Cary Benbow: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
Will Ellis: It starts with a feeling of being intensely fascinated by a topic to the point where I have to externalize it. There’s an urge to capture it and show everyone else why it’s so amazing. I try to stay motivated with concrete goals, like completing a body of work for a book or exhibition. I like to have a plan, stick to a subject, and really delve into it.
CB: What is the idea behind your images submitted to F-Stop’s issue, Wonder-Full? Are they part of a project, or why did you select these images?
WE: These are from a series I’m working on called ‘Arthur Kill Road’, which examines the remote edges of Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City. Staten Island is often called “the forgotten borough” and has a decidedly different character than what people often associate with the city. It’s more suburban in nature, and not much of a tourist destination. But in certain areas, it has this really unique sense of place, with wild, open spaces, pockets of historic architecture, and all of these odd relics and ruins that have just been sitting there for decades. There’s a quiet atmosphere and a “haunted” quality to these areas that is unlike anywhere else in the city. And that feeling of “wonder” is definitely something I’m looking to evoke with this project.
CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
WE: There are so many approaches to photography; but I think the most important element of a good photograph is a clear and compelling subject. Beyond that, I like when a picture has an energy or mood that hits you immediately. And then it gives you something to chew on — details to pore over, or some element of surprise that invites you to study an image before you scroll down or move on to the next one. There’s also basic technical things to consider. As an architectural photographer, I like very precise framing and straight lines–but I envy photographers whose images have that very subtle, effortless quality.
CB: What/who are your photography inspirations – and why?
WE: I love looking at the work of other photographers, Walker Evans is one that I always come back to, but in general, I tend to draw more inspiration from other mediums. For this project, I used gothic literature as a reference for the atmosphere I was trying to create. I’m playing with a lot of those tropes of the haunted house and the fog-ridden wilderness. Visually, I looked at paintings by Andrew Wyeth and the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich. But the style and color palette really comes through spending the time to get to know a place, figuring out what time of year or under what weather conditions to shoot, and slowly developing a cohesive look and tone throughout the project. It’s so important to look at a lot of work and appreciate what others are creating, but I think the best inspiration comes directly from the world around you.
CB: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?
WE: Context is pretty important for my work. People want to know what they’re looking at, and that information can enrich the experience of the pictures. So I like to give a bit of historical background on the places I shoot. With this project, I would say I’m looking for landscapes or settings that have an expressive quality, convey a mood, and tell a story. The mood I’m drawn to again and again is eerie, dark, and mysterious. “Hauntingly beautiful” is a phrase I hear a lot. But ultimately, I’m much more interested in hearing what the viewer has to say than explaining my own intentions.
Recent project submission from UK photographer Nick Treviss – he describes ‘Otherness’ as “focusing on notions of identity, and this body of work explores the relationship between photographer and subject, and the affect and influence each has on a true representation of the individual.”
Photographer Amanda Knigga has embarked on a project titled ‘Simply Living‘. Knigga’s project statement covers the scope and basis for the project as such:
With minimal experience, my family made the decision to start over by living a simpler life. They moved from a new house in a subdivision to a doublewide trailer on a plot of land in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. Here, they intend to live a more sustainable lifestyle and gradually develop a farm to provide for themselves.
Separated from this process (as I am in school), I document this intimate transition as an outside observer. It is through my family’s actions that I imagine or facilitate my own ambitions to live closer to the land, and thus become closer to myself in the pursuit of discovering where it is I belong in society.
Simply Living is a combination of traditional and alternative photographic processes, as well as sculptural objects, interweaving the people, land, and resources into an enduring and evolving story. The images are taken with film to create tangible and engaged experiences. As my subject becomes isolated in the viewfinder, amidst its shifting background, I become absorbed in that profound connection unfolding, that without my camera would become another fleeting moment.
The series manifests how I perceive my family’s story as they reconstruct their lives, retreating into nature in order to become more connected. I choose to document this story that I am removed from, by sampling from the intimate experiences that I witness. Simply Living exposes the isolated happenings and how we may change over time by altering the way we live.
To view the project, see Amanda Knigga’s work here. Image shown is Greenbriar Ridge, 2015 (c) Amanada Knigga
Suicide Machine – Living in the Town with No Hope?
The work of Dan Wood is probably not what you might expect from the stereotypical assumption based on the title of his project. Don’t judge a book by its cover. The title stems from a regionally publicized statistic that Bridgend, Wales was experiencing a high rate of suicides in the early 2000s. Wood’s decision in 2013 to document his hometown of Bridgend was different from the skate culture he had been photographing earlier in his photo career. He started to see his town through a different sort of lens; that of a husband, father, and ultimately as a person coming to terms with the love-hate relationship many people have with the place where they grew up. Through his photos, Wood is asking the big question of ‘What does my community mean to me, what impact does it have on myself, my family, and my own child?’
