Photography is an unknown facet of this famous actress and capturing time and space has been one of her main interests over the last twenty years. A face, a building, a landscape. From all over the world, moments to remember and keep at home in a box. To show just a few. Sometimes.
She’s very tall, very slim and, despite arriving in Cascais rather tired, she’s smiling. Her stature and the fact she’s resisted the cosmetic surgery so fashionable in Hollywood are both impressive, with her sixty-two years imprinted on her face in very fine lines. “Unbelievable! I’ve been all over the world but I’d never been to Portugal…”. She’s come because of her love for photography. “In 1967, I entered the University of Minnesota, where I studied Arts and Photography. However, I didn’t learn very much. At the end of that year, a group of young photographers that I met at university dared me to go with them to Europe and I dropped out.” One of the group was Francisco ‘Paco’ Grande, the photographer she would later marry in 1970.
Jessica and her friends lived like true hippies on the Old Continent. They made documentaries about gypsies and flamenco dancers. “I learnt a lot about photography in that period of my life but, unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures during those years. I witnessed remarkable events, like May ’68 in Paris. I often think about the photographs that I could have taken throughout my life, in all the places I’ve been to… It would have been an incredible record! But, at the time, I wasn’t interested in taking photographs.” Meanwhile, Paris got her interested in mime. She studied with Etienne Decroux and she was willing to stay for a few years until Watergate called her home: “I wanted to see Nixon’s demise at close quarters and, so, I returned to Minnesota”. The following autumn, contrary to what she’d planned, she didn’t return to her mime classes in Paris. She went to New York to study theatre while working as a waitress at the Lion’s Head. “I was also on the books of Wilhelmina Models, but earned very little modelling. However, the agency knew I took acting very seriously and was very committed to becoming an actress, so, just before Christmas 1975, they told me that they’d be contacted because of a major casting for a film and they thought I should go. That’s how I got my first acting job, in King Kong”.
The discovery of solitude
It took two decades and the birth of her children for Jessica Lange to pick up a camera: “At the beginning, it was a completely different interest. I wanted to capture my children growing up. Perhaps, because I thought that I was missing something important. They would travel, play, see new things and, while that was happening, I would be working and wouldn’t be part of those experiences”.
Oddly, when she started taking photographs in the 1980s, she was no longer married to photographer Paco Grande. Alexandra, her eldest daughter, and the result of a relationship with ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, was born in 1981, and the following year Lange began living with actor, writer and director Sam Shepard. Then saw the birth of Hannah, in 1985, and Samuel, two years later. They were her first priority; however, that long-dormant, old passion made her restlessness again. “After a while, I started to carry a camera with me wherever I went. It was like an antidote to my work as an actress. When I’m acting, I always have lots of people around me, there’s always a huge crew. But, with photography, I found a wonderful way of being alone because photography is a very personal, very solitary act. It’s almost meditation and allows me to go to the other side. When I photograph, I’m the one observing, while when I’m acting, I’m the one being observed. When I realised that, I never left the house without my camera, even when I don’t have time to use it, which has happened in recent weeks, in Belgrade, where I’ve been filming. I haven’t taken any pictures yet.”
Because of films, being a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and for personal reasons, Jessica Lange spends a lot of time travelling. From her travels, she’s been recording the moments that have touched her over the last twenty years. And always in black and white. “I like photographing in black and white because it defines things more, with greater precision. Colour is distracting”, she says. She also likes developing her own photographs: “For years, the darkroom was in the basement of my house, next to the washing machine. And that caused a few disasters, of course… When I lived in New York, I met great photographers like Ralph Gibson, Danny Lyon, Robert Frank, Larry Clark, and I remember seeing them develop films and hanging up the negatives and setting up makeshift darkrooms in motel bathrooms and thinking it all very sensual. At that time, photography and photogrpahers’ work amazed me but I never imagined myself in that role.”
The secret box
For years, she kept the photos she took in boxes, inside a cupboard, and never showed anyone outside her circle of friends. “Sometimes, when my children were younger, I’d show them and ask: ‘Do you think this is a good photo?’. They would look at me with that ‘what-do-you-mean-by-that-are-you-mad?’ look and I’d put the photos back. Until one day, a friend of mine said: ‘Let’s take them to an art director I know’. And I thought: ‘Why not?’ It was good to hear someone else’s opinion, although it was only that, an opinion, because I had no intention of doing anything with the photos. However, it led to my first book and that was exciting, as exciting as it was unexpected.”
Perhaps, it was only by showing the world what her eyes see via the camera lens did she feel like a real photographer. She published a second book and has had exhibitions all over the world. Now, it’s Portugal’s turn to discover her work. The actress gave the title Unseen to the 134 photographs on show at the Centro Cultural de Cascais until 19th August. They were taken in Mexico, Italy, Scandinavia, Minnesota, Scotland, Russia and in various countries in the Middle East. They are divided into two series, Things I See and Mexico, on Scene.
She recognises that there’s a lot of cinema in her photographs. “It’s the theatricality of the moment that interests me. It’s the light, some gesture, the context or some other special aspect that gets my attention and makes me want to take that photograph, tell that story”. “I love taking photographs at night. There are things that only happen at night and there’s something about the night that makes people behave differently and the atmosphere different.”
She spent less than 24 hours in Portugal and it’s unlikely that she had time to use her camera much. She was tired and stayed there on the hotel terrace, gazing at the sea and sipping sangria.
by Maria João Vieira