Alexis Vasilikos is a photographer who currently co-edites Phases Magazine.
Is your voice in a photograph or an edit of images? Would your photographs change if someone else created the edit?
When attention is on an image my voice is there so to speak and when attention is on editing my voice is there too, they are parts of the same process. At a deeper level I wouldn’t place myself in an image or in a series of images, because the image is a very elusive thing, specially the self image.
Coming to your second question: the photographs don’t have any inherent meaning or even existence in themselves, they exist in relation to an observer, so yes definitely they change according to who observes or edits them.
How do you know when a series is finished?
You just know it, it’s an intuitive knowing so I can’t tell you how exactly it happens, of course we need to keep in mind that something is finished for the time being, it doesn’t mean that it is not subject to change at another moment.
What does having a large amount of photographs in a series do to an individual photograph? Can you focus on one image or is your work designed to be taken in all at once?
Generally speaking a series of images creates an energetic field in which the single images are seen, a kind of context for an experience of seeing. In my view it’s not so important the quantity that a series contains as much as the quality and the feeling it creates, so what the series can do to the individual photograph depends on the quality of the editing , it is a question of subtlety.
Yes of course I focus on single images, in fact this is how images appear in the first place , they are manifestations of focused attention but when it comes to the question of presentation, a different kind of seeing is required, which is more panoramic, because you have to create passages from one image to the next and these passages create an inner rhythm and this inner rhythm creates a flow.
Like in music the different sounds create one musical composition and we can experience music both as individual sounds and as one piece depending on where we put the attention, we even have the possibility to hear the silence between the sounds, so even though the edits at my website have been made in this way it’s up to the viewer if he/she is going to perceive them as single images or as one flow of images.
What outside of your personal life informs your work the most?
Do you see or do you feel? Can they be done together?
Am I mutant, and not aware of it? (laughs)
Yes we see and feel at the same time and also we are observing the seeing and the feeling as it happens.
Does it ever feel fruitless? Like there is no end and no reward?
It feels fruitless when we are looking for a reward in what we do and maybe we are meant to taste this in order to cease looking for fulfillment in activities or objects. As a dear friend beautifully puts it: no appointments no disappointments.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Do you believe in miracles?
I don’t have to believe, everywhere I look I see the miracle of existence.
Trey Wright graduated from the University of North Texas and currently living and working in Dallas, Tx.There are many layers to your photographs: there are the objects or products, the photographs of these products used for sale, the studio collaging or arrangement, and then a final re-photographing. Where do you fit in? How do you feel rephotographing a photograph?
I’ve always held a fascination for photography but coming from a background in design I think my initial relationship to the medium has been that of reference material, a foundation to build from, and photography being a tool alongside other elements. I’ve worked so long not being the author of the photographs I’ve been working with that I think it no longer registers to me as something I shouldn’t be doing or moving away from—though I have take images where I am behind the camera.
When I take a picture of another photograph, I feel like I am a witness to something. I would rather arrange things that are around me to photograph, but there is a lot of work that goes into that arranging—sorting through imagery, construction before the final photograph.
I see myself being an arranger, I arrange photography to illustrate ideas I have about the world around me.What is your favorite color? Why?
If I had to pick one it would be red because it relates to physical desire.
Is there a line between advertisement photography and art photography? Are there two such opposing forces or should there even be a distinction?
There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both use compositional tricks to hold a viewers attention, both communicate some kind of message and they both will meet a similar kind of demise. The questions do become much richer when working on a personal project, questions that cannot always have a place within a commercial assignment. I’m less interested in answering questions in my fine art practice.
Is your work funny? If so, what does that do for the artwork?
I think that the work is funny. Placing a nipple next to an arm, next a fly, next to a jewel creates a fun juxtaposition and irony in some cases. The cutting out of an image can also exaggerate a subject beyond what the original image was capable of and I think there is something funny in that. Humor helps me to get the viewer to linger on an image longer.
I’m not always interested in creating a very dark statement about images shuffling around on the internet and losing their context. I would rather see the humor in that.How does your commissioned work relate to your video work, your video work to your studio work, your studio work to your portraits? Do they enhance each other?
Most of my studio work has come about because of commissioned work. Sometimes I’ve really needed that push to get myself to start working on studio work again. I will use the commissioned work to test out different ideas. I started working on my series Totem because I was left with all these cut out accessories and that got me interested in setting up these shrines to them, figuring out how they would function as works of art.
