I’ve always held a fascination for photography but coming from a background in design I think my initial relationship to the medium has been that of reference material, a foundation to build from, and photography being a tool alongside other elements. I’ve worked so long not being the author of the photographs I’ve been working with that I think it no longer registers to me as something I shouldn’t be doing or moving away from—though I have take images where I am behind the camera.
When I take a picture of another photograph, I feel like I am a witness to something. I would rather arrange things that are around me to photograph, but there is a lot of work that goes into that arranging—sorting through imagery, construction before the final photograph.
I see myself being an arranger, I arrange photography to illustrate ideas I have about the world around me.
If I had to pick one it would be red because it relates to physical desire.
There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both use compositional tricks to hold a viewers attention, both communicate some kind of message and they both will meet a similar kind of demise. The questions do become much richer when working on a personal project, questions that cannot always have a place within a commercial assignment. I’m less interested in answering questions in my fine art practice.
Is your work funny? If so, what does that do for the artwork?
I think that the work is funny. Placing a nipple next to an arm, next a fly, next to a jewel creates a fun juxtaposition and irony in some cases. The cutting out of an image can also exaggerate a subject beyond what the original image was capable of and I think there is something funny in that. Humor helps me to get the viewer to linger on an image longer.
I’m not always interested in creating a very dark statement about images shuffling around on the internet and losing their context. I would rather see the humor in that.
Most of my studio work has come about because of commissioned work. Sometimes I’ve really needed that push to get myself to start working on studio work again. I will use the commissioned work to test out different ideas. I started working on my series Totem because I was left with all these cut out accessories and that got me interested in setting up these shrines to them, figuring out how they would function as works of art.
The portraits I’ve taken so far have been exercises in composition. I want to retain that sense of playfulness, simplicity and color in the portraits but I view most of them as affirmations that I have a command over my medium and that my true voice voice lies in constructed imagery. Though, I think what is interesting about most of the portraits I’m drawn to that I’ve taken is that there was something about them that I had no control over. That also makes them a respite from having so much control over the subject.
I’ve been wanting to do a video for sometime and I was given the opportunity with a commissioned assignment to start testing that out, figuring out how I would exactly got about approaching the making of a video. I’m still figuring ways to utilize video in my fine art practice but it has opened up an entirely different type of output for my work. My video work so far has been influenced by my photographic work, the idea of layering and how that relates to the larger idea of how we experience images.
Is your work social or political in nature?
The work features a lot of sourced images, so to evade the implications of that I think would be impossible.
My work takes the images, warps them and represents them in these kind memorials to something that is passing. I’ve used for the most part one specific type imagery to illustrate this—advertising imagery.
I like this subject matter because it flip flops between being something that is permanent and impermanent, beautiful and garish, personal and impersonal. I see a strong correlations between this type of subject and photography.
What is a piece of advise you have been given over the years?
I’m not sure exactly what the best advise has been but I do know the strangest. The strangest piece of advise was from a professor at the end of my first semester. The advise came stapled to the grading sheet of our final semester project, it was on a ratty piece of notebook paper and scrawled in black ink. The writing was nearly unreadable and had to re-read several times to make out what the words were—You can’t fake freedom.
Louis Heilbronn received his BA from Bard College and currently lives and works in New York.
Tell us about one of the most important moments of your life.
When I transferred colleges. Going to Bard ended up being a very important part of my life. Being surrounded by students with similar interests as well as having great professors was very different than my previous college experience. It really influenced where I am now.
Do you place rules on your practice?
Generally no… But that being said I am very strict with myself. I will never force a picture if I do not feel it. I also still shoot with film so I only allow myself to make 1 to 2 frames each time I make a photograph.
What is important about Paris, Texas?
Paris, Texas 2013 is a series I presented last year at Paris Photo. A majority of these photographs were literally taken between Paris and Texas. I was in Paris in early 2013 and from there I went to Texas for a month, stopping only briefly in New York. The work tracks my odd and mismatched journey. There is no beginning or end; a few pictures included in the series were even made several years before these trips.
The editing process was the most important aspect of Paris, Texas 2013. I developed a new method that was much looser and less restricted by time and place. Hence, why the project included such different geography and chronology.
What governs how you feel about photography?
I work in a way that comes naturally to me. I do not force anything upon myself and rather allow my life experiences to influence my work. I hope that as my interests change and grow, my vision will evolve over time.
Can you talk about the blonde woman in your work? Does she embody something?
Louise. Louise is an important part of my work as she is a source of inspiration as well as my best friend. When I photograph her I am always exploring new visual ideas. I have begun to see the photographs of her as a collaboration. She understands these ideas and intentions, which influences her presence in my work. She is one of several subjects that will continue to be woven in and out of my work over time.
You’ve said you ‘work with out limits’, is there really such a space to exist in while taking photographs? Can you describe it?
What I was trying to say is that I never limit myself to a certain subject matter. When I am out photographing anything goes. Anytime I see something that I am interested I will make the picture, regardless of whether it fits with what I am currently working on. It may appear in a body of work 5 years later, who knows. The editing always happens after and it is only then that things begin to fall into place.
