Before King Kong, before the two Oscars, before the love affairs with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange was a square-jawed student of fine art at the University of Minnesota, taking an intro class in photography. There were any number of ways things could have gone from there, but they went like this: She fell in love with the friend of her photography professor, and he persuaded her to drop out of school in order to live la vie bohème in Spain and Amsterdam. “We made documentary films,” she says, “and then we came to New York. It was 1969.”
And as it was ’69, and as she moved to downtown Manhattan, there was an underground theater group (black turtlenecks, slender Capri pants), followed by a move to Paris in order to study mime. And then she was back in New York, being pursued by Bob Fosse and carried up the side of the World Trade Center by an outsize gorilla.
One can easily see how the photography thing just slipped away, eclipsed by life as a movie star. “I never gave it another thought,” she says, sitting in a back booth at Knickerbocker on University Place, where she’s just discussed the Times crossword—“Thursday? I can’t do Thursday!”—with another regular.
But about fifteen years ago, Lange’s longtime partner, Shepard, brought a Leica home from a movie set, and Lange was right back into it, mostly shooting her kids. (She has a daughter by Baryshnikov, and a son and daughter with Shepard.) “It was great,” she says of holding the camera again. She was living with Shepard in the Virginia countryside by then. Everything was idyllic, bucolic, domestic. “I’d go down into the basement after the kids were in bed,” she says, “put on some Al Green and Sam Cooke, and develop pictures.”
It’s not uncommon for performers to develop a love of another visual art. Witness this month’s W (photographs of Angelina Jolie by Brad Pitt), or similar work by Bryan Adams, Andy Summers, and Dennis Hopper. There’s something about the role reversal, about the safety of doing the watching instead of being watched, that must be liberating.
“It’s a great counterpoint to filmmaking,” Lange explains, “because it’s such a private, solitary experience. It’s like writing or painting; it’s something you can do on your own. Acting is a co-dependent art form, and the actor is not in control. And filmmaking definitely informs the decision to photograph something. I’m drawn to situations with a dramatic feel to them as far as lighting or backdrop or people’s presence, the way someone stands.”
About five years ago, Lange showed her work to Donata Wenders (Mrs. Wim), a photographer herself, who encouraged Lange to start printing, and thinking, bigger. Lange and Shepard, now empty nesters, were moving back to New York anyway, and so she started printing at a professional lab, and growing braver.
“I can describe acting in much more concrete terms than I can photography,” she says of the work. “But there’s something about presenting an image in black-and-white that’s so reductive in a way. It sort of eliminates all extraneous information.”
This week, a book of Lange’s photographs will be published by PowerHouse Books. The images in 50 Photographs are all black-and-white, shot mostly during Lange’s considerable travels as an actress and as a volunteer for charities in Russia and Africa, as well as in the northern part of Minnesota, where she still keeps a tiny house. There’s even one photo from the first roll she took with her Leica, while in Romania, fifteen years ago. They are overwhelmingly quiet shots.
“Showing them to people outside my family was a big step for me,” Lange says. “When I first showed them to [photographer] Brigitte Lacombe, she said to me, ‘Oh, Jessie. Why are you still so lonely?’ And I realized that I’m attracted to people in solitary situations that are evocative of lonesomeness.”