Jeffrey Sklan’s passion for photography began young
Written by Dani Dodge
Although an attorney by trade, including criminal defense, Jeffrey Sklan’s passion in photography began early — by stealing a camera.
“It was my dad’s Rolleiflex and he had taken it with him to World War II,” Sklan said. “I would steal it from time to time and take it out and shoot.”
His petty larceny was rewarded at age 11 by what he calls an “Ah-hah moment.” It was September 1965 and Hurricane Betsy was headed to Sklan’s home state of Florida.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Sklan said. “I sneaked out of the house with my dad’s camera. The citrus trees had been full before the hurricane hit, but, imagine a puddle as far as you can see over everyone’s lawns and everything else, and each puddle was covered in oranges.”
He snapped the shot. The striking image was a revelation to him. Sure, his mom was mad, but for Sklan, it began a lifelong pursuit of telling stories through photography.
As he grew up, though, he studied law rather than professional photography out of practicality and a desire to pursue social justice. But he never stopped photographing. He didn’t show the work. He tried to keep his photography and law careers separate because he was deeply devoted to both.
Then, in 2014, he had a show at Icon. The gallery faces Wilshire and his law colleagues saw it.
“The worlds collided,” Sklan said. And, realizing the people he worked with actually supported his photography, he began to shoot and show freely.
One of his projects, The Brush Off, focuses on photographing painters. The project will be the subject of his next exhibition at Photo LA 2020, and a book.
The Brush Off grew out of desire to get behind the paint
On the set of The Brush Off, the atmosphere is electric. Music blasts. Hard and soft lights flash. At least one assistant is always bustling around the room. There’s often also a makeup artist. And, at a few recent shoots, a documentary videographer capturing the scenes. And then, there are the artists: Some chatty with nervousness or quiet with anxiousness, some hungry for the light and lusting for the lens, some hung over and casual.
Sklan is the eye of the storm. Clicking. Motioning. Nodding.
And the whirlwind around him is sucked into the warmth of his welcome and the alchemy of his vision.
Sklan’s journey to this moment started with documenting street art, creating books from them, and realizing he wanted to do get behind the paint to the painters.
“I wanted to get these painters out of context and I wanted to memorialize them,” he said. “Picturing people with their art has been done a million times.”
Jason Ostro, the director and curator of Gabba Gallery in Los Angeles recalls when Sklan, who had a solo show at the gallery in 2017, first came up with the concept for The Brush Off. Ostro helped Sklan book the first few batches of artists who were then shot at Gabba Gallery.
“I find Jeffrey to be a very talented photographer who finds deep soulful meaning in all of his subjects,”Ostro said. “He has skill to get what he wants while making his subjects feel comfortable.”
Sklan’s images of the artists show the lines of tragedy. He often accentuates the scars. But he also captures the power, the dignity, and the joy.
“I want to capture the essence of each person, but I don’t put any sugar on it,” Sklan said. “I’m doing it with a light touch and kindness.”
When it comes to suggesting props or poses for the artists, he works off instinct instead of calculated lighting angles and wardrobe swaps. When images of one artist weren’t as powerful as he wanted, he put a red robe over the man’s shoulders. Suddenly, the images went from looking like a magazine advertisement to a man deeply alone in a constantly churning creative mind.
“I take it as a given that no one likes the way they look,” Sklan said. So if you know it going in and it’s a given. We are here to support them. And to take a 1/125th of a second on a Saturday afternoon and capture something cool.”
Each artist picks their own music from Sklan’s extensive collection: opera, jazz, pop, rap, rock. Early on in “The Brush Off,” the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” completely transformed a session. Now, Sklan doesn’t do a day of shooting without Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger screaming “Just a shot away, Just a shot away!”
Sklan wants each artist to have fun, and more.
“I want these artist to have the opportunity to participate in a project that is more than an Instagram post, but that they were part of something bigger,” he said. “And where there were no other distractions. The whole basis of this was to document something that I loved and valued.”
Building community one photo at a time
Cris Saur heard about the project when she was at the opening of Sklan’s solo show Elegy at Kopeikin gallery in June. The founder of Anis Films, she suggested she would like to do a documentary on the process.
