Steven Scardina: The Poetics of Light

Steven Scardina (photo by Lisa Scardina)

Steven Scardina (photo by Lisa Scardina)

August 3, 2009

By Claire Sykes

When I asked Steven Scardina to photograph me for my website, there were two things I knew for sure: I’d feel completely comfortable in front of his camera and I’d get so many outstanding portraits that I’d find it hard to choose just one. Take his warm, genial way, his social and spiritual awareness and empathy for others, add in his perceptive aesthetic sensibility and keen technical mastery, and you get beautiful images that inspire and surprise.

Since 1993, Steven has been pointing his independent lens toward the architecture, gardens and people of Europe and the United States. Commercial assignments pick up the slack. Look at his black-and-white and color photographs and you’re right there with him—whether it’s in an ancient Tuscan palazzo, a 150-year-old farmhouse or a homeless-shelter kitchen.

Claire Sykes: What about your photography matters to you?

Steven Scardina: In these changing, digital times, I’ve started digging back to my roots, shooting black-and-white film, working in the darkroom processing the film and making gelatin silver prints. Black-and-white imagery has always been my passion and drive. It’s what I first studied and what made me feel good about being a photographer. I also enjoy finding ways to recreate that “old school” style in a digital format, and it seems like technology is finally catching up to bring the quality that I look for.

CS: I love this photo you took, at the William Case House in Champoeg, Oregon.

William Case House (Copyright Steven Scardina)

William Case House (Copyright Steven Scardina)

SS: I find this house fascinating. It was built 150 years ago, in 1859, but kept pretty much in the same state. The owners, landscape architect Wallace Huntington and his wife, interior designer Mirza Dickel, are big collectors—old kitchen utensils, framed cut-out silhouettes, antiques. The garden is Wallace’s personal project.

CS: And you’ve made it so personal in this photo of yours. It also expresses that Impressionistic influence seen in much of your personal work, and not something a traditional landscape photographer would capture. I find the image pleasantly confusing, a bit haunting, with such chaos surrounding this quiet, open center point.

SS: It’s true. When you look at it, you don’t quite understand where you’re at. It’s not a calm landscape. It puts me on edge because it’s a very busy, complex shot. But it’s full of depth, with the light looking through a group of trees. The light warms it up.

CS: What did you consider when you took this picture?

SS: At first, I didn’t know how to photograph the garden, because it needed to be approached in pieces, which to me means finding a variety of different views. I start with the light, looking for side or back light, then for subject matter to frame it. I spent half an hour framing this, and then waiting for the sun to illuminate a couple of the plants just right.

CS: The presence of light often reads like poetry in your photographs. So does composition. Your photo of the gloved hands slicing a banana wouldn’t say nearly as much without the pile of fruit pieces smack next to that, the whole image severed in half by the metal edge of the cutting table.

Blanchet House (Copyright Steven Scardina)

Blanchet House (Copyright Steven Scardina)

SS: This photo is a part of the Oregon Food Bank Project series. Five of us Portland photographers, who all have shot for Portland Monthly magazine, got together for beers one evening earlier this year, with the idea of collaborating on something together—Brian Lee, Lincoln Barbour, Daniel Root, Stuart Mullenberg and I. We came up with a project that involves donating our time and imagery to the Oregon Food Bank. The series is about the cycle of food. We document all the stages, from workers in the fields and food distribution centers to people who make donations and the food bank recipients, themselves. I’ve been documenting the kitchen, servers and food at the Blanchet House in downtown Portland, which provides up to 900 meals per day to the homeless and temporary shelter for 40 men.

CS: What happens to the photographs all of you take?

SS: After we narrow them down, we’ll have about 15-20 final images. Then in November, most likely, we’ll exhibit them, in some vacant downtown space that we’ll rent for the evening, not a gallery. We see this project as promotion for the food bank, as well as for us photographers. Afterwards, we’ll donate all the photos to the Oregon Food Bank for them to display in a distribution center, auction off or use on their website and for publications, and any advertising. Pro Photo Supply here in town is a sponsor for the project, which is great. They’re donating the film and helping out with production of the color digital prints for the exhibition.

CS: I look at these two photos of yours and they’re so different from each other, in terms of subject matter, lighting, composition and mood. What would you say ties all of your work together?

SS: It’s my approach to a project, meaning I look for people and projects that demonstrate a real passion and then bring my perspective to document that passion. Whether photographing the Case House garden or the volunteers at the Blanchet House, I look for a way to connect the viewer to that energy, to create a feeling and sense of being there and experiencing the emotion of the moment. I love the stories and getting to know the people behind the photographs, and hope that I am able to render their labors of love in a way that honors their work and inspires others to connect with their own passions.

CS: How does all this feed your photography?

SS: It inspires me to want to create great images—and that’s my passion. When I’m able to do that, it’s very satisfying to help them see their work and contributions in new ways. For me, it’s all about connecting with people and their stories, and then finding a way to lend my talents to their work to make a difference.

© Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

Published in: on August 3, 2009 at 3:15 am  Leave a Comment  

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