Jonathan Chacon is a photographer who is based out of Chicago and recently received his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Do you care who your subjects are?
Yes. My subjects always have something I do not have, but wish I could.
What is the most singular emotion you are looking for in your photographs?
I’m looking for vulnerability.
Can you discuss heat? How important is setting in your photographs?
Heat is the intensity of a feeling.
The setting is very important. It creates a mood for the photograph, without mood there is no feeling. No heat.
Do your photographs compare your adolescent subjects with your elder subjects? Is there some sort of connection between subjects or are they a juxtaposition?
Yes, and they are both connected and juxtaposed. The connection between the adolescent subjects and elder subjects is that they’re both unaware of their future. Death hovers over both of their lives.
I hope to make adolescent subjects look strong and self-sufficient, while making my elder subjects weak and dependent. My interest in showing adolescent subjects and elder subjects in this way stems from a frustrated and confused childhood.
Can you talk about the lighting in your photographs? What about the shadows?
I use a speedlite to highlight my subjects and their gestures. The shadows are a formal element that push and pull the viewer, while creating depth between the subject and the background. In other words, I use whatever light is available and if I have to I use a flash in order to create an affect or depth, then I’ll use it.
Are your subjects trapped? Caught up in the same circle of life? Stuck on this impossibly yellow flytrap?
My human subjects are not trapped, but they are caught in a complex family cycle; one I am actively trying to break. Photography is the perfect medium to critically separate myself from my family’s cycle.
In the fall of 2013, I arrived to Mexico and chose to live with my father for two weeks. When I arrived to his house he told me to settle in and he would be back in a few minutes. I nodded and he left. My plan was to shower and then go for a walk around the community, but little did I know that his front doors needed a key to get out. So, for the next 5 hours I paced around my father’s house annoyed and frustrated that he locked me in. He has not changed since I last saw him four years ago. He is still a liar. The photograph of the flytrap was taken the next day when I arrived to his farm.
The thing I like about the flytrap is that the flies are attracted to the trap because they think it’s a big yellow flower. The flies have an expectation that they will get pollen, but the reality is that they are just flying into a trap.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Any Spanish phrases you’d like to share?
“Caras vemos, corazones no sabemos.”- My Mother
Translation: We can see faces, but we do not know the hearts.
Sarah Wilson is an editorial photographer based out of Austin, Texas.
Did you have a personal goal in mind when photographing the Blind Prom?
I began photographing Blind Prom in 2006 while working as a stills photographer on a documentary film that followed four blind teenagers for one academic year at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. When it came time for prom that Spring, I offered to be the school’s photographer. I had seen some of the snapshots the teachers had taken with their point-and-shoot cameras in years past, and decided to help them out.. I brought an assistant with me, and some studio lighting, and we covered the event.
Very quickly I discovered that the students really enjoyed posing for pictures in their formal wear – they were having so much fun and so was I. My heart was filled joy throughout the night. I have loved this experience so much, and at this point I feel like I’ve become a fixture at prom- this year will be my eighth year as the prom photographer.
Who are these photographs for?
At the very moment I push the shutter button, the act of photographing is for the students. They’ve been eagerly waiting in a long line to have their formal portraits made. When it’s their turn, we spend 3-5 minutes together- my assistant and I fawn over how awesome they look- we adjust lighting, arrange dresses, straighten ties, and encourage them to pose any way they feel. During that shared time, it’s not about the end result of the photograph, but about honoring the students and affirming that this exciting moment in their lives is worth capturing.
The students at the Texas School for the Blind come from all over the state to attend, and they live in dorms on campus, away from their families. When the 4x6 prints are sent home, the photographs are for the parents, so they can see that their kids looked beautiful and were having a great time at their high school prom.
As a personal project posted on a photography blog, or hung on a gallery wall, these photographs take on a different role. Viewers may have no connection to these particular students, or this particular disability, but, they can all tap into their own teenage memories, getting dressed up for their own prom. That coming of age, that’s universal. This universality becomes a medium for understanding.
Is seeing believing?
