Conceiving Presence was on some level quite a leap for me. I had photographed plenty of people in environments, and had made portraits of celebrities where they were somewhat hidden or obscured but this proposed body of work was going to require a substantial leap of faith on the viewer’s part. I had recently become excited about a couple of bodies of work that were either playing off of the narrative of a place – like Henrik Knudsen’s On Location, depicting the real sites of famous movie scenes, or brought an obsessive physiological approach to the cityscape – in New York Changing, Douglas Levere’s amazing re-shootings of Bernice Abbott’s 1930s New York views. Also, seeing a photographer like John Clang displaying a whole range of imaginative personal series work on his website was inspiring.
As I was shooting the series I came across Taryn Simon’s An American Index Of The Hidden And The Unfamiliar and Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam and they suggested to me that what I was doing may be part of a larger way photographers are seeing right now. It also encouraged a paranoia in me that either someone was already shooting a series like this or that it could be stolen – reproduced on a smaller scale and brought out to the public before me. My project was taking years to shoot and, frankly, I’d never shot a series that so relied upon a simple re-doable idea before.
As I began approaching potential publishers many expressed genuine curiosity about the project even if they weren’t ready to take it on. In one meeting the publication curator point-blank told me that he’d never seen something like this done before. It was exciting and reassuring to hear that this was indeed unique and original (he also showed me Evidence, by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, as a point of reference). And, even though it took a while to find the right publisher I knew that shopping it around would ensure that if a similar project involving hiding celebrities did come along mine would be recognized as having been established first.
Once the book came out of course the project became much more visible and a friend showed me the work of Lynne Cohen, who has been shooting intriguing interior spaces since the 1970s. Her first book, Occupied Territory is considered a classic, and Nothing Is Hidden, from 2012 is an excellent retrospective. Looking at her pictures is like a deja vu – I really do feel like I’ve lived in her skin (or her mine?). Of course she didn’t have to hide any impatient celebrities in her scenes.