To view more photos, check out the email version of this story.
Photographer Robert Lisak is hard to photograph—not because he’s not photogenic, but rather because he’s so tall. Well over six feet, maybe 6’4,” getting a straight-on standing shot that keeps his head in the frame stretches my tripod to its limits.
But the difficulty isn’t just on my end. As we’re chatting inside his Erector Square studio, he expresses an important insight for a photographer to have: that it’s hard to be in front of the camera, too. “I’m probably not giving you anything you can use,” he adds, quietly but not quite bashfully, dryly but not quite wryly. I tell him he’s wrong, of course.
Even at six feet and serious change, Lisak’s had plenty of experience in a position like mine, trying to capture interesting stuff that’s taller than he is. It’s pretty much the name of the game in a project he’s working on with fellow New Haven photographer David Ottenstein (pictured second in a shot snapped by Lisak), in which they’re documenting the capitol buildings of every last one of these 50 United States. Often taken for granted by the people who have access to them—Lisak suggests it might have something to do with the fact that most of us took a class trip to our respective statehouses at some point in elementary school, when we weren’t ready to appreciate what we were seeing—it turns out capitol buildings are pretty darn stunning, and even more so when seen through the lens of a capable photographer.
In such environments, Lisak often uses a tilt-shift lens, named for its ability to shift along the y-axis and tilt around a point. It allows the photographer to avoid the distortion—mostly the slanted convergence of vertical lines—caused when any standard lens, but especially a wide lens of the sort you’d want to use for capturing significant portions of indoor spaces, is pointed upward. In statehouses, whose ceilings are often high and airy, a tilt-shift lens is essential to getting the vertical and horizontal lines of certain features as flush with the frame as they can be.
Lisak says the statehouse endeavor has been “way more fascinating than I would have thought,” mentioning as an example “the way these buildings contain a lot of historical tensions between civic hopes and civic realities.” He says he and Ottenstein, who’ve split up the states, have shot “42 or 43” of the 50, and if they can find a writer or writers to help tell all those fascinating stories—plus a publisher—they’re going to turn it into a book.
That would be a natural step to take for Lisak, because, for his personal artistic work at least, a photograph “doesn’t exist until it’s printed. The actual object matters to me.” Beyond the visceral appeal, he likes this approach for the “wonderful” constraint it imposes when choosing which shots to take through the editing process and beyond, which can be very time-consuming. “The expense and effort to print forces you to look at your photo and go, ‘Is this worth it?’ And not all of them are.” On the other hand, his commercial work—his client list is heavy on banks, universities and medical facilities, from J.P. Morgan to the University of Hartford to Yale-New Haven Hospital—is “all geared towards the final output and what people need.”
Lately, what people need has been mostly digital, but on his own time he shoots plenty of art-driven stuff, which explains why his studio is brimming with prints, in both color and black and white. Some are framed, leaning against the wall. Some are free-walling it, held only by tiny clips at the corners. Many more are stacked sideways inside some racks. Others are piled inside long, wide, short boxes, hidden away.
Out of one of them he pulls a trove of shots of local interest: selections from a series he’s been taking of the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade, now spanning decades (and also spanning his, and the wider photography community’s, transition from film to digital). He says he and his family used to live on Winthrop Avenue, near the usual muster spot, which is how he figured out that the best place to take shots of paraders is the spot where they aren’t parading at all. The resulting pictures often feel insidery and behind the scenes, as in a shot depicting people in frilly marching band uniforms shooting the breeze, waiting for their turn to form up.
He describes the once-a-year muster as a sort of dream environment for a photographer. “I love the wild mix of people and shapes, and there’s no real inhibition about being in [there] and photographing. You have a real freedom without intruding on people’s space because it’s a big public event.”
At least one shot from his 2016 parade shoot is a bonafide Kodak moment, with several older people fanned out and a little girl in the middle. Every last face has a distinct but clean expression—nobody’s blinking or shifting their eyes, and nobody’s halfway through speaking or gesturing. The little girl has a barrette with a bow holding her hair back, a polka dot scarf swooshed around her neck and feet crossed in that way that children do, with a far-off look in her eyes. It’s a candid that couldn’t have been staged better.
Thinking back to before he was working as an established photographer—and before he was cutting his teeth as an assistant or, before that, getting his MFA at Yale—Lisak recalls being an undergrad English major at Harvard where, as a first-semester senior, he took a chance photography class. But it wasn’t until a session on the photography of André Kertész, the seminal photographer remembered for his vivid sense of perspective, that Lisak’s love for the art form was sparked. “It was work that was as interesting and as moving as any lyric poetry,” he says. “It was like a lightbulb going on.”
Or maybe a flashbulb.
1, 4. Robert Lisak in his studio.
2. Fellow photographer and collaborator David Ottenstein.
3. 2016 Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Written by Dan Mims. Photos 1 and 4 by Dan Mims; photos 2 and 3 by Robert Lisak. To see more photos, click here.