Seeing with your eyes is not the only way to see. A student once told me, “You don’t have to have sight, to have vision.” The vast majority of these teens have lost their sight over time, so they had sight and then lost it. And many are still in that process, where their vision is changing still. They rely on their visual memory, but also their sense of touch smell, hearing, and whatever usable sight they may still have, to interpret the world around them.
I remember the first time I met Amanda, a deaf-blind student at the school. Her sign language interpreter signed the letters of my name into her hand. She then signed for Amanda to sit up straight and smile ahead towards the camera. When my flash went off, she started to scream with joy and a big smile crept across her face. She knew when I was photographing her because she could see the flash. With the help of her interpreter, Amanda is very aware of her surroundings. Her presence is loud, joyful and colorful — and I wasn’t surprised to find out that Amanda was a cheerleader on the school’s pep squad.
Can you talk about the distortion that happens to the edges of a few of your photographs when using a wide-angle lens? Does it relate to your subject’s eyesight or possible view?
The project alternates between formal portraiture and more active, reportage (?) style shooting. There are definitely times when my images are distorted, mostly when I’m on the dance floor with one hundred gyrating kids. It’s hard for me to get back far enough to use a longer lens without running into someone behind me. There are times when I think the distortion works to help illustrate the wild teenage energy of the night, and the overwhelming rollercoaster of emotions that I sense when I’m there.
Do you think the backdrops at the prom add to the understanding of the subjects you photograph or actually are the subjects in your photographs? How do they relate the prom attendees?
Before I started shooting prom, the teachers would create their own creative backdrop appropriate to the prom theme. When I started shooting, I took on that responsibility and I have just made the backdrops larger and more elaborate. In the weeks leading up to Prom, I make the backdrops myself, which is something I’d never really done before. It gives me a chance to start thinking about the students and their big night, and it gives me a way to help differentiate each year from the last. The backdrops are always inspired by the themes that the school has chosen. The students may or may not be able to see the backdrop they’re being photographed in front of, but they know that there’s a professional photographer each year, and that she’s taken extra steps to make the photographs special. And I get to flex some different creative muscles in the backdrop preparation.
What is it like to photograph someone that knows you are there, and that they are being photographed but can’t actually see you? Is it freeing as a photographer?
Most of the time, I make the students aware that I’m photographing them. However, there are moments, especially on the dance floor, when I can move fast and capture more candid expressions because I am not stopping each person to ask if I can take their photo. It is freeing to be able to photograph a tender moment without the subject becoming self-conscious or posturing like a sighted teenager might do
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What is your favorite part of the night?
The significance of the evening really starts to sink in during the crowning. In any other school, these students might not have the opportunity to be crowned Prom King or Queen, or even attend prom at all. Amongst other visually impaired teens, there is greater opportunity for a fulfilling social life. Looking at the crowning pictures, you can see the emotion on their faces. What you can’t see is the smile on my face and maybe a joyful tear or two.
Kyle Laidig is an artist currently studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Can you talk about where photography and paintings intersect?
There are several spaces where these two mediums come together. On the one hand they are related historically, whether it be the adversarial relationship that marked its inception in the early 19th century or even earlier the use of the camera obscura by Vermeer and others. In this way, the mediums have been conflated in a very formative way; they are linked modes of perception. They also seem to be used as modes of description, a painting that “is like a photograph” or, more commonly, a photograph that “is like a painting”. Then there is the literal synthesis of the mediums, Gerhard Richter and Sam Falls being good examples of such practices. The idea of painting though is based on ideas of combination, a painting is not broken down into unrelated elements “cadmium red” and “cobalt blue”, rather a painting is a sum of its parts, a soup. This ideology has become linked to contemporary photo manipulation practices. A digital image is composed of, at it’s foundation, bits of information, pixels. If we are to take these pixels, as the building blocks of an image, much like cadmium red, then we can see the resampling of these pixels an act that is inherently painterly. Similarly, painting is not an automated function but a performed act. In the same way we can look at the act of editing or manipulating an image as a performative intervention.
How does Photoshop affect your vision?
