David Samuel Stern: Does a portrait need a subject?

Stern positioning two fabric-wrapped models during a shoot in Chelsea in 2022. Photo by Jaymye Thomas

In 2018, I interviewed David Samuel Stern about his process of creating woven photographic portraits. In these portraits, he interlaced photographs into intricate, tactile artworks, emphasizing the medium’s tangible qualities. Stern has been relentlessly exploring what it means to portray through photography and the medium’s place as a recorder of time and nature. Since our initial interview, he has produced captivating new work. Here, we survey his evolution over the last six years and his current work.

“Untitled Woven Portrait 27 (2)”, 2022. Three photographic prints on archival translucent vellum, physically cut and woven together by hand. 24⅝ x 35½ x ⅛ in; 62.6 x 90.2 x 0.3 cm

It seems to me that your Woven Portraits from 2020 to the present have become more abstract. How do you see the evolution of your work since our previous interview in 2018?

Yes, my Woven Portraits have certainly become more abstract since 2020, and I think this was inevitable. This series investigates the special relationship enjoyed by photography and portraiture; it’s a strange but ubiquitous union that, for better or worse, holds a profound, sensitive place within each of us. Yet, I consider the photographic medium—even when digital—to be a distinctively physical, mechanical process quite separate from the experience of seeing an individual. So, there are questions like: How far can we push the photography-portraiture bond until it starts to break down? Where is this bond’s edge? And then, at a certain point, maybe a couple of years further on, we have to ask a question that, on its surface, sounds silly: Does a portrait need a subject? This is one of the places I find myself with the Woven Portraits series right now.

Over the last few years, I’ve started posing my models in less-readable ways, wrapping them in patterned fabric, and shooting them against a patterned backdrop. In some cases, I’ve switched the patterned fabrics out for others between the shots. When each photograph is printed on vellum, physically cut into strips, and then hand-woven into a single composite artwork, the result is visually scattered, busy, and quite abstract.

DETAIL: “Untitled Woven Portrait 27 (2)”, 2022

Tell us about the genesis and idea behind your recent large-scale piece Unknown (American).

During fall 2022, Amy Hauft, director of the College of Art at my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, contacted me to ask if I was interested in completing a commission to be on display for one year at the university in a recently built academic building on campus. One of the only real requirements for the artwork to be commissioned was that it must be big. I had never met her; she had seen my work in an alumni-grant application I’d submitted (but did not receive) and recognized it from a magazine that had commissioned and published some of my work in 2019. In our initial email exchanges, we had talked through some early ideas I’d had, one being to photograph an iconic statue of the medieval French king Louis IX, who is the namesake of the city of St. Louis, and to ultimately create a large backlit piece in the style of a commissioned work I’d done for National Geographic Magazine in 2021 (published in 2022), but scaled way up. So, I was immediately interested in the project because it would supply funding to figure out a way to make larger, more complicated artworks in this same bloodline, which I was aiming to do anyway. In fact, this had been more or less the concern of my grant application, which the university had rejected.

I’d been tinkering with backlighting my Woven Portraits for years, but the proper circumstances to seriously invest in this way of presenting them hadn’t yet arisen. Photographing the Louis IX statue turned out to be impossible due to the unavailability of the proper permits, but Amy had also suggested I take a look through the collection of the university’s on-campus art museum, which naturally is cataloged online. Looking through the collection, I noticed a modest 19th-century limestone bust titled “George Washington.” The artist of the bust was not known, so the museum had assigned it the placeholder attribution “Unknown (American).” The artist depicted Washington—or at least a man who to us looks Washington-like—as pensive, maybe a bit melancholy. It became clear to me that this would be a subtler, more heartfelt subject to work with. Amy asked me to submit a commission proposal to the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts to this effect. I did so and, less than a week later, flew to St. Louis to photograph the bust in the museum’s facilities and see the wall on which the final product would ultimately be installed eight months later.

