The goal of any environmental portrait is to place the person being photographed in the surroundings that reflect that individual’s personality. The very best photographers are able to inject just enough of their own personality—their impressions and evaluations of the subject—to enable the viewers to gain a further insight into the person being photographed. Whether he’s photographing billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson for Wired or a local Titusville gunsmith, Chris Crisman brings enough of himself into the photos to create images that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Like so many accomplished photographers that have come before him, Crisman didn’t wait around for assignments to build a creative body of work. Rather, it was a series of imaginative test shoots that brought attention to his unique eye.
DPP: What is it about environmental portraiture that interests you?
Chris Crisman: When I started in photography in the middle of college—I went to the University of Pennsylvania—I was really into the landscape. That had a lot to do with my upbringing. I’m an only child. We were in the countryside, 10 miles from Titusville, in a very wooded and hilly area in rural Pennsylvania. I did a lot of exploring and played a lot of make-believe. It was just me and my dogs. I was driving a tractor and a four-wheeler by the time I was 10. It’s like in The Return of the Jedi, when they’re on Endor flying through that awesome forest. That’s how I thought of it driving four-wheelers there. That was a pretty big influence to me. My parents managed the land, making sure nobody did any illegal dumping or illegal cutting of trees.
My father had been a steelworker and that gets into how I started with the environmental portraits. In the area I grew up, the steel mills boomed with the two World Wars, then tapered down, but were still very active into the 1980s. Then the steel industry left and the town has never really been the same. My dad was vice president of the steelworkers union at the time, so the process of getting laid off, then retiring and disability—his story is very impactful on my story.
DPP: How so? Did you document those transitions?
Crisman: The closing of the steel mill happened while I was in middle school. It emotionally had a major impact on me, though I wasn’t expressing it with a camera at that time. I was documenting it mentally. When I got into photography, the first couple of years, I was mostly interested in landscape work and really loved working back close to home. I wasn’t actually a fine-art student at the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in environmental studies and have minors in cultural anthropology and biology. I took a lot of elective photography classes. For my senior project I documented what remained of the steel mill, as well as its environmental and social impact. The pictures are a metaphor for what I felt the whole town was going through and what it’s left with. Even then—2002, 2003—when I was still shooting with film, I was trying to do some things with manipulation to express what I wanted to say with my images.