For a little while I had been thinking about Photoshop as a lens. I was trying to reverse the process of image making, that is image to Photoshop to final product, and to attempt to find images that appeared in life as though they had been mediated by this technology. It was a rather frustrating experience, and in hindsight I understand that it was a misguided gesture. It was misguided in that the images being created relied on a preformed understanding of contemporary image culture, to already know visually what kind of manipulations were being executed “right now”. Right now Photoshop doesn’t really affect my vision, outside of sometimes looking for textures or patterns for the purpose of sampling. On the other hand, Photoshop affects what I can envision, my understanding of where a work can be taken.
Are you images ever finished?
No. Images are fixed, finalized by their context. Maybe its function is to make a text comprehensible, and yet when you change the text the image is fundamentally altered. I am interesting in the fluidity meaning, the severing of signification, and so in that sense my images are never finished. Time is the ultimate variable.
Do you break your photographs down? How do you build them back up? Can you discuss your layering process?
Not immediately. Usually I will take the image as a starting point, a blank canvas, and then add or subtract as I see fit. My layering process is fundamentally intuitive, while there may be some rhyme or reason, I always shoot from the hip. ;)
What childhood memory most affects your work?
I don’t know how to answer that question so I will instead include an excerpt from a letter that Ted Hughes sent to his son, Nicholas:
“It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”
Can you imagine what the most perfect photograph you can make looks like?
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Do you have any feelings about disco?
What an astute question! Of course I have feelings about disco! I see it as a totally misunderstood movement. Mark Motherbaugh referred to disco as being “like a beautiful woman with a great body and no brains”. However, I find disco to be an inherently intellectual movement. In disco one finds the coherent, sentient moment where one dismisses the dialectic… “shut up and dance”. It is not escapism but rather direct action. Intellectual discourse is one that so often marginalizes the physical, seeking to unfairly separate the mind from the body. Even still, disco was not speechless, in fact the club was a vibrant scene, only half dance floor, where the other half exchanged ideologies. Dance seems to function as an externalization of unconscious thought; just as the “walk” is instrumental in the development of thought so too is the “boogie”. This “four on the floor” of thought, the ever-present beat, syncopating dialogue, the unfiltered sex, you might call it a personal philosophy. I believe that the direct spirit of disco, it’s ephemeral and dramatic ethos (love is all times to be lost or gained, even if only for the night), should be integral in any imagining of the future. It’s no surprise that in Her, the most realistic and optimistic sci-fi I’ve ever seen, a longing gaze towards the 70’s marks the aesthetic of the future. As much as I want to intellectualize it, if I’m being totally honest, it all boils down to the fact that I would rather be dancing… from here to eternity.
Eva O’Leary received her BFA from California College of the Arts in 2012 and is currently based in New York City.
How much emphasis do you put on the texture of your photographs?I think one of the defining factors in my work is a psychological dichotomy between light and dark, the familiar and the strange. I value this particular type of texture as it provides complexity and depth.I’m a strong believer that beauty is one of the most powerful tools in art. In whatever form (eg.texture, color), it makes us look longer and with greater investment. If I come across something beautiful, typically I’ll also have a greater stake in the content or ideas behind the work.Do your photographs change temperature within the frame? Can a photograph be icy and hot within the same space?I think the more successful ones do. Presenting ice cold and hell hot in the same frame is how you get the second and third read.Can a photograph survive without a narrative? What is the narrative in your work?I think as humans we construct and attach narratives to just about everything we come into contact with. Stories are how we deal with the unknown, they help to filter and process the world.The framework behind my photographs is a curiosity in what has been deemed normal by American culture.Do you keep a distance between you and your subjects?Usually the opposite. I’m drawn to my subjects for a number of reasons, but usually there’s something I can relate to; a certain vulnerability. I know a photograph works when I’m still able to recognize that connection on some level.Does your work contain macrocosms? What purpose do they serve for you or your subjects?My parents are both painters. Growing up, I watched them translate and re-contextualize their life experience through their work as a means of understanding it. I try and do the same with photography.Is the world that photographs inhabit different than the world we inhabit?It runs parallel.Make up a question and answer it:Favorite piece of advice?Everything in moderation, especially moderation.