Ask yourself a question and respond?
Where are you now?
Your work has changed dramatically in the last couple of years. Can you discuss what brought this on and how the new and old work relate to each other?
I felt my work needed to change, previously I felt I was practicing, mimicking things I had seen before, studying the past. I wanted to find a form of expression that was authentic to my personal experience and what I want to say. I wanted and still am searching to find a place where the form of the images speak to the content they carry. This is why I went to graduate school, I felt suck and had no idea how or what this change would look like only that I need to move past everything I took for grated and find a new form of expression. The themes and motivation to make the work have not changed, only the way it is expressed and the form it takes. I have always found it unavoidable to speak to our world as a malleable and finite material, and our bodies as small but influential actors in its manifestation.
Discuss one very specific emotion present in your work and how it relates to your own life.
I don’t know how to differentiate the work from my personal life. The photographs, while not obviously personal, are products of my desired experiences and their success or failure. At my best the works acts as a refuge, a place where censorship is absent and where I bring a raw perspective.
Yes my work and personal life are inextricably connected, but the work does not reflect the entirety of my life, instead embodies expressions which cannot be realized in other ways.
Why do you think photography is best suited for your experience? Can you talk about when you break out of traditional photographs, (for example, heavy digital manipulation or rephotographing collages)?
What is your work searching for? Do time and space exist with in the search? Do the photographs relate or are you the common link?
I am searching for a concise form of communication where time and space are redefined. All of the photographs relate because they are all in search for the same form of expression.
Photography is a medium of depths of forms and types of articulations which must be probed to create work that helps people expand the way they see.
What meal do you wan the most right now?
Wow, that is hard question because I am quite hungry. I think I would have to go with super cheesy pizza pies with lots of vegetables and sausage with a beer or two.
What comes from repeating the past? What role do you play in the repetition?
Let’s make a distinction: There’s repeating the past, which might have legitimate celebratory or educational value. But then there’s repeating and celebrating the bad past, which is what some of the reenactors did. Extolling Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader and KKK co-founder? Please.
As for my role: I was just there to photograph. They did their thing, I did mine. I was not a participant in any reenactments.
Do you think you are photographing the individuals as themselves or as the characters they are portraying?
These guys (and they are mostly guys) aren’t actors. They are not slipping into a different character for the duration of a performance, after which they’ll go back to being their “real” selves. In many cases, I don’t think you can draw a clean line between reenactors in regular life and them in Civil War costumes. I suspect that for many reenactors, their Civil War persona is an expression of what they wish they were – instead of having, say, a boring job in a chain store, they can pretend to be a soldier on the eve of a momentous battle.
Can you talk about the timelessness of the gestures in your photographs? Do you think we’ll always feel the same way throughout history?
Not sure what you are asking here.
How much “truth” is contained in your photographs compared to actual photographs of the civil war?
I hope my pictures have aesthetic or intellectual value. That’s a kind of truth. However, I think what you are asking is whether my pictures have any documentary value. They probably have very little of that sort of “truth.” Photographs inherently are fictions — choices of framing, focus etc., construct a meaning where none existed in real life. The reenactments are, obviously, themselves fictions – a bunch of comfortable modern people pretending to be starving 19th Century soldiers. Combine the fictional nature of photographs with the fictional nature of reenactments, and you wind up a long, long, long way from whatever the “truth” of the actual Civil War was.
As an aside – even the contemporary photographs of the Civil War are suspect. For example, Alexander Gardner’s famous photograph of a dead Confederate sharpshooter at Gettysburg may have been staged. I understand that researchers have spotted the same dead young man in other pictures taken elsewhere on the battlefield. Gardner may have found a good-looking corpse that he hauled around and posed.
As a photographer, what is your role in these reenactments? How do you interact with the people? How do they view you?
The reenactments are public events. There are a lot of on-lookers. To the extent possible, I try to blend in with the crowd.
Tell us something you have learned from attending these reenactments.
I learned that there is a sizable contingent of people out there who think times were better before the Civil War. That’s astounding if you think about it.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What’s my sign? “Dip in road.”
Chelsea Welsh is a photographer who recently received her MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design
How are the things that flora tell us different from the things people tell us in pictures?
I wonder if pictures can really “tell?” That might be more of the viewer’s role. I think a picture can really only tell us what something looks like, and based on that description the viewer can try to conjure meaning based on what’s there. As far as the difference between flora and humans, I think it all depends on the photograph, and probably also the person viewing it. It’s hard to say very generally how these things can be different. I guess if I use my own work as an example, when photographing my family I was thinking a lot about family dynamics, relationships between people versus their relationships with animals, body language and what that can suggest, this in-between moment that my family was going through at the time. I was thinking of my family more as characters to try and hint at something larger and beyond ourselves. Lately I’ve been more interested in what ‘s inside people’s heads, and maybe that is why I’ve been drawn more to flora recently because I tend to think of everything more metaphorically and psychologically. I also think about flora as characters, but in the most general sense I think about the personal relationships humans can have with place/objects/nature.
