Regina Pagles: As I See You
Through the Eyes of Regina Pagles
Regina Pagles appeared on my radar screen about a year ago. Photos started to show up all over Facebook, photos taken by Regina Pagles. There was a sort of verbal swagger that accompanied these photo shoots, a sort of, “Oh, I’m doing a shoot with Regina Pagles.” Who is this woman, I wondered, is she a famous photographer? Why do people speak about her with an air of privilege, as if knowing her automatically places one in a special or elite class? Her photos did stand out. They are good – really good. They are simple, clean, crisp – even elegant. But it wasn’t until I went to her studio and looked through all of her portraits that I got the full scope and breadth of her work. People that I knew and didn’t know were transformed before my eyes into works of art, masterpieces. The subjects look like they are glowing, as if God had just breathed life into them, and at that moment, when they were chosen and called out of a dark fog, human not angelic, Regina caught it. Her photos seem to say, “As I see you.” Of course this description comes after putting some serious critical thought into her artwork, my attempt to explain what I see in her photos and why I like them.
So when she said in passing that she was trying to recreate the use of lighting that Rembrandt captured in his paintings, it all made sense. She was imitating a master. Not a master of light, but a master of contrast, a master of what is known as chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting the whole composition. Immediately, her work made perfect sense. As I conjured up images of Rembrandt in my mind, I could see the similarities and had that, “ah-ha,” moment. After the photo shoot she shared commonly heard criticism of her photos: they are too staged, she directs too much, she is too controlling, she doesn’t bring out the unique personalities of the subjects, or they all look the same. To which she replies, “I am not trying to capture the personality of the subject, I am imposing personality and character on the subject that I want to see. I am shooting the photo for me, for what I like, for what I want to see.” She went on to explain that many of her models hate the photos she takes and she has learned to accept their criticism because ultimately she shoots for her own pleasure and passion. Spoken like a true artist. I was intrigued, asked her for an interview, and yes, wondered how I would look through her eyes.
Regina sounds like a New Yorker, so it was no surprise that she is originally from Long Island. Of course the next obvious question was: how did you end up in southern Utah? To which she explained, “I saw a photo of the Narrows.” By her own profession, she was not a hiker and was scared to death to do a hike like the Narrows, but she had to hike it, and when she did, that was it for her. She went to see the Grand Canyon on that same trip and ultimately visited many national parks. “I had no idea what the Grand Canyon was before visiting Zion. I didn’t know what a national park was. On that trip I talked to a person in the parking lot at Arches National Park and they told me how they were going to all the national parks. That was so foreign to me, that people would arrange their vacations around national parks. I just couldn’t grasp it, but by the time I got home, I realized and I understood that there was a world so far away from New York and the national parks were – they became my ultimate goal.” That was 15-16 years ago. She was in her late 30s when she made the trip. It took her nine months to decide to leave the city and head west.
Regina is the only girl and youngest of four children. Her introduction to photography came through her father, who was a photographer by passion. “My dad was a photographer. He didn’t like to go to work. I would always hear my mom say, dad doesn’t want to go to work again today, because dad was in the darkroom.” Her father worked as a line type operator for the New York Daily News, but he was big into photography. “I followed in the footsteps of my dad. Every step that he took, I followed. And photography was one of those.” Following in his footsteps, Regina started out as a landscape photographer. “Horrible, horrible landscape photographer. I did the darkroom thing and then embraced digital when it came out. My dad introduced me to the first version of Photoshop over 20, almost 25 years ago on my dad’s first Apple computer. We would put my dad’s head on Arnold Schwarzenneger’s body. Ever since then I have wanted to master Photoshop.” She paused, “A photo of the Narrows does not need to be photo-shopped.”
