Rafael Vasquez: Being in the Creative Moment

Introduction by Gail Anderson Graphic Designer & Professor, School of Visual Arts

Louise Fili told me about this interesting photographer (and SVA alum) who was documenting designers and illustrators. She said he sort of waved light around in darkness and created magical images. One thing led to another, and Rafael drove upstate to photograph me (I was like, “Seriously? You’re going to make the two-hour drive for ME?”). I totally fell for Rafael Vasquez. He was so earnest and sweet and just quirky enough to pique my curiosity. Rafael ended up photographing several design and illustration icons, driving from place to place to place to get the job done, just because. What a unique, gifted character, complete with all of the crazy stories you’d expect from a unique, gifted character. Rafael and his images are both magical.

What has inspired or motivated you in your career?

The desire to create and be the best. I didn’t wake up one day and decide this would be my career; I simply had a curiosity and need to create from a young age. You take that away, and it’s like taking away my air and sustenance. I won’t let that happen. I’m always looking, feeling, and exploring.

What is your work philosophy?

Like with many visual mediums, you can shine a light on different people, causes, or beliefs. Knowing that, I won’t work with anyone who threatens or insults our creative beliefs so that evil can benefit and come out ahead.

Who is or was your greatest mentor?

George Lois, hands down. We first met when I went to a lecture of his at the old Art Directors Club. Afterward, we started talking about African art, and the conversation was so engaging that he got a napkin, wrote down his number, and said, “Hey kid, call me up. Let’s continue this conversation.” That led to 16 years of great times shared, engaging conversations, and many laughs. George was unselfish with his advice, and he was a great inspiration and a great friend.

These days, I’m proud to say that on occasion, I go for coffee with Duane Michals, the photographer who’s blown me away since the age of 16.

What is it about photography you are most passionate about?

The speed and permanence with which photography allows me to express myself. Although we live in a Photoshop era, I limit myself to using the same tools in Photoshop that I would in wet photography. The camera can capture a moment quickly, yet it has no emotion. This creative tool captures what’s in front of the lens. Never veering towards one truth or another, the camera burdens the photographer with a responsibility of expression. Photography doesn’t take as long as oil painting, and while some people have the patience for that, I don’t. I had it once, but not anymore.

You mainly shoot portraiture. Why are you drawn to this type of photography?

I don’t look at it as portraiture; it’s more of a human landscape with a vast array of discoveries. Sure, there’s portraiture, but it’s not just a face; it’s what’s behind the eyes. What does their expression share with you? The sitter takes a chance to open themselves up to scrutiny. If done right, that person will live on in that portrait.

What is the most difficult challenge you’ve had to overcome to reach your current position?

Staying alive: literally fighting to stay alive and create another day. Losing some of my abilities to create and making do with what’s left to continue creating. The bottom line? Don’t die.

Who have some of your greatest past influences been?

Most of them will come out of what the School of Visual Arts exposed me to. That’s how I got exposed to George Lois and all the other greats and icons that are in my portfolio. Before my days at SVA, two names pop up: Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was familiar with them from the age of 12; they were a huge, huge influence.

Who among your contemporaries today do you most admire?

When you say contemporaries, are you expecting to hear people of my age or close to my age? I’ll tell you of people I know who are creating work now. There’s Duane Michaels, Jon Sarkin, Richard Serra, and Jenny Saville. There’s also a vast number of people in the design world, such as Norman Foster, Richard Meier, Dieter Rams, Laurie Lipton—the list goes on. The list has mostly older creatives, still creating but not going to be close to my age. Let’s not forget Steve Brodner, R.O. Blechman, and Anita Kunz—she works at a breakneck speed producing such high quality. Look at the people I’ve photographed. They inspire me.

What would be your dream assignment?

I don’t know. I don’t approach my work that way. I don’t say, “I dream of this…” I’ve been fortunate to get to know and rub elbows with some of my heroes in the art world, but I don’t look at my work that way. If I have a dream assignment and it comes true, then what comes after?

Who have been some of your favorite clients?

I couldn’t tell you. That’s putting things on a level of hierarchy. I could say I like that person more and that person less, but then I can photograph a person who was a total ass during the whole process and, in the end, produce an amazing photograph. So, I don’t go into it thinking with that level of favoritism. It just happens.

What are the top things you need from a client to do successful work for them?

Just be interested and have an open mind. The rest is on me. If it works, it’ll work because the person is understanding, open, and cooperative. If it fails, it’s because I showed up either mentally or emotionally unprepared to bring my best, and that ain’t going to happen anytime soon.

What is your greatest professional achievement so far?

I guess it’s what we’re doing right now. This should make people look at my work in a different light, and it might change my approach to my work—no, who are we kidding? It won’t change my approach to my work. Every portrait, and every portrait after that, is the greatest professional achievement. It’s always getting better, with nothing on a downward slope.

What about your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?

