Please tell me a little bit about your background and how you became the Jake Shivery.
Geez. Usual story – starts up out East, ends up out West. This ain’t my first port town.
All right – it’s like this – my dog and I show up at your house at seven o’clock in the morning. Several minutes later, you’re standing in the backyard, probably freezing. You watch skeptically while I cuss and smoke and fumble around getting this giant wooden camera set up on its legs. My dog sniffs around your yard. You and I talk a little, I say things like “stay right here” and “stand like that”. You do because, mostly, as mentioned, you’re freezing and you want to go back inside. I lean in and warn you that if you sway a bit, you’re going to be out of focus, so the pressure’s on, right? Then there’s dark slides flying and the shutter clicks and then it’s over. Morning whiskey is always appreciated.
Then there’s dark slides flying and the shutter clicks and then it’s over. Morning whiskey is always appreciated.
Sometimes I go in with an idea in mind – most of the time it’s a bit looser. Most of the time it’s “Oh, you’re raising carrier pigeons? That’s interesting.” I generally don’t have much more of an idea than that, and most of the time I haven’t seen where we’ll be shooting, so it’s a bit of a leap, a little Hail Mary action. I get my subject somewhere, pray for Oregon light, and we work with what we have. Of course it’s formal, of course it’s posed – that’s the nature of large format – but I try to let go of the preconceptions once we’re on site and shooting.
Printing is harder. I’ve been working in the darkroom long enough to realize that I don’t know everything I need to know to be a really good darkroom printer. I’m also surrounded by people who are truly excellent darkroom printers, so I’m constantly humbled. Nonetheless, I stick with it, and every once in a while turn I out something nice. But it’s slow and it’s laborious. I’m certainly better than I was five years ago, never mind ten, and I stick with it because I want to be that much better twenty years from now.
What drives you to continue making portraits?
What drives my work in general are the people that I know. First of all, I hang around with people who constantly produce things of great beauty. I don’t want to be the guy that shows up at the bar with nothing to show. The people that I work with and the people that I hang out with, they’re very active and always turning out work. I’m motivated by wanting to keep up. Or at least trying to.
Secondly, I’m in the midst of a very long term self-assignment. The first part of this assignment is to keep shooting and printing in the same way so that I can eventually get really, really good at it. The second part is to create a body of work that shows the same people throughout several decades. I’ve got a core group of folks I hang around with, and I want, eventually, to be able to show photos of them when they’re thirty-five, forty-seven, fifty-two, sixty-eight, etc. How long will we all last? How long can I hold out? Well, as long as possible. It’s a planning horizon that ends when I die.
I chafe a little at the idea that I’m an “antiquarian” photographer. I use the Deardorff because I’m in love with it. Because it and I work in synthesis, and because it does a great job of intimidating my subjects into holding still. I’m after a look that I think of as “classic”, but I am not, specifically, trying to make photos that look like they’re from the past. Not “classic” as representing the past, but “classic” as representing the past, present and future. My friend David Lewis points out that in the future, any picture made on film will be marked as a twentieth century image. We came in on Brownies and we went out on the early digital cameras, so folks in the future will look at a film based photo and know that it was from the twentieth century. I’m doing my part to blow that curve.
You could make similar pictures with a much smaller film camera, but it’s not as fun for me. I like the big ground glass, I like focusing with both eyes, I like taking only a few frames per shoot. The large format approach forces me to move slowly, and my budget forces me to shoot cautiously. I pulled about one hundred frames of film last year. The whole year. There were many times I wished I could shoot more, but when you only load six frames for a sitting, well, it changes your work flow. It’s a lot of work. It’s the long way around the barn. If I was making “old-timey” portraits, I’d just download the app.
Download the app? I snicker at the thought of you doing that. Can you explain the benefits of contact printing versus enlarging and why you prefer it?
Simplicity. Or at least that’s what I thought when I started. Lay the neg down on the paper, hit the light for a second, and hey – it’s a print. The truth turns out to be more complicated – that is to say, printing via contact is a really just a different school of printing. I do interpret the images – I try to make them look better in the darkroom. This obviously requires manipulation – and while many aspects of it are the same as enlargement printing, it’s really kind of a whole new ballgame.
There’s a quality to contacting that I like, but it’s not ultimate sharpness and detail. You can print an 8×10 negative big – I mean really big – but I’m not. I’m leaving it 8×10 and hoping it stays dense and really nuanced.
When you think about your final product – the portrait printed and hanging on the wall – do you feel the photograph depicts who these people are, how you see them, or how they want to be seen?
Hmmm…. all of the above? I want you to like how you look in your portrait. The process is collaborative by nature. Sometimes we’re working from my ideas, sometimes it’s from yours, sometimes it’s a little of both. The goal is The Portrait, in the old-fashioned sense. You may not hang it over your own fireplace, but perhaps future generations of your family will hang it over theirs. I want to make heirlooms for people’s families. When I’m in the darkroom washing prints, I remind myself that I’m making pictures for people’s grandchildren, so I better make them to last.
I like the simple portraits very well – just a person standing still for a moment. But the ones with narrative seem to have more universal appeal, so I’ve been shooting more with that in mind. I’m trying to incorporate people’s interests and their tools and their living spaces. Yes, it’s all staged, but I try to keep it natural, too. It’s a weird split between incidental and posed. Here’s an example: the clown and the mermaid picture is of my friends Leif and Claudie. They were making a film and were dressed up for their parts. I didn’t make up that situation – that’s the way it was when I found it. I just asked them to “stand here” and “sit like this” and “look at the camera”. Otherwise, that was all them.
OK – time for the bromides. How about your pet peeves?
C’mon, Blue, I’m not answering that – I’m not a swimsuit model. I don’t look good in a swimsuit. I haven’t even owned a swimsuit since I was eleven years old.
Hmmm – how about photographers from whom I’m actively stealing? Leibovitz, Sander, Stieglitz, Lange, Karsh, Danny Lyon, Stu Levy.
Mr. John Powers. The only Irish I drink. Three swallows – says so right on the bottle. Otherwise, I stick with bourbons.
Well, clearly, from a job security point of view, I think it’s great. As a camera salesman, my main interest is in preserving that which we already know. There have been a lot of great techniques developed in the last century, and it galls me that we’re losing all of them because there’s something new around. I have developed a reputation because of this. Really, my main issue is the currently dominant idea that we have no choice – you shoot digital or you don’t shoot. If I’m overly outspoken about film, it’s just because so few people are sticking up for a hundred years worth of technology, and its importance, and its usefulness. The analogy I like to make is to music – we invented the synthesizer, but we didn’t stop being interested in pianos and guitars. Good lord, you can do all this on your video game system now, but if you’re really interested in being a musician, are you actually going to be satisfied with that? Same thing with cameras – film cameras and digital cameras are in no way mutually exclusive. More tools in the tool box makes for a better artist. More to the point, it makes artists out of more people.
