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.
Amelia Morris is a photographer and mixed media artist working with themes including identity, memory, and self-perception. Her imagery’s autobiographical content is expressed through both literal and symbolic self-portraiture, and what she lovingly calls “low-grade performance art.”
This is art driven by deeply personal experiences, divulged like a confession to the viewer. Amelia Morris’ work is often raw – but not in the sense of being brazen or brash. It is intimate and raw due in part to the autobiographical nature of the themes she addresses. We, the viewers, are privy to these confessions – often presented with either melancholy, or dark-humored wit. One can’t help but snicker at her image of someone (presumably Morris herself) hanging out the back end of a car, when the image is titled “I love my ‘lil deathtrap”.
But Morris’ work goes far beyond witty images and titles. Through her staged self-portraits and documentation of provocative pennant banners, the ‘An Honest Assessment’ series explores anxiety, inadequacy, anger, disappointment, and other feelings that are often socially avoided in open discussion. The photographs serve as both private confessions and public declarations of living through these emotional states.
In Morris’ statement about her work, she says, “I have trouble maintaining my own psychological well-being and acknowledge the ridiculous paradox of feeling miserable when everything else in life seems to be fine. In that spirit, the elements of handmade whimsy in these photographs intentionally mock these heavier emotions. This is a light-hearted portrayal of serious concerns.”
Years ago, during a time of artist’s block, Morris was dealing with several personal disappointments and found it impossible to force herself to make something happy. During this time, Morris says, “I researched an assignment/project by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher: Learning to Love You More. Participants were encouraged to take a personal positive mantra, translate it into a colorful display, and hang it where someone who might need to read those words could see it.I decided my banners could retain the outward cheeriness of the original assignment juxtaposed with the less optimistic statements floating through my subconscious. Each piece of the banners are hand-cut and sewn, a labor-intensive but meditative process, and the finished object is photographed in a meaningful setting. Completing each piece offers the catharsis of expressing troubled thoughts and emotions.”
But if the viewer is expecting overly dramatic, cliché “tortured soul” images, there are none to be found. Morris presents her well-conceived and thoughtful images in a way that transforms allegorical vignettes of her life into examples of coping, and hopefully healing, with the intangible troubles many people face at some point in their lives.
Wobneb Magazine (WM): Why do you photograph? What makes still photography your main choice of expression?
Amelia Morris (AM): Growing up, I was lucky to have a few really great teachers who nurtured my interest in art and exposed me to as many techniques as an inner-city public school could. I always enjoyed standard art class exercises like drawing and painting, but would become frustrated when I couldn’t accurately translate my subject or ideas. My first real experience with photography came as part of an eighth grade mentorship program which matched students at my experimental middle school with people working in our areas of interest. I remember saying I wanted to work with a photographer because I had never tried anything like that before, but I didn’t expect my choice would have such a far reaching effect on my life.
When I first started taking photographs, I considered it a means to further explore my world and share it with whomever might be interested. I remember being drawn to photograph the grittier parts of my near Eastside Indianapolis neighborhood. While learning photography I went through a strong phase of documenting trash and blight with the intent of finding something inherently beautiful in it. Looking back, I think I was also trying to express another, more-rounded side of my life, “Even though I appear to be the usual middle-class white kid, this is where I grew up, so don’t think you have me figured out.”
These days I’m still drawn to photography because it implies an element of definitive truth (the idea of “pics or it didn’t happen”) combined with the fact that, like any creative outlet, photography can produce fiction. Since my photos are based on autobiographical experiences, I’m interested in how memory or perception can skew how I express my ideas and how an audience then interprets the information by taking it as face value or questioning its authenticity.
WM: What or who are your main photography inspirations – and why?
AM: I feel like I’m constantly discovering new image makers (not just photographers), powerful artwork or hearing a new philosophy that lends some inspiration, but here are a few artists I enjoy:
I think I discovered Francesca Woodman in my junior year of college and immediately felt drawn to her work due to her performative use of the self portrait. Looking at her work, I always feel like I’m witnessing some private and mysterious ritual where the artist is both vulnerable and self-possessed in her control of the situation. There’s something about how her actions make relatively ordinary spaces (an empty corner, a dusty floor) feel so… dreamy. Her self portrait behind pieces of wallpaper stops me in my tracks every time I see it.
I really enjoy Lorna Simpson’s work, especially those pieces utilizing text. I remember spending lots of time in front of her untitled piece at the Indianapolis Museum of Art trying to decipher her message. I think we’re used to text being joined to photographs to give some clarifying information or add to the narrative. I’m inspired Simpson’s use of text because it can raise more questions than answers. The ambiguity is intriguing. I don’t want everything to be spelled out.
I’m drawn to Joel Peter Witkin’s photographs in the same way that people have trouble looking away from car crashes. It’s disturbing and gross and sometimes nightmare-ish – and yet so strangely beautiful and sensitive and well-composed that I can’t stop studying them. I love that dichotomy.