I think this question depends largely on the pictures, but I also believe that perhaps sometimes they both could be two different ways of saying a similar thing.
What kind of things do you think about when you walk about photographing nature?
This may sound odd, but when I photograph I feel like I am in a very strange state of mind, almost like a trance. It’s sort of like having a very vivid dream that you forget upon waking up. All that’s left is a sense of disquiet, and maybe a few fragments of images. It’s also probably not too dissimilar from a meditative state, trying to be aware of all that is happening in the present moment before the light disappears. At the end I’m so exhausted, the whole thing becomes a blur.
There’s usually a sense of anxiety and calm happening within me at the same time while walking. In graduate school, nature started to enter my work more and turned into a little obsession. After I graduated, I surrendered to it and let it completely take over with the arboretum pictures, which is what I am still working through now and currently in the middle of. I think a lot about how wild and strangely alive it is, as if it’s silently taking over despite our best efforts to control and maintain it. I think about the plants as characters, their gestures, labyrinths, romance in the conifer garden, dead ends and “rabbit holes” that are dark, yet seductive, etc. I also think a lot about light and color, and trying to create a psychology of a place. It’s a strange romantic relationship I have with nature. I’m afraid I’ve let myself be seduced.
Do you think there are things hidden; Is there a mystery? Your pictures seem to suggest so.
Things feel very mysterious to me, and I try to create that sense in the pictures. I think a photograph can accentuate a sense of mystery because so much is taken out of context. In my head I think about deliberate silences, or secrets. I am always curious about what is left out and what that might mean.
Do you think your photographs rely on what the viewer brings to the image? Or is that the nature of photographing plants?
I think as a photographer you have to surrender a bit to what a viewer might bring to an image. Although, when making an image I try to have an understanding of the possible meanings of the subject matter, and also how light and color can create a psychology around that. Everything in the image affects how it could be interpreted, and I do make specific and intentional choices while making pictures to try and create some boundary of meaning, so it’s not just about “everything.” I try to find a balance between what I bring to an image, and how to make an image that could evoke something in the viewer.
There are also people that just see things as they are. A plant is just a plant. I try to keep this in mind when making pictures, at once reminding myself that a plant just may be a plant, yet also trying to find a way to hint at a deeper meaning.
One of my professors in grad school told me once that my images were like a Rorschach test. I’ve always been fascinated with the way people interpret images. It can be very telling.
Your photographs tend to point at discoveries found in your own personal expeditions, do you consider them to be discoveries if you lead the viewer to them? Do they transform after being photographed?
I like to think that the viewer is coming along with me on a journey, and hopefully somehow they could make their own kind of discovery, and maybe it is something that happens after looking at the images.
When creating images, I think of the transformation of the world into a fiction, with a body of work forming its own sort of “world.” I read a lot of literature and I think of my work functioning like something told from a specific character’s point of view. I’ve always enjoyed in stories, or poems, access into another person’s reality. It constantly opens up my own world a little, and the more I read, the more I see things I may not have otherwise noticed. I guess with my own work, the ultimate hope would be that there’s a very small possibility to open up the viewer’s world after looking at them, even in the slightest. I know this is a lot to hope for. My favorite artists/ writers/teachers have done this for me and I think it’s a very powerful thing. Sometimes I think it’s only fair that I use what I’ve learned and try to become a better artist, and hopefully one day be able to pay it forward. At the very least I hope the viewer might share a simple and serious pleasure in looking at things.
What do you bring to the plants you photograph? What already exists? Where do these two things meet?
I would hope that I bring a sense of imagination. I think this comes from time spent alone when I was younger, trying to find ways to entertain myself in my immediate surroundings. It all took place in my head: everyday objects became characters, and everything was part of a story. I think this is still very much a part of me and my work. Of course, the plants already exist and everything in the photographs. I usually get a vivid image in my head of something I see, and I try to do my best to make a photograph that reflects that. Sometimes the act of photographing becomes a way of testing my reality, to see if it actually looked like that. I guess where these two things meet is when there is a delicate synchronicity between what is imagined and what is there. My favorite part is those moments when the photograph surprises me and somehow ends up better than both.
Ask yourself a question and respond:
What is it about a picture?
This was a question asked to me by a homeless man on the street who I had met and had a long conversation with. When he found out I was a photographer he stole a newspaper and asked me to interpret every single image in the newspaper. In between images, he asked me over and over again, “What is it about a picture?” He was passionately aggressive while asking this question, and the way he asked it seemed like he had some profound secret. The whole encounter had caught me off guard, and I also didn’t have an answer to his question. I didn’t believe in a cut off, definite answer, and that is why I loved the question so much: that there will always be a mysterious something about pictures. I like that this question continues to haunt me.
Dan Boardman is a visual artist living in Somerville Massachusetts, he received his MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2012.
Why are the protagonist in your photographs mostly men?
Great Question. I know why for some bodies of work. For example in The Citizen I was specifically building a population of people. It started with a photograph I took of a young boy with a home cut mohawk. It’s a strange thing but with that photograph I felt I knew something about that kid. What I knew about him didn’t come from speaking with him, but came later when looking at the image. Of course I was projecting my own experiences into him. He became a vessel for people and places I hadn’t thought about in years. That experience wasn’t happening in my other photographs, and it made me interested in making portraits for awhile.