No matter how fascinating the process, I still want an interesting picture.
Maybe that’s not what you meant. I like a lot of what I’m seeing out there, but really I’m all about content. No matter how fascinating the process, I still want an interesting picture. I go back and forth with this when I’m talking about the contact printing. I don’t want people to think about the process – I just want them to like the picture. I talk about the process because I’m geeking out on it. I love it, and if you’re interested enough to ask, then maybe you will, too.
Besides the sense of nostalgia, I sense sentiment in your portraits, probably due to your relationship with the subject. Do you ever shoot strangers?
I never shoot strangers – I’m too shy. It’s a whole different thing walking up to strangers and asking for portraits, and it scares me to death. I know several photographers who are good at it, and I have deep respect for them, but I can’t do it. I need to know you to get what I want.
I shot a stranger once – we were set up in the tulip fields for a workshop, and I was shooting portraits of the participants. This guy behind me taps me on the shoulder and says “I’m about to propose to my girlfriend, would you shoot our portrait?” and well, how do you say no to that? I love that I got them right there, right then, right after he got down on one knee in the mud. Hopefully, that will turn out to be an important portrait for them. But generally, no – I shoot people with whom I already have a relationship. I like to have coffee or beer and hang out in people’s backyards and wait for the light.
All right, so this is going to sound high falutin’, but what I’m after is beauty, and how I’m getting there is affection. Dostoyevsky said “Only beauty will save the world”, and I agree. I’m not after shock or awe, I’m after quiet photos that will serve as reminders. Nobody is ever going to look like this again. 8X10 contact printing may sound grandiose, but the process is ultimately incidental.
I shoot people that I admire – it’s a long list and I’ll never get to shoot all of them, but I’m working on it. Also, as we talked about, I like shooting the same bunch of people over and over again. When all is said and done, my body of work will be repetitive. On purpose. A big 8×10 flip-book of you getting gradually older. Changing your habits and passions and demeanor. That’s when it’ll get really interesting.
I grew up in Houston, Texas in a big family. From my earliest days I used to draw and dream up art projects. My parents are culture vultures, and were always taking us on trips, to art museums and cultural events. As for my love affair with photography, I have a clear memory of the image that stole my heart: I was 9 or 10, and took a photo with an instamatic of my friend Devorah blowing a gigantic bubble. When I got the print back, not only could I see the big pink bubble; I could see the through it to Devorah’s face. It was magic, and I was hooked. I went on to an arts high school where we got to take extra art classes instead of P.E. That’s where I learned how to develop and print film. I attended St. John’s College, a tiny liberal arts school in Santa Fe. They gave me a key to the make-shift darkroom, and I spent many happy hours in there. I ended up at the University of New Mexico for my MFA, studying with Beaumont Newhall, Betty Hahn, Tom Barrow, Max Kosloff, Nia Janis, and others.
Can you describe the process you used to create Obsolete and how you came to it.
In the summer of 2008, my boyfriend and I were in Italy. Walking down the streets of Florence, I started thinking about all of the people throughout the centuries who had walked down those same streets. They were long gone, but traces of their presence remained—a notch carved in a door post, a scrape on a wall. I wondered about all of those people I could never meet: who they might have been, and what their lives might have been like. So I started shooting signs of age and distress. Feeling that I wanted to add a human presence, I decided to combine them with found photos from the turn of the 19th century. The pictures are digital collages created in Photoshop. My dad is a geologist, and I thought of time as creating intervening layers between the past and us.
Betty Hahn is probably the most influential teacher that I had. Known for her non-silver work, she taught me that a photograph could be so much more than just “a picture.” I’m also a big fan of Annette Messager and Christian Boltansky, for the conceptual and creative ways in which they use photographs. I love Roy DeCarava for his amazingly poetic and dark images. Same for Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Some of Lewis Baltz’s early pictures of industrial parks also take my breath away. It’s a long and ever-growing list.
If you were teaching a Photography 101 class and the lesson was Creativity, what do you think would be the best advice for students to get their creative juices flowing?
Two thoughts come to mind on this topic: To quote Linus Pauling, “the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” In other words, brainstorm. It’s an important part of my process, always. The second point, to paraphrase Jasper Johns, is that you take something, do something to it, then do something else to it. In other words, if you’re stuck, DO something. Act. Those two techniques work for me, and I suggest them to my students.
Read any good photo books lately?
I just discovered South African photographer Roger Ballen, whose work is disturbing and amazing. I also recently got Doug Doubois’ moving book All the Days and Nights. As for photo crit, I’m reading Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art. It’s smart, and well written with no “art speak.”
What’s your favorite photography website that your frequently visit?
I’m constantly trolling the web to find new photographers. I like Lenscratch, ZoneZero, Tiny Vices, Photo Lucida, FotoFest, Photo Eye, and, of course, Plates to Pixels.
Guided Imagery is my latest body of work. It’s based on the idea of finding shapes in clouds. I make subtle, suggestive forms and then shoot them. They are real photographs, but I think of them as drawings made with a camera. They make me think of Vija Celmins work with graphite. They are black and white and very plain; there’s barely anything there. I love the idea that they aren’t about what you see; they’re about what you can make of them. Unfortunately, since they are so subtle they don’t look very good on-line…
I’m also doing an on-going project using the security envelopes that my bills come in. I’ve done a series of drawings based on them and lately I’m making collages with torn pieces. The most recent ones are a group of images of trees with interlocking branches. I’m never bored.
How long have you been shooting self portraits?
For about 15 years. I had done some before that, but not with serious intent.
Can you remember your first successful self portrait? How did it come about?
I really can’t remember a specific image that I would call my first success. I came to self-portraiture gradually. In school and for several years following, I normally photographed friends as my subjects. I would do an occasional self-portrait when I didn’t have anyone available to photograph, but it wasn’t a big part of my work. When I began doing self-portraits with more frequency several years down the road, and they began to emerge to the forefront of my work, it was primarily a decision based on convenience—I was always available, would do anything I asked of myself, and could work whenever the conditions were right.
What drives you to continue working in this way?
