Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Conversation Portraits


Flash Rosenberg, the New York Public Library’s artist-in-residence, characterizes herself as the kind of social commentator who couldn’t have been possible before the Internet. Before, illustrations could take days, if not weeks, to render. Today, the real-time Web is spawning a demand for real-time illustration; Rosenberg draws what other people talk about—while they're talking.

Rosenberg's drawings “give visual, unifying fluency to conversations” that are otherwise, she says, "too complex and fragmented in today’s digital and visual world to be universally understood.” Social media, she says, are influencing the nature and pace of conversations. "When we talk and when we don’t talk, when we understand what somebody else is saying and when we don’t —these kinds of disconnects are all so more common now," she says.

It helps that Rosenberg has a sense of humor: humor, she says, is itself an abstraction—a type of shorthand for making a point, and nobody is immune—not even herself—from her use of it as a descriptor. “I come from a long line of the funny-guy-at-work and I’m the one who forgot to get work,” she quips.

Rosenberg began her career as a photographer and performance artist/professional storyteller by working as an editorial cartoonist in Delaware. She legally changed her first name from Susan to Flash after winning an award for best costume at a society Halloween ball she was hired to photograph in Philadelphia, early in her career. “I was asked to wear a costume so I thought it appropriate to go as a censored photograph,” says Rosenberg, who was teaching photography at Temple University at the time. “I put duct tape on my privates. There were incredible people wearing incredible costumes, but when it was time to announce the winner, the jurors announced that the photographer—me—was the winner. When somebody in the crowd asked for my name, I hesitated and somebody else yelled out, ‘Her name is Flash.’” It stuck.

Rosenberg is the first to acknowledge that her art can sometimes be awkward, depending on the subject matter. “The horrors of war are not comfortably translated into instant live drawings,” she said following a stint of live-portraiture that accompanied an April 24th panel at the New York Public Library on the turmoil in the Middle East. “It’s not because I couldn’t think of what to draw,” she explains, “but because line art automatically tends to simplify concepts to the optical equivalent of a cartoon. It was awkward but a mighty fine experiment.”

One of Rosenberg’s most popular conversation portraits accompanies a NYPL reading by actor John Lithgow of Chapter Two of Who Is Mark Twain? one of Mark Twain’s never-before published works. Another example is a conversation portrait she made of a panel talk moderated by PBS host Charlie Rose, about the slumping economy.

Marcia Stepanek

(This piece first appeared on PopTech and is being reposted here with permission)

Image: Flash Rosenberg for the New York Public Library

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