“The simple truth is that you can understand a town. You can know and love and hate it. You can blame it, resent it, and nothing changes. In the end, you’re just another part of it.” ― Brenna Yovanoff from ‘The Replacement’
The resulting landscape of Wood’s beautiful, somewhat melancholy images depict a place where the social fabric is woven with views of a community persevering in the current economic downturn, and people working hard to make a living. One has to wonder if Bridgend’s residents are also coming to terms with the question of whether it is better to tough it out despite the odds, or seek out greener pastures elsewhere. ‘What should we do?’ is a tough question to answer unless it’s done in hindsight. But by then, it may be too late, or the confirmation so desperately desired at the onset feels hollow.
The wait is a bittersweet limbo.
Q & A
Cary Benbow: What is the idea behind your Suicide Machine series? Dan Wood: It all started with my audition of an old Hasselblad 500cm. From somewhere I had the epiphany that I’d make a project about my hometown; and in colour. Originally the project was going to be skateboard culture related, with long exposure night shots of the street spots that the local skaters frequent. The title, ‘Suicide Machine’ was there from the beginning, and when thinking more about the project I realised that I’d already covered the skate scene in enough depth already. The idea was then stored at the back of my mind whilst I worked on another series. Then my wife became pregnant with our first child and something clicked in my brain which made me start to think very differently about things – mainly being, shall we bring up our daughter here or shall we move away – probably overseas. So I started forming a synopsis (which has evolved somewhat) and photographing different parts of the town and also shooting some portraits. It felt so refreshing and new to be using the Hasselblad and colour film, but I was also contemplating our own destiny at the same time – should we stay or go? – this is what the project is ultimately about.
CB: How long have you been working on Suicide Machine, and are you still adding images to it? Why did you decide to shoot color for this project? What has been the reaction to it from people from that area? DW: I’ve been working on the project for 3 years and I shot the last roll of film for the series last week. It’s time to move on to something new – which I’ve already started. The work has been exhibited at three venues in the last year: Including Bridgend itself – thankfully the reaction was nothing but positive. I did receive some challenging remarks on Twitter about the title suggesting I was being ‘insensitive and glamourising suicide’. Their attacks and attempts to drag me into an argument were totally ignorant as it was obvious that they hadn’t ever read the synopsis, only the title, which I refused to change. Colour was fundamental to the project, I just knew it had to be in colour. After shooting black and white exclusively for 10 years and had become incredibly bored with it the time felt right to switch and conveniently coincided with the start of a new project. I still enjoy making black and white prints in the darkroom every now and again.
CB: Do you feel the increasing expansion and widespread use/display of images through social media outlets like Instagram has watered down the impact that medium format photography has/used to have?
DW: Definitely. The majority of people view pictures on their phones these days, so for instance, if you’re posting medium format photos on instagram they’re basically looking at a version of the photo that’s smaller than the actual negative, so the impact is undeniably affected and can’t be fully appreciated.
Medium format photography seems very popular once again, which is fantastic, considering the fact that film/development, etc. is expensive.
CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
DW: For me personally, a good photograph should ask questions and/or tell a story – aesthetics/intelligent composition has to be in there too. I have an eclectic taste when it comes to photography, I love raw/gritty right through to fine art/minimalistic. It’s all subjective of course, and everyone is entitled to like whatever they want.
CB: What/who are your photography inspirations – and why? DW: I find that just being outdoors is great inspiration. I like to shoot street and road trip photography, too, when taking breaks from projects. My main source of inspiration comes from photo books, and I’m completely addicted to collecting them – it’s becoming a pleasant problem. Visiting photo exhibitions is something I find enriching and really enjoyable, too. I truly admire photographers that can make the mundane, interesting – it’s just so clever. That kind of gift can open up a whole new world, and i’ve been fascinated with unlocking it for a long time. Some of the photographers whose work I admire would be: Trent Parke, Stacy Kranitz, Alec Soth, Joel Sternfeld and Todd Hido.
CB: Do you see your work being stylistically similar and making a statement in a similar fashion as those whom you call your influences? What is your intent for the viewer?
DW: There’s no doubt that there is some influence in my work from these photographers, after all, they have a lot to do with what drives me. I don’t want to seem like I’m imitating them, as I take great pride in the fact that I have developed my own style and approach over the years.