The idea that self-portraits cut to the chase of what is personal. Conveying something personal is what I ultimately want to do with my work regardless of who or what the subject is. So what drives me to shoot self-portraits is what drives me to be a photographer in general. It’s what I’ve found in my life that gives it a lot of personal meaning. It’s when I’m working that I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to do. My life is immersed in photography and art—my own work and that of others. It’s the primary filter I see my life through. It’s the context in which I often think about things, even when I’m not making photographs (which is most of the time). It is often the means I use to communicate something about myself, to express thoughts, ideas and questions. I think this is mostly what drives me.
My life is immersed in photography and art—my own work and that of others. It’s the primary filter I see my life through.
In your artist statement you state that you see your “photographs as visual manifestations of my subconscious mind”. When you are shooting do you find yourself shooting with a specific intent in mind or are you working more organically, or rather more abstractly?
I guess the best way I could put it is that I’m shooting intuitively. That’s not to be mistaken for “haphazardly”. It took me years of work and growth (and not just in photography) to get to the point to where I could trust my intuition and to let go a little bit. I’m not one who feels he has to explain his every motive, but I think there is meaning in my work, and sometimes I don’t discover that meaning until after the fact. It’s as though I understand things on a subconscious level, and it takes my photographs, or dreams, for these things to be revealed consciously. More recently, in an effort to challenge myself and mix things up a little bit, I’ve been approaching my work with a more planned approach, and sometimes even playing characters in my self-portraits. Even so, I usually tend to leave some room for things to happen instinctively.
It’s as though I understand things on a subconscious level, and it takes my photographs, or dreams, for these things to be revealed consciously.
Technically speaking, what are your favorite tools of the trade?
I’m very simple technically: one camera (Mamiya 645), one or two lenses, one type of film and a tripod.
What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of self portraiture?
Not being able to compose my body through the viewfinder. Sometimes when I’m photographing others, it feels like a luxury, to be able to compose looking through the camera. Having said this, I like the challenge, and the surprise of later seeing what the photograph looks like when I process film. Sometimes it’s frustrating, and I’ll wish that I would have been just a little more this way or that. In rare cases, it can work the other way too, where I don’t get what I was attempting at the time of the shoot, but the resulting image is surprising, and better than what I was attempting.
How did you become the Editor and Publisher of SHOTS magazine?
In the 90’s, I used to submit photographs to Shots and did some writing/interviews for the previous editor, Robert Owen. When he tired of doing the magazine and wanted to find a new editor, I had emerged, in his mind, as a good candidate, and eventually took over the publication.
What is the most rewarding aspect of curating and reviewing portfolios for publication consideration?
Having the first-hand access to so much good work by so many wonderful photographers, and being able to share this work with others. I learn from the photographers I come in contact with by looking at their work, corresponding with them, and sometimes befriending them. I feel very lucky in these ways, and hope that those who are a part of Shots benefit in the same ways as well.
How do you find balance between being an active photographer and being a curator of photography?
I don’t feel like I do find a balance… I struggle with that. I don’t feel like I give my personal work enough attention. I need to find a way to better balance the two, as the demands of my editor-self outweigh those of my photographer-self. I do love what I do though—I love being an editor and see it as an extension of my personal vision. I think that even though I’m editing other people’s photographs in Shots (or elsewhere), there’s an imprint of “me” that comes through.
Tell us more about your background (where you grew up; childhood experiences) and how you came to photography.
I was born and raised on a farm in the Amish Country of Lancaster,Pennsylvania. Following high school I entered the Navy where I served for four years, including time on a land base during the Vietnam War. Following military service I worked and traveled around the United States,Caribbean, and Canada. Combing these life-altering experiences with the influences on my extended family of artists, I entered art school and completed a V.A. in 1985 from the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota,Florida with an emphasis in graphic design and strong interest in photography. For many years I have worked as a graphic designer, including the design of flat printed material, packaging, and magazines. Through my work as an art director I have become very attuned to the wide range of photographic approaches and the ability of software, such as Photoshop, to enhance photographic expression. Since 1998 I have devoted myself to photomontage.
Perhaps my work will spark some change in attitudes and behavior.
Can you describe the process you used to create Entropic Kingdom and how you came to it.
In the Entropic Kingdom series I present the tension in the coexistence between man and his environment. Care for the environment and its delicate ecosystems is of great concern to me. After the recent disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, more than ever, I feel the imperative for increasing our efforts and altering our lifestyles to care for the earth. In the Entropic Kingdom series, with the use of symbolism I attempt to reach the viewer at a conscious or unconscious level to encourage thoughtful self-reflection. Perhaps my work will spark some change in attitudes and behavior.
In the process of creating a photomontage, what comes most easily to me is the visualization of the final image that I want to create. The process includes first sketching this final image, or an approximation of the image, and then gathering the required shots and pieces. Pieces of the image might include the landscape or background, human figure, animal, and another object. Through the process I might slightly alter my original idea.
What about the more challenging?
Creating a photomontage involves a large amount of post-production. I have to be very thoughtful about honoring my idea for the final image. I want to avoid over-manipulation of the pieces that are included in the final image and ensure that the final gestalt feels authentic, yet a bit disturbing, and not too forced. It’s very easy to take a montage image” over the top” so there is a fine line I have to tread.
Who are some of your photographic influences and inspirations?
Having grown up on a Pennsylvania farm, I have always been very inspired by Andrew Wyeths rural landscapes and love affairs with the nature. Like Wyeth, I feel a strong emotional connection with the image that I am creating. In addition, iconic Mexican religious art, various Hispanic photographers such as Graciela Iturbide, magic realism and authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, and a range of contemporary music have inspired both creative and critical thinking. Opportunities to travel and experience different cultures have encouraged my appreciation of multiple artistic perspectives and sparked ideas for my artwork.
Going way back to late grade school/junior high, I had an instamatic camera that I used for taking snaps on family trips, summer camp and the like. I would shoot slides and then put on little slide shows for my friends. But my first really serious efforts were in college. I borrowed a friend’s twin-lens Yashica-Mat, got permission to use a faculty darkroom and taught myself to process film and make prints. I put out a perfectly awful book of b&w photos and poetry for my girlfriend at the time and I hope she had the good sense to destroy it a long time ago.
What was the genesis of the “Selective Memories” project?
