Stephen DiRado – a life of art
By Bernard Whitmore
In August, something exciting appeared in my inbox: “For Immediate Release: Stephen DiRado to Receive the 2016 ArtsWorcester Award.” I say exciting because Steve, nationally acclaimed photographer and professor of practice at Clark University, has long been a pillar of the Worcester cultural community and is universally recognized as a great artist and a great friend.
In presenting the award, Juliet Feibel, executive director of ArtsWorcester, had this to say about Steve: “If you know his art, you will understand why I indulge in an astronomical metaphor here. Like Jupiter, Stephen is one of the most gravitational planets in Worcester’s art system, and he creates whole worlds around himself. If you find yourself in his orbit, you are blessed.”
How true. Though I cannot claim to be a member of that firmament, I have felt the attraction of Steve and his wife Donna’s friendship over many years. And when he agreed to meet with me and discuss his career, I also felt blessed.
Within moments of my arrival at their home, Steve and Donna ushered me into their world with hospitality, stories and the latest news from Worcester’s cultural scene. Never stingy with information and opinion, Steve launched into a review of his latest projects with detailed, parenthetical references to the community he seems to host wherever life takes him.
Vitality: Let’s back up a bit. Why do you take photographs?
Stephen DiRado: I started photographing at a very young age – 12 years old. I’d always loved watching my father photograph family events and asked if I could do this. Finally, with great reluctance, he let me borrow his camera. He handed me his camera, and I’ve never put it down since.
So I started photographing at a very young age simply to connect people. For me, it was a great communicator. And that hasn’t changed! Here I am, 59 years old, and it’s still a way to communicate with people. Granted, the image is much more sophisticated now. It’s not “point and shoot” anymore. Now I create a narrative, the “story within.”
But, essentially, it is the same exact thing. It’s about communicating and connecting to people.
As I grew up and continued on to get a BFA from Mass Art, I learned about art history and could plug in elements of design, as well as narrative. My work became more complex and sophisticated. So that when you look at my photo, whether you’re a stranger or friend, you can see some kind of story or narrative.
I do many different things, all are connected to narrative. I’m working in recent years on “cheapo” films. They’re not million-dollar films; they’re thousand-dollar films, 40 minutes long. That’s by the sweat of my brow; going to the same location and interviewing people.
My projects – and there’s a bunch that are active now – one of them is called the Martha’s Vineyard Series. I’ve been going to the same location, Aquinnah Beach, for 30 years, photographing the same community of beach people. The community fluxes in the sense that the core, a group of around a hundred people, come with new boyfriends and girlfriends, sisters and brothers. Some people, sadly, lose interest in the beach or, worse, die off. Thirty years is a long time. But there’s always a core group of people I resort back to and continue photographing their lives.
I’m also shooting a project called Dinner Series that I’ve been doing for over 35 years. That’s back to the 12-year-old kid in me, photographing the table during festivals – Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July. In college, I realized I could create a narrative using a huge box camera and tripod. I could clip or edit the dinner table as it exists. I could move somebody into full focus and bring in a light source to highlight the matriarch or patriarch of the table. So that you, as a stranger, could look at the image and say, “I can relate to those people. I know what that’s all about!”
Another project, Celestial, is photos of the night sky. Whenever there’s a celestial event, I’m in business. Hale-Bopp Comet images were a huge hit back in the ’90s. You know you’ve made it when you’re printed on posters and, literally, hanging on the side of the MFA in Boston – on the side of taxis and buses promoting the MFA.
V: How did that feel?
SD: I laughed all the way to the bank! It was the only time in my life I had money to buy a new car. It was really a fluke because most of what I do is not about making money – it’s about a spiritual pursuit.
I’ve been documenting the stars since I was 12 years old. But when I pointed the camera at the sky and watched the moon come over the horizon – really for the first time in a critical way – that’s when I realized how inconspicuous we are. I’ve never lost that feeling of being overwhelmed.
So whenever there’s a celestial event – in the case of comet Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp in ’97 – the project begins when it becomes visible to the unaided eye. When they diminish and fade into the twilight, the project ends. When we have the transit of planets, solar or lunar eclipses, I document them. The project goes into dormancy, but it exists.
I still work in very primitive simple black-and-white film and a camera that’s analog – for the most part – not digital. I find digital to be very clean-looking, but I like to work with things that are archaic and clumsy in order to have accidents. Great accidents happen that make things more interesting.
V: Who have you been influenced by?
SD: A lot of filmmakers. How about that? Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. You look at all those wonderful characters, and they’re just glowing on the screen. Jimmy Stewart! I can’t get enough of those films; I watch them over and over.
