2012-04-04 / Arts and Entertainment

Dmitri Kasterine Documents Our World

By Annie Chesnut

Top: Dmitri Kasterine’s intimate portrait of his wife, Caroline, and their son, Nicholas. Bottom: Kasterine in his Garrison studio. Top: Dmitri Kasterine’s intimate portrait of his wife, Caroline, and their son, Nicholas. Bottom: Kasterine in his Garrison studio. Dmitri Kasterine’s photographic portrait portfolio is a virtual Who’s Who of 20th and 21st-century musical, literary, and artistic icons.

In a career that began in England and spread westward to the United States, the photographer, who will turn 80 this summer, has worked steadily from decade to decade, while enthusiastically embracing fundamental technological changes to his medium.

Kasterine—the son of a Russian father and a British mother—lives with his wife Caroline and their dog Louie in a rented Garrison farmhouse. His office/studio is located in a bright but modest shed on the property. There he continues to fill requests for portraits of individuals and families, and although he has discontinued his strictly commercial work, he remains busy. Clearly the word “retirement” is not in his lexicon.

Photos: Top / Dmitri Kasterine, Bottom / Annie Chesnut Photos: Top / Dmitri Kasterine, Bottom / Annie Chesnut Taking pictures is doubtless what Dmitri was born to do. Raised in England, with a difficult childhood (he lost both of his parents before the age of 15), he “took to photography at the age of eleven,” photographing birds through a kitchen window at the garden table that served as his mother’s bird feeder.

In the room that he had converted to a darkroom, however, he discovered one of the challenges of seeing the world through the lens of a camera: what you think you are “seeing” is not always what the lens is recording. “I could hardly see the birds…so what I did was to photograph cows…they’re much bigger and you can get near them. They were rather a success.”

From there he took to photographing his sister “who was a very unwilling model, and some of my friends, as well.” Although his vast portfolio includes stunning landscapes and environmental photos, his stock in trade is portraiture.

Kasterine worked in wine sales and motor racing, and was a pilot for a time, but always had his photography. He “worked a good deal for magazines in London” and was ultimately sent to Los Angeles to photograph rocker Mick Jagger, which essentially launched his international career. “Mind you, I was in love with America,” he said, “but it was Fred Astaire’s America.” Jagger kept him waiting at the hotel for a long while, as it turns out, and “finally he came whooping down the corridor,” with “a proper Californian debutante” in tow, but Kasterine managed to get the shot he needed.

In New York, Kasterine broke into the then-highly lucrative corporate photography “racket,” as he called it, traveling around the United States making images for annual reports and other glitzy corporate publications. “I loved every minute of it,” he recalled.

Taking a loft in Tribeca, Kasterine worked steadily, including for the iconic Interview magazine. “I went out to dinner a lot,” he said, laughing.

In 1991 Dmitri and Caroline, whom he met in a Manhattan framing shop, “took the plunge” and moved to Garrison.

“I haven’t done any editorial work for…maybe ten years,” he said, but still sells archival work to magazines, and his photographs are in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian, and other renowned collections.

Many dyed-in-the-wool film photographers looked askance at the advent of digital imaging and the gradual disappearance of negatives, darkrooms, and the techniques accompanying them—exemplified by classical practitioners like Ansel Adams or Alfred Stieglitz. But not Kasterine. He welcomed the digitization of modern art photography with open arms, and maintains that what he can do on a computer to “manage” a photo is not that different from what he used to be able to do in a darkroom.

“I loved it. I embraced it,” Kasterine said of the transition to digital that happened in earnest in the 1990s. Having worked in the square-frame, “two-and-a-quarter” format with film, he misses the shape of his early images, but says that in all other ways, “the modern Nikon is a work of genius.”

“I love making prints,” he said. “But I don’t know anything that I couldn’t do better in Photoshop than I could do in a darkroom…alter the depth of the print, alter the contrast.”

He is careful to take breaks from the computer—to play the piano or garden or move about—so he won’t get “hypnotized” by the screen. He has taught darkroom technique at Vassar but hasn’t done so for the last couple of years, he noted. Patting his massive Epson photo printer, Kasterine said, “I have a feeling that these machines…do a better job.”

For the past couple of decades Kasterine has spent time photographing the residents of Newburgh, across the Hudson. He found that the people there, whose lives have been difficult because of poverty and urban decay, had beautiful faces, and fascinating stories to tell. He described his subjects as “overlooked, poor black people who had never been given a chance,” along with what he calls “the ‘naughty boys’ [drug dealers and the like] who are everywhere”

The Newburgh project is a labor of love for Kasterine “in all ways.” “It became more and more interesting.” The original “draw” was a photographic one, he said, but eventually grew to include helping the community by erecting an exhibit of 36 large-scale weather-resistant mounted portraits along one outside wall of the Ritz Theatre as part of a downtown art rehabilitation project.

The Kasterines are raising money via the fundraising website kickstarter.com, and there is only about a week left for contributions to be made. Details on the project are available online, and Kasterine’s book, Newburgh, NY: Portrait of a City will be published by W.W. Norton in September.

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