Left: “Unknown (American)”, 2023. Three photographs converted into red, green, and blue monochrome tonal scales respectively, ultrachrome printed onto translucent, archival plasticized paper, cut by hand into 15mm-wide strips and triaxial woven together by hand. Backlit with eight custom-built 4000K dimmable fixtures. 99½ x 108 x 4⅜ in; 252.7 x 274.3 x 11.1 cm | Right: “Unknown (American)”, 2023. Three photographic prints on archival translucent vellum, cut by hand into 5mm-wide strips and triaxial woven together by hand. 16⅝ x 10¾ x ⅛ in; 42.4 x 27.3 x 0.3 cm. Commissioned by Washington University in St. Louis

There are actually two works, installed side by side, both titled Unknown (American), but very different in scale. I’ll talk about the large piece on the left first. Much as I do when making Woven Portraits, I photographed the bust on site from different angles and with varied lighting with an ultra–high–resolution camera. Then, back in New York, after making dozens of digital mockups, I chose a combination of three photos, converted them to red, green, and blue tonal scales, respectively, broke them up into eight two-foot-by-four-foot sections, and printed them onto plasticized paper. From there, the process is mostly the same as that of the Woven Portraits. I hand cut the prints, three per panel, into 15mm-wide strips (the Woven Portraits are almost all 10mm- or 5mm-wide strips) and woven them together by hand.

Simultaneously, after several weeks of materials research and experimentation, I constructed eight large dimmable backlighting fixtures that would hold the eight woven panels in a way that would protect them and allow for the weavings to undulate a bit and display their texture. It is always important to me that the piece makes its physicality known to the viewer. I learned about LED lighting, sourced many specialized components, including massive aluminum housings, had custom acrylic components fabricated, and thrice consulted a master electrician—at every step along the way, a problem would come up, and I would invent a solution. The piece would be in operation 24/7 for at least one year, so it had to be bulletproof. I won’t get into details, but it was very complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. However, I now have a template for making this work.

DETAIL: “Unknown (American)”, 2023

The smaller Unknown (American) piece on the right is made like other Woven Portraits. It comprises a different group of three photos of the Washington bust. In this case, the strips each print is cut into are 5mm wide, and the resulting physical composite is not backlit but hinged inside a typical discreet white shadowbox. This piece is meant to draw viewers closer so that they may have a more intimate look at both Unknown (American) works.

“Unknown (American)”, 2023. Three photographic prints on archival translucent vellum, cut by hand into 5mm-wide strips and triaxial woven together by hand. 16⅝ x 10¾ x ⅛ in; 42.4 x 27.3 x 0.3 cm

As with my Woven Portraits series, I wanted Unknown (American) to investigate portraiture in a new dimension. As before, I wanted to draw attention to the special relationship between portraiture and photography and underscore photography’s often-overlooked physical properties—and additionally, in this case, its lasting influence on commemorating events and individuals. George Washington is ubiquitous, and for Americans, his image connotes an ideal. There are something like 145 monuments to him in the US; he is the namesake of 10 universities (Washington University in St. Louis being one of them), 15 mountains, 241 townships, 26 cities, the list goes on, and, of course, he features prominently on the world-standard currency. (And just imagine how many individuals are named after him and how many times he has appeared through depiction in a movie, book, or TV series.) Whether knowingly or unknowingly, I think about him every day, and so do you.

Yet, despite his significance in history and American mythos, Washington’s likeness fluctuates somewhat according to the portraitist and the era, and today, his true visage remains unknown. I wanted to orient the artwork around examining portraiture through photographing a representation of an individual who lived before the medium was invented.

To portray seems to be a deeply human need. In history, there is a collective recollection of individuals and events based on such portrayals, which can be bent and manipulated by motley political forces past and present. As democracy’s potential fragility routinely makes headlines, and as the United States and other nations reconsider their historical legacies, this carries significant contemporary resonance. As I write this, the 2024 presidential election is eight months away, but its fraughtness has set in, and this all feels more patent than ever. All legacies are contingent. Given the centrality of portraiture’s role in the telling of history, and despite the unknowability inherent in photography, portraiture, and the passage of time itself, the museum’s placeholder attribution might be seen as referring to the subject himself, and indeed the notion of Americanness.

DETAIL: “Unknown (American)”, 2023. Ruler for scale

And your ongoing Winter Solstice Pinhole Photographs series?