I’m very emotional. Donna, my wife, thinks I’m a little nuts. I’ll watch Carol Reed’s The Third Man and study its lighting. Orson Welles … as good as it gets! And anything Hitchcock. Hitchcock? I’m in! More now than ever before.
Photographers? On an intellectual basis, it would be people like Lee Friedlander or Garry Winogrand. These are people who work in smaller formats with handheld cameras. I like the fluidity of their work. I like how there’s a lot of jazz in it. It’s very loud work – a lot of different components in one frame. I’m inspired by the sense of complexity of things within one space.
Quoting Friedlander, “How wonderful and gracious the medium of photography is!” That’s the great thing about the medium. It gives you so much in one single frame that you can’t actually comprehend during the time when you make it because the camera’s taking a picture at a 250th of a second or less. It takes time after you’ve taken it to digest the image, to find out the glory of what you’ve captured. For better or worse.
V: You’re a professor of practice at Clark University. What does teaching mean to you?
SD: Teaching is a way of staying honest.
I never thought of myself as a good teacher. To this day, I think I’m terribly flawed as a teacher. People tell me I’m good, but I work 10 times more than everybody else to connect to the students. I’m very interested in them and how they do in life.
So I take it really personally to understand each individual in my classroom. It’s not about talent – it’s about their potential. And I am seriously learning from all of these students.
I think a case in point is that if you look at my Facebook friends, a thousand of those people are former students of mine that I’ve stayed in touch with. I’m like their uncle or grandfather. I have their kids’ kids in my classes at this point.
My students work hard. That’s the only thing I push upon them. But whatever it is they want to do, whether I believe in it or not, I will back them up wholeheartedly. I’m writing two to three recommendations per week for teaching positions or working positions or going off to workshops or residencies.
The students make me real. They make me understand that it’s ultimately just a job. Just like any other job, and you just go to work. Period.
But it’s such a cutthroat business, the arts. The arts are hard, one of the hardest, because you’re always trying to reinvent yourself, trying to make a product that is of great value, as well as something that is intrinsic to your life and the connection out there in the world. It’s not easy to do this decade after decade.
V: Do photographers see the world differently?
SD: We see it clearer than most people. That’s what I like to say. What happens outside of the frame stays outside the frame. So now I’m closing one eye, so I become the camera. That’s how the camera sees.
Now I’m going to verbalize this: I’m looking at you from what I call “a safe distance.” We’re about four feet apart. I’m far enough away that I can run away from you, and you’re comfortable that I’m not invading any kind of space.
What I’m doing now is moving closer toward Bernie, and I’m looking at him… and I’m looking at him. And, wow, you’re great! We literally touched forehead to forehead. And only within eight inches away did Bernie start to smile and laugh and pull back. That’s the area to photograph you … great intimacy; amazing to be that close to photograph somebody.
I talk to my students about this. On the first day of intro class I go around to each student in the classroom. I tell them “I’m just going to walk around the room and look at each of you.” And I would go in and at three feet away someone would break into a smile or cross their arms, and I say “that’s where it is for you.”
At the very end I’d say, “OK, what I just did was to invade your personal space.”
So that’s about space. And I teach that. I talk about it in an emotional way. If you have a camera in your hand and you’re asked to record a political event – let’s say it’s downtown here in Worcester at City Hall – you get there and find 500 people spilling into Main Street, and they all have banners.
You’re the artist. You’re the one working to create a narrative, and you find the whole scene looks interesting – uniform – across the way. You’re going to go across the street into the building and climb to the 20th story and shoot everybody like they’re ants clumped together with City Hall behind them.
Click. You have this photo that basically talks about inclusion. All these people are the same; they’re not individuals. And yet, you see the banners, and they’re in front of an official public building. Something’s going on here! The title will explain it: “Protest on Main Street.”
But if you are very charged about this and you believe in what these people are talking about, you’re going to go into that crowd, in harm’s way, and you’re going to find one individual, that one person – young or old, male or female, it doesn’t matter – holding the banner. And you’re going to put that one person in focus. Nobody else. With City Hall grossly out of focus, but still recognized as a municipal building.
Click. You’re saying that it’s about the individual, that I’m that individual!
What I’m saying is that we always project our emotions, whether we’re aware of it or not. If I take a picture of you where the camera’s below your neck level, looking up at you, you’re heroic. You’re bigger and better than me. I have respect for you.
If I stand up and look down at you, we know that’s condescending. You see all this in movie-making.
I tell these things to my students within the first couple classes. I tell my students all the codes, all the things to create the narrative. What kind of lens to use: telephoto to push you far away or wide angle to put you in harm’s way.