What is at the very center of the world in your photographs? Where do you go from there?
What keeps you going? What are you trying to find out?
Tell us about your childhood and what effect it has on you artwork.
I was born in Southern California, but really grew up in Central New York. My father worked for a trade magazine that reviewed networking software and equipment on the large scale. He tested equipment and programs that companies might buy. As a result we had computers in the house for as long as I can remember. Typically though things were in pieces. Computers were put together when need be, and without noticed would be dismantled, reassembled or disappear. When moving from Southern California my parents decided to move into a fixer-upper. The house we all moved into (three sisters and I) was constantly being torn apart. In fact most of my young life was spent in rooms with no walls or make shift walls. Constantly rooms would morph into new spaces and entire sections of the house would be demolished. The fixing the house project extends out until today with some small pieces left to finish. All of this is taking place a way out in the country side. In this setting I lived with my sisters and parents and always a handful of friends. I love my family and the place I grew up.
Does it have an impact on my photographs? I think it has shaped my point of view on the world for sure.
You’ve said your photography tends to focus on questions, which comes first, the questions or the photographs?
How important is it that you yourself are a man?
Fairly important. I like that I am a man - that I am at peace with my gender identity, if only on a chromosomal level (the rest, as the work suggests, I am still trying to decipher). It was vital to my process that I understand liking men did not require that I be a woman. There are elements of male camaraderie that I feel not only activate my photo shoots but also that I enjoy. I like having a penis, I like having a beard, I like having a deep voice. I like that my relationship with my models, particularly in terms of control, becomes complicated because both the subjects and myself have penises… there is a pleasant tension that I feel would be very different had I subscribed to a different gender identity.
How important is the “truth” of the model’s sexuality in life when presented with the “truth” of their sexuality in the photographs?
The truth, if there is one, is actually completely arbitrary. Although I enjoy the joke of “In The Closet” being that the models identify as heterosexual, the ultimate goal is to offer constructions and draw attention to the fact that nothing you see may represent reality. So the crux lies in the construction, not in whether or not that construction represents any truth. I don’t know if my models still identify as straight - I don’t need to know, and neither does the viewer. But it is important they know these men who pose for me are, in one way or another, “jocks.” And it is important that they know I am a gay man, engaging with these jocks on such a level.
Is it OK to find your work erotic?
It is perfectly OK to find my works erotic. I forwarded them to a new friend the other day, and he thought I was sending him gay porn. Although subtlety has never been my forté, it is important for me that my work be seen as implicit, rather than explicit.
Can you talk about the shapes the men in your photograph make when they are in groups?
I love shooting them in groups. I often ask several men (or am approached by several men) from the same team to do a shoot, and while I set up I ask that they “just chill” or do what they usually do in the location. Photographs such as Relaxed, straight and Hnnngh! came about as a result of mostly spontaneous goofing on my models’ part, with me fine tuning some gestures here and there. There is a great deal of physical contact that occurs between men who have been playing sports together and have gotten accustomed to each other’s bodies. I just try to get an angle that showcases that link - some kind of visual pattern my eyes can follow. Sometimes I think that the scenes only become homoerotic because I am looking.
When there is no eye connection between the subject and the viewer, what other connection comes to the forefront? Why is contact necessary or not necessary?
Sometimes the refusal to return the gaze is the whole point of the photographs. I am intrigued by establishing connections between the subjects or the subject and some mysterious, off-screen entity. The viewer is meant to be intruding, but through a one-way mirror. So while I want you to feel self-conscious, or even blush, the beautiful man you are looking at doesn’t care about you - he’s too busy looking at the other guy (or me, or my hand, or a reflector). The viewer is meant to feel like an outsider and question their own attraction to the indifferent subject, who is not interested in challenging the viewer at all. If that results in the viewer trying to create a very one-sided, futile relationship with the subject, then I am a happy camper.
Where do you find yourself in these images? Could you photograph yourself?
I am present in the scene as the photographer - sometimes the clear use of a hand-held flash and some times the off-screen gaze is meant to highlight my presence. It is meant to strengthen the constructed nature of these images. I am currently working on a project where I do photograph myself, but is much more about my challenging my own notions of masculine self-representation, and it is also semi-autobiographical because I am including elements of my personal sense of displacement, of the East vs. West conflict that occurs in my head when I am attracted to a man, etc.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
How was the work received in Turkey?
Elizabeth Moran is an artist based out of San Francisco who recently received her MFA from the California College of the Arts.
Are you trying to photograph spirits? Is there much of a difference in you when your purpose or motivation, as a photographer, is to capture a spirit?
I am not motivated by a need for visual evidence of the paranormal like the paranormal investigators I have been working with. Instead I am investigating how time creates layers in space.
How does your series ‘Record of Cherry Road’ relate to or inform your series ‘Night, Light’?
You talk about having to feel with your camera, can you go into a deeper description of what that is like?
