Vance Gellert

I recently had the great pleasure to co-juror the Portrait Contest hosted by the Santa Fe Workshops.  Over the next several days, I will be featuring the work by several of the winners.  Almost a thousand photographers submitted closed to 4,000 images and the decision process was a tough one.  So many stellar photographs, so I am thrilled to featured these stand-out portraits.
Vance Gellert’s Second Prize Winning Image
Nina and Misha, Russian Performance Artists

Vance  received his MFA in photography from
Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been widely exhibited and published and has received numerous grants for
his work including one from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was
co-founder and executive director of pARTs Photographic Arts in Minneapolis where
he also curated exhibitions for 13 years. He joined IFP Center for Media Arts
as photography curator in 2008.

Vance has a natural ability as a portrait photographer, as evidenced in the series below, Real: Artists and Landscapes.  I am also featuring a sampling from his series, Smoke and Mirrors, about ritual and ceremony in health care in third world countries and western clinical practice.

REAL: Artists and Landscapes
Sometime in 1998, I was turned down for a travel grant request to curate a project of photography from Cuba. When I inquired as to what I could have added to make the request fundable, they said samples of my artwork, which was confusing since this was a request to find other people’s artwork. Heeding that advice, I went to Cuba on my own dime to find artists and brought my trusty Hasselblad. I photographed the photographers I interviewed in their studios as well as the environs in and around Havana.

There’s something about visiting visual artists in their studios. It not only yields compelling imagery, I find it creatively inspirational. After leaving the gallery in 2003, I set off on another project to find self-taught artists around Minnesota for interviews and portraits in their studios. The portraits were complemented with images of their environment that were taken on the way to or from the artist’s studio. These were paired with their portraits and a sample of their artwork in the exhibition REAL: Artists and Landscapes.

Images from Smoke and Mirrors

From the NY Times: When Vance Gellert studied pharmacology
in the early ’70s, he found that a scientific method of systematic observation,
precise measurement and disciplined testing could explain the efficacy of most
treatments. For that matter, it was a satisfying way of explaining much of the
world around him.

Mr. Gellert had always wanted to study the
role of shamanic ritual in enhancing the application of traditional plant
medicines. In 2005, as he approached 60, he resolved to combine his academic
and photographic interests by studying and documenting shamans and other
healers in Peru and Bolivia. He spent 10 months of the next five years living
with healers, studying their rituals and undergoing treatment himself.
Mr. Gellert understood that just because
the spiritual world of the shamans didn’t conform to Western science didn’t
mean that the healing he witnessed wasn’t real. “Scientists generally approach
things quantitatively and statistically,” Mr. Gellert said, “but there are
thing that don’t lend themselves well to that kind of research and
In fact, he was aware of powerful forces at
work; forces he didn’t know how to explain. Photos, it turned out, often served
better than scientific prose to describe what he witnessed — or experienced.

“Since it was invented, photography has
served science as a recorder of facts,” Mr. Gellert said, “but photography also
has subtleties and nuance that can communicate on a different level. When you
start looking at things that are not quantifiable, photography might be an
excellent tool.”

It is difficult to capture spiritual
experience in a photograph. Yet Mr. Gellert’s portraits often suggest powers
lurking just beyond what the eye can see.

The shamans let him into their lives and
encouraged him to photograph their treatments. They had confidence in their
practice and had no qualms about sharing it with a medical colleague, even one
who might occasionally have seemed slow to fully grasp what they were doing.

Though he started his quest
to learn about the relation between ritual and medicine, he came to see
ceremony and ritual as an integral part of healing. “The medicines are the
tool, but it is the process of interaction between healer and patient that is
most important,” Mr. Gellert said.