First off, let me explain that almost every project I do begins with a multitude of ideas. It’s much like composing music or writing a script. Each decision refines the process. I’ll shoot “proof-of-concept” images along the way until I have a good sense of what I’m after, then I set out with intent, much like shooting a commercial assignment. I’ve learned to allow myself to get surprised and to let the images show me the way through twists and turns. Selective Memories started with a desire to work in palladium combined with an admiration for the emotional quality of Susan Burnstine’s work combined with a desire to hit the road and explore beyond my front yard. That all went into the blender. Palladium has an inherent nostalgic quality to it, so I felt that shooting with my vintage Rolleiflex would put me in a good frame of mind. Shallow focus opens the door to mystery, and the more I thought about it, I wanted these to be not literal “road trip” images, but more like fleeting memories of places glimpsed once, of momentary impressions. The final element that caused everything to gel was that my father had a stroke at Christmas last year. As he struggled to recover, and recover he did, there was a period in which his memory was jumbled. He’s always been a great story teller, but for a time, his stories became somewhat random recombinations of the “facts.” If you didn’t know what had actually taken place, his new interpretation made perfect sense. I was just profoundly struck by how fragile memory is, and that’s when I finally knew where this body of work was headed.
Palladium has an inherent nostalgic quality to it, so I felt that shooting with my vintage Rolleiflex would put me in a good frame of mind.
Again, a desire to work in palladium, to get my hands wet again, combined with using selective focus to add mystery and a “memory-like” quality to the image.
What are the overarching themes of “Selective Memories” and how are these the same or different from your other projects?
It’s hard for me to think in terms of any “overarching theme.” I’ve never felt any need to intellectualize what for me is essentially an emotional process; by that I mean that when I make an image it is usually in response to emotional or sensory input. So I’m after emotional content in my images. All of my work, to me, is simply an exploration of what is out there for us to see. I’m interested in telling stories, illustrated by the way I perceive the world.
Can you be more specific about “emotional response”?
Perhaps a better way to put this is that I make my images guided by a process that is emotion-based and reactive in nature rather than thought-based or intellectual in nature. The initial construct is thought-based, i.e., “palladium prints from images shot with a Rolleiflex used wide open of moments encountered while mostly driving along the Pacific Coast from Neah Bay to San Diego”. The act of picture-making is emotion-based, reacting to the moment of what I see and how objects and people fall into frame and interact with light, shadow and form.
The act of picture-making is emotion-based, reacting to the moment of what I see…
It’s the difference between a Shastakovich Symphony and a Miles Davis performance. Both can be powerful and moving and appreciated on many levels. The Shastakovich piece is meticulously thought out with every note and every pause placed for a reason, and the piece is full of symbolism accessible pretty much only to those who know the “back-story” as it were. The Miles Davis piece begins with a general construct and then each musician responds “of the moment” as they interact with each other and the construct to create a new interpretation of the piece every time it is performed. These are two fundamentally different ways of working. Most if the time, I work like a jazz musician, improvising and reacting both to the moment and to the general construct of the piece I am working on. One thing you learn as a musician is that you simply cannot “think” your way through a complicated piece, at some point you have to give your “self” over to the music.
So when I say that I hope my viewers have an emotional response, it might be more precise to say that I hope they have a response based on emotion, that I have been able to take them someplace they may not have anticipated going, a response from the heart, not the mind.
The Zen concepts of satori and the koan speak clearly to me.
Aside from thinking in terms of emotion, what are the other common threads between your work? From perusing your website I see water and focus as the most prominent connections. Can you speak to these or the other common threads in terms of symbolism or what they mean to you personally?
I just don’t think in terms of symbolism, that’s not a meaningful concept to me personally. And yet, I try to make images that have enough unsaid content and/or mystery to them so that they have the potential to take each viewer to a unique place based on that viewer’s own frame of reference. So is that symbolism? I don’t know.
I would hope that there is a sense of continuity in the level of craft exhibited in my work, but equally I would hope that if you chose four random series of images to hang as a show, viewers might have the impression of four different artists at work. I am generally most strongly drawn to light and structure and how these elements interact within the frame. I consciously choose to work with different formats; square, panoramic and rectangular, because it forces me to reconsider anew the relationships of objects one to another and to the frame.
The Zen concepts of satori and the koan speak clearly to me.
What specific impressions are you hoping to impart to the viewer?
I don’t have a political or social agenda, I don’t feel a need to impart any specific message. Nothing wrong with those things, it’s just not me. But whenever I can motivate a viewer to pause, to look twice, or to think about the way they view the world, or to simply enjoy the beauty of a moment I may have been lucky enough to capture, I am a happy guy.
Without a doubt, music is the greatest influence on my work. It’s what I did before photography, and one of these days I will get back to it. There is a constant soundtrack running in my head when I’m shooting. I draw a lot of personal joy from seeing the work of many visual artists (painters and photographers), but there is no person or school or style that I have any particular desire to emulate.
Can you speak a little bit about how you promote your work?
My promotional efforts go up and down depending on available time. I’m represented by a great gallery, Verve Fine Arts in Santa Fe, and by Kevin Longino, a private dealer. These guys are some of the nicest people I know. They work hard for their artists. I do my part with them by constantly making new work and being a good, reliable business partner. So that’s some of it. I try and go to a review event or two a year to meet new people and build relationships. I try to stay in touch with anyone who shows interest. My website is nearly always up to date. I’m very, very fortunate to have friends that I network with. I try and follow up on any leads and opportunities that come my way. Mostly I am patient, determined and don’t stress.
Tell us more about your background and how you came to photography.
I grew up in North Carolina and started taking pictures as a teenager. My mother gave me my first SLR for my 16th birthday, and I started taking some photography classes at a local community college. I was hooked as soon as I saw that first image appear in the darkroom. I moved to California to study photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, then after I graduated with my BFA, I moved to New Zealand for two and a half years. I’ve just come back to the States and am now living in Santa Fe, NM.
What inspires you, photographically speaking?
My projects really tend to connect in some way to what I’m curious about or going through personally at any given time. Since I’ve been moving around pretty often recently, that tends to influence my work quite a bit as well. There’s often a synchronicity in what I’m becoming interested in and where I end up, in ways I don’t realize until I’m living there. New Zealand afforded me the time and space to go on a bit of a spiritual journey and spend some time researching and just being curious about different religious and cultural beliefs and how they are expressed or unified through symbolism. It led to this really meditative process of spending hours constructing scenes on the beaches of New Zealand, which is now the Alchemy series.
There’s often a synchronicity in what I’m becoming interested in and where I end up, in ways I don’t realize until I’m living there.
My process tends to be very different for each project I work on. Ideas come in different ways, though a lot of times it will be something that just occurs to me one day like the proverbial light bulb switching on. I work pretty slowly, so I scribble everything down in notebooks and an idea will usually fester for a while before I start to research or work on them, unless it’s more of an experiential thing like the Chasing Rainbows series. That was sort of a therapeutic thing for me, photographing around the displacement I felt in leaving the U.S. and moving to New Zealand. I don’t think that series is finished, I will probably keep moving every once in a while or at the very least traveling. Now that I’m getting settled here in Santa Fe and finishing up all that left-brained activity of finding a place to live, a car, etc., I feel like I can start focusing on my next project and getting into the researching & brainstorming bit, then doing some initial shoots to see how the ideas start to take shape visually. I feel like I’m in the right place and I’m excited to see where my work goes next. It’s always a mystery and never what you expect, you just have to let it unfold.
