Jan Rattia, “Self Talk I”
Delving beyond the typical definition of portrait photography, artist Jan Rattia is able to capture the subtle essence and underlying narrative of his subjects. The end result is something modernly mythical and rather orphic in nature, asking for a viewer to see beyond the title and profession of the person at hand. In his latest show, “Tease,” recently featured at the Houston Center for Photography, Rattia presents his work in portraiture based on the male stripper industry, an industry loaded with preconceived notions and biases. As the recipient of the 2017 Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship at HCP, Rattia uses this exhibition to fully display his mastery of mood and meaning. Cinematic in presentation, it offers more than just a face in a setting.
A native of Caracas, Venezuela, Rattia came to the US for college, earning a degree in international business. After 10 years in this field, Rattia landed in New York City and eventually graduated from the International Center of Photography. Since then, his work has been featured around the country, including shows in Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York City and Houston. His work is currently represented by Cindy Lisica Gallery, and more of his profound portraiture work is to be featured in our city in the near future.
Rattia spoke to FPH about his concepts and captures in his previous show:
Free Press Houston: At what point in your youth do you think you began to develop an eye for art and/or photography?
Jan Rattia: One of my earliest childhood memories is that of my father placing me to face the bright sunlight before making a photo. As annoying as that was, it was probably my first lesson about lighting. Both my father and my maternal grandfather were avid photographers. My mother used to have a grey tin box of loose black and white photographs that her father had made of her as a child in the 40’s. I was always fascinated by the physicality of these images and by the magic resulting from spliced negatives, where in the final print, my then toddler mother would play multiple characters in one single photograph. They were calculated storytelling, but at the time they felt authentic to me. I believe I was about 15 years old when I got my first camera, though. I used it through college and it worked well until last year, when I accidentally dropped it.
FPH: Tell me about your experience as a student in arts education and how it developed you as an artist.
JR: Growing up, art classes in general were always my favorite subjects. But despite almost graduating college with a music degree, I ended up graduating with an international business one, which means that by the time I went back to art school I was an adult. This was after many years of pursuing a corporate career. Photography had been a constant all along, so I decided to give it a go and go back to school. I went to the International Center of Photography, a very unique place. In addition to extraordinary practitioners who taught me, mentored me, and have since become friends, ICP offered this uniquely international and incredibly intense experience. Beyond serving as a safe environment for creativity, it was common ground for over twenty nationalities in our class. Talk about exchanges in multicultural perspective… I believe I learned from my peers as much as I learned from the faculty. My original plan was to learn about art and photography, but it really turned into a journey of questioning and self-discovery, which I hope remains ongoing.
FPH: What are some topics in your medium that lead you to what you choose to photograph today?
JR: My work is usually portrait-based. While I have great appreciation for other types of photographic work, it is what I most respond to in general. I also believe that it is an accessible way to connect the viewer with your ideas. Strippers, photographically speaking, is a very gender-biased topic. There’s very little out there about men, and what is there, like most of the work around women strippers, is made with a strong consumeristic approach, demonstrating little regard for the subjects as actual people. In my current show “Tease,” I’ve given a nod to diCorcia’s “Hustlers” with more of a E.J. Bellocq approach.
FPH: Your previous show at HCP helps depict a deeper understanding of the subjects you photographed. Tell me about the premise of the show and how the imagery supports this.
JR: One of the things I like the most about making someone’s portrait is the exchange that takes place during the process. We all have a preconceived ideas of how we want to present ourselves, and photographers too, have their own idea of what they are after even before the encounter. The images are the product of that exchange, which to me can be secondary to the value of getting to know someone through the making of their photo. I don’t go after the decisive moments. I believe that is was Mary Ellen Mark who said, “It’s not when you press the shutter, but why you press the shutter.” These are photographs of passing moments and stories about the guys in them, so I treat it accordingly.
The premise? Well, the very first photo I made of a stripper happened because I needed a body as background, and none of my friends were agreeing to bare it all in front of the camera. I knew someone in the business and he introduced me to a volunteer. It was for an unrelated project, but I couldn’t proceed in treating this guy as a prop on a set, so I got to know him before the shoot and something clicked. I was fascinated by the many different reasons why someone would choose to dance with little-to-no clothing for someone else’s cash. Months later, while in New York, I was looking for a long term project to commit to, I remembered that experience and “Tease” was conceived.
“Tease” is about tension, and tension that exists between what it is and what it isn’t. They are unresolved moments and partial stories. They are visually accessible images about an often conceptually challenging topic. I had to overcome my own prejudices from a strong religious upbringing to even see beyond much of what life is today. That’s another story. The guys I worked with were often students from various disciplines, some working on graduate degrees, some were even professionals already, and some were still figuring out what to do in life. Yet they all welcomed the attention from their patrons despite their own sexual orientation. My goal is that, just as I brought my frame of reference to the making of the work, the public can bring their own frame of reference to challenge themselves and, through thoughtful contemplation, assign meaning to what they see.
FPH: Seeing that through social apps that many are obsessed with images and media, how do your photographs live in this world? What are some of your hopes for a viewer who encounters this show?
JR: Interesting that you ask. There are two works (Self-Talk I & II) included in the show, which was curated by Andy Adams. These are unrelated to “Tease.” I’ve been interested in the role of traditional portraiture in the context of our selfie culture. Thanks to the cameras on our mobile devices, photography has now become perhaps the most democratic of all artistic mediums. We are collectively creating, sharing and consuming images at a higher rate than ever before, and we work judiciously to present a highly curated version of ourselves in social media. So I was interested in seeing what happened when “selfie-experts” were taken into a studio setting for a real portrait. This work is still going, it has begun to address some socio-political concerns, but the inclusion of the two photographs in the show provides a window into my studio practice.
FPH: I came across a quote recently that says, “In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” It seemed to resonate with your work for me, seeing that the way you use lighting, mood, and angle to reveal a narrative of your subject. How do you choose the shots that make the final cut, and what are the most important aspects of a photo that captures a person’s story?
JR: Thank you. I feel the key is to make visually compelling images by carefully and purposefully choosing how to use all of those formal elements. A “perfect” photograph is boring. It all has to make sense for it to work. I do my best to carry that tension that I was talking about even through the formal decisions I have to make when creating a photograph. As far as the final cut, that’s the hard part. I’ve been working on “Tease” on and off since 2011. I’ve evolved both personally and as an artist since the first photographs. For me to continue to grow this body of work, my images need to not only maintain the tension, but increase the level of complexity in terms of the story and their function — how they contribute and support the other images. It’s impossible to capture a person’s story. We’re complex people. Too complex to put in two (or three) dimensions. But what is most important for me is not necessarily what is in the photograph, but what is not. That is for the viewer to figure out. My job is to present you with enough information for you to go there.
FPH: Any upcoming projects you would like to mention?
JR: Yes. I’m developing new work for a show with Cindy Lisica Gallery in 2018. Stay tuned!