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Lydia Panas Speaks Her Mind In Portraits

Learn how this photographer produces her psychologically charged portraits

Kitty With Black Tulle, 2011. From the series The Mark of Abel.

“My work is so much about home,” says Lydia Panas, when describing her unique brand of conceptual portraiture. “At some level, it’s about where we come from and how that influences who we become.”

Working primarily in the tranquil conditions of her 70-acre farm in rural Pennsylvania, Panas poses her subjects amid bucolic landscape settings and draped studio backdrops, alternating between environments and camera models for each successive series. She employs both large- and medium-format cameras—a Horseman Woodman 4×5 and a Hasselblad 500C/M SLR—to record fleeting details of the faces, positioning and gestures of an assortment of family members, friends, students and acquaintances.

Observing her subjects through the inverted view of the ground glass heightens the intensity of her concentration. “I’m all there when I’m photographing,” she notes, “because the faces have to be just right, or I can’t use the picture.”

Ava, 2018. From the series Sleeping Beauty.
Ava, 2018. From the series Sleeping Beauty.

As she describes it, her austere, probing photographs seek to capture “the most basic part of being a human being. How people relate to each other, and the resulting connections, relationships and trust, these are the things that fascinate me,” she notes.

“I’ve always been really interested in watching people interact. I don’t have to do anything like direct or stage them because there’s so much information to mine when people are together.”

Straddling Cultures And Language

A deeply rooted sense of home and the solid foundation of a single language were transient concepts for Panas during her early childhood. As the oldest daughter of Greek immigrants, who had come to America to finish their medical degrees, Panas and her parents moved often.

Chili Peppers, 2009. From the series The Mark of Abel.
Chili Peppers, 2009. From the series The Mark of Abel.

“When they were done with their studies, we moved back to Greece, and they built a house there,” she explains. “I was around 2 years old and just learning to speak.”

Within four years, her father decided to move his growing family back to the States. “When we came back here, I was like 5 or 6,” she recalls. “It was October, and I was in kindergarten, but I didn’t speak English. I remember it being traumatic. Then, we moved another three times until I was 8. I was straddling two cultures and two languages, and I wasn’t really encouraged to speak my mind.”

Panas describes her father as even-tempered and kind, in contrast to her mother, who possessed a complex mix of modern tendencies and old-fashioned ideals. “My mother had one foot in the modern world and one foot in the old world,” she explains. “She was very attractive, glamorous and quick-witted. And, like all daughters, I was devoted to her. But she kept my siblings and me at a distance. Simply put, it was her way or the highway. It wasn’t about being ourselves; we had to follow a lot of rules.”

January Gold 1, 2014. From the series Ghost Portraits.
January Gold 1, 2014. From the series Ghost Portraits.

Finding Her Voice Within Art

Included among these rules were strict expectations for a future career. Panas was drawn to the visual arts from an early age, in part due to her frustrations with language. Yet this was not considered an acceptable pursuit within a family of physicians and scientists. “We had three options,” she explains, “Doctor, lawyer, engineer. As an artist, I just didn’t fit into the mold.”

Since art school was out of the question, Panas chose to major in psychology instead. With no job on the horizon after graduating from college, she petitioned her father about her abiding interest in art. “I said, ‘Listen, I still want to go to art school. Maybe I can go for graphic design because I could get a job in that field,’” she recounts. “So he paid for me to go back to school. This was in the ’80s, when graphic design still involved drawing, and I just didn’t like it. And then I took a photo class.”

Emily S (1), 2019. From the series Silence is Also a Form of Speaking.

One of the first assignments given by her photo instructor, David Ulrich, was for each student to bring in five pictures they liked. As he went around the room discussing the photographs, he told Panas her black-and-white snapshots showed that she was really interested in light. While this seems like a fairly basic observation, his words of encouragement had life-changing import.

She notes, “What I heard for the first time in my life was, ‘You’ve got something to say,’ and that was it. He gave me a certain kind of confidence.”

A Portrait Of Relationships

Panas went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in photography at New York’s School of Visual Arts before attending the Whitney Museum independent study program and receiving a master’s degree from New York University/International Center of Photography.

Her early work alternated between black-and-white portraits of her children and conceptual still lives. After 20 years of shooting strictly in black-and-white, she began her breakout portrait series, The Mark of Abel, as an experiment in working with color film.

Gang Of Three, 1996. From the Italian Series.
Gang Of Three, 1996. From the Italian Series.

“I thought, ‘I’m always in the darkroom and feeling like I can’t catch up,’” she says. “And in my mind, I thought color would be simple. Quick, just send it all out. No big deal. I had no idea.”

She asked her three children and their cousins to stand outside in the fields while she made a couple of color tests. “I let them do what they wanted, and they took their own positions,” she notes. “They kind of took on their own personalities in a way. When I got the film back, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something here.’”

She started inviting others to come pose on her property, simply asking them to bring people with whom they had history, either friends or family members. Since none of them were trained models, they would ask Panas for direction, to which she would reply, “‘You don’t have to do anything, just stand there.’ Truthfully, for the first year or two, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits. “I was just enjoying it. And I find, for me, that works. If it feels good, I just go with it. But the way their personalities merged with mine turned into this thing. And it wasn’t until after working for a while, and reading what people wrote about the pictures, that I realized, this is about relationships.”