Making the pictures comes more naturally for me. I can be as patient or as persistent as I need to be to get my shot. The hardest part is the more practical stuff, like retouching scans, editing, printing, finding ways to get my work out there. I’m still looking for the right venues for my images, and that is a project in itself.
You mentioned you’re moving onto some new projects, care to share any of your ideas or processes?
I want to go further into the sort of mystical ideas I touched on with Alchemy, working with people or in places that are on the edge of what most people would consider normalcy or reality. I’m interested in metaphysical subjects and the idea of our personal experiences of life being largely made up of our own perceptions and beliefs. We’ll see where that takes me!
I grew up in Los Angeles, in a wonderful neighborhood called Silverlake. It was an ethnically diverse area, with lots of artists and creative types, located near the original site of the Disney Studios. It was really an ideal place to grow up — surrounded by mid-century architecture, incredible Mexican food, and endless 70-degree days.
I was exposed to art at an early age. My uncle was an artist, writer, and photographer and had an aesthetic that has influenced me in all areas of my life. I learned about contemporary architecture, designers like Ray and Charles Eames, and modern art from someone who had rarefied taste. But I was equally influenced by my wonderful parents–their incredible senses of humor, and the neighborhoods of Los Angeles that we explored—Little Toyko, Koreatown, Chinatown, the Latino and Armenian neighborhoods, which gave me an insight into the world. I loved living in a city where everyone looked different.
How did you first get into photography?
I started expressing myself at an early age—producing comic books, taking ceramics classes, designing clothes, drawing and painting—loving anything to do with art.
After graduating from college, I moved to New York City to make my living as an artist, and although I continued to paint, my career moved into the fashion world. I worked for many years as the Fashion Editor for Vogue Patterns Magazine in New York City, and then continued on in Los Angeles as a freelance photo stylist. As a fashion editor, I had the privilege of working with many exceptional fashion photographers, including Horst, Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, Arthur Elgort, and Bert Stern. It didn’t dawn on me until several years later, that I was standing next to some of my best photography teachers.
I still use the darkroom for my black and white images, and it’s one of my favorite places to be.
What inspires you, photographically speaking?
Throughout my career as a fashion editor, a photo editor, an artist, a photographer, a person engaged in the world, I have looked at thousands upon thousands of images. I can still remember album covers, ad campaigns, editorial images that sparked something inside me. Discovering Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, then Diane Arbus and Ralph Meatyard and Matt Mahurin and Keith Carter were wondrous revelations into how we see. For me, it’s finding simplicity in the complex. It’s telling a story but not giving away the ending. Creating a memory that never happened. It’s a little bit of magic combined with poignancy. It’s giving something dignity or a second glance. Making the mundane mysterious. It’s celebrating life in a split second.
Where does your subject in art come from and how do you work?
Anything will spark an idea. I do get a lot of inspiration from paintings, but I also get inspired from the world around me– looking at out the window as I’m driving, walking my dog, going to a flea market–all sorts of things. I just keep an open mind.I think it’s important to have a deep well of ideas and visual references. It’s just as important to take things in than to produce them. I usually have 2 or 3 series going at the same time, which helps keep the creativity flowing andI realize that some series allow me to create, and some allow me to explore a subject.I still use the darkroom for my black and white images, and it’s one of my favorite places to be.
Aline, as a prolific photographer yourself, what kind of advice would you give to young artists that could help them succeed as a fine art photographer?
Hmmm. The fine art world is rapidly changing – the opportunities that once existed and traditional paths to success are morphing into completely different animals. Where the brick and mortar gallery used to be the goal, now many photographers are making a name for themselves through blogs and are selling their work on-line. Acceptance by not only gallerists and curators is important, but also by your peers who are now creating e-zines, writing blogs, and curating exhibitions. My advice is to be original, and not to lose sight that fine art photography is ultimately a product–that your prints need to be as pristine as your images. Make prints–it’s important to know what your finished product will look like! Explore every possibility and make connections. Let other photographers know that you appreciate their work, compliment a curator on an exhibition, be open to what is going on, and celebrate this community. Good will and giving backcounts for a lot.
I think success is making work that gives you a creative high, a renewed energy, and makes waking up each day a pleasure.
It’s important for your work to say something, to tell a story, to have a point of view, to have a voice. And to get back to your question, I’m not sure what success is anymore. It used to be having an exhibition, or publishing a book, or having a museum purchase your work–and yes, those are all major goals, but with this shifty economy and changing landscape of fine art photography, I think success is making work that gives you a creative high, a renewed energy, and makes waking up each day a pleasure. We might as well enjoy the process, because we aren’t going to get rich doing this.
Aline Smithson is a busy person, she was recently nominated for the Santa Fe Prize for Photography, you can read an article she wrote on Portland’s Photolucida at F-stop magazine, and be sure to check out her dynamic blog a http://lenscratch.blogspot.com/
Smithson is also featured in the Summer issue of Artworks Magazine, with a 7 page spread featuring her Arrangement in Green and Black images. Find Artworks at Barnes and Nobles.
I grew up in Gainesville, Florida. In the 1960s it was your classic college town. Everything seemed to revolve around the University of Florida. I spent a lot of time on campus as both of my parents worked there. It was like a small village that had just about everything one needed, even for a kid. I remember going to work with my father and riding all over campus on this fat-tire Schwinn bike he used for running errands. When I tired of that, I would hang around the bookstore or game room or just cruise the smelly stacks of the libraries. In those days Gainesville was a small town were you could ride a bike anywhere, your dog could follow you, and did not have to lock your bike. I know this sounds a bit sappy but growing up in Gainesville was probably not too different from most small towns during this time.
How did you first get into photography?
It started with a Yashica range finder my brother handed me when I had to do some now forgotten high school project. All I can remember is that the black and white prints took too long to come back from the camera store and that were very dull and gray. In a matter of weeks I had a stack of books from the library and was processing film and making prints in the bathroom. The textures of the natural world and my girlfriend were my primary subjects. My interest did not move to the next level until my father found me a job on campus working in a lab charged with providing photographic services for faculty. I was still in high school. This is where I learned everything. The boss was the daughter of a photographer who had served at some level in the Third Reich. She was a perfectionist – always sending me back to the darkroom to redo jobs. I spent my entire time in college working in this lab. Looking back, it was absolutely fabulous as I learned a great deal technically and had almost unlimited access to materials and equipment. The lab was also located within one of the university libraries so I was able to spend a lot of time looking at photography books – mostly the classic European street photographers and photographers of the Farm Security Administration. My work, at the time, was your basic third generation street photography influenced by Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank as well as Winogrand and Friedlander.
