Photographer Profile - Lynn Savarese: "Photography was biggest gift I ever got in my life"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday November 15, 2016

Lynn Savarese  is a relative newcomer to photography, and yet she’s done so much with it in a short time. “I got interested in photography only four years ago, which is hard to believe because it’s taken over my whole life,” she says.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and former corporate lawyer and investment banker, Savarese took up photography because, as she puts it, “I was the kind of person who would buy expensive cameras and put them on automatic. I would go all over the world on vacations, to India and Africa, I’d climb Kilimanjaro, and come back with mediocre pictures. I finally decided I didn’t deserve nice cameras if I didn’t know how to use them properly.”

She learned, starting with a class at the 92nd Street Y in New York. And she kept digging deeper and deeper.

After leaving the corporate world to raise a family, Savarese began an unofficial career working as a volunteer for civic organizations and non-profit aid groups, as both a lawyer and, more recently, as a photographer. In 2013, a friend told her that the American Museum of Natural History in New York was looking for volunteer photographers to help document the contents of cases filled with artifacts, including, as Savarese found out, dead birds.

“They were taxidermy specimens that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades,” Savarese says. “They were just crammed in, with no identification, no sense of provenance. There were wings broken, heads askew, and stuffing coming out. Many were put away because the taxidermist didn’t think they were good enough to display.”

She found them remarkably touching. 

 “It was complicated for me emotionally,” she says. “On one hand, I thought, ‘These birds were killed in their prime to be preserved forever, but then they were left in this cabinet to rot and fall apart and die a second death — a pointless one.’ But on the other hand I had never experienced such intimate contact with nature.”

After documenting the specimens for the museum, Savarese began shooting another set of images that, she says, “honored the birds and paid tribute to them.” Swept up in the work, she went in search of David James Schwendeman, the last full-time taxidermist employed by the museum. He’d retired in the early 1980s, and Savarese found him running his own taxidermy business with his son in Milltown, New Jersey. She spent six months visiting their shop and photographing birds they had preserved.

Elemental Attractions

The result were several separate photo series. One, titled “Second Life,” consists of straight-on portraits of birds looking vibrantly full of life. Another, called “Second Death,” shows specimens that suffered damage over the years. A third series featuring birds facing away from Savarese’s camera, called “Plumigeri,” was selected as a finalist in the 2016 Magnum Photography Awards competition.

In that series, Savarese includes the pins and strings used by taxidermists to pose and preserve the birds. She also gave the birds fanciful scientific names. “I have no interest in the real names, which in any event are as arbitrary as my own,” she says. “I wanted to view each bird as a unique creature by giving it a unique name.”

Her series on birds are just part of Savarese’s photographic output, which encompasses portraits, fashion, still-life and travel work.  The avid amateur has been transformed into obsessive artist, which is a thing that happens.

“Photography was biggest gift I ever got in my life,” she says. “It made me see the world I’d been passing by.” 

Water is her great photographic interest. She’s photographed water fountains and waterfalls, raindrops, swimming pools and car washes. In one series, “Aquatic Galaxies,” she photographed bodies of water resembling the cosmos. In early 2015 she was visiting Buenos Aires and took the opportunity to spend three days photographing Iguazu Falls on the Argentine-Brazil border, the largest waterfall system in the world. The work was later selected as a winner in the Latin American Fotografia competition.

The challenge, she says, was “to get past the postcard images and tourist shots to capture something more elemental.” Water, says Savarese, is a “visceral craving providing reassurance and drama.”

“A joy for me when working with Lynn through a project is the absolute passion she brings to those moments,” says master printer and International Center of Photography faculty member Chuck Kelton. “Once she is in touch with the visual language she is attempting to execute, she is consumed by it. She pushes the imagery till it is exhausted and every aspect is covered. Then she distills these works down to the essential elements which convey a narrative with the most pictorial and emotionally visual strength. She’s relentless."

Fighting Human Trafficking

Another portrait project grew out of volunteer legal work Savarese did for the Sanctuary for Families, the largest provider of services to victims of domestic violence in New York. Through an associate there she was introduced to the work of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, a group that combats human trafficking. She eventually gave up her legal work but plunged into a new project. 

In 2013, Savarese helped launch New York’s New Abolitionists campaign, an effort to raise awareness of human trafficking. It has since grown nationally into what is now known as  the New Abolitionists  campaign. She was recruited to shoot portraits of artists, entertainers, sports figures, lawmakers and other prominent people supporting the work of anti-trafficking groups, along with photos of survivors of modern slavery. The images have been shown at the International Center of Photography and the Photoville photography festival, as well as in public spaces in New York.

Her photographs were also presented to members of  the New York State Assembly to help persuade them to adopt the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, a law that stiffened penalties for human trafficking.

“That work has been taking up most of my time recently,” says Savarese, who has traveled to cities across the country — from Boston and Washington, D.C. to San Diego and Los Angeles — meeting and photographing some 60 survivors of human trafficking. In October, Savarese was honored for her work at a gala organized by the Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women.

“One day I would like to curate a selection of just the survivor photos,” she says. “I think that would be incredibly powerful.”