Innerviews: Inventive photographer thinks outside the (camera) box
Life-size portraits of American Indians and coal miners stand guard in the foyer of his East End home. Enormous pictures of the Manhattan skyline dominate both walls in the hallway.
At every turn, dramatic, eye-arresting photographs reflect his creativity and the changing conceptual focus of his camera.
Books by famed architect I.M. Pei, his former employer, and glossy coffee table books featuring his New York City lightscapes and studies of West Virginia miners cover the coffee table in his living room.
Obviously, a photographer of merit lives here.
That’s Nathanial “Thorney” Lieberman, a transplanted New Yorker who settled here in 2005, his wife’s hometown.
He started taking pictures as a kid in Queens. In his mid-20s, he achieved professional notability as an architecture photographer in Manhattan. Museums in New York, Dallas and Paris have displayed his innovative work.
His latest contribution to the coffee book genre celebrates the architectural delights of the West Virginia Capitol.
Despite the big-time reputation and keen intellect, he’s as genial and down-to-earth as it gets. A colorful conversationalist, he could entertain indefinitely with ancecdotes about the celebrities he met along the way.
His story begs for a memoir. It would have to be a mighty thick book.
“I grew up in Bayside, Queens. My dad was a classics professor at Queens College. My mother was a math teacher. I was an only child.
“I’ve been taking pictures since I was 10. I built a darkroom when I was about 11. My parents supported my interest. To build the darkroom, we needed three sheets of Sheetrock and the lumberyard was about four blocks away and they didn’t deliver until Monday, so I made my father go with me, and we carried the Sheetrock home. This old lady on her porch said, ‘Isn’t is nice? The boy helps his father.’
“I also wanted to play guitar. I went to the music department and they came up with Paul Simon for my teacher. I was going to the Village on Sundays around Washington Square Park, and hundreds of people would come and play in little groups. We were trading licks, and I was learning more there. So I fired Paul Simon.
“I went to Dave Van Ronk who had the Hootenanny at the Gaslight every Tuesday. Everybody in folk music went there. Bob Dylan became very close with the Van Ronks, so I spent a lot of time with him when he first came to New York. It was clear to everybody that this was genius, the way the songs were rolling off of him.
“He was weird. He would go to a party and have a jar of soapy water and socks, and he would be washing his socks. It was mostly a put-on. He kept doing that, putting people on in interviews and acting crazy, but he was interesting and it was fun.
“I took pictures of anything I could. I quit high school and went to Bard College when I was 16. I was a psychology major. My mentor in college was [author] Mary Lee Settle who grew up here. She was my lit professor and we became very good friends. There was a group of us who would go to her house for brunch on Sunday mornings.
“Mary Lee kept saying to go be a photographer. She gave me the confidence to just do that. I went to New York and assisted, like an apprentice program. I worked for advertising photographers and fashion photographers.
“Advertising was about who had the biggest pool table and best chicks and best studio. Fashion was horrendous — all backbiting and phonies.
“I worked for a French fashion photographer. We went to Paris on the way to Morocco to Yves St. Laurent’s house to do a shoot. He fired me in Paris because I did something efficient. I brought something he needed that he’d forgotten about.
“I didn’t know what to do. All I could think of was advertising, fashion and weddings. I didn’t know there was anything else.
“I met an architect who was building a house for the chaplain of the college I had gone to. We went over to this house, and it had just snowed and the construction site was so clean because it was covered with snow. I took some pictures and they loved them. I liked these people. They appreciated quality. They were sincere, real people.
“I started looking at what I’d done since I was 10, and it was obvious that it was architecture. In college, I photographed Hudson River mansions. In New York, I photographed Penn Station before they tore it down. So that’s what I went into. This architect mentored me. He’s from Fairmont. Three West Virginians have had the biggest influence on my life. Mary Lee Settle. My wife. And this guy Alex Wade who brought me into photographing architecture.
“My mother’s father, who died before I was born, was a photographer. I never thought much of it until my uncle pulled out some salon prints that had been exhibited and taken by my grandfather. This photo of a bum just blew me away. It was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
“I started working for these architects. I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s a lot more technical than advertising or fashion. Advertising and fashion photographers have very little technical ability.
