Robert Kalman on I am Here

Robert Kalman tells the story behind his project I am Here: The Lesbian Portraits, chosen as our Story of the Week.

American photographer Robert Kalman defines himself as a "old school documentary portrait photographer with a gift for establishing rapport with his subjects." His series I am Here: The Lesbian Portraits was featured as the Story of the Week.

Photo from the series I am Here: The Lesbian Portraits by © Robert Kalman

How did you get started in photography?

My parents gave me a Kodak box camera for my tenth birthday in 1959. I’ve made photographs ever since.

Tell us the story behind your project and what first motivated you.

In 2014, my wife, who is also my assistant, and I were making photos of strangers on a New York City street. We saw this incredible looking man: sleeveless white undershirt, slicked back hair, arms loaded with tattoos, lined care-worn face. We stopped him and asked him to pose, which he gladly did. Then, as is our custom, we asked him to write something he would want people to know about him. He wrote, “This man’s a lady.”

It was an exceptional portrait, and later it got me to thinking about my late sister, who had been a masculine-looking lesbian. She had come out of the closet in the late 1970’s, and her declaration was not well received. I decided that a way to honor her memory would be to make a series of portraits of lesbians and have them write an answer to the question “What’s life like for you right now?” I combined their portraits with their words as a diptych. Most expressed upbeat and positive sentiments; my sister would have appreciated how times have changed for members of the lesbian community.

How did you find each of your subjects?

Our method of working is basically the same, regardless of the project. We set up a large format camera (either 8x10 or 4x5) on a busy street and watch for likely portrait subjects as people pass by. For this project we approached women who had a masculine “look,” explained our interest in making photographs of lesbians, showed them some sample images, and then asked if they would be willing to pose. Most were happy to do so and were very appreciative that we were spotlighting their community. A few declined saying either that they were private about their orientation or that they were straight.

Last year I am Here became a book. What was that process like?

The book is self-published through Blurb and will be used as a catalogue to accompany the exhibition of the work. The first show is scheduled for September at the Stonewall Museum Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Your body of work focuses specially on portraits. What attracts you to this type of photography?

Actually, my body of work is exclusively portraits. Not too long ago, I looked up the word “intuition” and found this definition: “The immediate knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning.” I don’t believe I can give you a rational answer as to what attracts me to photograph the human face. It’s visceral. I simply have to.

Are you currently working on any new project?

At this moment I’m immersed in a project for my work using Facebook. Until mid-April, I am giving away a print each day, 100 in all, to the first person who offers a comment on the day’s photograph. People’s responses from all over the globe have been very positive thus far.

As far as new work is concerned, I’m going to be starting a project at dog runs in New York City. I’ll be making portraits of people with their dogs and having them write down an answer to a question. I’m not sure at this point whether I’ll be asking the dog a question, as well.

Photos from the series I am Here: The Lesbian Portraitsby © Robert Kalman

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To learn more about Robert Kalman, visit his profile

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