Brooklyn-based photographer Ian Lewandowski first picked up a camera when he was 17, while growing up in northwest Indiana. “I learned on C41 and black and white film at first, just messing with the SLR, shooting through the film backwards, cross-processing. There wasn’t really a professional photo lab anywhere within reach, so I got the film processed at the CVS by my house.” Although Ian went to study linguistics, his main focus became his photography classes. He tells us: “I was definitely that non-major student who was in the wrong programme.”
Now, Ian still shoots predominantly on film, using an ancient Blair 8×10 view camera with a body that, as he estimates, dates back to around 1900. He says: “I use it with a modern lens and studio lights, and recently I’ve been using it outdoors in the sun more often. I have a digital camera but only really use it for odd photo jobs like shooting bar mitzvahs (not to dismiss this! It’s an extremely fruitful part of my practice, but they don’t really go for the film photos.)”
Speaking of his photographic approach and the ethos that governs his portraits, Ian reflects: “In a way, I think I’m one foot in very traditional portraiture and one foot in something else that’s directly defiant of that history. It’s a weird place to be. I like to use the view camera because it’s so slow and meditative and contemplative, and I want to spend this kind of time with the people and things I photograph because I think they command close, careful attention. And the pictures do (I hope) show that slowness. The people in the pictures aren’t meant to look natural, or even like themselves in many cases. I want to appreciate every part of the very exacting and painstaking process, even the boring parts.”
This emphasis on process and the construction of a photograph feeds into the often deliberately awkward posturing of Ian’s subjects, their expressions fixed and their bodies not entirely at ease before the camera. As he explains it: “Elsa Dorfman, a longstanding working-class photographer who shot with a rented 20×24 Polaroid camera for many years, said that when she’s using this gigantic camera, she’s ‘so not interested in capturing someone’s soul.’ In the same way, I’m much more interested in someone’s capacity for fiction, or playing a character, than I am in any ‘truth’. When I use the view camera, it feels like the subject and I are participating in a long, long history of image-making. But that history holds a lot of bullshit I want to actively work against. Rather than exploit the type of power photography can afford its practitioner, I want to distribute that power among everyone involved. When I make someone’s picture, we are both working on it.”
Ian’s ongoing series, The Ice Palace Is Gone, documents queer identity and queer spaces in the wake of his own experience with illness. He tells us: “The Ice Palace Is Gone started a couple of years after I’d been diagnosed and treated for lymphatic cancer in 2015. When I was in recovery I was experiencing ‘chemo brain’, characterised by a sustained lag in mental clarity and short-term memory. For one of the first times in my life, I was compelled to write things down – mostly mundane interactions I was having with nurses and other hospital personnel. The writing started to take the form of a sort of disjointed fictional story, and in that story were all these seeds for pictures I wanted to take. I was thinking a lot about queer spaces I’d inhabited, and I started to think about what is meant or implied by queer space and what exactly qualifies or signifies it. I felt like there was this network of care around me during and after treatment, even though that network could definitely never be simplistic or specific enough to fall under the umbrella of a singular ‘community’. Queer space, however it might manifest, might be most productive in its lack or refusal of definition in this way. At the same time, it feels scarce, fleeting, under attack, preyed upon. It feels like a grandiose structure made out of ice, so it has to constantly be reconstructed, re-solidified. There has to be value in that rebuilding.”
There is an awkward tenderness to the photographs in The Ice Palace Is Gone as the subjects figure out how to negotiate their relation to their environment and to each other. In a self-portrait with his husband, Anthony, Ian explicitly imitates the portraiture of David Armstrong, generating a tension between the expression of real care, compassion and love, and the self-conscious staging of the photograph. So, too, there is a simultaneous strength and fragility in his portraits of semi-dressed men, sitting, reclining or standing, their defiant postures offset by a certain lack of ease, a vulnerability in their gaze, and intimate, touching details like a pair of pale blue socks.
The Ice Palace Is Gone documents Ian’s own attempt to define queer space in relation to his experience of a “network of care”. For Ian, photography is inextricably linked to his understanding of himself, his relationships with others and the events and places that figure in his life. His photographs are a way of making sense of things. He says: “I have this problem where I never know when to stop taking pictures. The last thing I worked on, a body of work about my home state of Indiana which took about four years total, felt like it was never going to end; like I was taking the same pictures over and over. And then one day, I took this photograph of my friend Doron, and after snapping the shutter there was this very strange moment of clarity where I was just like, yes, that’s the last one. It’s like the work was telling me it had said all it wanted to say. As hippie-dippie as it sounds, I’ve learned that the work I make takes on its own logic and decision-making, and that I just need to trust it. Whenever it’s done, it’ll be done.”