The portraits I’ve taken so far have been exercises in composition. I want to retain that sense of playfulness, simplicity and color in the portraits but I view most of them as affirmations that I have a command over my medium and that my true voice voice lies in constructed imagery. Though, I think what is interesting about most of the portraits I’m drawn to that I’ve taken is that there was something about them that I had no control over. That also makes them a respite from having so much control over the subject.
I’ve been wanting to do a video for sometime and I was given the opportunity with a commissioned assignment to start testing that out, figuring out how I would exactly got about approaching the making of a video. I’m still figuring ways to utilize video in my fine art practice but it has opened up an entirely different type of output for my work. My video work so far has been influenced by my photographic work, the idea of layering and how that relates to the larger idea of how we experience images.
Is your work social or political in nature?
The work features a lot of sourced images, so to evade the implications of that I think would be impossible.
My work takes the images, warps them and represents them in these kind memorials to something that is passing. I’ve used for the most part one specific type imagery to illustrate this—advertising imagery.
I like this subject matter because it flip flops between being something that is permanent and impermanent, beautiful and garish, personal and impersonal. I see a strong correlations between this type of subject and photography.Ask yourself a question and respond.
What is a piece of advise you have been given over the years?
I’m not sure exactly what the best advise has been but I do know the strangest. The strangest piece of advise was from a professor at the end of my first semester. The advise came stapled to the grading sheet of our final semester project, it was on a ratty piece of notebook paper and scrawled in black ink. The writing was nearly unreadable and had to re-read several times to make out what the words were—You can’t fake freedom.It felt rather cryptic and I could never really figure out what he meant by it.
Louis Heilbronn received his BA from Bard College and currently lives and works in New York.
Tell us about one of the most important moments of your life.
When I transferred colleges. Going to Bard ended up being a very important part of my life. Being surrounded by students with similar interests as well as having great professors was very different than my previous college experience. It really influenced where I am now.
Do you place rules on your practice?
Generally no… But that being said I am very strict with myself. I will never force a picture if I do not feel it. I also still shoot with film so I only allow myself to make 1 to 2 frames each time I make a photograph.
What is important about Paris, Texas?
Paris, Texas 2013 is a series I presented last year at Paris Photo. A majority of these photographs were literally taken between Paris and Texas. I was in Paris in early 2013 and from there I went to Texas for a month, stopping only briefly in New York. The work tracks my odd and mismatched journey. There is no beginning or end; a few pictures included in the series were even made several years before these trips.
The editing process was the most important aspect of Paris, Texas 2013. I developed a new method that was much looser and less restricted by time and place. Hence, why the project included such different geography and chronology.
What governs how you feel about photography?
I work in a way that comes naturally to me. I do not force anything upon myself and rather allow my life experiences to influence my work. I hope that as my interests change and grow, my vision will evolve over time.
Can you talk about the blonde woman in your work? Does she embody something?
Louise. Louise is an important part of my work as she is a source of inspiration as well as my best friend. When I photograph her I am always exploring new visual ideas. I have begun to see the photographs of her as a collaboration. She understands these ideas and intentions, which influences her presence in my work. She is one of several subjects that will continue to be woven in and out of my work over time.
You’ve said you ‘work with out limits’, is there really such a space to exist in while taking photographs? Can you describe it?
What I was trying to say is that I never limit myself to a certain subject matter. When I am out photographing anything goes. Anytime I see something that I am interested I will make the picture, regardless of whether it fits with what I am currently working on. It may appear in a body of work 5 years later, who knows. The editing always happens after and it is only then that things begin to fall into place.
Ask yourself a question and respond?
Where are you now?
Sadie Wechsler is a photographer who received her MFA from Yale in 2013.
Your work has changed dramatically in the last couple of years. Can you discuss what brought this on and how the new and old work relate to each other?
I felt my work needed to change, previously I felt I was practicing, mimicking things I had seen before, studying the past. I wanted to find a form of expression that was authentic to my personal experience and what I want to say. I wanted and still am searching to find a place where the form of the images speak to the content they carry. This is why I went to graduate school, I felt suck and had no idea how or what this change would look like only that I need to move past everything I took for grated and find a new form of expression. The themes and motivation to make the work have not changed, only the way it is expressed and the form it takes. I have always found it unavoidable to speak to our world as a malleable and finite material, and our bodies as small but influential actors in its manifestation.
Discuss one very specific emotion present in your work and how it relates to your own life.
I don’t know how to differentiate the work from my personal life. The photographs, while not obviously personal, are products of my desired experiences and their success or failure. At my best the works acts as a refuge, a place where censorship is absent and where I bring a raw perspective.
