Private Eye

The singular vision behind an extraordinary 35-year career

By By Jeff Kent
Images By Barbara Bordnick
First Published in May 2004

Point of view is that unique component that a photographer—any artist—brings to each project, says Barbara Bordnick.

Point of view is that unique component that a photographer—any artist—brings to each project, says Bordnick. It’s more decisive than any technique or equipment or style. She does acknowledge that discovering that point of view and embracing its uniqueness can be challenging for the photographer.

“It’s often hard for people to open themselves up to creativity,” says Bordnick. “It’s hard because they’re threatened. And when some people feel threatened, they get angry. That’s the way I react, too. So you get this anger against doing things differently, against doing things that aren’t the same way you learned to do them. But it’s not about right and wrong; it’s about different perspectives. That is what separates us as artists.”

Bordnick’s opinion has been coalescing over a 35-year career that began with an assistantship in another photographer’s studio. When her employer decided he wanted out of the business, she took off on her own, wearing a groove in the pavement to the offices of Harper’s Bazaar until they published her work, effectively launching her career in fashion photography.

Bordnick has since done countless advertising and editorial spreads, a couple of photography books on flowers, dozens of high-profile digital camera ads, and she’s won CLIOs for directing TV commercials. She served a term as the first woman president of ASMP, and became the first president of the Advertising Photographers of New York.

Bordnick’s diverse work over the years is united by the common thread of her singular point of view. Setting out in a single direction has never worried her, as she prefers to let her expression evolve naturally through her sundry projects.

“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been given really interesting projects throughout my career,” she says. “By default, they’ve given me direction.”

For instance, Bordnick began shooting her first assignments in fashion photography with 35mm cameras. An assignment to shoot a promo for 8x10 Polaroid photography led her into the 8x10 format. A request to test a digital camera back took her into digital photography. As a Canon Explorer of Light, she has shot advertising images for almost every new digital camera that Canon has released.

Her current focus on flower photography came about when a model was a no-show for a Canon D30 shoot. “I had hired two assistants and was set to shoot, so I had to do something.” Turning her camera on some flowers sitting on a table, she took a shot. “It looked good on the LED screen. I thought, ‘No, this can’t be.’ I took a second shot, looked at it, and thought ‘Where have I been. Why didn’t I do this earlier?’ For a long time I didn’t tell anyone I was shooting flowers because their eyes would roll into their heads and they’d think, ‘Oh, she’s going out of business.’”

But the first flower book has been very popular, and Bordnick’s second book is jumping off shelves. Rather than being a complete departure from her earlier work, artistically, it all comes from a similar place, she says. “My flowers are just like my nudes; my nudes are just like my fashion. They have the same sensibility, the same lyricism.”

Bordnick says she’s never been particularly good at coming up with projects on her own. “Freedom is a nightmare, a huge responsibility!” she laughs. Instead, she draws from whatever assignments she takes on, embracing the new and assimilating the lessons learned into her overriding artistic point of view.

Recalling a Great Women in Jazz calendar project for Polaroid, she says, “I entered a whole new world. I was photographing women who had gone in the back door and had never gotten their due…When I was doing the project, I didn’t know anything about jazz. I didn’t know anything about these women. So how was I going to photograph them? Since I didn’t understand, intellectually, what they were doing in this historical and musical context, I had to find something about them that was universally appealing—to the gut—to explain why I was photographing them. When I got each of them in to the studio, I had to convince her that she had this quality, and get her to give it back to me. It taught me an enormous amount. It taught me that it doesn’t matter what people do; if they’re exceptional, they’re exceptional.”

Photography gives Bordnick the opportunity to meet people she might otherwise never have met, and to relate to them with a rare intimacy. That intimacy is critical to her portraiture.

“There is no such thing as capturing the essence or spirit. You don’t get that in a portrait. You don’t even get that living with a person. The best that you can do is to create a situation where you have an honest exchange, if only for a fraction of a moment, so that anyone who looks at the photograph will feel that he knows that person.”

The process of doing that, says Bordnick, is mysterious and in many ways indefinable. Part of it is by applying what she knows, by creating an environment where her subjects feel safe to be who they want to be. It’s a collaborative approach in which she gently guides the subject into being honest, into showing the interesting, unique person within rather than the public caricature. If you ask her specifically how she evokes those honest moments, she can’t tell you.

“When I teach, my students often ask me how to make people relax and be themselves for a portrait,” she says. “I don’t teach them that. I teach them how to figure out who they are in a certain situation, how to trust themselves enough to connect with someone and capture that honest moment. How can you tell somebody how you communicate? Making that connection, that’s where your personality, your talent and your point of view come in.”

This topic is among the many facets of portraiture that Bordnick will discuss at July’s Imaging USA 2004 in Las Vegas. She will present “The Photographic Career of Barbara Bordnick,” a Commercial Track seminar sponsored by Canon USA, 4-6 p.m., July 25. She’ll also discuss how one woman got started in fashion photography, an area traditionally dominated by men. Don’t miss it.

See more of Bordnick’s work at www.barbarabordnick.com.

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