Interview with Tytia Habing
The bonds we make in life will always have a hold on us. No matter how insulated one might feel from others, we are all inextricably connected and interconnected in some manner or another. Such is the cycle of life.
Tytia Habing has lived a somewhat cyclical life thus far — having been born in rural Illinois, living most of her adult life in the Cayman Islands, and now returning to where she grew up with her husband and son. Her photo series and resulting book, This is Boy, is the product of seeing the world through her son’s eyes; a world like her own childhood of living in a rural area on a working farm and experiencing the natural world around her.
Nature plays an important role in Habing’s work, whether is it front and center, or as the tableau background for her subjects. Her philosophy toward life and photography incorporate getting outdoors. She shoots her commercial/portrait work and her fine art work outdoors in natural light if at all possible. To that end, Habing states, “Plants and beautiful Mother Nature is, and will always be, a great inspiration to me. If at all possible, I prefer to shoot outdoors and somehow incorporate nature into the scene.”
Habing’s scenes are woven together with a visual language that uses her strengths, and speaks to the viewer directly – not over their head – with universal themes that make her images very accessible.
Wobneb Magazine (WM): Can you speak to one of the strong themes in your work — of how we all fit into the world around us, or our sense of place in the environment?
Tytia Habing (TH): Well, my feeling is we need to live with the environment instead of being at odds with it. We are literally part of nature, but it’s as if humans have forgotten this teeny tiny fact somehow. We’re animals. We’re part of the animal kingdom, so that’s pretty good evidence in case anyone is skeptical. I think it’s our responsibly to be good stewards to the earth. Thus far, we’ve done a horrible job at it. Having said that, it feels like the tide is slowly starting to turn the right way. Whether that’s because we’re all starting to grow a conscience or whether it’s fear that we’ll end up killing ourselves and our children if we don’t change, I don’t know and I don’t care as long as there’s a change for the better.
WM: You’ve talked about the theme of nostalgia as it pertains to your work — can you also speak to the idea, or the power of nostalgia, in your work?
TH: I didn’t even realize how nostalgic the series felt until I got several emails from people from my parent’s generation. These are people in their sixties and seventies contacting me. They all said it reminded them of their own and their children’s childhoods, but not their grand-kids. They all indicated they felt sad for the way their grandchildren are growing up. That made me realize I’ve basically been photographing my own childhood in a way. I grew up in the very same spot, doing similar things: playing in the river, hiking through the woods, digging in the dirt. Nostalgia is a powerful thing indeed. It brings you back to simpler, happier times. In this case, it makes me realize most kids won’t have that affection or nostalgia for nature like older generations, and that makes me pretty darn sad.
Habing has had the good fortune to collaborate with one of her inspirations, Kristianne Koch-Riddle. The two produced a book project, The Sixth Sense. The two photographers work similarly, and have documented their sons as they have grown.
WM: Please talk about the role of the photographer as “publisher” and what you think about the recent increased push for photographers to publish photo books; whereas in the past, gallery exhibitions were the pinnacle for a fine art photographer.
TH: I think it’s great that photographers are publishing their own books. I’m a big fan of photo books. It’s an expensive, hard thing to do though and I applaud anyone that’s done it or is trying to do it. From what I understand from photographers that have done it already and my own limited experience, it’s not at all a money maker, but it helps get your work out there in front of eyes.
WM: Your collaborative project book ‘The Sixth Sense’ was named one of the top 35 photo books of the year by Andy Adams in 2014. Tell us what it was like to work on a collaborative book project such as that.
TH: I did the book with my good friend Kristianne Koch-Riddle and she came up with the idea. Our boys lead similar lives in that they both embrace the natural world unlike a lot of their peers. We thought a book showing this would be a great idea. In all honesty, she did all of the work and I really can’t take much credit for it. I love collaborating on projects with friends though and hope to do similar projects in the future.