“I needed to learn a lot about technique. So I took about a year off on unemployment insurance and photographed the World Trade Center and went to New Haven because every architect worth his salt did a building at Yale. I would go every week and photograph a couple of buildings.
“I read Ansel Adams’ book ‘The Negative.’ It’s the only source for the zone system. We didn’t have color when we shot architecture. I had a client in New York who called about two years ago and said, ‘Do you have those photographs when they moved Rosemary Hall to the Choate School?’ I sent them and they said, ‘Where is the color?’ I said, ‘We did not shoot color in 1973.’ They said, ‘What?’ Now everything is in color, so black and white has power.
“I landed every major architectural firm in New York. Philip Johnson. I.M. Pei. John Carl Warnecke, Swanke Hayden Connell, who renovated the dome. I was 25. I didn’t sleep much. I would wake up in the night with nightmares thinking they were going to find me out. I was a kid. They’re the big boys. But I kept one step ahead and managed it for 20 years.
“Throughout, I made art. I did my own work. You know Chuck Close, the painter? He does those enormous photorealist faces. He became my mentor in New York. I had never studied art. I didn’t know what it was about until he said, ‘You find a problem in your medium that interests you and you make images. You don’t think about it. You just have to do it. And it leads somewhere else.’ And that kept me busy.
“I threw some things together in the studio, some weird pictures, and it led to my retrospective in Huntington, ‘Several Arguments With Photography.’ My argument is, photography has always been about subject matter. Painting is not. It’s about texture, paint, picture playing, anything but the subject matter. I tried to move photography away from subject matter. It was difficult, but I did it.
“I’ve been pulled back to making images about subject matter because it is very seductive. I spent 10 years photographing Manhattan and did a book on photographs of New York, purely subject matter. I was shooting 8x10 and making big prints. I loved looking at them.
“In the mid ’70s, Phillipe Halsman photographed 110 Life magazine covers. He did a famous book called ‘The Jump Book.’ He captured personalities by asking people to jump. He taught us portrait photography. I had never photographed people. I considered it a copout because people are so fascinating to look at. The total copout is the nude. It is so compelling and very powerful, and it’s just too easy.
“I had to photograph people for his class. I didn’t want to just take a picture of a person. I thought, photography is very literal, so I’m going to shoot life-size on the film, which is what these coal miners and Indians are. Just one shot of each person, because a portrait is a slice of time. It pertains to my work with architecture. You don’t shoot this and this and this. You find the picture. You decide before you take the picture rather than after. You shoot one shot.
“I decided to see what would happen if I photographed everyone who came in the studio life-size, one shot per person, and they were wonderful.
“My wife, Anne, was working for an architect, one of my closest friends in New York. We moved to Colorado in ’91 right after my New York book was published, and I took up these life-size portraits again. I wondered where I was going with this. I thought I would try to shoot a whole person in these frames. So I built a camera stand, a huge rig, and started shooting entire people.
“I started shooting Indians on a reservation, but the Indians wouldn’t give me a nickel. I wanted to do a big document of American Indian life. I did it until I couldn’t afford it anymore.
“Boulder is all about rock climbing and mountain biking and skiing and that’s it. It didn’t work for us after 12 or so years. We would visit here, and every time I visited, I liked it. We moved here the end of 2005.
“On Jan. 1, 2006, Sago happened. I thought, this is where I live. It hit me. I went to the UMW, and they found me a model, and I found a church in Boone County to set up in, and I photographed him, and one thing led to another.
“Today, we are sending a coffee table book to the publisher, photographs of the Capitol. I finally got to shoot the governor’s office after a year of battling with him. They wouldn’t let me do it. The book has only been reordered by companies. It’s not available retail. It’s only for them to use as gifts and won’t be available retail until next year.
“Now I’m working on a book about the gas industry.
“I’ve made a lot of pictures. That’s what I’m about. Dreams? I’ve done it. I have left a body of work that I consider important. Whether or not it is recognized is not in my control.”
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.