Record of Cherry Road emerged out of Night, Light. When I was in Berlin during the summer of 2012, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of recent histories and very distant pasts simultaneously teeming under the surface of everything. I found photographing the space or place (in the style of my previous Work Space series) completely unsatisfying. So I began to flash light into these historically charged spaces allowing the light of the camera move and feel through space and time. This was when I first began to think about “feeling” with my camera where the recording of light presents both a single slice of space and a single moment in time.
As I continued working in this way, I found myself drawn to what paranormal investigators calls orbs—often out-of-focus specks of dust or tiny water droplets in fog. I starting considering how these places felt haunted. Not in the ghost busters sense, but in the continuation of time sense. By this time, I was back in San Francisco, and I decided to reach out to my family (who began investigating the paranormal after retiring in 2011) to see if they would be interested in investigating the house on Cherry Road. With their help, I have learned several tool and tricks of the trade all of which involve feeling with energy (light, heat, sound, etc.)
Were you ever afraid of the dark?
Only when alone. I am much more scared of coming upon another living person sitting alone in a dark room.
Have you encountered a ghost or spirit while investigating the home?
I grew up with my mother and uncle’s stories of the house. My mother has felt and seen presences in several other places since. But my family’s sensitivity to unseen presences seems to have skipped a generation, for I have never felt or seen a presence in this way. Instead I am forced to use tools like my camera as prosthesis to scratch at the topmost surface of time. But I do wonder, do we simply see what we believe or do we believe what we see? As an agnostic, I would be thrilled to find evidence of life after death. But for now, I remain a hopeful skeptic.
How does photography lend itself to things like darkness, spirits, flora, or investigation?
And the use of photography as a tool to reveal an invisible world (of energies) is as old as the medium itself. Photography at its foundation is the materialization of light (energies), which on a quantum-level is highly related to time and space. Paranormal investigators look to quantum mechanics as a way to understand the bending of time and space through which the past remains present. I find this conceptual overlap fascinating.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
How does text function in your work?
An underlying thread throughout all of my works is this dichotomy of the missing but ever-present. For example, the accompanying text for the photographs in Cherry Road is very important for the project. In my family, we rotate through only a few select names, and I am interested in this continuing presence of a name despite the change in time. In this project, I am focusing on George and Cary. These two names represent many members of my family (my second first name is Cary), but they are also the names of two people who used to work for my family (the gardner and nanny). I am interested in this doubling and confusion through names and time. We see George standing for his portrait, but we also see his grave.
I also like to use text in my work to (literally) give a present voice to the missing. My forthcoming book, Correspondence 1, presents a dialogue between myself as an analyst of possible paranormal photographs and those who submitted the images. (For a short time in preparation for Record of Cherry Road, I collaborated with a leading paranormal investigator in New York and worked as his photo analyst.) Without the images themselves, the text alone speaks to both ends of the spectrum of what we expect from photographs and photographic evidence of the unseeable.
Jonathan Chacon is a photographer who is based out of Chicago and recently received his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Do you care who your subjects are?
Yes. My subjects always have something I do not have, but wish I could.
What is the most singular emotion you are looking for in your photographs?
I’m looking for vulnerability.
Can you discuss heat? How important is setting in your photographs?
Heat is the intensity of a feeling.
The setting is very important. It creates a mood for the photograph, without mood there is no feeling. No heat.
Do your photographs compare your adolescent subjects with your elder subjects? Is there some sort of connection between subjects or are they a juxtaposition?
Yes, and they are both connected and juxtaposed. The connection between the adolescent subjects and elder subjects is that they’re both unaware of their future. Death hovers over both of their lives.
I hope to make adolescent subjects look strong and self-sufficient, while making my elder subjects weak and dependent. My interest in showing adolescent subjects and elder subjects in this way stems from a frustrated and confused childhood.
Can you talk about the lighting in your photographs? What about the shadows?
I use a speedlite to highlight my subjects and their gestures. The shadows are a formal element that push and pull the viewer, while creating depth between the subject and the background. In other words, I use whatever light is available and if I have to I use a flash in order to create an affect or depth, then I’ll use it.
Are your subjects trapped? Caught up in the same circle of life? Stuck on this impossibly yellow flytrap?
My human subjects are not trapped, but they are caught in a complex family cycle; one I am actively trying to break. Photography is the perfect medium to critically separate myself from my family’s cycle.
In the fall of 2013, I arrived to Mexico and chose to live with my father for two weeks. When I arrived to his house he told me to settle in and he would be back in a few minutes. I nodded and he left. My plan was to shower and then go for a walk around the community, but little did I know that his front doors needed a key to get out. So, for the next 5 hours I paced around my father’s house annoyed and frustrated that he locked me in. He has not changed since I last saw him four years ago. He is still a liar. The photograph of the flytrap was taken the next day when I arrived to his farm.
The thing I like about the flytrap is that the flies are attracted to the trap because they think it’s a big yellow flower. The flies have an expectation that they will get pollen, but the reality is that they are just flying into a trap.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Any Spanish phrases you’d like to share?
