Photographer Tanyth Berkeley creates cinematic and arresting portraits of women that she encounters riding New York City subway trains. Though her subjects all possess unique beauty, they seem familiar; as though you too could have encountered these women on the trains or in the streets. In Berkeley’s portraits, the unidentified faces of our day-to-day lives appear in 19th-century-inspired realist landscapes. The women in Berkeley’s portraits gaze away from the camera, their modesty a challenge to the cultural dominance of teen pop stars and emaciated runway models.
Tanyth Berkeley was born in 1969 in Hollywood, Calif., and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. She received her MFA from Columbia University in 2004 and holds a BA from CCNY in photography and creative writing. Recent exhibitions include “Greater New York” at P.S.1/MOMA and “White Out: Lighting Into Beauty” at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. She is represented by the Bellwether Gallery in New York City.
TMN: How do you find the subjects for your portraits? Are there particular qualities that you notice, or look for?
Tanyth Berkeley: For my project “Orchidaceae,” I would find my subjects riding the subway. I didn’t look in any deliberate kind of way; rather, I found the randomness of chance meetings exciting. I was drawn to youth; the young lady with her whole life in front of her, with vestiges of the child still present. Perhaps that sounds perverse, but I felt I was reacting in some way to our youth-obsessed culture. I wanted to investigate for myself that standing, and, truth be told, ancient desire.
TMN: How did you come up with the title, “Orchidaceae,” for this project?
TB: The dictionary defines “orchidaceae” as an enormous, cosmopolitan family of perennial, terrestrial, and epiphytic plants, often characterized by fleshy tubers and unusual blooms. I came upon the definition of the orchid family towards the end of my project and felt it related to my process and my subjects. I imagined myself at times to be in the metaphorical position of an urban botanist searching for rare, perhaps even anachronistic, kinds of beauty. I wanted to relate my project to the natural world [which is] deliberately opposed to artifice. For example, the albino ladies I photographed are natural blondes—the real deal.
TMN: Do you feel your photographs reveal anything of the nature of their subjects?
TB: For my project, I directed the gaze to mimic the state I first saw the girl in. Often [she was] lost in thought or a daydream, avoiding the gaze of other passengers as a form of protection from loons. The blank public face or the commuter’s poker face keeps you safe, but also suggested to me a clandestine interior life. I remembered my own thoughts as a girl, my crushes and self-consciousness, and felt incredible empathy for the awkwardness of girlhood. That said, I could never pretend to really know my subject in the brief time we spent together and am not sure that would matter since the portrait is not about the unique characteristics of the subject’s personality but rather the story her face has told me. The ruddiness of the cheek, for example, or the fullness of the lip suggests qualities that may or may not be true for that person. That said, much is revealed. For example Maya’s smile strikes me as more of a true portrait than some of the others.
TMN: It seems as though your photographs depict unusual and unique sexuality. Do you have a sense of this sexuality when you pose these photographs?
TB: A big source of inspiration for me has been the Venus of Willendorf, the weight of her earthiness, her feminine and motherly flesh. I suppose I find our culture’s idea of thin, emaciated beauty so oppressive. [I find] the myth of perfection cold and cruel, hardly something to be proud of. I equate a little weight with fulfillment and health. Back to my plant fantasies—I thought of ripe fruit and our need as animals to reproduce, the swollen rump of the baboon and display of the peacock for example. The idea that sexuality can be crude and Dionysian seems especially prevalent today. The acceptance of the porn star into our culture, Sex in the City, Paris [Hilton], and Pam [Anderson] are examples. I’m not sure [that] a hundred percent of this so-called “sex-positive” behavior is really empowering in a long-lasting way. I merely wanted to suggest the raw energy of sex and desire, and women as the keepers of the flame.
TMN: At times, your work reminds me of the paintings of Caravaggio and Hans Memling—is that simply because you do a lot of portraiture? What painting has influenced your work?
TB: My mom’s a Realist painter so I grew up in an environment of plein air ideals: the goal of art being a truthful and accurate depiction of nature, to admire the ordinary and find beauty in the everyday. Manet’s “ Street Singer.” is a good example of this and a painting I love. Growing up, I wasn’t exposed much to modern art, and wondered as a kid at the paintings from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: [John] Millais’ pale “Ophelia” and [William] Hunt’s “The Scapegoat.” I have also thought about the popularity of Renoir’s candy-sweet nymphs, the dirty sock, bubble-gum pink of [Philip] Guston, and [Hieronymus] Bosch’s strange and endlessly fascinating “Garden of Earthly Delights.” But, in the end, I suppose you could call me a Realist-leaning photographer who’s flexible enough to appreciate the uncanny.
TMN: Do you find any freedoms inherent in photography as opposed to painting?
TB: I love the undeniable truth inherent in photography, the fact of it. I love that within this truth the world can be magical and awe-inspiring, that I can capture this fact, hold it fast on film and reflect on it over and over again. Painting is wonderful in that worlds are created, made from scratch, made from paint. For me as a photographer, I make images from what already exists, so I can be more spontaneous. I love that I can grab my camera and work the street, that I can play with space and time or more subtly capture the light quality of a rainy day.
TMN: What films have influenced your work?
TB: As of late I’ve been on a Fellini and Herzog tear, but at the time I was working on “Orchidaceae” I thought of Bresson’s beautiful and heartbreaking Mouchette and of the wild Monica in Bergman’s film. I loved the use of real people by [Pier Paolo] Pasolini and the neorealist project, and found inspiration in the sensuality of Tarkovsky.
TMN: I know you photographed “Orchidaceae” in Central Park—why did you choose this location? What other places inspire you?
TB: I was quite deliberate in that I wanted to take the women I met on the subway out into the open, fresh air. I wanted to contrast a hard, urban existence with the oasis of a park or community garden. I wanted to remember their faces in this way, surrounded by lilac, for example, and living things. Green sets off my own sense memory and is a catalyst to time travel. I miss my idyllic childhood, the carefree life I had growing up on a farm in Colorado. Although my time there was brief, I remember the endless fields and freedom to explore, so for me, green equals freedom.
TMN: Where else have you photographed? Where do you plan to take pictures?
TB: I like to take day trips on public transportation, or bike to new neighborhoods to see what’s there. I had a picture in my last show of the beach in Far Rockaway from one of the last stops on the A [subway] line. The stop was called Beach 69 and was on an elevated platform. The view was of a crossroad, an empty overgrown lot, an unused stretch of beach, the ocean, then the horizon line. I loved that this was still part of New York City. Lately I’ve been working [on] city streets more and working on rooftops. I’m into the city at night, all its wild energy and manmade chaos.
TMN: What are you working on right now?
TB: I’m working on a project with transgendered women and am investigating my relationship to subjects who have become my muse.