We are featuring your Salt Prints and Cyanotypes, please tell me how you first adopted these processes in your work and why?
The late Todd Walker, who taught at UF in the 1960s and early 1970s, introduced me to historical processes. At the time, I was rather ambivalent about working with these processes as making prints took too long and they just did not look like photographs to me. A growing interest in photo history – particularly the nineteenth century – brought me back to historical processes in the late 1970s. The more I read about photography’s early practitioners, the more it seemed that they understood photography as a hybrid printing process that relied upon light sensitive chemicals rather than inks.
And once I ceased holding photographs hostage to reality, the visual territory expanded exponentially.
[SinglePic not found]I was also intrigued by the idea of engaging in a different way with the materials of photography. I think I was reacting to how photographic materials were so standardized and beginning to be limited in terms of paper types and surfaces. What really attracted me was the simple act of sensitizing watercolor paper and printing in sunlight. I don’t want to make this seem too precious but working with old processes made me feel like I was actually making something. Every print was different and the visual possibilities seemed unlimited. In time, my understanding of how a photograph could be made, how it could look, and how it might function as a picture changed dramatically. I realized that there was no fixed or definitive “look” a photograph had to have. A picture made with light sensitive materials could look like anything. And once I ceased holding photographs hostage to reality, the visual territory expanded exponentially. That’s the short story of why I am attracted to working with old processes…
Your shift from “reality” picture making to a more historic and ephemeral “old process” seems to coincide with current trends in fine art photography. Do you think it’s safe to assume this has something to do with the “digital age” of photography – or something else entirely?
I believe that digital photography has had a significant effect upon the rise or resurgence of historical processes in a couple of interesting ways. On one hand, the manual nature of making pictures with old processes taps into an ancient sense we have about art as something that is “made” by a human. I just don’t experience this with digital photography and particularly with making a digital print. The control and perfection possible with digital photography has very little appeal to me. I like the uncertainty, the unique look of every print, and the unexpected results that seem to be part and parcel of making pictures using chemicals and light.
The curious thing is that the same digital technology that may have nudged people towards manual processes has also made these processes more accessible. With most historical processes, you have to make your print via contact. Many practitioners work with large format negatives and others go through a process of bumping up 35mm or roll film negatives onto larger sheet film. The latter approach is time consuming and the results, in my opinion, are just adequate. About four years ago, I began exploring making digital negatives on paper and transparency film. It worked quite well and has proven to be indispensable in my teaching. More important is that this technical breakthrough led to a transformation in how I visualize my pictures.
…photographers and viewers of photography began realizing that a photograph is also as a picture. And like any other kind of picture, photographs need not always reference reality.
Manipulating my images on a computer screen altered my understanding of photography from an act defined by a split second at a given aperture to an open-ended process with unlimited possibilities. To put it another way, I began using the camera to take photographs and the computer to make pictures. This distinction may seem trivial but it has broadened my understanding of how a photograph can be made, how it can look, and how it can function as a picture.
In relation to the shift from “reality” picture making, it seems obvious that software like Photoshop allows users to create pictures that deviate from reality-based picture making. We can’t forget, however, that fabricated or staged photography has been a significant mode in the medium long before the advent of digital photo. But what I think happened over the past twenty years or so is that photographers and viewers of photography began realizing that a photograph is also as a picture. And like any other kind of picture, photographs need not always reference reality.
You mentioned you’re early photographic influences. Currently, do you have any peers who’s work you respect?
There are a number of photographers I admire but I don’t know if I have been directly influenced by their work. I’ve always liked the sheer intelligence of Duane Michals’ work. I like the inventiveness of Robert and Shana Park-Harrison, and Gregory Crewdson’s work is so wonderfully creepy. I have also enjoyed a lot of the work of Dan Estabrook. I don’t know him but I connect with his visual sensibility and how he uses old processes to create pictures that don’t look contemporary. As far as working with historical processes, he appears to have an acute understand how to match content with process. His pictures appear to be partial documents from another time and place…little fragments that appear significant but are ultimately incomprehensible. That’s my kind of picture. I have to admit, however, that I don’t pay as much attention to contemporary work as I should. My interest is more with the past than the present. I am attracted to a handful of Czech photographers…Jaromir Funke, Frantisek Drtikol and others working between the two world wars. I am also interested in nineteenth century photographers – particularly the so-called French Primitives and British Amateurs of the 1840s and 1850s.
You have a quite a bit of curatorial experience, what motivates you to not only be an artist but be also be an art advocate?
If all of your professional life has revolved around the arts and art education, it only seems natural that you would be an art advocate. I ran a small university gallery for twenty-five years and all my energy was directed towards producing exhibitions that would be intelligible and interesting to the general public while accommodating the desires of the artist. I also taught photography and photo history during this period. Most of the time, both aspects of my job were quite satisfying even if I felt frustrated because I wanted more time to devote to my own work. Now that I am teaching full-time and have more time to devote to my own work, I find that most of my energy is directed toward teaching. My own work is important to me but I just can’t imagine devoting myself to it exclusively. I like to think that I have naturally moved towards what I do best – teach – which is a very important kind of advocacy.
I like to think that I have naturally moved towards what I do best – teach – which is a very important kind of advocacy.
It’s pretty damn corny but I just love seeing a student get excited about what they are doing. Teaching technique is easy. What’s difficult is figuring out how to establish an atmosphere in which a student can get genuinely excited about the complexities and rewards of making pictures. When this happens, the teacher-student relationship shifts into a special territory were each starts learning from the other. I don’t have a specific recipe for how to make this happen but I introduce students to history and a little theory, make them write about their work, direct them to others who have similar interests, and try to continue the conversation about their work and photography beyond the confines of the classroom. As I indicated above, teaching technique is not that hard to do. Oftentimes, this is all a student wants or all they can handle. That’s just the way it is and I don’t let it affect my overall agenda. I try to remember that everyone has different motives for being in school of for what they want to do with photography – and I try to be as helpful as I can regardless of their level of interest.
I was born in Paris, France, but mostly lived in different areas of France. Until age 7 I lived in a small town near Montpellier in South France called Bezier. Then me and my family moved to Rennes, the capital city of the Brittany region, where I spent my teen-hood and first university years. So I guess from a cultural viewpoint that makes me mostly a “Breton” (from Brittany).
