Joyce Tenneson

Master Photographers on Their Art.

Larissa D, Slovenia, from Light Warriors Christina Lee, Age Sixty-seven, from Wise Women Woman and Column, 1987

I started with an interest in all the arts—literature, painting, sculpture, design—but photography was the one that allowed me to use my creativity in the best way. I love people and I love being able to interact with them and to see some of what makes them work, their psychology. Photography is a fabulous way to study people.


Portraits are collaborative. They show the psyche of the photographer as well as the person being photographed. It is inevitable: the point of view that the photographer brings to the session is half the portrait, right there. With great portrait photographers like Avedon or Penn, their work looks so different because it has their personality in it.


My approach is highly intuitive. I try to get myself into a zone of receptivity and connection before I do a portrait session. I do not want it to be coming from the intellect—all the technical things, and being properly prepared, that’s coming from the intellect, and we need that. But, in the end, as Martha Graham said about dance, all that technique does nothing if it doesn’t move our heart.


Critics do say my work has an ethereal, “otherworldly” quality. That just comes naturally, it is part of my personality. All my life I have been looking for a kind of transcendence, a desire to be whole, connected with the divine force. There is a desire for some form of transformation in my life, and that’s a constant. Life is the path of transformation and gradual enlightenment, not that we ever get to it. Perhaps that is all reflected in the work, even though I did not specifically intend that to happen. Critics have seen it, and perhaps it happened because of who I am and what I deem most important.


There was a ten-year period when I was more vulnerable, more connected to my unconscious, than any other time of my life. I think that is when I did my best work, the period that resulted in the book Transformations. That is my most spiritual body of work. During that period those pictures just jumped out of my psyche and took me by storm; I watched it unfold and I was like a channel. I look back at the pictures and can still remember everything that happened on some days. There is the picture of the old man and the child with the wings, and the old man is turning his back—it was such an amazing day and it felt so close to my heart and soul. Something magical appeared almost effortlessly in front of my lens.


I think I am better at photographing women, perhaps because I am a woman and I have more of a key into the female heart and soul. We do what we do best and what we are most connected with. My book on women (Wise Women) was so successful that my publisher wanted me to do a book on men. I took it as a challenge, launched myself into trying—and I think the result was good but not as good as Wise Women. I don’t have the same ability to bring the magic with men as well as women. What can I say?


My best photos have such different interpretations to different people. I love having people tell me why it was important to them. It is lovely to hear back, and surprising often, and it always feels good to be appreciated.


You can’t plan to go and make an iconic image—the question is more about how many of those moments you will be graced by— but when you see and hear from others how certain images are valued, and mean a lot to them, then that is immensely rewarding.


What really happens in a great image you can’t put into writing— it is not a formula. That’s why we have and need these images.