious thing about human beings is that there are exceptions to everything.
Has photographing creative peoples’ homes led you to live differently or change your living space?
I live pretty much the same. I am a creative person myself, so I have a specific, strong aesthetic that I need to live in to create. I’m not sure there is a succinct way to characterize it – it is a stylistic mishmash. I like natural materials – woods, brass, copper, leather – and most everything I have has a story attached to it.
I have a big mirror that was my grandmother’s and I used to admire myself in it when I played dress-up as a little girl. Now it sits in my bedroom, and on top of it are all these little wood scraps that I have collected from the different designers I have met and photographed (Max Lamb and John Kapel, for example). I am sure those scraps don’t look like much to others, but to me they are gorgeous.
I do get lots of great ideas from the homes I shoot: little space-saving solutions and details from their homes that I might want to try out. There is a list growing in my head. Russel Wright used thin copper sheeting as wall cover, and it was so beautiful, with years of patina. I would like to try that someday. But, frankly, I haven’t been home enough to do that kind of nesting lately. Right now I am well-versed in how to fit a feeling of home into a suitcase.
Monica Moses is American Craft’s editor in chief.