2023 was the seventh year of my Winter Solstice Pinhole Photographs series. Its genesis was another line of thought about photography, in this case, its inescapable bond to light, darkness, and time—as well as the arduous, uncertain efforts behind image making. The winter solstice is the time of year when we receive the least amount of light—in the northern hemisphere, this usually falls on December 21st. It feels right to make pinhole photographs during this time, when light is so scarce, in this raw way that requires only the most basic handmade apparatus: a slightly modified box—no lens, no electronics, no film—with a 0.3mm brass-cut aperture. Photography’s mechanics become something akin to nature through this simplification. And, as with nature, there is a decrease in its predictability. For me, the act of making the photographs serves as an acknowledgment of the passage of time and the difficulty or unpredictability of the process under the winter solstice’s conditions.

“The Winter Solstice, Pangnirtung Fjord, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada”, 2023. Unique direct exposure on vintage Forte Elegance silver-gelatin paper, custom-built pinhole camera. Original negative 5½ x 11 in; 14 x 28 cm / positive dimensions variable
Making a “Winter Solstice Pinhole Photographs” exposure at Pangnirtung Fjord, December 2023

Of course, photography has a relationship with light; in the context of the medium, light can even, in a sense, be considered synonymous with time. So I wonder: What does this say about darkness? Whatever it says, it should be most articulable on the winter solstice. It’s always been that while, like most people, I appreciate the warmer months’ abundance of light, I find there’s more meaning in winter’s darkness.

As with the Woven Portraits, in the Winter Solstice Pinhole Photographs series I’m concerned with the physical nature of the photograph itself. The photopaper I load into the pinhole camera physically interacts with photons, and the marks they leave on the photopaper are an artifact of that object being there in that location at that time. I make the exposures directly onto vintage silver-gelatin papers because I like the idea that they’ve been stored in absolute darkness for decades, long past their intended window for delivering reliable results when used. In itself, this, to me, seems to be another acknowledgment of time and darkness, and it adds an element of uncertainty to how and whether the photograph will turn out. I have a collection of vintage photopapers that are becoming more and more rare, and, as they age, their ability to produce images will become less predictable. Although it hasn’t been as much of a factor as I would have thought, their chemical reactions when exposed to light are somewhat slowed by the frigid temperatures of the environment I’m shooting in.

I began the series in 2017. For that year and 2018, I made the pinhole exposures in the Hudson Valley and Brooklyn, respectively, simply because that’s where I happened to be on each of those winter solstices. But it then occurred to me that these photographs really ought to be done in locations where, on the solstice, there is almost no light at all, where the process, for lack of light, essentially almost can’t work in the first place. So, in 2019, I applied to and was given an artist residency in central Finland for December. The closer to the Arctic Circle, the less light. If you go north of the Arctic Circle (latitude about 66ºN) on the solstice, you’re in the polar night; you won’t get any direct sunlight there. (It’s the opposite on the summer solstice.) But right on the edge of polar night, you’re getting the light that just skims across the top of the planet. You could say after traveling all the way from the sun, it nearly missed the planet altogether. It’s the edge of where photography can work, the edge of where time can be measured and, therefore, recorded. Here, there is only a short period of sunlight per day, maybe a few hours, but this to me makes the process that much more sincere. I feel as though this also indirectly acknowledges the fact that we live short lives on a small planet orbiting a star. Everything around it is dark, vast, and freezing.

“The Winter Solstice, near Fairbanks, Alaska”, 2021. Unique direct exposure on vintage Bergger silver-gelatin paper, custom-built pinhole camera. Original negative 3½ x 3½ in; 8.9 x 8.9 cm / positive dimensions variable

In 2020, due to COVID restrictions, I couldn’t travel farther from New York than Lake Champlain in Vermont to execute the Winter Solstice Pinhole Photographs; but in ‘21, I traveled to Alaska; in ‘22, Iceland; and in ‘23, Canada’s far north. Each location has presented unique challenges: extreme weather, road conditions, cultural cautions, provisioning, logistics, behind-the-scenes documentation of the journey and the shoots, and so on. In other words, the intense efforts and uncertainties that go into being there in that place to make that image are not visible in the resulting photographs. The image almost wasn’t able to be made for so many reasons that range from the small imperfections in the handmade nature of the pinhole camera itself—to the uncertainty of whether the vintage photopaper will react correctly to light in harsh, cold conditions—to travel restrictions and safety concerns inherent in reaching some remote areas.