“Caras vemos, corazones no sabemos.”- My Mother
Translation: We can see faces, but we do not know the hearts.
Sarah Wilson is an editorial photographer based out of Austin, Texas.
Did you have a personal goal in mind when photographing the Blind Prom?
I began photographing Blind Prom in 2006 while working as a stills photographer on a documentary film that followed four blind teenagers for one academic year at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. When it came time for prom that Spring, I offered to be the school’s photographer. I had seen some of the snapshots the teachers had taken with their point-and-shoot cameras in years past, and decided to help them out.. I brought an assistant with me, and some studio lighting, and we covered the event.
Very quickly I discovered that the students really enjoyed posing for pictures in their formal wear – they were having so much fun and so was I. My heart was filled joy throughout the night. I have loved this experience so much, and at this point I feel like I’ve become a fixture at prom- this year will be my eighth year as the prom photographer.
Who are these photographs for?
At the very moment I push the shutter button, the act of photographing is for the students. They’ve been eagerly waiting in a long line to have their formal portraits made. When it’s their turn, we spend 3-5 minutes together- my assistant and I fawn over how awesome they look- we adjust lighting, arrange dresses, straighten ties, and encourage them to pose any way they feel. During that shared time, it’s not about the end result of the photograph, but about honoring the students and affirming that this exciting moment in their lives is worth capturing.
The students at the Texas School for the Blind come from all over the state to attend, and they live in dorms on campus, away from their families. When the 4x6 prints are sent home, the photographs are for the parents, so they can see that their kids looked beautiful and were having a great time at their high school prom.
As a personal project posted on a photography blog, or hung on a gallery wall, these photographs take on a different role. Viewers may have no connection to these particular students, or this particular disability, but, they can all tap into their own teenage memories, getting dressed up for their own prom. That coming of age, that’s universal. This universality becomes a medium for understanding.
Is seeing believing?
Seeing with your eyes is not the only way to see. A student once told me, “You don’t have to have sight, to have vision.” The vast majority of these teens have lost their sight over time, so they had sight and then lost it. And many are still in that process, where their vision is changing still. They rely on their visual memory, but also their sense of touch smell, hearing, and whatever usable sight they may still have, to interpret the world around them.
I remember the first time I met Amanda, a deaf-blind student at the school. Her sign language interpreter signed the letters of my name into her hand. She then signed for Amanda to sit up straight and smile ahead towards the camera. When my flash went off, she started to scream with joy and a big smile crept across her face. She knew when I was photographing her because she could see the flash. With the help of her interpreter, Amanda is very aware of her surroundings. Her presence is loud, joyful and colorful — and I wasn’t surprised to find out that Amanda was a cheerleader on the school’s pep squad.
Can you talk about the distortion that happens to the edges of a few of your photographs when using a wide-angle lens? Does it relate to your subject’s eyesight or possible view?
The project alternates between formal portraiture and more active, reportage style shooting. There are definitely times when my images are distorted, mostly when I’m on the dance floor with one hundred gyrating kids. It’s hard for me to get back far enough to use a longer lens without running into someone behind me. There are times when I think the distortion works to help illustrate the wild teenage energy of the night, and the overwhelming rollercoaster of emotions that I sense when I’m there.
Do you think the backdrops at the prom add to the understanding of the subjects you photograph or actually are the subjects in your photographs? How do they relate the prom attendees?
Before I started shooting prom, the teachers would create their own creative backdrop appropriate to the prom theme. When I started shooting, I took on that responsibility and I have just made the backdrops larger and more elaborate. In the weeks leading up to Prom, I make the backdrops myself, which is something I’d never really done before. It gives me a chance to start thinking about the students and their big night, and it gives me a way to help differentiate each year from the last. The backdrops are always inspired by the themes that the school has chosen. The students may or may not be able to see the backdrop they’re being photographed in front of, but they know that there’s a professional photographer each year, and that she’s taken extra steps to make the photographs special. And I get to flex some different creative muscles in the backdrop preparation.
What is it like to photograph someone that knows you are there, and that they are being photographed but can’t actually see you? Is it freeing as a photographer?
Most of the time, I make the students aware that I’m photographing them. However, there are moments, especially on the dance floor, when I can move fast and capture more candid expressions because I am not stopping each person to ask if I can take their photo. It is freeing to be able to photograph a tender moment without the subject becoming self-conscious or posturing like a sighted teenager might do
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What is your favorite part of the night?
The significance of the evening really starts to sink in during the crowning. In any other school, these students might not have the opportunity to be crowned Prom King or Queen, or even attend prom at all. Amongst other visually impaired teens, there is greater opportunity for a fulfilling social life. Looking at the crowning pictures, you can see the emotion on their faces. What you can’t see is the smile on my face and maybe a joyful tear or two.
Trevor Powers graduated from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and is currently based out of Western Massachusetts.
Do your photographs unwind when left on their own? How do they flow and weave together?
For the most part I view my images as separate entities that can be woven together to form a cohesive whole. I have always had the mentality of shoot first, ask later, in that I photograph what is interesting to me and find connections, coincidences or stories after the fact - everything coming together in the editing process.