Dorothea Lange, A Sign of the Times - Depression - Mended Stockings - Stenographer, San Francisco, 1934
Previously blogged, but this is a different frame from the same scene. Notice the floor changes to these planks (perhaps Lange asked the woman to move). And this angle reveals more damage to the stockings.
Eric Ruby is a photographer that lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts.
There seem to be language signals even when no man-made words are present in the photographs. Symbols on asphalt, sticks bent into characters. Can you discuss language in your photographs?
I definitely have a soft spot for non-sensical phrases, and also symbols or characters or objects that potentially look like they are trying to relay information. I am interested in attempts at communicating ideas that can never be fully realized, whether that is through visual information or written characters (which are also visual) and the gaps between what is known and unknown. I like the play between having something appear legible and hinging on investigation. I also think my photographs exist as thematic symbols that require the same type of interpretation and abstraction of knowledge as the written form. Like a crossword puzzle, it’s about where the words/images intersect.
Are photographs about being alive or about dying?
Perhaps photographs are about trying to experience both at the same time.
Does the world ever visually overwhelm you? Do your photographs show that?
Of course it does, I don’t know if my photographs scream “overwhelming”, but I believe my best photographs organize chaotic space to make it appear rational. Depending on the situation, ratcheting up or down the complexity of the relationships between objects to create a sort of “whole” stimuli within the photograph. Although, most things you can’t control(or at least I don’t want to) and I think that when I am the most visually overwhelmed I just let things unfold while remaining observant and they seem to work themselves out. The camera ends up being an equalizer.
When you bring your camera up to your face and look through the viewfinder, do you take a breath before, during or after taking a photograph?
I’ve never really thought about breathing, seems to come natural to me! I would say this is also situational though, I guess I don’t mind doing all three, if you are implying that those are three different types of images/image makers.
Do you have to be smart to be a photographer?
Anyone can be a photographer these days, so no? (assuming not everyone is smart) It’s not a requirement, but I think that it is a requirement of the editor. Whether that is the photographer him/herself or a another entity entirely, the work is truly formed in the editing process.
Are your photographs interchangeable? Is each series set or do all the photographs relate to each other?
My photographs intrinsically relate to each other since I made them all, but to me, photographs made within the same time-frame stay interchangeable until they are solidified either by time, or by putting them in a specific category and/or series. I do keep an open mind about images recurring or functioning in an alternative mode. Such as, the same or similar image serve multiple purposes based on its applied context.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Can you shamelessly plug your book publisher that you and a few friends run?
Sure! it’s called Houseboat Press(www.houseboatpress.com) I have a couple books for sale on there and we have a few new titles that will be coming in the next couple of months.
Justin Thomas Leonard is a photographer based out of Bowling-Green, Ohio where he currently teaches. He received his MFA from Yale in 2009.
Is weather an act of God?No.What do you fear most?This question?Do you draw inspiration from your childhood?Where I grew up in Miami, FL there seemed to exist an overwhelming sense of something wild and pernicious. These qualities were evident to me within the environment. Without seasonal changes, elements like air, light, and time had disproportionate lapses. My intimate familiarity of that environment influenced me as a person and as an artist. This influence doesn’t necessarily directly enter my work, but rather it has allowed me to have a meaningful understanding of external influences as character-shaping devices.How do acts of control and/or lack of control factor into this work?In any environment, there are always things you cannot control. Perhaps this is presented to the viewer in a more obvious way when working with weather phenomena. However, my decisions are very deliberate.Why do you think there are so many photographs of storms? Do you think that photographing a storm is a way of controlling it?I think there are a lot of photographs. I don’t believe storms hold a special claim to volume or proliferation as a photographic trope and I’m not particularly interested in the genre of “storm photographs”, if such a thing exists. It seems dangerous for someone to think they could control weather with a camera.What do you think lightning illuminates in your soul? What do you think it illuminates on film?I tend to leave questions of the soul out of my understanding of images and my work and images I make. My developing series “Lightning, Dental Floss” are indulgent images where Ive tried to reduce what I understand of photography to a playful and concise exercise. The images are absurd but rooted in rigorous study.When your subjects look out into the dark cloud, do you think they see themselves in the storm? Do you in turn see yourself in them?I won’t comment on the motivation of my subjects, its a question better left to them.The process of art-making for me is not focused on self reflection. This seems like a very encumbered and unfair way of working. If I were dealing with the indulgence of self-exploration I wouldn’t be able to focus on the work at hand.Ask yourself a question and respond.ok? OK
Tara Wray is a filmmaker and photographer based in Vermont.