Shooting at Pangnirtung Fjord, at the Arctic Circle in Canada, last December was difficult and stressful. Getting there required a lot of research and planning, three very expensive flights that are easily delayed or canceled (and one of them was), eternal lonesome layovers, and then lodging in a rugged Innuit community that, while friendly and set amidst stunning natural scenery, is among other things weighted with social ills and watchful of outsiders. When I arrived at the guesthouse I’d booked, I encountered my seasoned housemate, who immediately warned me to keep a low profile and to in no way offend the locals, all of whom were armed. Everything was exorbitant and stale due to the outpost’s isolated location, and one should avoid getting sick at all costs. Burglary was a real risk. The temperature was a constant -11ºF; my door froze shut, and I felt depressed. I know this mostly doesn’t come through in the resulting photographs.

After the series’s 10th season, I will begin to synthesize the Winter Solstice Pinhole Photographs into a book. I think this is the best way to take them in, and it allows for some backstory regarding their making.

You have been commissioned to create an editorial artwork presenting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for the cover of the January 11, 2024, issue of POLITICO Europe. You mention a six-day deadline. What can you tell us about this project—the relationship between image and text, working with editorial staff, and your process?

Like most editorial projects I’ve worked on, this one began with an email from an editor. In this case, on January 3rd of this year, Arnau Busquets Guàrdia contacted me to ask if I would be interested in making the cover art for the January 11th issue of POLITICO Europe, the deadline for which would be January 10th. Due to the time difference between New York and Brussels (where the magazine is based), the deadline was essentially six days—I had to work on something else the next day, but luckily, I could clear my schedule for four of the following days. From what Arnau said right off the bat, I knew the budget for this project was going to be lower than similar projects I’ve worked on, but I accepted the commission anyway because it would mean making cover artwork, which I’d never done before. Arnau was able to allocate slightly more funding for the commission, given that my process requires using physical materials, some rented camera gear, and printer ink that is basically worth its weight in gold. But still, compensation for this artwork would be at a modest level.

Arnau explained that the subject of the artwork would be Ursula von der Leyen, and that the article it would be associated with concerned her potential second term as President of the European Commission. He also mentioned that he had seen my commissioned work for National Geographic and was hopeful I could provide something similar for POLITICO, but he was open to my ideas. The NatGeo piece is a backlit Woven Portrait of an Italian Renaissance bust of Julius Caesar, a bit on the confrontational side—so I had a sense of what he was imagining, despite his open-ended pitch. But otherwise, Arnau was rather hands-off; there would be no deadline for “sketches” nor a round of revisions, as I had had with other editorial commissions. I asked to read a draft of the article so I could get a sense of its mood, and he sent me one the next day. We did talk briefly about making a collage portrait of von der Leyen rather than a Woven Portrait of her, but after reading the article I felt that a Woven Portrait was better suited to its tone and content.

The January 11, 2024, cover of “POLITICO Europe” featuring Stern’s “Woven Portrait of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission”

Because of the budget constraints and the demanding turnaround time, I also knew right off the bat that we would have to source the images of von der Leyen, which is not ideal, but unavoidable in this case. I would of course prefer to photograph her myself, but this was never in the cards. That would require a bigger budget and a longer timeline, luxuries I’d enjoyed with other editorial projects, but this wouldn’t be one of those. Otherwise, I applied my process. I received access to a Polaris Images account and looked through hundreds of photographs of von der Leyen, finding dozens that might work for making a Woven Portrait of her. I made about twenty digital mockups from free low-res thumbnails and weeded out those that were less interesting. Although it wasn’t required, I sent Arnau my shortlisted mockups, as it is my personality to do so, and we had a brief email conversation about them. We settled on one of the mockups, and POLITICO purchased the license for the three corresponding high-res photos from Polaris that I would use to make the physical Woven Portrait of von der Leyen.