Habing’s photographic inspirations are many. Habing says, “I’m inspired on a daily basis just by scrolling through my Facebook or Instagram feeds. To name just a few in no particular order: Sally Mann, Emmet Gowin, Kristianne Koch-Riddle, Angela Bacon-Kidwell, Lori Vrba, Aline Smithson, Cig Harvey, Emma Kisiel, Ellen Jantzen, Joni Sternbach, Polly Chandler, Susan Burnstine, Tami Bone.”
WM: You’ve listed some of your photo influences for their various strengths, and/or their use of nature and incorporating their subjects in nature, among other strengths. Have you seen the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and specifically the photos he made of his children and his wife? What kind of comments do you think other photographers make when they include their own family in their “fine art” images?
TH: I am familiar with him and like him very much. I tend to gravitate towards artists that are a little different or odd, but most artists are that way aren’t they? I’m sure a lot of photographers are trying to say specific things by using their own families in their work but a lot also use their own family because that’s what they have to work with. It’s convenient. I think I’m a little of both. I tend to photograph things and people I love. I don’t get the same excitement shooting something I’m not close to or that I don’t care about. I have to care or it’s of no interest to me.
When looking at the work of Tytia Habing, it is understandable to recall the work of Sally Mann. Although Mann is one of her inspirations, that influence does not define Habing’s work as derivative. There is an immediacy and honesty to Habing’s images, especially her work focused on her son. Whether he is in a costume, bare-chested among the vegetation of their mid-western home, or gazing directly into his mother’s lens for a portrait — Habing’s son (and thus Habings work) rings true. Mann frequently set up her shots in her project/book, ‘Immediate Family’, staging and restaging scenes to depict the concepts Mann was trying to evoke — the photos are unabashed fiction told to reveal truths primarily about complexity of childhood. But Habing seems to pull it off easily with her documentary approach of capturing the world around her, especially when it comes to her son. Habing has said about her approach and preparation for photographing her son, “I don’t think I prepare at all except to make sure my camera batteries are charged and to steel my nerves at whatever dangerous thing he may be doing next. You have to have patience, though. I do bring patience along. Well, most of the time. I never set up a scene. It’s not that I haven’t tried a few times in the past. For me, or my son, it just doesn’t work. The images look forced and awkward. It’s all natural.”
WM: Do you feel there is a significant difference between “documentary” style photography versus “portrait” photography as a label? How do you define those genres?
TH: Oh, this one’s tough. I know what the official, ‘formal’ definition of the two, but here’s my take on it. I feel like I combine the two when I photograph. I can go out with my camera to document my son and get a great portrait while doing it. In general, I think labels are restrictive.
WM: But do you feel your work falls into either of those categories? Or do you feel comfortable categorizing your work in that way? How do you describe your photography to someone who’s not familiar with it?
TH: I feel like my photographs fall into both categories, but I’m not sure things always have to be categorized, you know? Generally, I tell people I photograph my own little slice of life. It’s a minuscule slice of the world at large. Describing my photography on my website and social media sites is a completely different story and not easy for me. You have to describe yourself in such a way that people looking for your type of work can find you, so that’s always tough for me.
WM: You’ve cited both Susan Burnstine and Angela Bacon Kidwell as inspirations of yours. Their work is similar to yours in some respects and different in others. In particular, their images tend to be constructed, layered and visually & symbolically narrative. Your work seems to carry many of these same strengths, but done in a style closer to documentary or straight shooting. In terms of approach or execution of your ideas, could you speak to the similarities and differences of your work to some of your influences?
TH: To be completely honest, I don’t know how a lot of my influences approach or execute their ideas, so I find it hard to compare. I like a vast array of other photographers but I do tend to gravitate mostly to black and white shooters. Each and every photographer I love has a quality that I desire. That’s why I love them, I think. Emmet Gowin is so very honest with all his images, Sally Mann’s work is so very beautiful it’s almost otherworldly, Diane Arbus was bizarre and wonderful, Susan Burnstine’s photos are from a dream world, and so are Tami Bone’s — but hers also have these fascinating animals and magical qualities to them.
