Exposure therapy: Photographer Richard Needham faces fear at Studio IX

In images like this one, photographer Richard Needham explores judgement, fear, fashion, and analog film in his show at Studio IX. Photo courtesy of the artist In images like this one, photographer Richard Needham explores judgement, fear, fashion, and analog film in his show at Studio IX. Photo courtesy of the artist

Before meeting on the patio outside Kardinal Hall, Richard Needham worried about his outfit. He thought his white jeans might be too feminine, or that his “There is no planet B” T-shirt and rope necklace with a C-shaped bear claw tied to the end might be too much of a conversation-starter.

“It’s a double-edge sword. People tell me, ‘Well, a bear is your spirit animal.’ But this real bear died,” Needham explains. “A reindeer herder in Mongolia gave it to me. It’s like a talisman. I feel some sort of power when I wear it against my chest.”

Needham’s work as a documentary filmmaker and photographer has taken him around the world—from photographing Tsaatan nomadic reindeer herders in northern Mongolia, and teams of polo players who compete on elephants in Moo Baan Chang, Thailand, to filming 60 professional dancers with artist Dara Friedman on the streets of Miami. He credits Friedman and her focus on fashion, the human body, and street art as a large influence on “My Fellow Man: Don’ttalk to strangers,” his upcoming show at Studio IX.

“Everyone is a photographer now. You just pick up your phone,” says Needham. “It’s not mindful. The show is a meditation.”

In his latest images, Needham walked around densely populated areas—usually the Downtown Mall, though some images are from trips to Seattle and Walla Walla, Washington. He approached individuals who he found himself judging at first glance, whether positively or negatively, and asked if he could take their photograph. If they consented, and Needham found that most people did, he would photograph and record an audio interview with them. Needham’s creativity is influenced by his social anxiety about approaching strangers, his self-judgment that he “isn’t particularly good at words,” and his worry about the speed at which our world moves.

Photo courtesy of artist

The questions in each interview varied depending on the individual, ranging from “What’s troubling you right now?” to “What message would you like to share with people looking at your photograph?” Needham will display text from interviewees next to their portraits in the show, leaving the dialogue largely unedited.

The photographer, who has an MFA in film production from the University of Miami’s School of Communication, appreciates the ability to replicate the beauty of natural speech and cadence of human dialogue.

“My Fellow Man: Don’ttalk to strangers”

Opens September 7 at Studio IX

“I was surprised that politics wasn’t as much on the forefront,” Needham says of his conversations. “The current climate is there, but people appreciated the attempt to connect when it seems like social media is all there is. In a single sentence, everyone’s battling for dominance on social media. This [show] is the antithesis of that. It’s analog.”

It’s about connecting with people and humanizing them, and taking a moment to slow everything down—which is exactly what Needham had to do while using a Pentax 67 camera. It’s a large, 40-year old medium-format film camera that weighs five pounds. Needham says the camera takes a long time to focus, and makes a loud sound he describes as a “ka-lunk” when the shutter opens and closes.

Artists don’t traditionally use the Pentax 67 camera to capture street images, Needham says, though it is used often to take full-body fashion shots in a studio.

And Needham’s images resonate with fashion or photo journalism spreads that viewers might see in Vogue or Vanity Fair with subjects confronting the camera with confidence, comfortable in their own skin. As viewers stare back at them, Needham’s anxiety, discomfort, and fear become tangible. Needham says that in a certain sense, “these are all portraits of me.”

Photo courtesy of the artist

“With digital cameras, you’re always looking at the past. With this camera, I had no idea what I got. It’s very forward,” says Needham, who usually takes one or two shots of each of his subjects. “I like that way of looking at it. It’s frightening and scary. Fear is the whole project.”

One of Needham’s most forward moments involved Valerian and Elliott, the two individuals in the show’s title image. In the image, Valerian wears a floral maxi dress, a straw sun hat, white gloves flecked with red, and a beard past vis collarbone. Elliott wears a black graphic T-shirt, gray slacks, and sunglasses—both are smiling.

“I saw them walking down the street while I was driving, so I pulled around the block, parked, and had to run to catch up to them,” Needham remembers. 

Despite his anxieties, Needham is moved by the experience of talking to his subjects, and he encourages others to do the same thing. “Go first. Say hello first. Be the one to say hello when you’re in an awkward situation.”

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