To me, these photographers are ‘real life’ photographers (in the broadest sense) – they tell stories about real life, and they all have their own styles and methods in which they do it. That’s all I’m interested in when it comes to photography, it is real life and real people, that’s what I want the viewer to understand.
CB: What do you feel are the obligations of a documentary photographer?
DW: The obligations would definitely include Honesty, sensitivity and non-exploitative. I see some styles of street photography these days that I find really intrusive and/or crudely voyeuristic. There are unwritten rules to Documentary photography and a certain etiquette to follow. Most successful documentary photographers adhere to the etiquette, and I like to see that.
CB: In a recent interview you did with ffoton, you had a great quip: “With a digital camera, you’re always looking at the last shot, but with film you are looking for the next shot”. What importance has film photography had for you?
DW: Film is what drew me to serious photography in the first place. I was totally fascinated by the idea that a split second in time could be frozen onto a piece of celluloid and become a physical thing. It’s something that you can actually hold in your hand – this obviously comes from my materialistic nature. But it’s always been about film: shooting, developing, printing, scanning, the cameras, I love it all, especially the pace in which you work. For some reason, digital has never interested me, it’s incredible for certain, and I do own a Nikon D90, but there’s no allure there for me to fully switch from film.
CB: Your work is specific to Wales, but do you feel your work makes a comment on a universal level, as well as the personal level? DW: To me, Wales feels kind of neglected by the outside world, like we get the raw deal every time – the ‘nearly’ nation that’s living in the shadow of England and Scotland. Everyone is just plodding along with their lives. Art and Culture are something not to be taken for granted either, and we have to grab onto any hint of that as possible. In regards to the ‘Suicide Machine’ series, I’ve looked at many ‘small town’ projects over the last few years and it’s the same story everywhere. Small towns are suffering a dark depression at the moment – especially evident here in the UK, and probably even globally. Conclusively, Wales is much like so many other places in the world, and I do think it will translate. I really want people from all over to look at my Welsh projects and be able to identify with something in there.
CB: Do you feel comfortable categorizing your work as documentary, or using that label?
DW: I met somebody a couple of weeks ago that I hadn’t seen for a long time and when he asked what I was doing I said ‘documentary photography’ which resulted in a confused, perplexed look on his face (I’m almost certain that most folk are only aware of fashion/sport/wedding photographers) So I tried to explain that I tell stories through pictures and that there is such a thing. I think he got it, unless he was just being polite. So Yeah, I’m happy being called a documentary photographer – I’m completely self-taught and still learning all the time. These days, documentary photography incorporates fine art photography. Great documentary photographers are really taking time to research and engage with their subjects, working slowly and carefully to achieve high quality photos that are technically, visually and intellectually perfect. CB: What’s your opinion on the role of a photographer as publisher and what you think about the recent increased push for photographers to publish photo books? DW: We’re in a golden age of the self-publishing photographer, which is wonderful, and I’m sure will be looked back on fondly if the trend ever dies out. There are so many admirable photographers creating beautiful photo books, which are pieces of art themselves. The only downside is the flooding of poor quality photo books by mediocre photographers, which can sometimes make it difficult to discover the good ones. There’s lots of fantastic little independent publishing houses popping up all over the place too, which is definitely another good thing. I made a few dummy books over the last few years and really like the fact that the photographer has full control over how their book will look at the end result – there’s also absolutely no stigma attached to self publishing these days.
CB: What aspects of Bridgend do you wish to show to viewers through your portraits of residents?
DW:I always knew that I wanted to include portraits, in fact it was fundamental to the project. I wanted to show what the people of Bridgend looked like. At first, I focused on folk that were kind of stuck here for life, but as the project developed I became interested with the people who had left for a better life somewhere else. Bridgend is quite a small town so everybody knows each other in some way.
I’d never plan the portraits, it was always a spur of the moment thing if I felt the time was right. My camera was always with me so it was just a matter of getting that feeling and then asking the person if it was okay.
Over the three years, I inevitably ended up re-shooting the same person, either hoping for a better picture or because I had learned more about their circumstances and needed a fresh shot that consciously included the new knowledge I had acquired of them.
CB: Was your approach making images for this project organic, or did you have a brief of what you wanted to show?
DW: The project was around 90% organic. There was a brief but that kept changing slightly as time went by and the project matured. A project like this was a first for me , so I really wanted to see what would happen and where it would take me – I guess that was why the brief kept evolving too. But the main brief remained – what did the future hold for Bridgend, and would I want to bring up my daughter here?
