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Video: He takes pictures while falling

TODAY contributor
updated 4/21/2009 11:34:20 AM ET 2009-04-21T15:34:20

Go ahead and call him a fall guy, because that’s how photographer Kerry Skarbakka makes his extraordinary, critically acclaimed — and sometimes controversial — images.

Skarbakka falls — all the time. He falls from buildings and stepladders, from bicycles and railroad trestles, from trees and cliffs. He falls in the shower, down the stairs, in his living room — anywhere that is possible to take a tumble.

And while he falls — sometimes headfirst and seemingly straight into the camera lens — his girlfriend takes pictures. The images, which have been exhibited widely and have won numerous awards, have made Skarbakka a celebrity and a pioneer in the art world.

Faux falls
But fear not, the photographer told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Tuesday in New York; while he has suffered for his art, he’s not a man with a death wish. In almost all of the pictures, he is hooked up to harnesses and ropes that are either concealed from the camera or removed afterward with the aid of Photoshop. His contorted positions are poses.

The 38-year-old got the idea to show life as an act of falling from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, who “described human existence as a process of perpetual falling.”

“I have a background in rock climbing, martial arts and even acting,” Skarbakka told Lauer. “And I thought, ‘How can I pull together these threads of something I enjoy doing and make some interesting artwork out of it?’ ”

Putting himself in his art and adding the dynamic tension of a man caught in midfall was a creative leap. “I kind of consider myself an artist first, but I consider myself a performance-based photographer,” he said. “I use my body to describe these tensions and anxieties I’m trying to create, and then I use photography to disseminate my images, my ideas.”

Suffering for his art
Skarbakka said almost all the images are taken on location and require 10 to 15 takes to get right. “I use ropes, rigging, anything that I can use to keep me from hitting the ground, and the camera is placed so that whatever I do land on is obscured by the camera,” he explained.

Even with the harness, some of the shoots are daunting, such as a photo of him seemingly launching himself off a rickety, abandoned railroad trestle some 500 or more feet off the ground.

He’s dislocated a shoulder, broken some ribs, and suffered sprained ankles and various bumps and bruises. But, Skarbakka said, his worst injuries usually occur when he re-creates a shot for a live audience, and not on a shoot. For example, he broke his ribs while showing people how he made a picture of himself falling off a ladder.

Lauer asked: Why not hire somebody else to take the leap while he tends to his cameras?

“You used the word ‘hire,’ ” Skarbakka laughed. “I’m an artist and let me tell you, it takes some money. I love doing what I’m doing. People have offered to be my model for me, but this allows me to go all over the world and do things that I like to do … and find ways to make images out of them.”

Image: Kerry Skarbakka
“Performance photographer” Kerry Skarbakka said his images of himself falling may be metaphors for situations in real life.
Skarbakka composes the shots and sets the lighting, then turns the job of releasing the shutter to an assistant.

“My lovely and amazingly patient girlfriend, she’s often the person behind the camera for me,” he said. “I’ve had other people to do it, but she’s gotten really good at helping me out, and she’s a lot cheaper than hiring somebody.”

Lauer asked why the images seem to connect so deeply with people.

“I don’t think it’s because it puts us in an uncomfortable position; I think it’s because it helps us relate to the uncomfortable positions we’re already in,” Skarbakka replied. “Right now, we’re in a huge recession, there’s a war going on. There’s a lot of reasons why we can feel out of control, out of balance, and that’s pretty much why I think people are relating to it.”

Unintended offense
But sometimes people relate in ways Skarbakka didn’t anticipate. In 2005, he was commissioned to demonstrate his techniques for a live audience at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. As part of the show, he suspended himself in midair as if he were falling down the front of the building. One image he made shows him apparently falling past a window as a worker talks on the telephone at her desk, oblivious to the flailing body behind her.

Slideshow: The art of falling One newspaper story written about the event caught the attention of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then-Gov. George Pataki. The politicians said the photos awakened memories of people leaping to their deaths out of the World Trade Center in the tragic aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Skarbakka said he also got angry messages from the families of some of the victims.

Skarbakka said that his intention was never to allude to Sept. 11, but rather to show the public how he creates his images.

“I regret that people’s feelings were unearthed four years later. That was never my intention,” he told Lauer, adding that it was “not a regret of making the work. I love what I do. I just regret maybe not being so savvy in discussing it with the media, and maybe that’s where I fell short.”

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