Why do you mostly photograph ‘animals and lonely spaces’? How do these two things connect?
Animals are not judgmental the way people can be so I feel much more comfortable approaching them to make a picture. I also see in certain animals very human characteristics. You know how when you look at a dog sometimes you can just tell it used to be a person - I love finding that. For the most part I enjoy the company of dogs and other animals more than people, except for my immediate family.
Animals are often found alone or with other animals - farm animals anyway, or wildlife - so I guess that’s one reason I’m drawn to lonely places. I like not being bothered by modern life for a little bit when I photograph.
Are your photographs comedic? How should someone look at your photographs of dogs?
I certainly think so. I find my "Cat Cheese" picture hilarious, if I may say so myself. It’s my aunt Debbie feeding one of her feral cats Cheese Whiz, but not just any Cheese Whiz: it’s specifically noted on the can that it’s the cat’s Cheese Whiz because there’s so much Cheese Whiz in her house she felt she had to make that distinction. I love my aunt Debbie for that. It’s both funny and sad - my favorite combination.
I hope that people will look at my photographs of dogs the way a three year old looks at the entire world - as a beautiful and exciting adventure.
Or they can view them knowing that the dog pictured will likely be dead within 0-15 years of looking at the image.
Up to them.
What is the biggest difference between making films and making photographs? Are you photographs for the same audience you had with your films?
Photography is like writing a poem in a solitary cave and filmmaking is like writing a novel by committee. I have no desire to ever make another film ever, until the right story comes along that can only be told through moving images and not stills.
They’re both battles for eyeballs and to that end, I’ll take all the eyeballs I can get in either medium. If people find my photos from my films I think the sensibilities are similar, even some of the subject matter - I’m currently working on a sequel to Manhattan, Kansas: a photo book about seeing my grandma for the first time since making that film in 2005. It’s my first foray into autobio stuff since I swore it off forever after making Manhattan, Kansas. But for some strange reason I can’t seem to stay away from autobiographical work even though I resist it so thoroughly in my head. I recently decided I’d like to see my mom again for the sole purpose of documenting her in photographic form. It’ll be an anthropological study of the effects of untreated mental illness (haven’t seen my mom since making Manhattan, Kansas) only my subject is the woman who gave birth to me and not some random person with whom I have no emotional connection. It will be the ultimate in detachment-based photography.
How do you choose your subjects for projects? Are there things that tie them all together?
Subjects that I’m obsessed with often wind up as project fodder. I have a short attention span so if I’m not really connected I won’t get very far. Things that make me sad or make me laugh or otherwise wake me up from my day to day routine are worth investigating, I think.
What do you think animals personify that people cannot express?
Unconditional acceptance even when you raise them for the sole purpose of one day eating their flesh or drinking their milk or stealing away their babies. Humans are the most viscous of all animals.
Is sadness intrinsic to animals?
I don’t know. I suppose animals don’t have brains the way we do so they don’t express sadness the way we might. I’d love to see a dog writing sad tweets though. Or a cow just comfort eating the fuck out of a pint of ice cream.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
“Do picnic boys go in green cars?”
“I want to eat my noodles with my hands.”
— Excerpt from a conversation my three year old sons had with each other
Catherine Larré studied at the Royal College of Art in London and currently lives and works in Paris, France.
Which ones more imperative to your photographs, understanding or seeing?
It is about believing in what we are seeing, my pictures are not as real as what is shown. The picture are made up in a studio with a retro-projection technique, they are “hyper real” as they express the notion of real sentiment on a very short instant of some event that might never happen!
Surrealism has always been a great source of inspiration to me. My practice usually involves constructing images layer by layer; this technique has lent itself very well to ‘audience participation’, as it is readily understandable as a form of storytelling.
