Christaan Felber, one of the best New York based commercial and portrait photographers, who has worked with, among others, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and Esquire, admits that his job is tricky, even uncomfortable.
“I think the nature of capturing someone’s image in excruciating detail is simply a loaded process,” he explained to me. There’s an element of disclosure in creating a portrait. What the sitter wishes to see may not be what the photographer reveals. “That breaks my heart every time: seeing potential and being unable to convince the other person of that potential,” he noted.
It’s perhaps this acknowledgement of a photographer’s bag of tricks that allows Felber to shoot portraits that seem honest and off the cuff, ones made in the spur of the moment. He prefers a centered composition that comforts the eye with balance and symmetry. Action is either avoided or frozen in the middle—where a single gesture or one signature look completes the story of a frame. Together with his straightforward composition, this plunge toward the middle connotes an evenhandedness. Felber is able to find balance and make work that feels impromptu but never unnatural.
I spoke to Christaan Felber over email about his thoughts on photography and his work.
Let’s start with a few questions about your thoughts on photography. Are you comfortable with photography? I don’t mean comfortable with your ability to shoot it. I mean, do you ever find yourself wondering about its strangeness? Does it ever trip you out?
Yes, I definitely find myself in situations where sometimes the photographic process makes me feel uncomfortable. I think the nature of capturing someone’s image in excruciating detail is simply a loaded process. It can be tricky and require a huge amount of trust both ways, and, if trust isn’t there, it can lead to problems.
I think one of the most difficult times that I encounter is when you see something amazing in someone or in a situation — whether created or captured — and the subject doesn’t see it. They lack trust for whatever reason.
That breaks my heart every time: seeing potential and being unable to convince the other person of that potential. The other thing that sometimes weirds me out about photography is the process of being an observer when you really want to participate as well. Having a camera hanging around your neck can get you into unique situations, but it can also prevent you from fully entering situations as well. You’re present but in a different realm.
Do photographers capture a moment of the world or create one? Is a photo something that they’ve read from reality or something that they’ve written in? Something else? What do you think?
I think the idea of making versus taking can be somewhat swayed depending on the photographer, but I think photography is ultimately a form of documentation. Whether you’re directing people or shooting an event as a “fly-on-the-wall,” the event must exist in front of the lens in order for it to be captured.
The same isn’t true for painting, writing, music, and so on, and I sometimes struggle with that difference in process. As I’ve explained in the first question, because there are times when you have a seemingly good idea that then gets shot down by the subject or by the publicist or by the world simply not behaving in a way that’s conducive to capturing the moment, you’re left with either nothing — or something that doesn’t live up to the expectation of what you had imagined in your head, which can be quite frustrating.
Image courtesy @ Christaan Felber
To take a question from one of my favorite writers: does shooting photography help make the anguish of life more bearable?
Yes, I think it can help. It can certainly be meditative and can help provide you with a really different and potentially beautiful perspective of life around you; however, I don’t think the “anguish of life” ever fully goes away.
How did you get your start in photography? Do you remember what it felt like at the beginning, to be at the threshold of new ways of seeing?
I got my start in high school after seeing an exhibit at the Whitney Museum, in New York City, when I was 15. I started shooting black-and-white film with my mom’s old Minolta camera. My school had a really small darkroom that I began using all the time, and I became obsessed. I still miss that magical element of developing prints.
I think that’s probably why I still often shoot film. I think that I’m trying to hold onto some of that magic. I feel like I didn’t really start to “see” clearly until college and until I had shot thousands upon thousands of pictures. That moment when you start seeing things in a different way is pretty amazing and is something that’s always evolving.
Did you ever feel like giving up? Were you ever unsure of your talents?
Sure. I don’t trust those who say they’ve never felt that way. I think it’s an important part of the process and an important part of life. The trick is finding just the right amount of self-doubt or anxiety or whatever because those feelings in the right doses can be very motivating but can also become crippling if they become too excessive.
Image courtesy @ Christaan Felber
This is one of my favorites. Could you explain how it was made from start to finish?
I was walking down the street in Manhattan after I had just done a studio shoot for The New York Times Magazine, and I had my Mamiya RZ in my bag. As I was walking downtown, I noticed a line of girls stretching around the block and this crazy looking light that was hitting them from the sun’s reflection bouncing off a window of a skyscraper across the street, and it made this really weird HMI-looking light. It looked like a movie set. So I approached one of the girls and asked if I could take her portrait. She agreed and I took this shot. It turned out they were all interviewing for a job at American Apparel.
As one of the most experienced portrait photographers, I imagine that you’re good at reading people’s emotions. Do you think this true? For instance, which emotion do you read in this photo?
Yes, I think that’s definitely an important part of being a portrait photographer. I think you need to be super sensitive about what people are thinking and what people’s body language is saying. It’s kind of a weird skill. In this photo, I feel there is a hint of sadness in her eyes, and that’s why I like it. It feels vulnerable and genuine to me.
What’s the story behind it? What compelled to you to capture this moment?
I was staying in LA for a week at an Air Bnb, and the girl whose room I was occupying was sleeping in a trailer behind the house. She hung out with her friends there, and I thought it would be interesting to take some portraits. So this was a portrait of one of her friends. I think the main thing that compelled me was the light and the color — it was really soft, organic and beautiful — it was an interesting scene that was playing out in front of me.
Image courtesy @ Christaan Felber
What have you learned about yourself from shooting photography? Any epiphanies?
I’ve learned that I’m a people person. I never thought that before. I used to be super shy when I was younger, and photography became a reason to go up and talk to people. I think that’s opened up many doors for me.
All images © Christaan Felber. See more of the work of the best portrait photographers here.