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Stripping Away Artifice with Photographer Christofer Dierdorff

It's not your average photographer that consults with perceptual psychologists and physicists to hone a technique. But then again, Christofer Dierdorff is not your everyday shooter. Indeed, having created memorable portraits of some of the world's most celebrated people, from President Bill Clinton and David Hockney to Julia Child and Maya Angelou, the 60-year-old has a decidedly swoon-worthy portfolio.

Dierdorff's large-scale color portraits (30x40 and 40x50 inches), though, are strictly non-commercial, made only for exhibition as fine art. "It's not my intent to run off to TMZ and sell these things," he says. "The intent is to create them as art."

And art they are. While Dierdorff calls them "confrontational portraits," because they're often uncomfortable to look at due to their size and perspective, he has found a unique way to capture someone's spirit in a remarkably visceral way.

Dierdorff says it began with "wanting to get to an emotional result," adding that, "if you love somebody and you want to hold onto that feeling of intimacy and love for the person, it is possible to create a two-dimensional image, that when you stand in front of it, it gives you a three-dimensional impression of that person."

Born and raised in Boston, Dierdorff began taking pictures as a teenager, shooting the usual subjects -- bands at rock concerts and people around his neighborhood. He was even given a New York Times "Outstanding Excellence in Photojournalism" award while still in high school. But it was after graduating from CalArts in 1977, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, that Dierdorff says he suffered a series of losses, beginning with his grandmother, that led him to his life's artistic pursuit.

It was also at that time that Dierdorff says he took a photo that seemed to have a three-dimensional presence. Over the next two years he worked out a configuration of equipment -- a 2x4 camera that uses film and a portable flash rig -- that would give him his desired results: life-size prints as photographically real as possible.

Jimmy Washington by Christofer Dierdorff
Jimmy Washington by Christofer Dierdorff.

"I wanted the photo to look as if the subject was literally at arm's length in front of you," explains the Silver Lake resident, "in essence, tricking the viewer into believing that person was standing in front of you."

His first celebrity portrait was taken in 1984. It was a picture of Beat Generation writer William Burroughs, the transgressive author of such classics as "Naked Lunch" and "Drugstore Cowboy."

"But like all celebrity portraits," recalls Dierdorff, "access is the major problem. If you're an artist and they're an artist, most are fairly open to you. I was able to capture Burroughs in San Francisco as he passed through a poetry series."

It helps, too, that Dierdorff is a Buddhist who brings a compassionate worldview to both his art and life. "We're all extremely valuable human beings," he points out, "unique in our own ways. Once you meet a well-known person and realize they're no different, well, that's the way I approach every subject."

Unless, of course, that subject happens to be Bill Clinton. In 1996, Dierdorff was commissioned by the United Nations to serve as the sole portrait photographer for the organization's 50th anniversary. He shot hundreds of subjects over a three-day period, including those of Princess Margaret, Madeline Albright, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Lech Walesa.

Larry and Garry Lipfird by Christofer Dierdorff
Larry and Garry Lipfird by Christofer Dierdorff.

Then there was Clinton. "I never understood the word 'charisma' until I met Clinton, and you instantly understand where that word came from. He had an absolute glow about him, almost as if he floated above the ground -- but a really nice guy."

Having perfected a technique that allows him to shoot a portrait in two minutes -- in the trade it's called "run and gun" -- the U.N. assignment was a breeze... for the Secret Service.

Recalls Dierdorff with a laugh: "Lech Walesa was in front of my camera for a minute before his security detail whisked him away. Princess Margaret, we maybe spent a total of three minutes with her."

Sometimes, though, Dierdorff has been fortunate enough to photograph a subject over the course of several hours. That was the case with the Dalai Lama in 2001. A group of Buddhist priests had asked the Angeleno if he would photograph His Holiness at Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Parks as part of a mandala dedication.

"I spent nearly five hours with him as he wandered around. I have to admit that portrait-wise I'm not totally happy with mine of the Dalai Lama, but I did get to spend the whole day with him."

A Dierdorff portrait can pop up anywhere, with one of Harris Glenn Milstead ("Divine" to the uninitiated), making an appearance in Jeffrey Schwarz' latest film, "I Am Divine." The documentary -- featuring Divine, a drag queen, singer, and star of such cult classics as "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble" -- is currently making festival rounds.

Schwarz, president of locally-based Automat Pictures, says he hadn't been familiar with Dierdorff's work, but found his portrait of Divine (shot out of drag at San Francisco's Club DV8 in 1987), while doing a Google search. "I was struck by its intimacy and honesty," says Schwarz. "It's Divine without any of the makeup and false exterior, and he's really laid bare in the photo. Chris strips away artifice."

"His portrait of Divine was so striking," he adds, "that we ended up using it in the film at the moment the audience realizes that Divine had died. It's just a giant face up there on the screen, and you really feel the loss."

Divine by Christofer Dierdorff
Divine by Christofer Dierdorff.

