Columbia University School of the Arts Visual Arts Professor Thomas Roma's collaboration with Miller Theatre--in which his photographs of the seven composers featured in Miller's Composer Portraits series are on exhibit--was featured in the Columbia Spectator on November 10:
"Professor's photos harmonize with Miller Theatre performances"
By Noor Brara
Professor and photographer Thomas Roma, for the most part, does not accept private assignments. So, he surprised many people when he agreed to work with School of the Arts Dean Carol Becker and Dean of Academic Administration Jana Wright to combine the fine arts of SoA with the music of Miller Theatre.
The result of this collaboration is Composer Portraits, a series combining an exhibition of Roma’s photography and performances by seven contemporary composers—the series began in October and continues through March 2011.
Roma’s exhibit includes two black and white photographs of each of the composers. “Given that I knew I couldn’t be in the context of anyone’s life, I tried to take everyone out of context,” Roma said, when reflecting on his idea behind the photographs. “I took people out of their apartments for instance, to put them in a place where they didn’t have anything familiar to lean on, to, let’s face it, make them feel less comfortable—but, I mean, in the best way. They’re not supposed to be comfortable.”
In this way, Roma’s process reveals the vulnerabilities of each artist and exposes them with unusual settings and poses. There is a sense of authenticity, especially since these composers are so used to being photographed for head shots and other professional projects.
Staying true to his instincts throughout the entire process, Roma befriended many of the composers. He described his encounter with Mario Davidovsky, the composer with whom he spent the most time: “I would have moved in with him. I spent the longest with him, and the shortest time photographing,” he said. “It was like finding a long lost friend.”
Another experience Roma recalled, laughing, was photographing composer Chaya Czernowin’s feet. “I mean, bare feet!” he said. “I tried to suggest what people were about beyond their understanding of what they’re projecting, by the clothes they wear and the expressions they have on their face.”
Roma was even able to draw highly acclaimed composer and conductor Pierre Boulez out of his shell by discussing a mutual friend. “I had heard from my graduate student’s sister that there were all these handles—levels—to get to him,” Roma said. “Well, we finally got to him and they said, ‘Okay, he’ll give you 10 minutes.’ We left 45 minutes later.”
Roma’s experiences photographing for the Composer Portraits series reveal how much he values cooperation between parties on both sides of the camera lens. “But who knows—all that [collaboration] might just be a bunch of baloney,” he said, smiling. Roma spoke frankly about the one thing he consciously attempts to achieve in his work: “I’m just trying to make a good picture.”