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Duane Cramer: Picture This
by Andrew Davis
2006-07-01

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PIctured Darryl Stephens of Noah's Arc on Logo TV. Gregory Keith by Duane Cramer. Photos by Duane Cramer, on exhibit in July month in Chicago. Photographer Duane Cramer, seated, as photographed by Sebastian Thaw.

Although he has been a professional photographer for just over a decade, Duane Cramer has captured an enviable list of celebrities. Among the notables he's photographed are activist Keith Boykin, current San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, model Helena Christensen, actor-singer Sheryl Lee Ralph, entertainer RuPaul and Cramer's good friend, singer Ari Gold.

Cramer has a traveling exhibition, simply called Elegant, that will hit Chicago July 13-16 at Hotel Allegro, 171 W. Randolph. ( The show will include black-and-white images of male and female nudes as well as architectural elements from around the world. ) Cramer—who says that he's desensitized to seeing beautiful naked bodies because he's photographed so many—recently talked with Windy City Times about his subjects, influential photographers and the meaning of art.

Windy City Times: Tell me a bit about Elegant.

Duane Cramer: Elegant is simple, classic and beautiful, but not in a traditional way. For example, one of the images is of a broken cross that's on top of a grave site in New Orleans. To me, it's beautiful, simple and elegant; others may see it as rustic. Other things are more classically elegant, such as a beautiful man or woman. To me, elegance can combine many elements, whether they're standard or non-traditional.

A lot of these images are of friends, celebrities, young people and older people. I actually photographed [ singer ] Freda Payne a few weeks ago and I'm including an image of her in the exhibition. We've put some sexy black-and-white photos together. It's definitely not an ageist exhibition; it covers a wide range of people of different ethnicities, sexual orientations and age groups.

WCT: It sounds like a nice cross-section of Americana.

DC: Yeah, yeah. It's Americana but it also has folks from around the world. For example, there's [ actress ] Maria Grazia Cucinotta ( from the movie Il Postino ) , who they call the new Sophia Loren and who is one of my favorite subjects. The show has a global [ feel ] .

WCT: Who are some of your other favorite subjects?

DC: I like Ari Gold. Mary Wilson ( from The Supremes ) was a kick. I love photographing my mother, who lives in Chicago; she reminds me of Freda, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. I like [ male model ] Henning, who's German. I also like [ Israeli actor-model ] Itay Atias, and my boyfriend, Tom, would kill me if I didn't name him! [ Laughs. ] I also want to add [ former San Francisco mayor ] Willie Brown; we spent an amazing day together. Plus, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention RuPaul; there's this one picture of him in this long, see-through, black lace dress.

WCT: Who would you like to photograph?

DC: I don't know why this person popped into my head, but I'd like to photograph Oprah. I photograph a lot of interesting living legends who are Black women. I'd like to photograph her in a simple, uncomplicated way, with black-and-white film.

Nelson Mandela would be another one. I almost had an opportunity last year, but I couldn't get to Africa in time. I'm generally interested in photographing interesting people who do great things for other people; I like humanitarians. I do a lot of celebrity work, but I'm more interested in photographing good people who do good things.

WCT: The timing of the exhibition with the Gay Games [ which will take place July 15-22 in Chicagoland ] is interesting.

DC: Actually, my friend and publicist Shaun [ Saunders ] strategically looked at cities and events to tie cultural and artistic events together. In addition to the Gay Games, there are other events happening, but it was definitely planned [ that way ] . We're in San Diego the same time as its Gay Pride, I believe.

WCT: Take me back to the very first photograph you remember taking.

DC: Hmmm ... that's really interesting. Wow. [ Pauses. ] My father bought me my first 35-millimeter camera when I was in high school. I think I probably photographed my mother. There were some scandalous pics involved.

WCT: What?

DC: She wasn't trying to be scandalous, but I quickly realized that what she was doing was kind of provocative. I ran after her and snapped her picture. [ Laughs. ]

WCT: That would be a lifetime of therapy for some people. What photographers have influenced you?

DC: I would definitely say Gordon Parks is a big influence, especially regarding the documenting of African-American life. Herb Ritts was influential; I loved his style. James VanDerZee was the first great American photographer of the 20th century; I admire him as well. I like simple, black-and-white photography.

There are also fashion photographers I like, such as Patrick Demarchelier and Peter Lindberg. Richard Avedon and Dwayne Michaels.

WCT: What about Annie Leibovitz? Her style is definitely unique.

DC: I like and appreciate her work. It's not too complicated, but there's sometimes a little more production. It's a signature of her work but it might take away from the subject.

I generally don't work with a lot of assistance; I like basic lighting and makeup. I want the session to be an intimate experience.

WCT: Here's a very basic question: What does art mean to you?

DC: [ Pauses. ] That's a good question. I think art is very important to me because [ artists ] are creating something that has the ability to really stimulate a wide array of emotions within a person. I think that art is a wonderful way to stimulate the mind and all the senses. Art has the ability to make a really big impression on people and has the capacity to change peoples' hearts and minds.

See www.duanecramer.com .


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