In photographer Ivette Spradlin’s “Unseen” series, viewers will see unconventional portraiture that hides the facial features of the subjects by positioning them with their backs to the camera. “My subjects are mostly unseen. Their gestures ride the line between vulnerability and empowerment, bending the idea of confrontation in portraiture. Instead of gazing at the viewer, they gaze into darkness,” tells Ivette, on her artist statement about the series. Hiding the familiar by not showing what is expected of portraiture norms, Ivette leaves ample ground for viewers to engage in informative discussions over each images. “Do they see potential or uncertainty? Do they feel hope or anxiety? Without facial clues or background — and without knowing the true intent of the artist or the subject — the viewer is left with more questions than answers. Instead of the image confronting the viewer, the viewer confronts his or her own relationship to the unknown,” adds Ivette.
How did the Idea for “Unseen” came about?
Unseen came about while doing another project called The Oval Portrait. With The Oval Portrait project I had a clear idea of what the concept was and how to execute it. When I began looking at the images I photographed for it, I started to realize that there was a real power to seeing these women with their backs to the camera in a studio setting. There’s a Nick Cave song where he sings “Some things we plan, we sit and we invent and we plot and cook up; others are works of inspiration, of poetry…” The Oval Portrait was the plan, Unseen was the unintended project that rose from the other photographs, they captured me instead of me capturing them.
Tell us the process on how you shot each image from the series?
Since this arose from another project, the process based on that project. I asked female artists who have dedicated their life to their craft. They visited me in the Carnegie Mellon University portrait studio where I teach. I would have a one on one session with each of them that would last for somewhere between a half hour to an hour. The studio was a departure for me in my work. I had never worked inside a studio with controlled lighting or directing my sitter so intently. I would photograph a lot at each session, they sat on a stool and basically spun around posing in several different ways at each new turn on the stool. During the shoot, I would have an informal conversation with my subjects about their life as an artist and how they balance their love for their work with the other loves in their life.
What are the fascinating discoveries you had while doing the series?
Well the images where my subjects faced the darkness was the fascinating discovery. I had to really self reflect on why I was so drawn to these images in the series. I believe it has to do with the fact that I, myself, am so uncomfortable with the unknown and these represented that attempt for me to be able to sit with the unknown.
Aside from not showing the facial features of your subjects, how do you differentiate Unseen from typical portraiture?
There is a German word, Rückenfigur, used to describe a work of art where the figure has its back to the viewer, allowing the viewer to place themselves in the position of this figure. The difference with Unseen is that the figures face darkness and not a landscape or scene. If you sit in their place as a viewer, then you look into nothingness.
Lastly, what are your next photography plans?
I’m trying to photograph men, something I haven’t seriously done in over a decade.
Truly is a creative Rückenfigur, as Ivette Spradlin has showcased another inventive way of portraiture that ask more questions upon first glance at each images. To see more of Ivette Spradlin’s works visit her website. Photographs from her “Unseen” series will be included in The National: Best Contemporary Photography 2015 exhibition at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, which will open on October 3, 2015 and run until January 3, 2016.