November 28, 2006

Behind the Scenes with Nubar Alexanian

Behind the Scenes with Nubar Alexanian

Portraits are often the most difficult to shoot. I’ve always wondered is it enough for a portrait to simply be about someone looking into the camera instead of what a photographer can get a person to do for the camera?

Nubar Alexanian, photographer, in a conversation with Open Source, November 27, 2006

When producers Jay Allison and Dan Gediman revived the radio series This I Believe they enlisted photographer Nubar Alexanian to photograph every contributing essayist. In putting together our show on This I Believe we caught up with Alexanian, whose stories behind the photos could be a radio series unto themselves:

I flew to Los Angeles to shoot Norman Corwin. I called him from the airport and he didn’t answer. So I took a cab to his house and called him from the street. He answered the phone and said, ‘Alex, I use a walker and I fell last night so I’m bedridden. I’m afraid we’ll have to do the shoot another time.’ I told him it was fine, but perhaps we could just visit for a while, and he loved the idea.

His housekeeper let me in and he was lying in bed, wearing a white T-shirt, surrounded by white pillow cases, white sheets, etc. All of that white can be a nightmare if you’re using a digital camera in low light. After talking for a while, I mentioned that if I put a colored blanket behind his head and he read the newspaper, I could make it look like he was working. ‘You can do that?’ So we did this and I shot a lot of pictures. He asked ‘Why so many photos?’ And I told him ‘I’m very familiar with your work, I know who you are and now that we have met I have to shoot through all of the ideas I walked in here with in order to find you.’

This idea excited him so he got his cleaning lady to help him put on a burgundy shirt. He insisted on ‘doing this the right way.’ He sat on the edge of his bed in his underwear and that shirt, looked up into the camera and gave me the portrait you see. He gave that to me. It was such a gift. If you read his essay, which is about kindness and compassion, and look at his picture, he’s the embodiment of what he believes in.

Nubar Alexanian, photographer, in a conversation with Open Source, November 27, 2006

Norman Corwin, photographed by Nubar Alexanian


In working on this series Alexanian felt compelled to write his own This I Believe essay. He wasn’t happy with the tone and he didn’t finish the essay but the first two sentences — “I believe in fairness. In honesty” — do represent his core beliefs, which were tested when he photographed Colin Powell:

The two photographs of Colin Powell raise the question of fairness. In one image he looks a bit innocent, like a boy scout and perhaps that is a part of who he is. The other represents an in-between moment, where he is looking down (at a piece of paper which is outside the frame). But during this period of his career, he was letting go of one thing without reaching for another. Does this mean the photograph is true? No. Fair? Maybe.

A lot of the celebrities and statesmen prefer that we use publicity shots, for understandable reasons. And because they are so used to being photographed, it can be difficult to capture them in a private moment. The second Colin Powell photo is a private moment of a sort. I think if a portrait is honest it must have something to do with the experience of meeting that person, of describing the exchange during that time and place. In this sense, I think the picture of Powell is fair.

Nubar Alexanian, photographer, in a conversation with Open Source, November 27, 2006
Cpow

Colin Powell, photographed by Nubar Alexanian

Cpowel

Colin Powell, photographed by Nubar Alexanian


In the end NPR didn’t publish either of these shots. It thought they made too much of a statement. Instead it used one of Alexanian’s more traditional shots. You can see rest of Nubar Alexanian’s portraits for This I Believe here.

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  • I believe in Nubar Alexanian.

  • Potter

    What a great picture of Colin Powell, the one on the left!

  • Potter

    If you want to hear something really interesting listen to Norman Corwin’s On a Note of Triumph

    NPR’s blurb of it:

    On May 8, 1945, 60 million Americans tuned in to hear On A Note of Triumph, Norman Corwin’s radio masterpiece marking the end of World War II in Europe. Lauded by Carl Sandburg as “one of the all-time great American poems,” it was the most listened-to radio drama in U.S. history.

  • Potter:

    Thank you for the link to Note of Triumph. Believe it or not, I spend 20 minutes searching for this about two weeks ago. I remember being moved by it when I first heard it on NPR about 10 years ago. For some reason it just popped into my head a couple of weeks ago after not thinking about it for years. Apprently it popped into yours too. Maybe there is something in the air(waves).

    If anyone hasn’t heard it already, listen to it now. It will give you chills, and make you think of America and greatness together.

  • Potter

    Avecfrites- On a Note of Triumph popped into my head b/c of the picture of Norman Corwin. When I first heard it on NPR, years ago I quickly sent for an audio tape of it. It does give the chills. It was an entirely different era. Kudos to NPR for keeping it available.