I have amazing memories of my childhood in South France, probably because of how absorbent and sentient you are at such a young age, but also because of how more fragrant, colorful and bright it is in comparison with Brittany. A typical day in Brittany, pretty much anytime in the year, is cool (low 60ºF), humid, windy and more importantly…grey. On the other hand the fact that it is surrounded by the Atlantic ocean on its South and West side as well as by the English Channel on its North side makes up for it. Standing on the Breton seaside is the best way to experience what Brittany is about: natural granite coasts, preserved beaches without any buildings, small traditional fishing villages; the sea also has a unique magnetic presence over there, and the color palette is incredibly nuanced, especially in the greens and the blues where it incorporates a pinkish pastel like tint. I have many favorite places in Brittany, but Saint Malo is THE place where I feel drawn to the most. My mother was born there, and the city itself has left intact its unique historical culture: that of an all surrounded fortified pirates city (called “Corsaires”) that the British never managed to take.
How did you first get into photography?
Well, for a very long time I was only interested in Philosophy and Poetry. That’s all I read and studied until I was about 22 or 23 years old. That means that my overall artistic background, paradoxically, isn’t visually-based but rather motivated by a certain thought process similar to philosophical questioning (what if?). I like to think of the work I produce as propositions, conditional images trying to assert the validity of a viewpoint by letting reality refutes it or on the contrary corroborates it.
I like to think of the work I produce as propositions.
Anyhow, I eventually came to photography because of my big brother Gabriel, who was a year and a half older than me. Gabriel tragically died of a sudden cancer when he was 25, this was a very traumatic event for me, as for the rest of my family. He was the one doing photography, had been for years since his late teenage years. Progressively he started putting his cameras in my hands, talking to me about technical and artistic aspects of photography. I guess it was a huge passion for him and he couldn’t resist sharing it, sharing his enthusiasm for being able to translate so much of one’s world into a photograph. My brother and I were not very close until then. Sadly I think it may have simply been because of how thin our age difference was during our teens. We grew apart in order to affirm ourselves, we even often grew in opposition just as a principle, i.e. if Gabriel liked one thing I had to like another and vice versa. Anyway, I always felt Photography was the one thing my big brother gave me willingly, with such generosity and pleasure that I just couldn’t turn it down, I had to start doing it because I so much loved our relationship around it. At least that’s how it was in the beginning, as I quickly grew found of the medium in a more autonomous view. For maybe two years I shared Photography with Gabriel, we didn’t really engage in common projects but we exchanged lenses, mutually criticized our shots, went to the photo stores together…I remember this one day when I bought this new Nikon camera (F90). I went to my mother’s with it and Gabriel was there too. It was so funny, when he saw the box his face lit up and he looked at me, incredibly surprised, then he jumped on his feet and played with it for an hour like a baby child. He was so excited for me.
Like so many amateur photographers I did 35 mm black-and-white photography as a hobby for a while, shooting friends, art festivals, developing my films in my tiny student apartment bathroom. Then after Gabriel died, I was so confused, all I felt was that I needed to go far far away from everything. So I applied for this American international student exchange program at my home university in Rennes and luckily, almost amazingly I should say, I was selected (I wasn’t a language student, so this was very unusual). That’s how I landed in Carbondale, IL for the first time in 99. I was supposed to study Information & Communication sciences there, but after a few days I decided to enroll exclusively into Photography courses. That’s pretty much when Photography became the most important thing in my life, without me realizing I was actually deciding so. I haven’t stopped photographing since then.
You hold a BA in Philosophy and an MFA in Photography. In what ways to you think the fusion of these two disciplines have influenced your outlook on art and your personal photography.
That’s a really good question, because since I started studying Photography in the US that’s all I vowed to do: to turn complex philosophical questionings into photographic scenarios. I’ve always thought that eventually Philosophy was a transitionary medium for me, in the sense that ultimately I would need to act upon my understandings to make my life meaningful. As much as I enjoyed (and still do) reading Heidegger or Wittgenstein, I feel that what remains of what they offer to the avid reader, this incredible thurst for existence, is too precious to sit on it. Or to just think about it. Real understanding affects your life concretely, it dictates choices that somehow make up who you are. My own way of acting upon philosophical understanding is to picture it photographically. That’s the reason why most of the time I conceive of a project intellectually first, until it involves less controllable realities like affections.
Reality exists unformatted, unarticulated, and I think Photography relates to it similarly.
Thinking of it, the one thing that made me stick with Photography is the fact that it enables you, it invites you I should say, to reach for things outside of the boundaries of language. Reality exists unformatted, unarticulated, and I think Photography relates to it similarly. Photography concentrates, unveils and proposes to see (in French I would say “donne à voir”, gives to see) aspects of reality that we don’t dare considering outside of it.
In your artist statement for “Mammal Thoughts” you talk about human’s difficulty in reflecting upon their own physicality. Can expand on this and why it inspired you to use meat as metaphor.
Well the meat, as you said, is indeed standing in this imagery as a visual metaphor. That means that while looking at these images the viewer needs to understand that the meat laid out isn’t real but that on the contrary it represents a mental projection of the mind operation of the portrayed character. The whole series entertains a complicated and plural relationship with photographic representation: on different levels the Mammal Thoughts photographs are simultaneously about portraiture, (thought) performance, documentation (of the performance) and ultimately Photography’s inability to ever materialize – or descriptively add into the factual account of its statements – the subjective or narrative point of view of one’s consciousness.
Photography is like our mind, it always excludes the photographer – as well as the looker or the thinker – from the materials produced or presented. Fundamentally, one can not experience the objective encounter of his/her own physicality in the world. That means that I will never be able to “see” myself as I see any other person. I will never experience such an objective viewpoint about myself as a person. There is something extremely unsettling about this, that the medium of photography uniquely comments on.
Fundamentally, one can not experience the objective encounter of his/her own physicality in the world.
As a photographic experimentation, I wanted to see how photography could describe, notice, infuse or simply “mean” factually the very content of such particular thoughts: that of having someone perform a strange act of thought, i.e. thinking of oneself as just being his/her own body. All the photographed characters in this series have been briefed before their respective shooting about the philosophical background implied in this work. I first met each of them and talked to them for an hour or so about Cartesian philosophy (I think therefore I am) and about Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception. These researches actually constituted my MFA thesis and the Mammal Thoughts series ended up being my thesis work.