Dan Wood’s project, Suicide Machine is being published as a photo book by Another Place Press – a small independent publisher interested in contemporary photography that explores landscape in the widest sense, covering themes which include land, place, journey, city and environment – from the remotest corners of the globe to the centre of the largest cities.
To order the book, visit the Another Place Press product page here.
Dan Wood is from Bridgend, South Wales, UK. Wood’s work has been featured in many publications including CCQ and Ernest Journal. He has participated in over 40 exhibitions both nationally and internationally; including four solo shows. Wood is also a member of the artist collective: Document Britain
They say you should always photograph cars and fashions if you want your images to gain some easy cool further down the line. That’s down to our inevitable nostalgia for design and style.
Photographer of the 70s, Shalmon Bernstein tapped into some of that exhilaration in many of his series (usually shot in the streets) in which people perform for his camera. Movie Ladies/Times Square is an exception. Not a huge amount of performing in these images, which is precisely why I want to talk about them.
Bernstein was prolific for a very short space of time in the seventies, then he just walked away from photography … and he’s not even sure why. For me, Movie Ladies, offers a clue. The world was an amazing place for Bernstein–a street photographer, humanist and portraitist–and for most of the time his efforts were rewarded with characters and shows of exuberance (see his photos of Trekkies, senior citizens, open water swimmers and Mardi Gras revelers). But not the whole word is like that. And not all people are wired that way. Movie Ladies reveals the limits of a joyous approach to the world. A wanderer isn’t always carefree and a wandering photographer isn’t always without expectations. Subjects can scupper expectations and I think Bernstein Movie Ladies do; they are not playing along.
Particularly in the loud, neon, raucous public spaces of New York, which one expects to serve up eccentricity and theatre, the blank stares–if stares at all–from these women stand out as being sharp and real. They tack us back against reality. Moments of real recognition – they see the camera pointed at them and the man behind it taking what he needs. This isn’t to say that Bernstein is a bad person, but just to describe and often ignored dynamic in photographic practice. It’s ignored because it is widespread and there’s too much for photographers to lose to start second-guessing the shots they’re looking to sweep up every day.
Women who were working the booths (presumably for minimum wage) bathed in light, in a glass box, for all the world’s consumption, don’t have the choice to perform, or to gesture-then-flee, or to move their bodies much in relation to the camera; they’re fixed and they know, fully or subconsciously, that they are trapped.
The hairstyles are big, the registers are quaint, the panelling is oh-so-retro and we’re lulled into thinking these are the coolest shots ever, but take a closer look and wonder how you’d feel on the other side of that glass and the other side of Bernstein’s lens.
More About John Edwin Mason John Edwin Mason teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on South African social history and the history of photography in Africa. His most recent book, One Love, Ghoema Beat, combined archival research and his own photography to explore the past and present of the New Year’s carnival in Cape Town, South Africa. He is now writing a book about the American photographer, Gordon Parks.
Dona Schwartz describes her book as such: “In On the Nest, I use environmental portraiture to examine two moments of change that bookend parents’ lives—the transition to parenthood with a first child’s birth, and the transition to life without day-to-day responsibility for parenting when young adults leave their childhood homes.”
The book is comprised of three parts. The ‘Expecting’ series at the beginning of the book shows couples who are parents-to-be. Schwartz has photographed couples in the space they’ve prepared in anticipation of the baby who will soon arrive. The images are titled by listing their names and the amount of time left before their lives will change forever (due date/adoption date). The nervousness and/or excitement shown in the expressions and body language of the expectant parents is palpable. The clutter of all the recommended items for expectant parents in some of the shots is dizzying. Shelves covered with books for what to expect (but can never fully address), or clothes that won’t be worn for months and months after the baby arrives, and the single package of infant sized diapers… as if to declare: “We are ready”.
The middle of the book contains an essay by William A. Ewing. Ewing is a photography curator, author, and former director of photography for several prestigious centers for photography, including the International Center of Photography, New York from 1977 to 1984. Ewing’s essay, ‘Great Expectations’, is written both from the perspective of a parent who has gone through both stages of Expecting and Empty Nester, and that of an expert on the subject matter of a well-conceived and executed photography project – which On the Nest certainly is. These portraits have the power to draw in the viewer and as Schwartz says, “… invite viewers to reflect on their own experiences of change and the trajectories we trace in the course of a lifetime.”
The latter part of the book is the series of images, ‘Empty Nesters’. Presented in a similar fashion as the expectant parents, these couples are parents who are in the phase of life after their children have left home and their bedrooms/personal spaces.
