Jessica Lange speaks with San Diego Union-Tribune about MOPA exhibition

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Jessica Lange: Behind the camera

Actress is looking for the quiet moments in her photos, now on display at MOPA

By James Chute4 P.M.FEB. 13, 2013

As an actor, and more than that, as an acclaimed movie, stage and TV star, Jessica Lange can’t help but bring attention to herself.

The two-time Oscar winner is instantly recognizable for her roles in “Tootsie,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and dozens of other films, TV shows (most recently “American Horror Story”) and stage productions.

But as a photographer, she prefers to be anonymous.

“Kind of the fly on the wall,” Lange said. “As soon as you engage somebody, there’s a shift — even if it’s a subtle shift — either in their consciousness or in their attitude. I love the moments that are unguarded, where the subject is oftentimes unaware of being photographed. So I prefer not to be seen.”

In her own quiet manner, however, Lange is developing a substantial reputation as a photographer, having published two collections of her black-and-white photos (“50 Photographs” in 2008 and “In Mexico” in 2010) with complementary exhibits in the U.S and Europe.

Now, a third, more comprehensive exhibition of her photos, “unseen,” opened this weekend at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, the first showing of “unseen” in the U.S.

“Jessica Lange: unseen”

Where: Museum of Photographic Arts, Balboa Park

When: Through May 19

Admission: $6

Phone: (619) 238-7559

Lange, understandably, is a true believer in the power of pictures.

“I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than imagery,” she said. In an era of digital cameras and cellphones, she continues to shoot in black and white. “It’s reductive in a sense. … And because we’re not seeing in black and white, there’s something that’s startling about it.

“When you look at (Josef) Koudelka’s photos of the Prague Spring, the invasion of 1968, or you look at any of the great photojournalists from Vietnam, I think they changed the world. I truly believe that.”

Lange’s aspirations, however, are considerably more modest. She makes no claim to being a photojournalist, even if her often poignant images have a strong tie to photojournalism.

“Mine are much more personal in a way,” she said.

She briefly studied photography at the University of Minnesota, where she stayed only a semester before leaving for Paris with her soon-to-be husband, photographer Francisco Grande. But she did not seriously consider photography until more than two decades later when her then-partner, Sam Shepard, brought her a Leica camera.

“In the beginning it was about photographing my children,” said Lange, who has a daughter with Mikhail Baryshnikov and a daughter and son with Shepard. “I wanted to have a record of their growing up that was more than just color snapshots. … So I started photographing them and I just started carrying my camera when we would travel.”

With trips to France, Italy, Romania, Russia and Mexico, she soon amassed a body of work that elicited surprisingly strong reactions from the few people she allowed to see it.

“I was completely involved in my work as an actor, and this really was just for myself,” Lange said. “I had no intention of showing my work to anybody, to tell you the truth.

“But little by little, friends would see it, family would see it, somebody would say, ‘Why don’t you show your work? Show your photographs to so and so.’ That’s how this all came about.”

When she’s out with her camera, Lange says she has no preconceptions about what she might shoot. She’s looking for the “drama of the moment,” wherever and whenever that happens.

“A great deal of it has to do with this sense of theater, this sense of staging,” she said. “Obviously, having worked with some of the great cinematographers and seeing how they can prompt emotion through their lighting, and how a director does that through staging, when I see that naturally happening in front of me, those are the moments I want to lift my camera and take the shot.”

Many of those moments have been in Mexico, in particular Oaxaca, a “magical” place where she frequently vacations.

“I arrive in Mexico and it’s thrilling for me to be out on the street with a camera,” she said. “The people know me now. They all kind of look at me curiously. I’m sure they wonder what I’m up to. And yet they are so incredibly kind and generous, just allowing me to photograph them.”

And just allowing her to be anonymous.

Text and image courtesy of San Diego Union-Tribune