WM: So, if these photographers have qualities that you admire/desire — how does that ‘inform’ your own creative process? Is it a conscious act, or something that (as all artists do at some point) add your ‘voice’ to the aesthetics that other photographers have?
TH: It’s not a conscious act. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a photo and consciously tried to make it look like or emulate another photographers work. The brain is an amazing and mysterious thing though, so I’m certain I probably do it in a subconscious way. I’m not sure anyone is original anymore. It’s probably all been done before, and like you said, we’re all just adding our voices to things we’ve seen already.
WM: You’ve been listed as a finalist for the Photolucia Critical Mass Competition this year, and you’ve received a lot of recognition for your work in the photo community. As we speak, you are prepping for your first solo show to be held November 7 through mid-December; How do you strike a balance with your personal photography projects, and your photography you shoot for clients/customers?
TH: I’m not going to lie. I find it very difficult. Even though you would think they’d be similar, they’re not. They’re completely different beasts. If I’m in the midst of working on my own personal work I have to put client work aside and when I’m working on client work, I need to put my personal work aside. I have yet to find a balance that works for me.
WM: Is it relatively easy, or do you find it a struggle to be an artist where you live in the Midwest, or in Illinois? Do you feel isolated in the larger artistic community?
TH: I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s not hard either. Just different I guess. The internet and social media make the world a much smaller place and it’s easier to get your work out there by using it. I think anyone near a large artistic community definitely has a leg up on me, and maybe I have to work a little harder at it, but that’s life. Do I wish I was near an artistic community? Absolutely I do, but it just so happens I live out in the middle of nowhere so that’s not going to happen anytime soon. If I didn’t live here, I wouldn’t be able to make the work that I do. I’m definitely envious when I see photographers I’m friends with get together to attend lectures and workshops that I’m not able to go to, but again, such is life.
WM: Can you speak about what drew you to participate in the Filter Photo Festival this year? What other parts of the festival did you enjoy most?
TH: It seemed like it was time for me to put my work out there in a real way, not just through social media. I also wanted to meet some of the many people I had met online. It’s always nice to put a real face to a profile photo. To be honest, the number one reason I went was because I had been wanting to take a course by Aline Smithson for a very long time, and she had a one-day course there. It was an amazing class, and helped me immensely. Oh what I could learn, if I could make it to a week long workshop of hers! Elizabeth Avedon’s class was just as informative. While I’m not planning on making a book anytime in the near future, I love photo books and thought it would be a great class, and it was. Elizabeth is very down to earth, and honest, and she was able to give me a much better understanding of what goes into the whole process. I really enjoyed the reviews as well. The reviews were a wonderful way to get a lot of different viewpoints about my work – whether it was positive or negative, it was definitely a learning experience.
One cannot help but be impacted by the images Habing creates. Her frank honesty leaves us feeling as if we’ve been allowed to view a family album of sorts. Habing’s images form a strong connection between herself, her family and her surrounding world. Much like growing vines that twist and grow upward to form fantastic garden structures, our children grow, change, and shape themselves into independent people who we see ourselves within. These are the ties that bind.
Tytia Habing lives and works in Watson, Illinois very near where she grew up on a working farm. She holds degrees in both horticulture and landscape architecture and is a self taught photographer. Habing’s work has been published in publications such as Lenscratch, Fraction Magazine, Shots Magazine and National Geographic. Her work has been featured in joint exhibitions nationally and internationally, and she has two upcoming solo shows in the works. Most notably, her work has been shortlisted for both the Black and White Photographer of the Year 2015 sponsored by Leica and Critical Mass 2015.
Originally published by Wobneb Magazine, November 2015
All photographs © Tytia Habing, used with permission.