How did you get yourself into photography? Has it always been film?
I've always had a camera, from my first, a 5th birthday present of a Kodak Instamatic, to the family SX-70 which I frequently commandeered at family get-togethers as a teen. Later, in college and early adulthood, I was usually the one in my group taking pictures, but again, with my trusty Minolta Instamatic. I wasn't serious about photography, but I was quite intent on documenting my life and holding onto moments that felt like they'd soon become the memories I'd want or need to retain. The resulting images, save for a few lucky accidents, were all snapshots.
Serious photography, when I was a kid, meant the family Nikkormat. Wielded by my mother for formal portraits or my father when we travelled. As I recall it demanded that we stand still for a very long time, fake smiles on immobile faces, as we waited for the mythical light reading to materialize. And inevitably just when we thought our arms would break, "Wait a minute, the light changed!" It occurs to me as I write this, that these formative experiences all made proper photography seem impossibly technical and complicated. Besides, my passion was visual arts, and though I hate to admit it now, I had a bit of a fine arts bias against photography.
Like so many others, digital was my in to photography. My husband persuaded me to trade up a bit when our camera needed replacing, and Mother's Day 2008 we got a FujiFinePIx. It was so much more camera than I'd ever used before, and both really intuitive and totally portable. I found Flickr, started a 365, lucked into an incredibly supportive community of like-minded photographers, mostly women, who were also living and breathing photography, and among whom no technical question was stupid. The Fuji led to a DSLR, and maybe a year after that on a trip home my mom said, "Why don't you take the Nikkormat? We had it tuned up before we got our digital camera and I'm never going to use it again."
That first roll felt like a reckoning. Had I taught myself enough in my years of digital chimping to make a set of properly exposed images without training wheels, or had it been the brain of the camera doing my work all along? When I saw those first images, for some ineffable reason, they were so much more satisfying than almost anything I'd made in the four previous years of nearly daily shooting, and my conversion or reversion was underway.
About that fine arts bias against photography, what has changed since then? Did film play a role in that change?
I think I acquired my bias against photography pretty subconsciously as a result of my fine arts training. My favorite childhood toy was the big box of 64 Crayolas, I spent hours studying Picasso's blue period and finding the hidden objects in Paul Klee's dream paintings inside the pages of my small collection of Art for Children books, and I always had some sort of extracurricular drawing or painting class. In high school I took an amazing two year college level studio and art history class that taught the history of art from cave paintings to Pop Art, and I believe the only exposure to photography was a brief mention of Man Ray in the context of a broader survey of Dadaism and Cindy Sherman's self portraits. Photography, because of its replicability, was simply not held in high esteem by the arts influencers of the time: museum curators, critics, and teachers, and I guess I absorbed that prejudice.
Then in college I studied American History and came to see photographs as valuable source material. Matthew Brady's Civil War images or the WPA Great Depression archive enable you to understand events in a much more visceral way than written documents alone allow. But while my perspective on photography evolved, I remained blind to the art involved in making the images which helped define historical moments.
When I started getting serious about photography and I studied the work of influential photographers alongside more technical guides, I finally began to see the medium as an art form capable of provoking the kind of deep emotional reaction that I believe is essential in enduring art. And with this new perspective, I had newfound appreciation for the technical skill, inventive spirit, and artistic intuition of those ground-breaking photographers.
Because most of the history of photography is made on film, I suppose that aesthetic imprinted on me through my study. I am a colorist to my core. Back in my art class days, Conté crayon sketches, tonal studies and graphite shading exercises were the necessary medicine that had to be endured so that we could get to the good stuff - oil pastels, colored pencils and water colors. And while beautiful colors are possible in digital, there is something elemental, organic and ultimately more pleasing to my eye in my own work on film vs. digital. Maybe I've never used a good enough digital camera, or maybe my digital processing skills are lacking, but I get closer to the palettes that please me on film than I ever did in digital.
Besides the emotional charge, is there something else in the techniques of painting and drawing that you aim to replicate in your photography?
Probably composition. The end product of both painting and photography is usually contained in the same rectangular or square plane. But from what I've gleaned, and I haven't formally studied photography, so I may be mistaken, the instructions with regard to how you use that rectangle are shades different. We spent a lot of time looking for dynamic triangles in the works of great master, paying close attention to how the artist directed the viewer's eye through the story of their painting, and then worked to recreate that movement in our own work, so while I understood the rule of thirds when I first came across the term, it was new to me.
Representing perspective within painting was a revelation when it was discovered - creating the illusion of depth on a plane. Then later the act of abandoning or manipulating perspective, as the Impressionists did, was a revolutionary act. With photography you work in reverse, taking the three-d world and collapsing it into a plane. Maybe that informs the different approaches? I definitely think that I compose a photo as I would draw a picture.
You mentioned earlier that you're a colorist at your core. Would you care to talk a bit more about that? How do you use color to convey what you want? Is there a heavy technical/theoric background to the use of color derived from your visual arts formation or more of an internal, more personal approach to it?