Pyramid, 2007. From the series The Mark of Abel.
Pyramid, 2007. From the series The Mark of Abel.

When posing for her camera, Panas’ subjects exude a somber tension that harkens back to classical painting, particularly the Dutch Renaissance. “I really do like the Dutch,” she says of the comparison. “That black background with a simple face and almost nothing going on. There’s no bells and whistles, no distractions. It’s simply that person’s emotion and what’s coming out of it.”

While Panas generally takes a back seat in directing her models, it’s extremely important for her to take care of each person’s needs. “I’m noticing who everybody is,” she explains. “One of them is driving the scene, one of them is receding, one is more neutral. I’m fascinated by what they do. I imagine that, to the viewer, the one who is dominant will command the mood, just like the dominant person in a conversation commands the room on some level. But I try to keep the attention even, and I’m very careful with everybody’s feelings. These are people who are charged to me for this hour. I need to give them my all, and I can’t let any of them feel bad.”

The Presence Of Ghosts

The farmland where Panas lives and works is deeply rooted in her father’s immigrant past.

Nichole, Popcorn, 2016. From the series Promise Land.
Nichole, Popcorn, 2016. From the series Promise Land.

He was raised on a farm in the Peloponnese region of Greece and had survived the hardships of World War II and the Greek Civil War before coming to America to prosper in medicine. As an alternative to investing his earnings in the stock market, he began purchasing farmland in rural Pennsylvania.

When Panas and her husband were seeking to leave New York to raise their own family, they purchased the farm from him. For the next 10 years, Panas, her husband and her father worked together planting thousands of seedlings to reforest parts of the land. “I remember thinking that by the time my kids were in high school, this place would contain a forest,” she says. “My father didn’t live to see the growth, but the farm is his legacy for me and what he taught me about the land and how to appreciate it.

Corinne, 2012. From the series After Sargent.
Corinne, 2012. From the series After Sargent.

As a tribute to her father, Panas began making a series of photographs that she calls Ghost Portraits.

“It was a side project I did whenever there were no models around, and I loved how the weather might look,” she explains. “The portraits are fabrics hanging on stands rather than people, so there’s this presence/absence thing. But what I didn’t realize when I was shooting them is that the same presence/absence thing exists in my other portraits, too. There’s something strangely very present and somehow strangely absent.”

Explorations Of Silence

The realm of psychology has a very significant influence in Panas’ portraiture, although this is more a reflection of her personal exploration and readings on psychoanalysis than her academic study of the subject. “I’m not sure which came first,” she explains, “the psychology or the influence it would take into my work. It’s kind of like they feed each other. I feel like everything I’ve ever done is all feeding into everything I’m doing now.”

December Red 5, 2014. From the series Ghost Portraits.
December Red 5, 2014. From the series Ghost Portraits.

In her most recent work, Panas gravitates to female subjects, as well as shifting her focus to individual portraits rather than groups. Aside from a general sense that men tend to be more guarded in their expressions and emotions, she notes, “Maybe it’s my personality to see more in women. But I also think it’s partially this thing with my mom. I was so fascinated by her, so devoted, so wanting her attention, and I think this moved into my interest in photographing women.”

She describes working one-on-one as very intense, adding, “The camera gives me license to look at the things that you normally can’t do with someone. And looking through my lens is so different than talking to someone in real life, where I’m inside the conversation. As a photographer, I have a certain kind of control, and that gives me a different view into somebody else.”

The subjects of Panas’ latest series often engage in challenging actions or poses: smearing lipstick across their faces in the studio portraits of Promised Land; sprawling in the grass in the outdoor series Sleeping Beauty; and meeting the viewer’s gaze with head on a pedestal in her most recent studio series, Silence is Also a Form of Speaking.

Bailey, 2017. From the series Sleeping Beauty.
Bailey, 2017. From the series Sleeping Beauty.

She attributes many of these actions to her own interest in “what it felt like to have to censor my speech. If you’re in a situation where you have strong feelings, but you’re not allowed to voice them, you’re both vulnerable and also kind of furious,” she remarks. “And if you can’t put it out there, it festers and turns into a certain kind of shame. I’m interested in that place of conflict where you’re very aware that what’s going on is wrong, but you have no recourse.”

In 2018, Panas began making short videos as part of her Sleeping Beauty portraits. What started as an offhand experiment with her iPhone soon took on a more significant role in her process. The videos greatly resemble her related still photos of the same model, save for the delicate fluttering of blinking eyelids. Panas became so struck by her initial experiments that she soon swapped the iPhone for her Nikon D810 and a 50mm f/1.4 lens. “Last year, I had a couple of exhibits where I combined videos with the stills,” she says, “and it was very interesting. You could look back and forth between the stills in one room and observe the slight movement of the video next door.”

As Panas explains it, many of her subjects compare posing for her camera to “being in a shrink’s office. It’s like they’ve been seen, and, the thing is, I feel like I’ve been seen, too,” she reflects. “I’ve been able to emote and express and put out on some level. To pull it around full circle, I’m saying all those things that I couldn’t say as a child.”

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