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Woman Around Town: Claire Holt—Capturing Faces

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These days with cell phones, anyone can take a photograph. Capturing a person’s personality, mood, and spirit in a photo takes an experienced eye. That talent is what lifts Claire Holt’s photographs into another category. Emma Thompson, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Kline, Steven Baldwin, Rob Morrow, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are just a few of the celebrities who have posed for her, revealing something of themselves in the process. “People are often in a rush and guarded,” said Holt. “I have to bring down that wall.”

Holt studied French literature as an undergraduate at Cornell and received a graduate degree at Columbia’s School of Journalism. In the beginning, she also wrote for publications, but soon gave up writing to work as a photographer for New York Newsday. She found photojournalism “reactive,” with no opportunity to engage in the creative process. She also found some of her assignments intrusive. “It’s difficult to photograph a family whose child has just been killed,” she said. Her last assignment was to photograph a nine year-old who had stabbed his friend. She was ready for a change.

Along the way she had the opportunity to learn from other photographers at Newsday who were doing portrait photographs for the newspaper. She began to pick up assignments for the Associated Press to photograph celebrities—authors, actors, dancers—who had projects to promote. Small newspapers that didn’t have a fulltime photographer in New York called her with jobs.

Newspaper work led to magazine jobs. “I took it up a notch to do magazine work, but it felt very natural to me,” she said. Word of mouth helped Holt land other assignments. Lewis Lapham, then editor of Harper’s magazine, requested Holt for his own photograph.“People like to use photographers who get a positive response,” she said. “I haven’t had to do a lot of marketing.”

The skills Holt honed as a writer serve her well, particularly when she is approaching a cautious subject. “I talk as much as possible beforehand,” she said. “And I try to listen, to see if they have worries about the shoot.” When she is taking photographs of children, Holt talks to them before she takes out her cameras so they aren’t intimidated.

Celebrities are often the most cooperative subjects. “Celebrities know exactly which minute angle to hold their face,” she said. Emma Thompson, one of Holt’s favorite subjects, felt her make-up job was “ghastly” and so washed it all off. Holt’s portrait of Thompson reveals the actress’ unadorned face that defines her persona, “strong, artistic, and intelligent.”

Holt continues to do portraits but lately has begun work on something more personal, photographs that “started out as everything that happened to me when I was young.” She admitted, “It’s a looser way than I have worked in a long time,” and believes the project may evolve into an exhibition or a book.

Like most professional photographers, Holt often returns from family vacations with many pictures of her husband, Paul Weber, and children, Audrey, 14, Jack, 11, and Kate, 7, and none of herself. To compensate, she said, laughing, once or twice a year she tries to do some self-portraits.

To see Holt’s photography, go to her website, www.claireholtphotography.com

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Shop: 192 Books, 192 Tenth Avenue at 21st Street
One of the few remaining independent book stores, 192 has a great collection of art books and literature.  It has a huge wall of windows so you can sit on the benches absorbing the light, perusing books, and from time to time, running into an author whose book you are holding.

Favorite Place to Eat: Joe’s Dairy, 156 Sullivan Street, near Prince Street
This is a tiny, family-owned (and operated) shop that sells homemade mozzarella and every other Italian cheese imaginable, stuffed peppers, olives, etc.  They also make simple, exquisitely fresh sandwiches.

Favorite New York Sight: Staten Island Ferry
A free boat ride is always a delight and I love watching Manhattan shrink and expand.

Favorite New York Moment: The sudden, unexpected encounter with talent— tap dancers transforming the subway platform into joyful theater.

What You Love About New York: The people.

What You Hate About New York City: Driving across 79th Street during morning rush hour.

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