Are your photographic experiences different from your life experiences at all? Do you live through your artwork? Is this harmful?
Yes my work and personal life are inextricably connected, but the work does not reflect the entirety of my life, instead embodies expressions which cannot be realized in other ways.
Why do you think photography is best suited for your experience? Can you talk about when you break out of traditional photographs, (for example, heavy digital manipulation or rephotographing collages)?Photography is a way of representing the world. It works with framing out more than inclusion, it has to do with a place where mechanics meet the hand and eyes gesture. Photography is a grounding for my work it adds tangibility to ideas, and for this reason it is indispensable. Art making though must be tied to expression and all of the moves or interventions to “traditional photographs” are all to will a life or message into a work that otherwise would be undirected and thus is necessary to the work.
Tell us about one thing that you feel more strongly about than anything else in the world.
What is your work searching for? Do time and space exist with in the search? Do the photographs relate or are you the common link?
I am searching for a concise form of communication where time and space are redefined. All of the photographs relate because they are all in search for the same form of expression.
Photography is a medium of depths of forms and types of articulations which must be probed to create work that helps people expand the way they see.Ask yourself a question and respond.
What meal do you wan the most right now?
Wow, that is hard question because I am quite hungry. I think I would have to go with super cheesy pizza pies with lots of vegetables and sausage with a beer or two.
Dan Boardman is a visual artist living in Somerville Massachusetts, he received his MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2012.
Why are the protagonist in your photographs mostly men?
Great Question. I know why for some bodies of work. For example in The Citizen I was specifically building a population of people. It started with a photograph I took of a young boy with a home cut mohawk. It’s a strange thing but with that photograph I felt I knew something about that kid. What I knew about him didn’t come from speaking with him, but came later when looking at the image. Of course I was projecting my own experiences into him. He became a vessel for people and places I hadn’t thought about in years. That experience wasn’t happening in my other photographs, and it made me interested in making portraits for awhile.Why Men specifically? When I was photographing the images that became The Citizen I was completely saturating myself with science fiction. On some level it was affecting my choices when making images. I was thinking about a group of people that would be left on earth, or would be too stubborn to leave it. Not at the time but later on in editing I was thinking of Dick Proenneke and his survivalist impulses, and the photographer Esko Männikkö who is interested in a certain self imposed male isolation. I did and do photograph women, but in this body of work (which has spilled over into two other projects) I was trying to create a population that could be in it’s last generation.
What is at the very center of the world in your photographs? Where do you go from there?I think even back to the first images I made I was rooted in a type of fiction, and I’m certainly interested in the narrative potential in photographs. More importantly though I feel propelled forward by the human experience. A nebulous topic for sure. I think about how we perceive the human experience as one that extends not only from our own birth to death, but must have existed before us, and all signs say it will still be going after us. This idea manifests itself in different ways in my work. The Citizen is a sort of prophecy. The Family of Man looks at a single point perspective of the universe. Witness and 72 Second Window deal with the present moment and photographic-time.
Tell us about what you think beauty is, and why it matters.I think beauty comes from openness, and knowledge. It’s very easy to dismiss. Thankfully I think we are coming out of a generation of irony and negativity disguised as skepticism. I’m reminded of this essay from Richard Feynman’s autobiography; Feynman describes looking at a flower with a friend and his friend can appreciate all the aesthetic qualities of the flower, where as Dr. Feynman because of his knowledge of physics and natural sciences can imagine what is happening that the eye can not see. Perhaps then he can squeeze even more beauty and wonder from the flower. I think this is really about knowledge and beyond simply knowing some basic science. I think having more knowledge does make the world a more exciting and interesting place. On top of that though I think you need to allow it to be wonderful.
What keeps you going? What are you trying to find out?I’m still enjoying it. I think that’s what keeps me going. Actually I’m finding it easier and easier in some ways. More of the world is interesting to me now than it was ten years ago or so when I started making pictures.
Tell us about your childhood and what effect it has on you artwork.
I was born in Southern California, but really grew up in Central New York. My father worked for a trade magazine that reviewed networking software and equipment on the large scale. He tested equipment and programs that companies might buy. As a result we had computers in the house for as long as I can remember. Typically though things were in pieces. Computers were put together when need be, and without noticed would be dismantled, reassembled or disappear. When moving from Southern California my parents decided to move into a fixer-upper. The house we all moved into (three sisters and I) was constantly being torn apart. In fact most of my young life was spent in rooms with no walls or make shift walls. Constantly rooms would morph into new spaces and entire sections of the house would be demolished. The fixing the house project extends out until today with some small pieces left to finish. All of this is taking place a way out in the country side. In this setting I lived with my sisters and parents and always a handful of friends. I love my family and the place I grew up.