Anyhow, what I asked of each of them was to perform the same act of thinking: they all had a week or two to think about their relationship to their own bodies. Did they think they were, as individuals, more than their bodies? Did they enjoy the idea of possibly being nothing more than a corporeal identity, or were they on the contrary very frustrated with it? Were they comfortable with the fact that we are all conditionally physical in order to exist in the world? Or were they on the opposite trying to overlook that reality as much as they could? For many of the characters personal, religious and spiritual believes interplayed with the set problematic, as they didn’t agree that their individual identity was the sole attribute of their bodies. While others felt that being physical transcribed mostly as pleasures, pains or social aesthetic concerns.
So these photographed people in essence both re-enacted their original thought about who they are as bodies in their portrait, while also symbolically acting it out through a collaborative choice of location, clothing and props. Some models took responsibility in choosing what to do and where, but others didn’t wish to, in which case I solely decided of their photographic scenario according to what our conversations.
In the end each portrait represented:
- a photographic document of the active thinking effort of the character to try to think themselves only as physical beings, and a portrait of them as doing such performance
- a photographic document atesting that the content of their thoughts wasn’t actually manifested photographically, even though it constituted the subject of the image
- as such a document atesting of Photography’s failure to represent such subjects (contenus de pensée, in French) a photographic document a testing of one’s inability to embrace their own physical presence in the world objectively photography’s symbolic remedy to this failure pictured as raw meat in the scenes.
What do you find is the most rewarding thing about being a professor?
I think that being a professor forces me to keep questioning the medium with which I create. Every time that I re-explore problematics inherent to Photography in class, be they of philosophical, aesthetical or theoretical nature, I feel like renewing an original, authentic understanding of it.
I had a great childhood, really. I grew up Texas and then Arkansas. We lived in Houston until I was 12. I went from living in the middle of a bustling area of Houston to living in the rural outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas, in the middle of trees, creeks, and horses nearby.
I was a tomboy and so this change suited me well. I’m an only child, and we joke that I was my father’s only son, so I learned a lot of handy things about carpentry and power tools from following him around.
In college, we built my first darkroom together in a little building on my parents’ land, which including digging a trench to the septic tank and nearly electrocuting ourselves wiring the building.
I have great parents and am still very close to them. They were always extremely supportive in whatever I chose to pursue (including my 10-minute interests in piano, woodworking, sidewalk-chalk artistry, beauty pageants, stamp-collecting, and basketball). Over the course of my life, my family has had times of great abundance, and then has also had very lean times, which I think has left me with the empathy to relate to a wide range of the ways people live economically and socially. Both of my parents are hardworking, and have completely changed careers several times during their lives. As an adult, I find myself unusually comfortable with change and adaption. I think their example has had a big impact on me because these were always such courageous risks they took, and it taught me to always challenge myself and to remember that we never stop changing or growing.
As a child I was into painting and drawing, due largely to my mother’s example. My mom painted as a hobby and I began taking classes with her, and then continued with art electives in high school and early college. I became a bit more practical in college when I had to decide on a career and I somehow ended up in the business department studying finance. (I know. What was I thinking?) At some point, my roommate brought home an old SLR that a relative had given her and it intrigued me. I bought a crappy camera and started taking bad pictures and was completely in love with the process of it. By my senior year, I was working in a local photo lab, and was also in a serious relationship with a very talented musician whose own career plans were making the prospects for my finance degree look extremely boring. During a summer internship in London (at a now defunct financial institution that I won’t name), I called my boyfriend and announced I was “Going To Be A Photographer”.
I bought a crappy camera and started taking bad pictures and was completely in love with the process of it.
I finished the degree, married the musician, and we moved to Nashville where I turned my focus toward matching my skills to the level of my enthusiasm. I assisted other photographers, I shot for the local paper, and then worked nights in my own little darkroom and eventually started showing my artwork locally. The early influences of painting and drawing have always stayed with me, and I still love to experiment mixing mediums, manipulating photographs, or taking them beyond documentation, and into the realm of my own emotion and imagination.
We are featuring your Farm series, what draws you to this theme and why?
THE FARM series is taken at my husband’s family farm in rural Kansas. His grandparents are wheat farmers and the land has been in the family for many generations. My father-in-law and his 4 siblings grew up on the farm, then moved away to start families and careers. They all made regular pilgrimages back to the farm, however, and so my husband grew up spending summers and holidays in his grandparent’s farmhouse. This continued into his adult life, and when we started dating I began making the trips as well. My own childhood was split between several states and, like many Americans, our own family history was vague beyond the last generation. So I was very intrigued by this Kansas family who had such a rich trove of history that all related to a specific plot of earth. It was amazing to walk the fields and be shown the exact embankment where Great-Great-Grandfather Silas built a temporary sod house when he first claimed the land. What stories! I also began to note how growing up with this heritage had shaped and influenced the lives of the family members, and how their identities were in some way tied to this land. This seemed a very special and unusual thing: the most American of stories, but at the same time so unusual for an American family today. My first trip to the farm coincided with my initial interest in photography in college, so the farm was one of my earliest subjects. Very little came of those early shoots, and it took quite a number of years before I even realized that this was becoming a ‘project’. It’s been about 15 years since my first visit to the farm and I’ve continued to photograph there on most every visit. I’ve photographed the farm with every camera I’ve ever owned, from 35mm to 4×5 and everywhere in-between. The subject matter that I photographed was just as diverse. At some point I realized that I had serious choices to make about how I would edit this project and what I wanted to say. In the end, this is not a story about a particular family, but rather about a larger sense of place and history, and about the power of memory and story in our lives. It’s about the things that tie us together, and the things that bring us back.
It’s (The Farm Series) about the things that tie us together, and the things that bring us back.
What is your favorite subject to shoot?
Wow, that is hard to say. I shoot such a wide range of subject matter – people, animals, environment and landscapes. I guess I am drawn to subjects that have a poetic or lyrical quality and that offer several layers of metaphor that present different directions that the viewer can go within the image. I notice I am often drawn to things that have character and have been around a while, which explains my fascination with ‘old stuff’.
I think I draw creative inspiration from a wide range of sources – music, film, painting, even nature. My husband, Jared, is a singer-songwriter so music is a big part of my life and creates a bit of a creative soundtrack for my own work. I am drawn to a lot of work from latin artists – painters, sculptors, mixed media artists. One of my favorite museums ins the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, CA. I always see so much work that is rich and bold and full of life. Some of my favorite contemporary photographers are Sebastiao Salgado, Raymond Meeks, Debbie Caffrey, Todd Hido, Pentti Sammallahti.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about being an artist?
That living a full and creative life is part of being an artist and is the first step to actually making art. The work we make has to flow from who we are and what we love. Life and art are inextricably linked.