Then I say, “Now go do it! Point to the world which you see and bring back what is in your heart and in your mind.”
That’s not a talent. That is somebody really, honestly looking back and reflecting on themselves and bringing back things that mean something to them.
And that’s how I teach.
At the end of the semester, I say to them, “You know, you’re going to leave here seeing the world a little clearer than most others.”
V: How do you improve your own skills?
SD: By looking at other people’s work. All the time, every day, I’m looking at books. In this room, we’re surrounded by a library of, I think, 1,400 books and pamphlets.
I look at other people’s work and think about its connection to the world. Right now. Present tense. Because I like to keep my work in the present tense, reflecting what’s going on in the world.
I force myself to work with materials I’m not comfortable with. The box camera that I use – an 8-by-10 view camera with 8-by-10 film – I’m shooting individual sheets. It’s a box with a lens on it mounted on a tripod. It’s not easy to use; it’s a really cumbersome camera. Between the camera and the backpack, it’s around 40 pounds. These are the things I walk around with for six hours a day, all summer long, for six miles on a beach. It’s intolerable to work with, and I love it because itforces me to think the photo through and make the photograph count as something.
That said, shooting 400 images over a summer, I might end up with 20 that transcend, that become art and not just heartless documents of something. That transcend beyond myself and my subject, be it a person or landscape.
Something magic happened in that moment. I’m always striving for that.
That’s the great thing about making art. When you do it all the time, something breaks through; something you can’t honestly predict becomes transcendent. It’s a magic moment.
You bring responsibility to the image, the responsibility of all your thoughts and attitude to that one image. Click. Maybe it’s not great, maybe it’s bad. But you tried. You had a purpose.
Throughout our conversation, Steve repeatedly deflected from himself to speak of the Worcester community in general and, in particular, of other artists. Though he grew up in Marlborough, it is when he attended the School of the Worcester Art Museum that he adopted Worcester as home.
SD: I came to Worcester, went to school there for three years and liked it a lot. I liked Worcester for its people – very open, beat up and downtrodden. To this day, there’s still some of that going on: “Oh, we’re just second rate. We’re not Boston…”
I love that because I can relate to that insecurity.
In 1985, the city officially embraced Steve with the success of his Bell Pond series of photographs. To critical and popular acclaim, they were shown at the Grove Street Gallery, the city’s premier exposition space.
SD: During this time, I was being exposed to people at the Worcester Art Museum. Now I had connections with the Grove Street Gallery, an amazing gallery that, other than the museum, was the prize of the city and part of an artist co-op.
And I’m a social person. I like people. Particularly people in the arts because of our common ground. I started inviting some of these people to my house – 30 years ago this started – to have tea, coffee or wine with me. That tradition has held true to this day. A couple thousand people have built up over the years. The community has blossomed decade after decade.
My mission, personally, is that it’s time to give back. I’ve had these wonderful moments and breaks in my career, and I believe in Worcester. In Boston or New York, it would take me months or years to know one block of people. In Worcester, it took me a season to get to know everybody. All the doors were open for me; to this day, the doors are still open. I believe in you, and I believe in this community.
As part of giving back, I like to mentor. Recently, a teacher called me: “Look, you have a way of working with people. One of my students has a lot of talent, but has a wall a brick thick. I’m going to send him your way if you’re willing.” I spent almost four hours with this student in my studio. When he left, he hugged me and asked, “Will you be my friend?”
That meant a lot to me, that I broke through and got the kid to think of his work in a way that was not happening in the classroom.
That’s what I do. My philosophy is this; it’s very simple: “You’re my friend unless you prove me wrong.”
As we wound up our conversation, Steve effused about other artists and friends he respects and “the next big talent” he anticipates. He also made clear some of his deepest feelings:
SD: I know I said it before, but art is not just about going to work. It’s also about relationships. My relationship with my wife Donna goes back to when I was 19 years old. She is my core; she is my spine to keep me working. She is the sobering moment; the crystalline sobering moment of pure love and acceptance. I need that in order to create. Donna keeps it sane.
In addition to the embrace of friendship I received from Steve and Donna, I was also treated to the excitement of witnessing the developing of one of his Martha’s Vineyard photographs. Steve invited me into his darkroom and showed me the multiple steps involved in exposing the photographic paper and its immersion into baths of chemical solutions. He explained the technical aspects of each of these steps and showed me some of his special techniques.
But the real drama was in the image. I realize I haven’t said much regarding the art of Stephen DiRado. From a pure white sheet of paper emerged a nude as pure as Aphrodite reigning over a cosmos of soft sand, a gathering sea and an unsettled sky.