You photograph a lot of body forms as optical illusions- how does this fit in to your perspective as an individual and a photographer?
In the body series called “landscapes” the flesh becomes a thick liquid that could slip and disappear on the sides.
Can you talk about the link you’ve created between memory and body in your work?
Memory of the skin with it’s folds and creases, looks like a maze: no beginning and no end. In the calcifications series - the thought or memory is something hard and crystalline, but also living and organic that thrives and grows on the body’s juices - grows perhaps as a disease. And although it may end in darkness inside the body that growth is luminous even beautiful.
Do you make art with specific purpose? Are you trying to prove something?
I’m trying to interpret the traces of childhood fantasies.
Can you talk about your work in relation to nostalgia and dreams?
I think it is more about reminiscence- a projection of remembrance. Nostalgia depresses me!
Visually, your pictures are dense and unclear. Is there a part of your work or thought that has significant clarity?
As I’m working with projected pictures where I add layers of objects it seems that the darker the picture is, the clearer it is! Looking at the reality on the other side (of the retro-projection), makes the image “a proof” of it’s reality, adding objects, clothes, hair on it makes it “really” real, it brings the image back to the very essential.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Did you really see this?
I did, but was it really there? It looked like time expanding!
Stacy Renee Morrison graduated from Rutgers University in 1997 with a degree in women’s studies and received her Master’s Degree in Photography from New York University in 2001.
How do you straddle the line between fantasy and reality in photography? How is photography a time machine?
By creating all of my photographs in color, I am negating any possibilities that these images are actual photographs from Sylvia’s lifetime. If I use a historical process, this would confound the viewer as to what they are really looking at, based solely on the medium. This seems like such an obvious choice and one that does not satisfy my intentions.
I want this hesitancy, this uncanny uncertainty of time and place to extend to the viewer by means of the subject matter rather than to achieve this through technical processes. A wet-plate collodion photograph would be too illustrative and easy for the viewer. By making color photographs, my objective is to compel the viewer, even for the briefest of moments, to consider that this photograph is a record from Sylvia’s time, when in reality it was made in my time.
All photographs tell atruth, but all photographers are in some ways liars. I am very keen on the notion of photography dispensing fiction. My photographs invent indirection, and I do wish to deceive.
These images are all based on certainties that I have learned about Sylvia’s life, but her reality is long gone; and what has replaced it is my fantasy.
My photographs serve more as an imaginary time machine. I hope the beauty of them lies in the fact that they are born in a space I have come to know as no-when. No-when takes place in the 19th century and the present, but no-when also does not take place in the 19th century and the present. No-When never exists.
How do you make work about someone who is dead? Does Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander represent something more internal?
The first thing to acknowledge when photographing the dead is that you must trust that they have faith in you, the living, and the judgments you will make about their lives. Secondly, you need to regain the hopefulness of their lives which death has stolen. Furthermore, you need to imagine the life of the deceased, and your own life, and confuse the two beyond recognition.
Sylvia functions as my friend and my 19th century alter ego. I communicate with her as if she is alive and I try to be her. It seems odd to consider that she can function in my life in both of these ways, but she simply does.
Sometimes when I am walking the same streets she once traversed in New York City, I feel this great desire to talk to her.
Luckily for me, with the way the world operates today, there is the assumption that someone is on the receiving end of a conversation by means of an earpiece. No one needs to know that the person I am talking to has a birthday 133 years before my very own.
I am fiercely protective of Sylvia and try to shield her from some of the information that I have subsequently learned about her life, even though she obviously knew these facts because she lived them.
And there are the times I boldly assume her identity. In social situations where I need not necessarily be me, I am often so audacious as to introduce myself as Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander. I recently went to a book signing, and when the author asked my name, I stated Sylvia, because I thought she would have really liked this book and I wished it to be signed to her.
How are pictures like ghosts?
Pictures are ghosts because they are of the present, but immediately predicate the past. We exist for this moment, in this very way, and in another moment perhaps even a second later, we exist in a completely different way. Photographs can hold all the evidence of who we once were, and yet are only truly evident of one thing, our mortality.
Have people become more permanent in our time?
