Ancestry & Artistry
Photographer Duane Cramer Talks with A&U’s Sean Black About His “Family” Portraits
Duane Cramer’s clean, intimate photographic style grew out of an ingrained aesthetic that was planted early on in his childhood psyche by the (photographic) representations of his ancestral lineage.
This familial dialogue underscores the diverse collection of creative works by this photographer, activist and family archivist, who is also this month’s cover story subject. Alongside fashion editorials, media campaigns, and portraiture, Cramer has photographed countless celebrities (Samuel L. Jackson, Sheryl Lee Ralph), advocates and politicians (Marjorie Hill, PhD, Bill Clinton, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters), and writers (Toni Morrison, Armistead Maupin).
While showcasing a rich array of his evocative images Duane Cramer is visually articulating a relationship between the impressionable,
familial imagery which surrounded him as a child and the richly inspired portraits he crafts today. Look, for example, at his iconic portrait of RuPaul. Classically presented in inky black and white the image is steeped in flattering grey tones throughout. While the “Supermodel” herself is sheathed in a provocative lace stocking-dress splayed with faux fur in tow, Cramer’s mastery softens the camp and undulating sexual ambivalence while placing focus on the sweeping motion of the statuesque and glamorized beauty. Ru is undeniably captured with both vigor, and presence—“boldness” as Cramer describes. The framing breathes while gently containing a personality of grand proportions. Our eyes and attentions are directed to the proud and humanized gaze of his subject—an authenticity to which the creator demands.
A&U was able to catch up with Duane about his vocation (he doesn’t consider it work rather an opportunity to “live”) and zero in on the inspirations of his masterful work:
Sean Black: What led you to photography and why are you so passionate about it as a medium for expression?
Duane Cramer: Growing up, there was a lot of art in my house, family portraits, photo albums, and, looking at them, I fell in love with the idea of recording special people and memorable events. As a child I loved looking through the beautiful photo albums and listening to the stories about the people in them. It gave me a sense of possibility for myself as well as a sense of pride in the accomplishments of my relatives. Capturing those special moments in the lives of others is something that animates and inspires my work to this day. My passion for photography comes from its immediacy and its ability to record unique moments in time like those I saw as a child of relatives and family friends.
You are noted for crafting “insightful images” that “intimately reveal the richness and humanity” of your subjects—could you expand upon this?
I love showcasing the humanity and inner beauty in each person; I have an eye for the unusual and unexpected which allows me to expose what is unique and special in each person. Showing the beauty and boldness, I love being able to show other people what I get to see through my images.
When did you decide to use your talents to communicate creative messages?
I’m not sure that there was a specific moment or point in time exactly. In my own way, I’ve always tried to imbue my work with a creative spirit, when I worked at a big corporation and now through my photography. When I was diagnosed with HIV I began to advocate on behalf of HIV awareness, prevention education, and social justice. For a decade working full-time on photography, I focused on portraiture and developing and creating concepts and imagery for social marketing campaigns. It’s been my joy.
Who are some of your heroes?
That’s a tough one because I’ve met so many inspiring people over the years. In general, I’m inspired by those who’ve dared to do the unexpected and who both remind me and show me that there is another way in which to see and understand the world in which we live. Heroes that first come to mind outside of my own ancestry are: Gordon Parks, James Van Der Zee, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and President Barack and Michelle Obama.
You reference world leaders, writers, and activists, as well as photographers. How do you think that photography can “show” others a form of hope?
Yes, the actions of our greatest leaders have not only positively changed our point of view, but also our direction. Photographs have the ability to reveal, document and change people’s hearts and minds. I hope my work shifts how people see the world and acts as a catalyst to create a better way.
Having lost your father to an AIDS-related illness and living with HIV yourself since 1996, how have your own life experiences
advanced your keen sense of portraiture?
HIV forever changed the meaning and importance of life for me. It is now the lens through which I see and experience life. I realize that life is short but offers infinite possibilities through which changes to our situations and life circumstances can occur. Even when we think we are at the end of our own rope a new perspective or opportunity is often right around the corner—I know this firsthand.
The life stories of my family have played a significant role in my sense of portraiture (photographic and paintings). When my father died there was significant stigma and shame attached to HIV/AIDS. Remembering those days animates my activism to eliminate stigma and discrimination. Seeking and identifying the unique aspects of soulful strength in each person comes from my deep belief that true liberation is the freedom to live one’s life with dignity, purpose and a sense of one’s place in the world. I try to bring that out and share that in my work.
Read this article in the May 2013 digital issue by clicking here.