The color images Schwarz presents throughout are practically deadpan. Couples are photographed in these spaces in a direct, documentary style. Couples of diverse races, ethnicities, and genders are all presented in the same way. The extreme wide angle lens used to capture these couples in small rooms results in images with the physical space distorted and exaggerated. Tables and chairs are distorted from their normal shape around the frame edge of the shots and the perspective is off – as if stretched by extreme gravity that warps both time and space. One could suppose this is how the Empty Nesters feel… Where did the time go? How did it go by so quickly? What happened to our baby?
Some Empty Nesters are shown in cramped rooms with some of the same types of knick-knacks as the expectant parents, with the substitution of exercise equipment for bouncy seats, and craft tables for changing tables. The only thing missing is the kids.
In fact, the children are never physically present in these portraits; save for photos on shelves or bulletin boards. The details in Schwartz’s photographs, the artifacts, the evidence that time has passed and are the only clues to the real inhabitants of these spaces. These clues are all we have to guess what the children are like – or in the case of the expectant parents: what they hope their children will be like.
Schwartz captures the broad strokes of the project by stating, “In our lives we experience multiple transitions, and in these moments of change we renegotiate our sense of self. Events like communions, weddings, baby showers, and retirement parties formally mark the new roles and statuses we take on. We cross other thresholds without rituals or celebrations—even though divorce is a momentous life transition, there is no script for marking its passage. I am intrigued by the ways in which we move from one life phase to the next, and I am working programmatically to represent complex processes of changing identity.”
Dona Schwartz is an American photographer living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She earned her PhD at the Annenberg School for Communication and is professionally engaged with photography as an artist, scholar, and educator. Amongst her many academic publications are two photographic ethnographies, Waucoma Twilight: Generations of the Farm (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) and Contesting the Super Bowl (Routledge, 1997). Her photographic monograph, In the Kitchen, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2009.
Her work has been internationally published and exhibited at venues including the National Portrait Gallery, London, Blue Sky Gallery, the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Stephen Bulger Gallery, the Pingyao International Photography Festival, and in numerous juried exhibitions in the United States. Her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, George Eastman House, the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland, the Harry Ransom Center, the Portland Art Museum, and the Kinsey Institute. She is currently on the faculty of the Department of Art at the University of Calgary.
On the Nest – Dona Schwartz (with essay by William A. Ewing) Published by Kehrer Verlag – November 2015
For more information on On the Nest, and other books by Dona Schwartz, visit her website.
(Originally written for and published by F-Stop Magazine in February 2016.)
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.
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 yourfirst solo showto 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 byAline 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 Habinglives 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
Since 2008, Giancarlo Rado has wandered the backroads of northern Italy, documenting as he goes. The resulting series Italians is almost entirely comprised of single and group portraits. Direct and diverse, these portraits also have a strong sense of art direction, but do not feel posed or stiff. Many subjects in their environments rest on walking sticks or hold the tools of their trades, which gives their body weight and their gestures tension.
These farmers, herders and youth smile too. Not the forced smiles you often see from folks in front of a camera, but smiles that suggest they’re enjoying the unusual interaction with Rado; who has clearly walked into their world with his medium format Hasselblad. As for his subjects who do not smile, we are left with the impression that they are just as interested in the photographer/viewer as he is of them. The photographer, curator and publisher, Aline Smithson said this of making portraits:
“Creating portraits is a collaborative process where the experience becomes a two-way gaze: both the photographer and subject reveal themselves to each other.”
Rado’s portraits reveal Italians of all ages and walks of life — all of whom have revealed a little of who they are; and thus a little of who we all are.
Shot primarily with film camera in natural light and with the horizon at the mid point, portraits and landscapes have a wonderful consistency. The way Rado publishes his image uncropped showing the edge of the frames butted up next to each other is reminscent of Richard Avedon’s work. There is a feeling of directness and intimacy with this approach; a feeling of inclusion that we are there, looking into the eyes of Rado’s subjects and ‘seeing’ them as he saw them through his camera.
Rado also includes non-portrait work in his series — a collection of images that he group-titles ‘Intermission.’ But these images are not to just fill the space between portrait sessions. The landscapes, environs and vignettes give us a glimpse into the type of places where his subjects live and work.
The intermissions give us reference, some context for the lives of his Italian subjects, and gives us a chance to pause and reflect, and ultimately connect with the people who Rado has given us the opportunity to know.
“As individuals in New York City, when we become part of the crowd, we lose our individuality if only for a few minutes and become part of the fabric and mosaic of the city. We are the city, we belong and are beholden to the city, our identity is expressed through and of the city.…