Like her father disappearing into the darkroom, she disappeared into her computer. “I would spend six hours a day, minimum, on Photoshop, and I still only know a fraction of how to use it – enough to get by. But all of that energy was wasted on landscapes. I never considered portraiture. Never.” That all changed at a Photoshop World Convention in Las Vegas. “On the expo floor the lighting company Westcott was doing a shoot-out with live models in different sets. It had professional lighting and professional models and I was instantly obsessed and mesmerized with what lighting can do. I brought my camera. I maxed out my card and had to buy another one and I maxed that one out too. Then the girl at the booth told me they were having a contest on Flickr for the best photo of the shoot-out. She said whoever wins will get $5000 worth of lighting equipment.” Regina went home and submitted her photos and won. One day a big truck pulled up with backdrops and lighting. Regina and her husband rented out the space next to them and converted it into a studio. “We threw the stuff in there. I set it up to see if I liked it and I never turned back. Never took another landscape picture again.”
That was in 2010. She had no experience with studio lighting, “No experience whatsoever. To this day I am very intimidated by studio lighting. Lighting is very technical. It’s very integral, but very technical. I’ve learned that a good portrait is produced through interaction and it’s my responsibility to make the portrait and to bring the person out, it’s not theirs (the models). If I don’t, they just stand there and stare. So it’s my job, but if I’m concentrating too much on the technical, it’s very hard to concentrate on the interaction.” Regina has got her lighting set up in a way that enables her to get the shots she wants with the confidence and freedom to interact with her model. “I’ve read when something doesn’t look right you can be one or two inches off. I’ve nailed it to a certain extent. I’m sure I could make my setup better, but I’m scared to death to try.” When she said this, a quote by T.S. Eliot popped into my head. He said,
“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”
Regina certainly fits this description of a disciplined artist working within a strict framework producing rich artwork.
When I asked her about Rembrandt lighting and if she had studied his work, she said no, but that Rembrandt lighting is all she will ever use, at least until she changes her mind. “I wanted to do pictures like Jill Greenberg. Her lighting setup has seven lights. It’s a very distinct style of lighting, so when you see it, you know it’s her work. So I won a contest, Winner Gets Me, and if you win you get Don Giannatti (Professional Photographer) for the weekend – he comes to you. Our first conversation we were discussing what I wanted to learn from him and I told him that I wanted to do what Jill Greenberg does and he says to me…
“That’s all fine and well, I just want you to know something, when you have all that lighting, it’s about the photographer. You look at that, you know the photographer. The less lighting you use, the simpler the lighting, it’s more about the subject and less about the photographer. The photographer is removed.”
…That resonated with me. It was like a light switch. It was so clear when he said that. I was so fearful of shadows, and it’s not just me, everyone who starts out in studio lighting, I’ve read, is fearful of shadows. When you are first working with lighting I think it’s easier to blast the face with light than to work it with shadows.”
Hence, the Rembrandt lighting. She started this process in 2010, so it has taken her three years to get her photos dark enough that she gets shadows on the face. Now if a photo does not have shadows, she doesn’t even want to look at it. As for knowing if she has gotten to a place where her photos are recognized while at the same time making them about the subject rather than herself she quoted another local artist who had commented on one of her photos saying,
“Although we know who took this photo, and we know the subject a lot of times, you’ve removed yourself as the artist – to the point where you’ve removed your ego from the photo and placed all the emphasis on the subject.”
Regina went on to say, “I don’t want the picture to be about me, well – the picture is about me, it’s all me. It’s a lot about me – it’s about what I want to see in the photo. I know what I want. It’s not about me – it is about me. I don’t know. It’s kind of funny, for how controlling I am as an artist.”
Regina is controlling and does direct her subjects during her shoots. While watching her I felt like I was watching a director, not of a movie, but of a person. She stated that many people don’t like it and ask her why she is so heavy handed, why she doesn’t allow them to be themselves in the photos. To which she replies, “Because it’s not about them, it’s about what I want to see.” And herein lies the dichotomy between the photos being about the subject while also being about her; why people who view her photos love them, but the subjects often don’t. This sort of control can lead one to question if there is insecurity or fear of failure driving it. While we all experience it to one degree or another, artists – people who produce work that will be seen and reviewed by the world, experience it acutely.