Of course, with any great work of art, the background is also crucial. For Dierdorff, that element is sometimes left to what he calls the "photo gods." He cites Salman Rushdie as a case in point. Rushdie's 1988 book "The Satanic Verses" resulted in Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatw? on the prize-winning author. By 2004, though, the death warrant had been lifted, and the author, hired to speak at a corporate gathering at the Century City Hotel, was roaming about the premises unprotected.

Dierdorff, meanwhile, waited for the author in the hotel lobby. "He approaches, we say our pleasantries, I turn around, and there, right where we were standing, is this arabesque looking painting on the wall of the hotel. I asked Mr. Rushdie if he wouldn't mind standing in front of it and we took the photo. It's gorgeous, so thank you, photo gods."

His portraits of the rich, famous, and notorious aside, Dierdorff, whose piercing blue eyes seem to be in constant search of subject material, found great satisfaction in one of his most recent commissions: creating 12 large-scale portraits of everyday people for the 23rd Street Metro station (at Flower Street). Dubbed "The Intimacy of Place," the project was unveiled in April of last year, with the myriad subjects ranging from a milliner, boxer, and baker to a firefighter, priest, and tire shop owner. Dierdorff's intent was to comment on the nature of public transportation, where people from many walks of life find themselves in close physical proximity to strangers.

"The Intimacy of Place" Metro Installation by Christofer Dierdorff
"The Intimacy of Place" Metro Installation by Christofer Dierdorff.

He says finding subjects was tough. "Normally, I determine my interest in a subject, and then go through the process of trying to photograph them. This was different, as I had to figure out how do I find people, how do I approach them, how do I photograph them?"

What Dierdorff did was draw a two-mile circle around the station, where, for three months, he went to different blocks and walked around with open eyes. He also didn't want to find a wonderful face only to be saddled with a drab background.

"I started with venues like a bodega, one of the local colleges, the Catholic Church -- something with rich backgrounds," he explains. "And within the context of those settings I tried to find somebody to volunteer for portraits."

Out of 100 subjects, 12 made the cut, with the backs of their heads also part of the 24 finished portraits. Dierdorff has an unusual fascination with the backs of peoples' heads, which makes the station art work that much more intriguing.

Wanting to achieve a "dance-like motion on the platform, where people moved back and forth and perhaps be entertained while waiting for a train to arrive," Dierdorff says he found his solution.

He explains: "Even with the best arrival and departure times for public transportation, we've all had to wait. And you can get a little bored. So I wanted to come up with a way to not only have evocative art, but also to maybe motivate some movement around the station, where people would see the front of one person's face and the back of some other person."

The artwork designs were translated from digital photography into porcelain enamel at a fabrication firm, where they were then put in a kiln and glazed, before being transferred to a different fabricator. There, they were installed within painted steel frames. "The machine was like a giant ink jet printer with special inks," says Dierdorff, "and it made a perfect photograph."

Dierdorff has also had gallery shows, including several at the 1650 Gallery in Echo Park. The gallery, which has been owned by Andrew Overtoom and his wife, Tricia Noble for three years, mounts new exhibitions every month or so.

"Chris' work has soul," declares Overtoom, "and that's what I'm looking for in photography, because so much of what's out there today lacks what I call soul. Whether it's a portrait of a chicken or a firefighter, Chris' work is more grounded than a lot of stuff I see and that people are promoting -- the detached, 'too cool for school' work."

Ann Richards by Christofer Dierdorff
Ann Richards by Christofer Dierdorff.

"Photography is going through an identity crisis," he continues. "There's a thread of people imitating paintings and dressing their children up like a Rembrandt or something and photographing that. It's the same identity crisis photography had back in the late 19th century, when people decided if photography can be art, it has to look like a painting, because only paintings are art."

Overtoom described Dierdorff's image of firefighter Greg Sweet, from the gallery's 2011 show, "Ill Be Your Mirror: The Portrait," as exemplary. "That photo is interesting because Chris said he was supposed to shoot the whole firehouse crew and then pick one person for the official portrait. Everyone's kind of brainwashed today about the 'sexy firefighter' calendar photos, but Chris picked that guy. Now that's a photo with soul."

Greg Sweet by Christopher Dierdorff
Greg Sweet by Christopher Dierdorff.

Dierdorff, who also works in motion pictures and television, says he can use the same skill set from photography as he does as a producer, a director, or working in special effects. He won an Emmy for his graphic art as part of a special effects team that worked on "The Day After," the 1983 Nicholas Meyer-directed film about nuclear holocaust.

And while his fine arts photography also includes pristine architectural shots -- and those lovable chickens -- it's human portraiture that remains Dierdorff's passion. "Without wanting to sound cliché," the artist says softly, "I consider every life a miracle, a singular occurrence, and ultimately mortal. When you look at a person's face, you may become aware of an immense depth of feeling and emotion, plus a quiet sensation of timelessness. By denying intimacy, one camouflages. My intent is the opposite -- to reveal, expose, disclose and, finally...to love."

Sonja Robinson by Christofer Dierdorff
Sonja Robinson by Christofer Dierdorff.

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