By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, November 2020
It’s unsurprising to learn that a performer, an actor, say, or a musician, also makes art but it is surprising when that art is as singular as their performance. A handful of performers though do come to mind, such as the late California rocker, Captain Beefheart, who became a powerful expressionist painter under his resl name, Don Van Vliet. Portraits from the Woods, a book of photographs by Norman Reedus, the longtime lead in The Walking Dead, the number one serial on cable, indicates that he is of their number.
The show pits humans against zombies and other humans, more vicious than the zombies, and the book takes its name from the Georgia woods where it is filmed. This is also where Reedus shot most of the pictures and in these, and most unusually, he has gone out of his way to avoid the armature of a signature style but will segue from in-your-face Cartier Bressonesque realism, by way of the casually snapshotty through to images that channel the real/unreal domain through which The Walking Dead wander, along with identity slippage and extreme physical abnormalities. You will find no ComicCon Weirder-Than-Thou mugging here however. It’s all presented as everyday reality, except, though his lens, sometimes oddly beautiful.
Norman Reedus was bent on being an artist from early on. Born in Hollywood, Florida, he moved to LA in his young adulthood and worked with an art crowd there - but a meeting at a party got him an acting part. Others followed. He remained centered on painting sculpture and photography but his acting soon had him travelling so much that his painting and sculpture pursuits became impractical. Not so his photography.
Reedus began taking photos at high school, and soon found he had an instinct for the dark room. “I really got into not just capturing an image but being able to manipulate it,” he says. “The smell of emulsion!” This morphed into an intense interest in aspects of what I’ll call Old Tech. “I used to solely use old cameras. And find old film,” he says. “I loved the process of the whole thing. I found a digital camera, an old Ricoh camera, while I was on a USO tour ... Bahrein, Dubai, Ethiopia, Vietnam. I broke that camera while I was hanging out of a helicopter, landing on an inactive volcano, sand kicked up and the camera froze in my hand - I could never fix it. They don't make those cameras anymore...
The acting gigs of Reedus have allowed him to put his skills to use on intense walkabouts. “A lot of times you go to the movie set a week or two weeks before you start working and walk around with a camera,” he says. “You look around, look at things. It was a good way of familiarizing myself with the city I was visiting ...the people there, the culture. “I would go to Russia, I would walk around St Petersburg, just taking pictures all day. Or Moscow.
“There’s a photograph I have in one of the books. I was in Russia. In the movie they had a bear. They would bring out this huge bear. And the bear would just run havoc. The police would block off the road and they would let the bear run through. People would be screaming. They would capture the bear and they would tie it to a tree. One day I was walking back from the scene to my trailer and there was a goat with big horns tied to the tree, right next to my trailer, “And I said why is the goat here? And they said, oh, that’s for the bear. That’s his lunch.
“And I was like whaaat??? And they brought the bear over, and I photographed the goat, right before it was going to be eaten by the bear. And I kind of think the goat knew it was going to be eaten by a bear. And I photographed the goat over and over and over. And I ended up getting, because I’m using these old plastic cameras, really cool blurry images of the goat. And it looks beautiful. There’s a dark background and the white goat, smeared across the frame. But I catch the goat’s eyes. And there is total fear in the eyes. They are smeared and blurred too. But there’s fear in them. It took me a bunch of photos to catch it. But I caught it. It captured the connection I had with this goat. It ended up being one of my favorite images.”
Reedus took another of his favorite images in Russia too.
“I did a movie with Andrei Konchalovsky,” he says. “He’s kind of the Francis Ford Coppola of Russia. I rode with army people, I got to hang out with them. I got into maximum security prisons. A lot of the photos were of young kids who had just joined the Russian army. We would trade cigarettes, we would trade books, we would trade our watches ... we would trade through fences, I was on one side of them, they were on the other.
“I got along with them really well and that’s what yu see in the photographs. They are behind chain-link fences and it looks like they are captives of war. Oh my God! They are prisoners, something like that. And they are not. They are trading with me. And having a great time They are on one side of the fences and I am on the other. I am an actor, visiting the country. It’s like the goat photo. Except it looks like it’s scary, and it’s not.”
Such photographs matter to Norman Reedus.
“It’s some of the things you see while you’re traveling, while you’re doing a film or a TV show,” he says. “When you see me in a movie it doesn’t really capture what my experience of it was while I was filming it. Portraits from The Woods is me documenting my time behind the scenes. The photography was my own personal view on things while I was doing stuff. It’s my feelings while I am there.” WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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