Does it have an impact on my photographs? I think it has shaped my point of view on the world for sure.
You’ve said your photography tends to focus on questions, which comes first, the questions or the photographs?Photographs. I’ve tried to work the other way around. It makes me realize that “questions” might not be what I’m after in the literal pursuit of images. I think questions (big ones) appear when I step back from my images and look at my work as a whole. Maybe a better way to put it would be that I embedded myself with some influence. For me that has been literature mostly. Although other photographers, music, movies etc get mixed in for sure. Sometimes those influences appear in images. Other times it’s not as serendipitous. I’ll set a rule that I see appearing in my images and try to abide by it (only men, no buildings, failing light). Just to see what happens when a mass of some type of image builds. Lastly and most importantly for me is the associations that come to life on the editing table, and not behind the camera. Those two things sometimes feel very separate, but work in tandem. Recently I’ve been deliberately trying to break from these techniques to see what happens.Ask yourself a question and respond.If you could not photograph what would you do creatively? / Please plug something shamelessly.
Thank you for asking. I think i’d try to learn how to be creative musically. I can play some instruments, and I’ve been in bands, but I would love to be more free musically. If anyone is the Boston area and wants to play some metal get in touch!!Plugs: Glad you asked.houseboatpress.com - the finest photobook publisher in the Somerville area. Lots of great stuff happening over here.
Sarp Kerem Yavuz is a photographer pursuing his MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
How important is it that you yourself are a man?
Fairly important. I like that I am a man - that I am at peace with my gender identity, if only on a chromosomal level (the rest, as the work suggests, I am still trying to decipher). It was vital to my process that I understand liking men did not require that I be a woman. There are elements of male camaraderie that I feel not only activate my photo shoots but also that I enjoy. I like having a penis, I like having a beard, I like having a deep voice. I like that my relationship with my models, particularly in terms of control, becomes complicated because both the subjects and myself have penises… there is a pleasant tension that I feel would be very different had I subscribed to a different gender identity.
How important is the “truth” of the model’s sexuality in life when presented with the “truth” of their sexuality in the photographs?
The truth, if there is one, is actually completely arbitrary. Although I enjoy the joke of “In The Closet” being that the models identify as heterosexual, the ultimate goal is to offer constructions and draw attention to the fact that nothing you see may represent reality. So the crux lies in the construction, not in whether or not that construction represents any truth. I don’t know if my models still identify as straight - I don’t need to know, and neither does the viewer. But it is important they know these men who pose for me are, in one way or another, “jocks.” And it is important that they know I am a gay man, engaging with these jocks on such a level.
Is it OK to find your work erotic?
It is perfectly OK to find my works erotic. I forwarded them to a new friend the other day, and he thought I was sending him gay porn. Although subtlety has never been my forté, it is important for me that my work be seen as implicit, rather than explicit.
Can you talk about the shapes the men in your photograph make when they are in groups?
I love shooting them in groups. I often ask several men (or am approached by several men) from the same team to do a shoot, and while I set up I ask that they “just chill” or do what they usually do in the location. Photographs such as Relaxed, straight and Hnnngh! came about as a result of mostly spontaneous goofing on my models’ part, with me fine tuning some gestures here and there. There is a great deal of physical contact that occurs between men who have been playing sports together and have gotten accustomed to each other’s bodies. I just try to get an angle that showcases that link - some kind of visual pattern my eyes can follow. Sometimes I think that the scenes only become homoerotic because I am looking.
When there is no eye connection between the subject and the viewer, what other connection comes to the forefront? Why is contact necessary or not necessary?
Sometimes the refusal to return the gaze is the whole point of the photographs. I am intrigued by establishing connections between the subjects or the subject and some mysterious, off-screen entity. The viewer is meant to be intruding, but through a one-way mirror. So while I want you to feel self-conscious, or even blush, the beautiful man you are looking at doesn’t care about you - he’s too busy looking at the other guy (or me, or my hand, or a reflector). The viewer is meant to feel like an outsider and question their own attraction to the indifferent subject, who is not interested in challenging the viewer at all. If that results in the viewer trying to create a very one-sided, futile relationship with the subject, then I am a happy camper.
Where do you find yourself in these images? Could you photograph yourself?