“Woven Portrait of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission”, 2024. For “POLITICO Europe”. Three photographs converted into cyan, magenta, and yellow tonal ranges, printed on plasticized paper, and physically cut and woven together by hand, backlit with 4000K light. 24⅛ x 23½ x ⅛ in; 61.3 x 59.7 x 0.3 cm

From there, I converted the three photos to cyan, magenta, and yellow tonal scales, respectively (rather than red, green, and blue this time), printed them onto plasticized paper on my large-format printer, hand cut them into 12mm strips (rather than 5mm, 10mm, or 15mm this time), and hand wove them together into a physical composite. I determined the strip size based on the size the artwork would be printed on the magazine cover; the physical 12mm strips would appear as about 8mm when printed on the cover, and I knew that smaller or larger strips might have looked confusing to readers. From there, I backlit the physical composite with 4000K light, as it allows for the broadest color spectrum to be visible to both the eye and CMOS sensor alike. I bounced a small amount of strobe on the piece’s front and photographed it with an ultra–high–resolution camera. I touched up the resulting photograph of the physical Woven Portrait to ensure readability and sent the file to Brussels.

Working with editorial staff is almost always great. I don’t mind deadlines, even tight ones, and I feel that the work I’m doing is going to be used in a way that makes it more potent. But in taking on editorial projects, one is agreeing to some degree of constraint. The art at the end of the day has to fit the article it is meant to accompany. You’re being asked to serve an ace on cue. And I can see how a looming hard deadline might not be healthy for everyone.

There is a special communication in the relationship between editor and artist. For the most part, the editors who deal with commissioning work from artists are quite passionate about the process of getting artwork completed. They want what’s best for their publication, and, in my experience, they’re mostly very willing to talk it out with the artist. For example, while working for National Geographic on a longer and more involved project, I would send editors Nicole Thompson and Maura Friedman long emails full of detailed open-ended questions regarding the project we were working on and would receive back the most well thought-out, understanding, and supportive replies. It felt like a total partnership. I did have a frustrating experience with another project in 2021, which frankly was only due to my editor being overworked and, therefore, difficult to reach.

What are you working on these days?

2023 was an intense year, in a mostly good way, and a huge investment: two solo exhibitions, an art fair, the commission, and the shoot in northern Canada. But ‘24 so far has had a different character, if I’m being honest. I haven’t seen as much return as I’d hoped from ‘23. And last month, I had to tend to some personal matters that, I’ll admit, have taken much of the wind out of my sails. Additionally, I’m hunting for a new studio, which adds a headwind. It’s difficult to feel focused and positive right now.

But I know what you’re asking. And as much as I’m able, one thing I’ve been working on these days is making more pieces in a side series I’m calling Natural Patterns, which I began while teaching at the pastoral Penland School of Craft during summer ‘22.

“Untitled Natural Pattern 1 / An attempt at resolution”, 2023. Gouache, colored graphite, and 35mm ultrachrome photographic print on paper. 27½ x 19¼ in; 69.9 x 64.1 cm

These works are photographs printed on watercolor paper, overlaid with a grid, and, in some cases, geometrical patterns that I’ve noticed are common in quilts and afghans. In the case of Untitled Natural Pattern 1 / An attempt at resolution, the photograph—which is a 35mm image of lush vegetation I took in Florida in 2018—is almost completely covered over. I painted each of the grid’s rhombus-shaped sections with gouache that I mixed to more or less match the average color and tone of the individual section of the photograph that fell within that same rhombus shape.

I believe this, like so much of what I do, comes from an extending line of thought about photography, depiction, pattern, and rhythm—in this case, while fixated on nature and light’s double-life as a particle and a wave. I can’t really say I understand how this all comes together but I know it’s because these things come together that we resolve images in data, and we long for what we see. We want resolution.

DETAIL: “Untitled Natural Pattern 1 / An attempt at resolution”, 2023

About the artist: David Samuel Stern examines photography as a physical, craft-based process, and the medium’s extraordinary relationship with portraiture. Work from his long-running series Woven Portraits has been commissioned by and appeared in publications including POLITICO Europe, National Geographic, The California Sunday Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He has had solo exhibitions at Marshall Gallery in Santa Monica, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and other venues. Stern’s recent large-scale work Unknown (American), commissioned by Washington University in St. Louis, is on display there through summer 2024. For several years, he has traveled to locations such as Finland, Alaska, Iceland, and Canada’s far north to execute his ongoing series and eventual photobook Winter Solstice Pinhole Photographs, a study of photography’s bond to light, darkness, time, the planetary rhythms of nature, and the uncertain efforts behind image-making. He has taught at institutions such as Pratt Institute, Penland School of Craft, and Brooklyn Brainery. Stern lives and works in New York.