The moments you photograph seem like they’re in between climatic events, is time relevant in your photographs?
Over the last five years (really since graduating from art school) my focus and practice has shifted increasingly inwards. Where I was once inspired by an insatiable wanderlust and the lure of the familiar yet unknown American landscape, I am now intrigued by my experiences in the landscape of my personal and private space. Placing emphasis on ephemeral objects, my own art-making process, and the people and places closest to me, I am interested in creating a sort of personal history through my artwork - documenting time and space in a tangible, visual manner.
What are your thoughts on heaven? Is this state of existence explored in your work?
Heaven has never been a mystical place for me; heaven is a place on earth! Though the realization of death and experiencing it at a young age definitely changed my outlook on life. It made me aware of my own existence, my relationship to the world and those close to me, in a hyper-real way.
And without trying to sound overly poetic or philosophical, I think every photograph ever made explores a state of existence.
What is the most important thing about making art?
The most important thing about making art is the process… The act of making it whether or not you are going to show it to anyone and understanding that it doesn’t matter if it’s already been done.
Is photography an act of collecting?
Photography is an act of collecting in the most obvious and simple way possible. I think Instagram is the perfect example of this. Though thousands of those images will never be looked at again, it’s the feeling and understanding that they exist that’s comforting.
Has making a photograph ever also been an important moment in your life?
There was a period between 2006-2009 where I was able to travel a lot and I spent time photographing in the American South. It’s a historically and culturally loaded place that’s very visually stimulating as someone who is not from there, and taking interesting pictures there is very easy.
Being able to travel as much as I did during those years had a profound impact on me, especially as a visual artist. I think what those trips taught me, more than anything, is the importance of understanding when not to take a picture and just experience the moment while it’s happening as an active participant.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What was the last piece of art or exhibition you experienced that affected how you saw the world and subsequently influenced your artistic practice?
When I was living in Austin, Texas I saw attainable excellence by Texas-based artist Andy Coolquitt at AMOA-Arthouse, now The Contemporary Austin. I was previously unaware of his work and had stumbled upon the exhibition. It blew my mind - it was smart, simple, funny, accessible and full of heart. That show and his work as a whole epitomize what I value and love about art.
Kyle Laidig is an artist currently studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Can you talk about where photography and paintings intersect?
There are several spaces where these two mediums come together. On the one hand they are related historically, whether it be the adversarial relationship that marked its inception in the early 19th century or even earlier the use of the camera obscura by Vermeer and others. In this way, the mediums have been conflated in a very formative way; they are linked modes of perception. They also seem to be used as modes of description, a painting that “is like a photograph” or, more commonly, a photograph that “is like a painting”. Then there is the literal synthesis of the mediums, Gerhard Richter and Sam Falls being good examples of such practices. The idea of painting though is based on ideas of combination, a painting is not broken down into unrelated elements “cadmium red” and “cobalt blue”, rather a painting is a sum of its parts, a soup. This ideology has become linked to contemporary photo manipulation practices. A digital image is composed of, at it’s foundation, bits of information, pixels. If we are to take these pixels, as the building blocks of an image, much like cadmium red, then we can see the resampling of these pixels an act that is inherently painterly. Similarly, painting is not an automated function but a performed act. In the same way we can look at the act of editing or manipulating an image as a performative intervention.
How does Photoshop affect your vision?
For a little while I had been thinking about Photoshop as a lens. I was trying to reverse the process of image making, that is image to Photoshop to final product, and to attempt to find images that appeared in life as though they had been mediated by this technology. It was a rather frustrating experience, and in hindsight I understand that it was a misguided gesture. It was misguided in that the images being created relied on a preformed understanding of contemporary image culture, to already know visually what kind of manipulations were being executed “right now”. Right now Photoshop doesn’t really affect my vision, outside of sometimes looking for textures or patterns for the purpose of sampling. On the other hand, Photoshop affects what I can envision, my understanding of where a work can be taken.
Are you images ever finished?
No. Images are fixed, finalized by their context. Maybe its function is to make a text comprehensible, and yet when you change the text the image is fundamentally altered. I am interesting in the fluidity meaning, the severing of signification, and so in that sense my images are never finished. Time is the ultimate variable.
Do you break your photographs down? How do you build them back up? Can you discuss your layering process?
Not immediately. Usually I will take the image as a starting point, a blank canvas, and then add or subtract as I see fit. My layering process is fundamentally intuitive, while there may be some rhyme or reason, I always shoot from the hip. ;)
What childhood memory most affects your work?
I don’t know how to answer that question so I will instead include an excerpt from a letter that Ted Hughes sent to his son, Nicholas:
“It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”
Can you imagine what the most perfect photograph you can make looks like?
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Do you have any feelings about disco?