The process. Thinking about it, feeling it, and being in the moment of creativity. The dance takes place in front of the lens and at the very end, and the look of bewilderment in the eyes of the sitter as they wonder, “What are you exactly doing there?” I’ll explain, and 30 seconds in, they have no clue what the hell I’m doing. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a compliment in the form of, “Hey kid, you’re a crazy motherfucker!” or, more recently, “I’ve been photographed for 70 years and never seen what you are doing.” That makes me feel great.

What professional goals do you still have for yourself?

Hmm… Gallery representation, a show, and making some decent money. But these are all things I haven’t had up to this point—each would be nice to have, but if I don’t have them, it doesn’t mean I’ll stop what I’m doing. But yeah, that would be nice.

What part of your work do you find the most demanding?

All of it. A to Z. Beginning to end, it’ll always be demanding, and it’s up to me to push. Don’t accept it for what it is and think, “Oh, it could have been this, or it could have been that.” No. The work is demanding of my mind, soul, and body. I go into every portrait session with a very seamless approach to produce a great result. You reach a point where you do a great portrait, and then people want to see the next one. The next portrait is also great, as is the one that follows and the one that follows and the one that follows. Then you realize you’re not allowed any fuckups. The demand is that each portrait has to knock it out of the ballpark.

What do you value most in life?

Life itself. If you don’t value it, you’ve got nothing. If you don’t appreciate life, why the hell are you even taking a breath? Don’t take that breath for granted because somebody else will know what to do with it, take it, appreciate it, say thank you, and do something with it. They’ll create with it.

What advice do you have for students starting out today?

Just be honest with yourself; don’t show up with an agenda. Don’t have this certain idea like, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do. It’s all about this, this, and that.” No, it ain’t about you. It’s about that moment, that person, what that person is feeling, what they’re creating, and what they look to create. It’s about the discovery at that moment. So I guess I can offer them that as advice, but I also don’t know what students nowadays are facing socially, technologically, or what issues they want to promote or not, so it puts me at a distance from students.

What interests do you have outside of work?

Restoring and playing my bass guitars. Love. Travel. Yeah, that’ll be about it.

What would you change if you had to do it all over again?

Not a damn thing. Not one damn thing.

Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere. You have to be open to looking at things head-on, from above, from behind, from below, and through it. You have to learn to explore. Exploration plays a large role in locating inspiration—maybe the most important role.

In what ways do you see your field changing over the years?

Couldn’t tell ya. I never thought digital would be so big and film would be something nostalgic. How it changes would probably depend on the types of artists that are out there and the need for expression. But I guess that’s the thrill of it. That’s what makes it fun, transforming the darkness into light.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

Doing the same thing I’m doing now. Whether it’ll be with a camera or not, I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll be creating. I might lose interest in the camera. I might find that I’ve exhausted everything I have to say with a camera and move back to drawing with ink or pencil or go back to oil painting. I’ll always be creating, but whether it’s with a camera or not, who knows?

How do you balance your work with your personal life if there is a distinction between the two for you?

There’s not much of a distinction. The balance probably comes from the person I’m with, what they’re willing to put up with, and how much I’m willing to share with them.

How do you define success?

I’ll tell you when I get there.

What did you gain from your time at SVA?

First off, I was there for only two-and-a-half years, so I had a lot of maneuvering to do and quick. I wanted to take all of my electives in the graphic design department, but the photo chair told me flat-out, “No, it’s a lot of work to handle.” It was the worst thing he could have said to a street-smart kid from Brooklyn. Every week, I’d knock on the photo department’s chair door and say, “Hey, how you doin’? So about the graphic design classes I’m gonna take,” and he’d look at me like, “Is this guy crazy? I told him no.” Stubborn me, I knocked on his door every week that first semester.

Second semester, on the first day of classes: “Heyyyyyyy, how was your summer? So listen, about those graphic design classes…” He cut me off with a, “Get in here!” and he picked up the phone. He said, “Yes, listen, I’m sending a photo student over. He wants your classes. I don’t care, he’s your problem now.” Then he told me, “Get over to Richard Wilde’s office now!” and before I could thank him, he kicked me out of his office. Go figure.

This was the best thing I could’ve done. Not only was Richard also from Brooklyn, but he let me into the department. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t make it easy, but I was in. Little did I know that this stunt would expose me to many creatives and a whole new language of artistic expression that changed how I approached my own. After 40 years at SVA, I was fortunate to document Professor Wilde’s last semester there.

Rafael Vasquez is a native New Yorker. He picked up a camera as a teen and has been photographing ever since. To Rafael, photography and graphic design have been avenues of exploration for him. He likes to travel, taking trips overseas to Europe, Asia, and, recently, the Americas. One of Rafael’s most recent projects is “Quarantine Portraits” that was shot over ten months while in Peru. However, “The Giants of Design” has been the most satisfying series and could turn out to be the most in-depth.

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Author: Graphis