When I first began my research on Sylvia, all I had was her birth date and the knowledge of her family’s slave trading past. Her birth date led to the dates of her marriages, the birth of her son and eventually her death date. While the archives were brimming with materials on the male descendants of her family, information about the women were conspicuously absent. It was not until I found Sylvia’s living great-granddaughter, who had an abundance of Sylvia’s personal papers, that I learned what I know today. For a long time the coldness of these dates, found in musty old ledgers, was her only proof of existence.
There was a moment or two when I thought I almost had to give up Sylvia to historical fiction. Now, if you put “Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander” into Google, a plethora of biographical and personal information comes up about her because of The Girl of My Dreams. If Internet presence can be considered existence, which for better or worse it is today, then Sylvia exists more now than she did then.
If all that’s left are bones, what impression does a skeleton make? How are your photographs skeletal?
This is a lovely question.
On October 11, 1866, Sylvia writes in her journal: My darling mother was carried out of the house for the last time. We put flowers that she loved so dearly around her and laid her in the grave where she is with the Lord.
In September of 2010, Sylvia sits in the same dress that she was wearing in a studio portrait from the early 1860’s. At this present time, the formality of that earlier pose is gone, as well as the props and the directed lighting, and she is sitting in relaxed repose by a large picture window with the early morning light seeping in. Is she aware or unaware of the camera behind her? This is unknown.
The window where she sits is on the second floor of the grand house in Bristol, Rhode Island where Sylvia grew up and the very place where her mother died now 144 years ago.
The air changing to fall is perceptible, she notes to herself staring out the window. Black horses, two of them adorned with feather plumes, are whinnying and wheezing and the slightly broader horse continuously kicks its foot back nervously. They are waiting to receive the weight of the newly deceased.
Sylvia is very distressed and disheveled since her mother died 3 days ago. In this early morning hour, her hair has not been bound up, and she is haphazardly arrayed in her mourning dress. She is even bare foot.
They carry her mother’s body out of the house, carefully navigating the turn of the center staircase. She turns away from this scene to peer outside, to see the last glimpse of her mother.
With the greatest of generosity, the current owner of Sylvia’s house allows me to explore and make photographs. Immediately upon seeing this window, I knew this spot, where the light floods the space even on the grayest of days, was where she sat to say goodbye to her dear mother.
This is how my photographs are skeletal.
What does Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander have to say to your audience?
Sylvia has graciously accepted her death. She is flattered and grateful for my attention and I know she appreciates my devoted remembrance. She is happy with the simple recognition that she once existed. She asks nothing of me. I am the one who wants to give her the world.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What did you wear to the Ball honoring the Prince of Wales in Boston on October 18, 1860?
After trying on dress after dress, I finally decided on a deep midnight blue silk that would offset my blue eyes and pale complexion. The skirt had stripes of this silk about a foot wide and smaller six-inch vertical panels of elaborate bone-hued lace with matching blue silk thread embroidered with a fine floral and butterfly pattern.
The bodice was striped but instead of wide panels, it tapered into two-inch wide silk strips, followed by two-inch stripes of lace. In the smaller lace stripes the blue embroidery did not mirror the pattern of the skirt but did a zigzag pattern up the entire length of the bodice. This was visually dramatic and graciously slimming. I wore navy lace gloves and a large sapphire and diamond brooch pinned to my neck. A thick black velvet ribbon was fitted to my waist, and in my hair was a lovely long strand of pearls woven among my braids.
My dress comprised of 18 yards of raw silk, 10 yard of lace, and a zillion more yards for my undergarments underneath.
My dance card, affixed to my right wrist with a cream silk ribbon, was filled for every single dance.
Allison Grant is a photographer based in Chicago. She received her MFA from Columbia College, where she currently teaches.
When do life and nature intersect? How has this changed over time? Is it important?
Well, the word “nature” is tricky because it can mean different things. Speaking broadly, nature encompasses all aspects of the material world–so life doesn’t intersect with it so much as it exists within it. Colloquially, “nature” is more commonly used to describe areas of wilderness and natural beauty that are uninhabited or sparsely inhabited, serene, self-propagating, and distinct from industrial and domestic spaces. The vast majority of representations in our image culture depict nature using the characteristics I have just described and those images reinforce a common definition of nature as an ideal that exists out there, apart from and at times in opposition to human endeavors.