My teachers are definitely an inspiration. Again and again, I’m drawn to the surreal, and Mark Sawrie’s provocative use of the figure in this photographs, including his own, fits into that category. Jacinda Russell’s exploration of her own life and family history has helped me pause to consider my own inner monologue might be worth expressing.
WM: Do you feel your work makes a comment best on a universal level, or on the personal level? Your work is very specific to your life experience and emotions… Do you feel it translates well to other people’s experiences or lives?
AM: I don’t make work with the direct intention of addressing some universal theme. The images are meant to illustrate a particular thought or emotion or situation I’ve found myself in. But with that being said, even though at the time we may feel that we are alone in our experiences, we really aren’t that unique. I think that given a little life experience, we can relate to someone else’s creative expression, and I’ve seen that in people’s reactions to the work.
WM: Can you please go into detail to explain the idea behind the ‘An Honest Assessment’ series? How many different images did you start out with in his series? Is it an ongoing project?
AM: I graduated from college with several accolades and couldn’t help but feel optimistic that I’d be able to go out and do interesting things in my field. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons I entered a dry spell, creatively, professionally, and socially. Like many people entering the world as the financial crisis hit, I felt stuck. Meanwhile, my younger sister continued to experience success in her creative life as thespian and stand up comedian which was constantly celebrated by my family (as it should be!). I began to feel that no one really cared about me or what I had worked so hard to accomplish. I was being eclipsed.
At some point, I realized I could illustrate this feeling through a double portrait of my sister and me. In the photo, everything seems to be going as planned, except a mysterious breeze has caused my sister’s hair to fly up and obscure my face. It felt like a great metaphor for how I was feeling. The title from the piece comes from a comment a relative made at family gathering. Things people say, especially hurtful things, stay with me, but it feels cathartic to use in the piece.
The series continued to develop by exploring the weird emotions and situations in my “post-graduate” life. I remember talking to someone about some of the early images and acknowledging that while they were sad or even disturbing, I was just trying to be honest with myself and the audience about how I was feeling. And thus the title – An Honest Assessment.
The series is ongoing but purposely slow-going. I don’t want to force the photos, so sometimes months go by without producing anything connected to the series. There’s a pressure to explore an idea and then wrap up the project, but I’d like to keep moving along at my own pace. I’m really inspired by Kelli Connell’s Double Life, a series that began in 2002 that continues to grow as she and her model move through their lives. If the work is good and relevant, I want to stick with it.
WM: Your photos sometimes include hand-made objects (Banners, specifically) – do you see these as being more props/elements to the photo work, or as separate artworks that you are documenting? Why did you decide to include these objects rather than use the sayings as titles, for example?
AM: I’ve gone back and forth on whether the banner photos should become its own series, but the sentiment behind them feels like an appropriate part of An Honest Assessment, and for now they’ll remain in that series.
The banners live somewhere between being props and being separate artworks. When I first started making banners, I intended to hang them in their specific locations, photograph them, and then leave them wherever they were. I thought they could be ephemeral and photographing them would be like documenting a piece of performance art. I’ve followed through on that plan with a couple banners, but I’ve taken many down after the shoot to bring back home (probably with the thought that I want to photograph them differently later). I’m not opposed to sharing those particular banners as artwork separate from the photograph. Even though they were made specifically to be props, the thought and craft invested in making them transforms them into art objects.
WM: How do you approach creating an image to express your concepts? Do you take many different ideas and whittle down, or is it very focused on one specific idea you wish to execute?
AM: I’d like to say I have a designated studio time to work on my projects, but due to erratic work schedules and bouts of general laziness, I don’t. Fortunately, I’ve realized that ruminating on an idea for a while is a huge part of my process. While I’m at work or doing some repetitive task, I think about where I want my concept to go. Sometimes ideas become clear quickly. Sometimes this pondering process takes months. However, by the time I realize that I MUST MAKE THIS PHOTOGRAPH the main part of the idea is tight enough that I can move forward without feeling like I’ll be wasting precious time on a half-baked idea.
Little details (which I’ve realized often make a big difference in the final image) may change over the course of shooting. If I’m working on a self portrait, I tend to shoot much more than I need with small adjustments to pose or expression. If I’ve constructed something for a photograph, whether it is stacks of canning jars or a banner, I try not to take it down immediately so that I can shoot again with variables like different lighting at a different time of day or camera positioning.
Most of the time this method works and I can get the shooting process done in one session, but I’ve had my share of duds. When that happens, I go back, consider what went wrong, and if the idea still seems to have some promise, try it again.
WM: You participate in projects like the Postcard Collective, and Crusade for Art’s program ‘Crusade Supported Art’ for print collectors, as well as involvement with the Society for Photographic Education — How important is it for yourself, and photographers in general, to seek out recognition; to market or self-promote their work? How much self-promotion do you do?
