All my years making pictures in the darkroom were delightfully solitary. But at the end of the day I was ready for some human interaction. When we lived in New York my wife would come home from her job at the end of a day of dealing with lots of people and I would be ready to go out and be around people. She would plaintively respond “I’ve been dealing with assholes all day” and beg to stay home and quietly relax.
I decided that I would start photographing people to get that social interaction I was craving. I was never comfortable photographing people, but I knew I could do it. But I didn’t want to just do normal portraits and I knew photojournalism was not for me. Weddings would never be my work, I didn’t have the skills. Throughout my career of creating photograms for commercial illustration or personal artwork I often used my own hand to represent a person in my pictures. I decided to build on that and photograph hands as a form of portraiture.
With our hands we grasp the world. Hands are used as weapons yet they can also heal the sick – they can caress or crush. There are chakras in our hands and worshipers stand with palms raised. Fortune tellers unveil our futures and reveal our pasts in our palms, while handwriting is analyzed to expose our deepest secrets. Hands hold our absolute legal identities in the fingerprints which make each of us unique. Touch is one of our most perceptive senses. Hands distinguish humans from lower species.
While we control our world with our hands, the hands themselves are also shaped by our worlds. People who work with their hands – doctors, sculptors, magicians – reveal their histories in their hands, whether it’s their softness from being protected in surgical gloves, nicks and burns from working with tools, or flexibility and grace from performing prestidigitation.
So I began the MANUAL project: a collection of portraits of people from diverse backgrounds, occupations, ages, and cultures from around the globe. In each hand portrait, I study the person’s dominant hand, checking it for evidence of how they have lived, who they are, and what they may become.
I collaborated with my subjects to expose their hands and their personalities. Without the distraction of faces, these images become honest and deeply perceptive portraits, reflecting the lifestyle, habits, and sensitivity of each subject. I spent at least an hour with each person bringing them into the darkroom with me as I prepared the collodion plates. We had lots of time to talk and get to know one another and I loved the interactions. We went back into the darkroom to make photograms of their hands, and then we sat around the table talking as they wrote some words to describe who they were and how they saw themselves.
I took all these images and ideas, scanned and retouched them and then assembled the three aspects of the portrait into one image. The collodion wet-plate photograph of their dominant hand was my view of them, the photogram was a collaboration, and their handwritten text was their self image.
The project produced a coffee-table book, several different artist books, many exhibits around the US, and some videos.