I am present in the scene as the photographer - sometimes the clear use of a hand-held flash and some times the off-screen gaze is meant to highlight my presence. It is meant to strengthen the constructed nature of these images. I am currently working on a project where I do photograph myself, but is much more about my challenging my own notions of masculine self-representation, and it is also semi-autobiographical because I am including elements of my personal sense of displacement, of the East vs. West conflict that occurs in my head when I am attracted to a man, etc.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
How was the work received in Turkey?I received this email from a man last July, shortly after I had begun exhibiting both Substitutes for My Father and several images from In the Closet in two separate exhibitions in Istanbul. It was from a man who said that he is a devout Muslim who prays every day, goes to the mosque 5 times a week, and he wrote that he had cried in front of one of Substitutes because for the first time in his life he was able to acknowledge his own homosexuality. I received some similar emails afterwards, but that first one I keep for rainy days when I doubt myself and my work. It is easy to consider yourself selfish when there is political turmoil in your country and you choose to make art - to go to art school and get beautiful men to take their clothes off for you. But if I can contribute to a shift in conservative Middle Eastern mentality on gender identity and sexuality, I have no regrets.
Elizabeth Moran is an artist based out of San Francisco who recently received her MFA from the California College of the Arts.
Are you trying to photograph spirits? Is there much of a difference in you when your purpose or motivation, as a photographer, is to capture a spirit?
I am not motivated by a need for visual evidence of the paranormal like the paranormal investigators I have been working with. Instead I am investigating how time creates layers in space.
How does your series ‘Record of Cherry Road’ relate to or inform your series ‘Night, Light’?
You talk about having to feel with your camera, can you go into a deeper description of what that is like?
Record of Cherry Road emerged out of Night, Light. When I was in Berlin during the summer of 2012, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of recent histories and very distant pasts simultaneously teeming under the surface of everything. I found photographing the space or place (in the style of my previous Work Space series) completely unsatisfying. So I began to flash light into these historically charged spaces allowing the light of the camera move and feel through space and time. This was when I first began to think about “feeling” with my camera where the recording of light presents both a single slice of space and a single moment in time.
As I continued working in this way, I found myself drawn to what paranormal investigators calls orbs—often out-of-focus specks of dust or tiny water droplets in fog. I starting considering how these places felt haunted. Not in the ghost busters sense, but in the continuation of time sense. By this time, I was back in San Francisco, and I decided to reach out to my family (who began investigating the paranormal after retiring in 2011) to see if they would be interested in investigating the house on Cherry Road. With their help, I have learned several tool and tricks of the trade all of which involve feeling with energy (light, heat, sound, etc.)
Were you ever afraid of the dark?
Only when alone. I am much more scared of coming upon another living person sitting alone in a dark room.
Have you encountered a ghost or spirit while investigating the home?
I grew up with my mother and uncle’s stories of the house. My mother has felt and seen presences in several other places since. But my family’s sensitivity to unseen presences seems to have skipped a generation, for I have never felt or seen a presence in this way. Instead I am forced to use tools like my camera as prosthesis to scratch at the topmost surface of time. But I do wonder, do we simply see what we believe or do we believe what we see? As an agnostic, I would be thrilled to find evidence of life after death. But for now, I remain a hopeful skeptic.
How does photography lend itself to things like darkness, spirits, flora, or investigation?
And the use of photography as a tool to reveal an invisible world (of energies) is as old as the medium itself. Photography at its foundation is the materialization of light (energies), which on a quantum-level is highly related to time and space. Paranormal investigators look to quantum mechanics as a way to understand the bending of time and space through which the past remains present. I find this conceptual overlap fascinating.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
How does text function in your work?
An underlying thread throughout all of my works is this dichotomy of the missing but ever-present. For example, the accompanying text for the photographs in Cherry Road is very important for the project. In my family, we rotate through only a few select names, and I am interested in this continuing presence of a name despite the change in time. In this project, I am focusing on George and Cary. These two names represent many members of my family (my second first name is Cary), but they are also the names of two people who used to work for my family (the gardner and nanny). I am interested in this doubling and confusion through names and time. We see George standing for his portrait, but we also see his grave.
I also like to use text in my work to (literally) give a present voice to the missing. My forthcoming book, Correspondence 1, presents a dialogue between myself as an analyst of possible paranormal photographs and those who submitted the images. (For a short time in preparation for Record of Cherry Road, I collaborated with a leading paranormal investigator in New York and worked as his photo analyst.) Without the images themselves, the text alone speaks to both ends of the spectrum of what we expect from photographs and photographic evidence of the unseeable.
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.