AM: I think photographers are in a unique position in that so much of our work has a digital element which makes it easy to throw work on the internet for the world to see. If you’re trying to make a living with your creative/skilled work, you should probably be out there letting people know what you can do. But of course, there’s a certain delicacy to promoting yourself without appearing to be an egomaniac, a certain turn-off of mine that seems to arise again and again among artists.
For me…well… it’s complicated. I used to tell myself that it didn’t matter if anyone cared about my artwork as long as I could make it. Maybe that thought came from the idealism of youth, but I know I’ll always have a drive to create, even if no one has anything to say about it. However, I’ve realized that it’s quite human to want positive recognition once in awhile. It’s nice to know that people like or respect or are simply curious about what you’re doing. In college, I remember telling a professor that I won an award in a juried show. His response was something like, “Congrats! Now don’t get a big head.” That’s really stuck with me. For better or worse, I tend to downplay my achievements more than celebrate them.
Selections from Postcard Collective
I participate in The Postcard Collective as a way to force myself to make new work (often with subject prompts I wouldn’t have considered on my own) and to be exposed to other people and their work. If sharing my work through avenues like The Postcard Collective leads to other opportunities, that’s great but not expected – I’m just happy to be involved in a great artist community project. As for promoting gallery shows or Crusade for Art’s programs that I’ve been involved with, I spread the word (on social media particularly) to promote the event and the other people involved. I want these ventures to succeed, and if I can help by getting a few more people interested, game on.
WM: Artists over time have addressed the human feelings of anxiety, depression, fears, etc — Since your work is dealing with very personal issues, what type of reaction do you get most often to your work, and what is your response? What inspired you to express these issues in the ‘self-portrait’ technique?
AM: I usually get a couple different reactions. People have said that the work is really funny, “hilarious” even, which I didn’t really understand. There are elements of dark humor in the photos, especially in the self-deprecating elements of “I love my lil’ deathtrap” and “His advice: Fake it til you make it,” but it makes me wonder how much they’re actually looking at/absorbing from the photos. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a friend’s father was struck by “She asked what I’d do when my sister is famous…” and said, “She’s so sad!” I’m not sure if his reaction to the work came from his age and experience or if he could just relate to what he thought I was conveying, but I was happy to hear that someone had a charged response to the work. And some people have said that what they get from the work is a sense of truthfulness. It’s hard to acknowledge tough feelings in a world where we’re not allowed to be sad, and this pushes those moments into the light. I think I appreciate that interpretation the most.
WM: One might think it would be ‘safer’ to use a model and have a buffer of emotional distance – why not play it safe?
AM: There are several reasons why I use myself instead of models. One of my drawing professors at Ball State liked to say that when we are in need of a subject, we can always turn to ourselves. I’ve held on to that advice by using myself as both subject and model. I’ve worked as an model for drawing classes and artists for about 10 years. After being so closely analyzed for other people’s work, using myself as a subject has been a way to reclaim my body. And, well, I can be shy, especially when it comes to asking for help with projects, and even more so when they can be so personal. If the photo is about me and my experiences, maybe it’s best to use my physical self in the image. I don’t have to explain motivation or feelings associated with a concept. The photo is just a natural expression.
WM: What gives you more satisfaction in the creative process – making something handcrafted, the process of image making, or option C (something else, or both of these)? AM: They’re both satisfying in different ways, but my greatest satisfaction comes from simply getting something done and having something to show for my efforts. I spend a long time working out the logistics of a photograph before the urge to get out and shoot becomes overwhelming. After all that planning, it feels pretty good to flip through the camera’s playback and know I have exactly what I envisioned. Working on banners or other objects is satisfying in a different way, probably because I get immediate tangible results. With every step in the process (choosing the fabric, cutting out letters, sewing), I see the progress I’m making toward my end goal. I feel best when I can marry the handcrafted and image making process. I’ll think of a phrase to put on a banner, contemplate the perfect place to hang it, consider lighting and other ambient factors that would contribute to the atmosphere of the final image, adjust my banner components accordingly, go out on location to hang the banner, take a few photos, and hopefully like what I see. I’ve reshot several of the banner photos because one of those elements didn’t quite align with everything else, and I’ve had to put a few photos indefinitely on hold because I haven’t found the right conditions to get what I want. But when everything comes together it makes the whole process worthwhile.
Amelia Morris is a photographer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Morris’ photographs are included in collections at Ball State University and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. She is an active member of the Postcard Collective, an international artist postcard exchange group. Morris was a 2013 Robert D. Beckmann, Jr. Emerging Artist Fellow through the Arts Council of Indianapolis. She won a “golden ticket” scholarship to attend the Photolucida portfolio review festival in 2013 and was a 2014 Critical Mass finalist.
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