“I have been told pretty much my whole life that I am a failure. So to this day, I am a failure in my mother’s eyes. And I was a failure in my own eyes, up until Scott Kelby, the number one selling author on photography and Photoshop, allowed me to guest blog on his blog. I joined twitter – I don’t tweat – I signed up just to send this one tweat, to ask Scott Kelby if I could guest on his blog.” She had written the blog post a year before she asked, so she was ready when he said yes. Her post was the second most read and commented on post on his blog that year behind only the famous photographer Peter Hurly, one of her idols (1). After that she said, “I am no longer a slave to what my mother thinks about me. I have arrived. People like me. I then slowly started to realize – I’m not a failure. When this blog post happened, I felt released from my mother. I no longer needed peoples’ approval, I didn’t care what they thought – doesn’t matter. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Now, if people don’t like my photos, I don’t care. It’s so liberating.”
So what does Regina want to do with her photography ultimately? What does someone who is not doing it for the money, who shoots for her own pleasure, want to do with it? She’s not sure. She doesn’t take money for her photos because she doesn’t want to be owned – she doesn’t want to give anyone creative control over her work or dictate what they want. In fact, she doesn’t want to take photos of anyone who “needs” photos. “When people need photos they have high expectations” she said, and followed up with, “I don’t want to do it for money.” She is interested in doing workshops where she can help people and give them the opportunity to learn something they might never otherwise get the chance to learn. She would like to get to a place where if she had to, she could live off of her photographic work. I couldn’t help asking her if she had considered hanging her photos in a gallery. Of course, this is because I enjoyed looking at her work – all of it – and would love to see it up on walls under gallery lighting, and I think there would be strong public interest in it as well. She said possibly – she might be open to it someday.
But her future as a photographer also has to do with legacy. She is at the point where she is asking, what does my life amount to? What was it all for? “Tell me my life has meaning, that people will remember more about me than oh, she was that big mouthed Jewish person at the bike shop.” In other words, what will she be remembered for? It is a question that all of us either have or will consider in our own lifetimes. This line of thinking struck a chord with me as I find myself struggling with my own mortality and asking those very same questions – what is it all for? Will I have done something that mattered? “I want to die and know that I left a smile on someone’s face for whatever reason – that they will remember more about me than something mundane. I think I do more in my life now for how I will be remembered when I’m dead.” At this moment in our conversation I couldn’t help thinking of Rembrandt and of Regina’s father. Clearly both of these men had left legacies living beyond them in this one woman. Though both are dead, I pictured them smiling at how their influence survived after them.
I liked Regina the moment I met her, but after the interview, I loved her. What I appreciate and love the most about Regina is her honesty and integrity, not just as a photographer, but as a person. But even if I hadn’t been drawn to her right away, if she had been more difficult to like, I still would have appreciated her work. I love that she is a purist and is uncompromising with it and I believe it will pay off. She has something special – something that sets her apart. If you are looking for a photographer, someone who will capture you, your personality, your character – there are plenty of photographers in the area capable and willing to do it. If, however, you get asked by Regina to be one of her subjects, first, say yes; and second, know that it is not about you and that you may not like the photos – but that your face will go into a portfolio – a gallery – shaped and directed by an artist that more than likely will be remembered long after she is gone.
As for legacy, I can’t help wondering if Rembrandt wondered many of the same things Regina does – struggled with similar insecurities or if his subjects looked at the finished portraits and hated them, and if he was also an exacting and controlling artist. Who knew he would become one of the greatest artists this world has ever seen. I am not saying Regina is the next Rembrandt, only comparing the plight of the artist pursuing an endeavor to uncertain ends – always unsure if their struggle will be worth it and if theirs will find a place in time, history, or the future. As for Regina’s legacy, I am certain she has nothing to worry about.
For more on Regina:
(1) Her guest blog spot: http://scottkelby.com/2012/its-guest-blog-wednesday-featuring-regina-pagles/
(2) Her website: http://www.reginapaglesphotography.com/
(3) Her Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/reginapagles/
Posted on March 9, 2014, in Profiles of the Southwest and tagged don giannatti, jill greenberg, legacy, Long Island, New York Daily News, photography, portrait photography, Regina Pagles, Rembrandt, scott kelby, southern utah. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.