“When someone has that much passion for something, it makes me feel passionate about it as well,” she explained.
When she witnessed the shoots, though, she realized how much more there was to Sklan’s project. She watched people come into the studio a bit uncomfortable about being photographed and leaving with pride in themselves and their art, and a new sense of community. She called it “magical.”
“The sense of community that he was able to create was the most remarkable thing,” she said. “For the most part the subjects were all strangers, but they started to talk and show each other their art, and out of those sessions, very incredible friendships began.”
On the other hand, Elegy, one of Sklan’s other projects, began as community was torn apart.
Elegy began with tragedy and serendipity on a Sunday at 2 a.m.
In 2016, Sklan was reviewing proof prints of his work featuring flowers with Bonny Taylor-Ndiaye, who ran the fine art department at Icon before moving to Film Solutions in Burbank. She asked, “How come you bring in no images of lilies?”
“Never,” he said. “Imogen Cunningham’s were perfect and can never be surpassed.”
The following Saturday he was at the downtown Los Angeles Flower Mart buying purple tulips for a commercial shoot. He spotted a lonely bucket of black flowers. He asked the seller what they were. They were lilies. He walked away, but then turned back. The seller wrapped one for him in Korean newspaper. He got home, deposited the lily in a vase in his kitchen, and forgot about them as he spent the day shooting the purple tulips.
At 2 a.m., his wife, Elyse woke with a bad feeling. They turned on the television to see news of the shooting at the nightclub in Orlando, Florida. After watching the news for a while, he went to the kitchen, took a black lily from its vase and began shooting.
A Lily for Orlando was created. He thought it would be a one-off.
“But then, on Bastille Day there was another shooting in Nice, France.” he said. “And it kept going.”
To get his flowers he gets up very early in the morning
The mornings Sklan sources flowers for the shoots, he arrives in the dark, while the homeless are still asleep on the streets. He takes the same parking spot almost every time. Then walks into the market teeming with life and bustling wedding planners, and redolent with the fragrance of tuberoses, stargazers, and stephanotis.
Typically, he finds the lilies at the stalls of local sellers, but he never saw the man who sold him that first black lily.
Twice, he’s had personal connections to people killed in these events. But, he’s not anti-gun. He owns guns, and once has shot over the head of a person trying to steal his car.
When he had all the shots he needed for his booth at Photo LA 2019, he said he was done with the project. But then there were shootings nearby in Poway and Thousand Oaks. When he finally hung Elegy for the first time at Photo LA, he had too many images for the booth. He couldn’t show them all.
Again, he thought he had completed the series before his solo show at Kopeiken in June, but then Nipsy Hussle was shot. He was at the flower market again.
Sklan created an image for Hussle that was Los Angeles centric, from the pose of the flower, to the background.
He can’t say for sure anymore that he’s done with the series. He would love to do another flower to honor the people lost at the Gilroy Garlic Festival and other places of deadly violence, but he says, “The show stands on it own. And it honors those who have been taken from us. It’s a visual poem. “
He hopes it can travel to places where shootings have occurred to give solace to those who have lost loved ones and create understanding in the community.
“When the show opened up at Photo LA, I immediately I realized that I underestimated everything,” Sklan said. “The first image that sold was to a woman who had a daughter injured in the Las Vegas shooting. Her daughter had severe PTSD. She bought the image to help heal her daughter. I would like to have the show put in front of young people who at times glorify violence.”
His subjects continue, but Sklan will move on
People will not stop killing. Painters will not stop creating. And Sklan will not stop shooting.
“I’m going to be 66 and I’m just now getting warmed up,” he said.
He’s already making test shots for his next project, which fuses two of his biggest loves that both relate to time: music and photographic portraiture.
Lines of Sight
Group show featuring Jeffrey Sklan
Curated by B. Taylor-Ndaiye
in The Secret Garden of Dr. Kappeler
2025/2027 Highland Ave.
Los Angeles CA 90068
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, October 27, 2019
Please RSVP: Rsvp@loscollective.com