Simply put, back to my of 64 crayons, color is what has always made me want to make art. It's possible that I'm a tetrachromat, and that I literally see more colors than most people. I do have color memory, which as I understand it is pretty rare, and I can perfectly match a paint swatch left at home to the fabric sample in the store. But beyond the multitude of shades I perceive, for me color conveys emotion. I can watch the sun shift on a subject, and at a particular angle which brings out specific shades, what I'm seeing becomes imbued with meaning and emotion. The scene hasn't changed, but the light illuminates colors in such a way that it feels as though everything is different. That evanescent shimmer of meaning in a brief condition of light revealing color is my personal decisive moment.
I know for a fact (from looking at your work) that you're a fan of multiple exposures. What is it about them that you find so captivating?
I am indeed, and in that I am indebted to you and your fabulous FSC tutorial, Efrain, which fortuitously appeared just as I was feeling the need to try something new.
There are a number of aspects of multiples that intrigue me - both as a viewer and as a creator. I have such deep respect for the work done by directorial photographers, but I am opportunistic and observational. That said, even though I want to catch my photos rather than create them, I do push myself to try to see things differently. That famous Garry Winograd quote about if he saw something familiar in his viewfinder, he would do something to shake it up - I hear that voice in my ear when I'm making pictures. Multiples are great a way to shake up the familiar.
I'm very taken with vernacular architecture, and have made an on-going project of documenting the fast disappearing middle class homes and small scale commercial buildings that characterize early to mid-20th century U.S. ring suburbs. Rising land prices, subsequent gentrification and replacement with far more expensive homes is a familiar story within many cities, but it's a more recent phenomenon in the suburbs. These images are very literal and exist somewhere between documentary and fine art. Multiples are completely opposite to these photographs, and I find them a really joyful antidote and release.
I love the playfulness and the chance of them, that you can't avoid the surprise of the resulting images. On a deeper level multiples can be used to provide a visual representation of abstract concepts like the passage of time, dreams, or even the back office operation behind sight - demonstrating the complex interaction between the eyes and the brain that composites multiples into a single image.
And finally, I find the possibility of multiples thrilling. They expand my observational toolbox to infinity because there is no end to the ways in which I can superimpose one thing upon another, plus camera movement, plus the number of exposures! With multiples you could take 100 rolls of film of the same neighborhood and never make a repeat image. That's exciting to me.
You are also a fan of words, both as a reader and a writer. Your articles are very engaging and I think that it is because of the marriage between words and images. How does this union happen? Which comes first?
That's so difficult to know. I think it's quite fluid - the words and the pictures ebb and flow - one feeds the other. I couldn't do without either, but don't have a lot of down time, and I find I'm unable to passionately pursue two interests simultaneously in what little time I have. So if I'm voraciously, omnivorously reading, as I have been the past year or so, I end up making fewer images. But eventually all of that stuff I've been putting in to my head needs to come out - usually as pictures with accompanying words.
On rare occasions reading is the straight up inspiration for my images. Last spring I was captivated by a book, Radiant Days, by Elizabeth Hand, one of my very favorite contemporary authors who is not nearly as well known as she deserves. Its premise sounds so improbable, a time travel story linking Rimbaud in his time and place with a Washington D.C punk, street artist in the 1980's. Maybe because of Hand's exquisite writing or the fact that I know the DC locations so well, I was taken into the spell of this book. The Georgetown canal was key spot in the story. Shortly after finishing the book I was downtown for the day taking pictures, and without even really realizing why I walked miles, as if drawn to the site of the story. I felt compelled to make the multiple exposures I took that day. They were a visual manifestation of my experience of reading of the book.
Most of the time, though, it's not a bolt of lightning like that, it's more of a slow simmer. There's a give and take between the words and the images. I turn up an idea in my reading, it triggers ideas for photographs, consciously or subconsciously, and by the time the photos are made, there is a scaffolding of words upon which the images rest. Sometimes I only figure out the story behind the pictures through the writing. Sometimes the writing flows through me fully formed, as if the pictures know their story and I'm just taking their dictation.
What I do know is that the satisfaction in producing a well-written paragraph feels very much like making a successful photograph, and the pictures with which I am most satisfied read like poems. There's a dynamism within the frame, each point with its counterpoint. Those rare photos have a visual rhythm or meter, and they distill the feeling of a precious moment with a spare precision. Nothing is absent. Nothing is superfluous.
Have you ever faced "shooter's block"? How do you deal with it? What would you tell someone facing it to help them come out of the funk?
Of course and right now! How I deal with a fallow period really depends upon its cause. If I'm feeling the boredom that comes from lack of challenge, I push myself to learn something new. If it's that I'm dissatisfied with my results because I'm coming up against the limitations of my gear and am unable to meet my expectations, then I might break down and buy something new. If I'm having an existential crisis, wondering why I make my pictures at all, well then maybe I change gears a little and spend even more time reading, gardening, or doing something else for a while.
I am reluctant to force things when I'm not feeling moved to make pictures. I believe that some bit of the photographer's intention at the moment they depress the shutter is imbued upon the resulting image. The more focused I am in that moment - the clearer my intent - the easier it is for the viewer to read my intention. I prefer to make my photos from a place of wonder, curiosity and delight in the world, and I'm a terrible faker. On the occasions I forced myself to make photos when I didn't really wish to, the resulting images lacked enthusiasm. They were flat and lifeless. So now I prefer to wait out a dry season with the faith that in due time, the rain will come again.