What an astute question! Of course I have feelings about disco! I see it as a totally misunderstood movement. Mark Motherbaugh referred to disco as being “like a beautiful woman with a great body and no brains”. However, I find disco to be an inherently intellectual movement. In disco one finds the coherent, sentient moment where one dismisses the dialectic… “shut up and dance”. It is not escapism but rather direct action. Intellectual discourse is one that so often marginalizes the physical, seeking to unfairly separate the mind from the body. Even still, disco was not speechless, in fact the club was a vibrant scene, only half dance floor, where the other half exchanged ideologies. Dance seems to function as an externalization of unconscious thought; just as the “walk” is instrumental in the development of thought so too is the “boogie”. This “four on the floor” of thought, the ever-present beat, syncopating dialogue, the unfiltered sex, you might call it a personal philosophy. I believe that the direct spirit of disco, it’s ephemeral and dramatic ethos (love is all times to be lost or gained, even if only for the night), should be integral in any imagining of the future. It’s no surprise that in Her, the most realistic and optimistic sci-fi I’ve ever seen, a longing gaze towards the 70’s marks the aesthetic of the future. As much as I want to intellectualize it, if I’m being totally honest, it all boils down to the fact that I would rather be dancing… from here to eternity.
Eva O’Leary received her BFA from California College of the Arts in 2012 and is currently based in New York City.
Billy Buck graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA and currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.
Can you talk about the texture in your work?
Most of the textures, to me, are derivative or relatable to anxiety and pensiveness. They are abrasive and often times a mixture of pleasure and discomfort. I find my shoulders to be really tense, especially when I am hyper aware of my surroundings, while making pictures…I feel like photographs have residue of the environment in which they were made, which has something to do with “texture”.
What is lost in a photograph when it is in black and white, and what is gained?
A black and white photograph loses a sense of temperature for me. Whenever I look at black and white work, I never really get the same sensations as color photographs. Maybe that is where the anxiety comes in. I find this to be both a gain and loss.
What are the appendages in your photographs? Where do they connect? Are they yours?
A lot of my photographs have to do with objects and/or small moments, which are stripped of their assumed meaning, usually resulting in awkwardness. I think this awkwardness is an appendage that really rings throughout all of my work. Alongside this awkwardness comes a darker sense of humor that simultaneously frightens and excites. This slightly schizophrenic feeling is where all of the work can come together as a whole. The most concise description of my work is like a really weird dream you have that just keeps going on and on but is constantly changing each time you go in and out of consciousness. It’s like taking a lot of information and experiences from your head, putting them into a blender and having to come to terms with it.
I guess you could say these appendages are mine. It is similar to what I mentioned earlier about residue that a photograph contains; thoughts and feelings seep into the work.
How important is sexuality in relation to your work?
I think there might be suggestions of sexuality in my work, however, I don’t really think of it as playing an active role. Maybe I’m wrong though.
How deep does artwork need to go to make a worthwhile statement?
That depends on what one considers worthwhile, but I think that its all about being engrossed in the artwork; encountering it as its own reality.
What keeps you caring?
Pictures that don’t let me blink
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What is something embarrassing you are willing to admit, that relates to your work?
I didn’t stop being afraid of the dark in my basement until I was 14.
Eric Ruby is a photographer that lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts.
There seem to be language signals even when no man-made words are present in the photographs. Symbols on asphalt, sticks bent into characters. Can you discuss language in your photographs?
I definitely have a soft spot for non-sensical phrases, and also symbols or characters or objects that potentially look like they are trying to relay information. I am interested in attempts at communicating ideas that can never be fully realized, whether that is through visual information or written characters (which are also visual) and the gaps between what is known and unknown. I like the play between having something appear legible and hinging on investigation. I also think my photographs exist as thematic symbols that require the same type of interpretation and abstraction of knowledge as the written form. Like a crossword puzzle, it’s about where the words/images intersect.
Are photographs about being alive or about dying?
Perhaps photographs are about trying to experience both at the same time.
Does the world ever visually overwhelm you? Do your photographs show that?
Of course it does, I don’t know if my photographs scream “overwhelming”, but I believe my best photographs organize chaotic space to make it appear rational. Depending on the situation, ratcheting up or down the complexity of the relationships between objects to create a sort of “whole” stimuli within the photograph. Although, most things you can’t control(or at least I don’t want to) and I think that when I am the most visually overwhelmed I just let things unfold while remaining observant and they seem to work themselves out. The camera ends up being an equalizer.
When you bring your camera up to your face and look through the viewfinder, do you take a breath before, during or after taking a photograph?
I’ve never really thought about breathing, seems to come natural to me! I would say this is also situational though, I guess I don’t mind doing all three, if you are implying that those are three different types of images/image makers.
Do you have to be smart to be a photographer?
Anyone can be a photographer these days, so no? (assuming not everyone is smart) It’s not a requirement, but I think that it is a requirement of the editor. Whether that is the photographer him/herself or a another entity entirely, the work is truly formed in the editing process.
Are your photographs interchangeable? Is each series set or do all the photographs relate to each other?
My photographs intrinsically relate to each other since I made them all, but to me, photographs made within the same time-frame stay interchangeable until they are solidified either by time, or by putting them in a specific category and/or series. I do keep an open mind about images recurring or functioning in an alternative mode. Such as, the same or similar image serve multiple purposes based on its applied context.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Can you shamelessly plug your book publisher that you and a few friends run?