This is a critical point because how we envision nature and our role within it has profound implications. As we enact environmental policy on a societal level and make decisions about our own behaviors on an individual level, we assess the positive and negative impacts of those decisions using images and our interpretations of the world we inhabit as guides.
When I started making my pictures, I was interested in considering imagery that depicts nature as an ideal, as made famous by photographers like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter and painters including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. I was less interested in looking at those artists as source material and more interested in the continued production and deployment of highly-romanticized imagery. I want to make artwork that asks questions about the role of idealized images in shaping21st century ideas about nature and our sense of the ecosystems that surround us.
Do you believe in transcendence? What does your work have to do with it?
Yes, I do. The experience of standing in solitude in areas of natural beauty can be incredibly spiritual. I think people are attracted to images of nature (i.e. photos of grand vistas and primeval woods) because they can provide a momentary sense of the peace and wonder that one would experience if they were actually physically present at the location the image depicts. Unfortunately, it isn’t the same as being there, and I think–and I don’t think many people would disagree–that experiencing a place physically is quite different from viewing imagery of that particular place.
The title of one of my photographic series is Unsoiled and I chose it because it has a double meaning. Unsoiled can mean pristine or untouched but it can also be read literally to mean without soil, which alludes to the experience of looking at a representation that is separated from the dynamic characteristics of the physical place it depicts. I do think my images have the potential to provide viewers with small jolts of satisfaction; however, I’m fairly certain they don’t gratify the soul in the way true experiences of transcendence do. That is a part of my point. Images can’t be reality and they don’t possess the same power as real places.
You are using artifice to question authenticity. Is photography itself already an artifice?
Yes, photography is always artifice, but it is a slippery medium that isn’t always interpreted as artifice.
Which one will last the longest: nature, waste, or your photographs?
I wish I could say my photographs, but of course it is nature. Nature in one form or another will outlast us all.
But your question does bring up an issue that I am very interested in. My photographs all contain disposable consumer plastics. I choose this material specifically because it contains polymer chains that take a very long time to break down. I am interested in our ability to look at a piece of plastic and imagine it as temporary and disposable, as something that has a short-term use. The sense that our relationship with plastic starts at the point of purchase and ends as we discard it in a trash bin is, of course, a luxury afforded to us by our waste management systems. We all know it doesn’t really disappear, but I don’t think most people carefully consider the lifespan of the items they consume and throw away. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance. I consider plastic to be a legacy material for humankind. This synthetically produced substance will leave an imprint on our surroundings for a very long time.
Is this the last way to photograph nature? Is there any more exploration left?
No, it isn’t. Many photographs depict “natural beauty” using visual conventions that predate the photographic medium. Perhaps those conventions will eventually fall out of favor, but from what I can tell, they are circulated more than ever before on all kinds of platforms and for varying uses: in art works, commercials, propaganda, social media, activism, etc. Perhaps these images do not represent ground-breaking ways of imaging the world, but I believe that they mean something different today than they did 10 years ago or 100 years ago. I also believe that their ubiquity can be an exploration in and of itself.
Can you talk about depth of field and the importance of foreground to your images?
Yes, this is a very important part of my work. I often use a short depth of field and narrowly focus on the foreground of my images to create the illusion of deep space. In my best work, I think viewers misread my images and at first think they were taken in wide open spaces, only to realize that they are in fact small and enclosed illusions. I also use scale to distort the spatial relationships in the images so that they at first appear expansive but reveal themselves to be composed of small scraps of plastic upon close inspection. I print my images very large so the materials often appear larger than life. It is my hope that viewers experience a tension in the work where the images tip back and forth, seeming both deep and shallow and also large and small.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
I’m always curious to know what books people find to be most influential. Here is a short list of books I’ve returned to over and over while thinking about my work:
David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous
Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
Allison Grant is in a group show in at the Chicago Art Department called “Process of Abstraction”. The show opens tonight, September 27th, from 6-10 PM. We hope to see you there. See link below.