On Studio – Putting It Into Context: September 2009

My studio practice emerged first from the history of black & white street photography, and I was especially interested in the worlds of Harry Callahan, Andre Kertesz, and Robert Frank. As I became more interested in grassroots activism and small p politics, my work shifted to social documentary (Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photography was a key text at this time).  The next shift brought my work to a literal examination of public space, particularly urban public space (Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street was a major influence). Currently, the desire to understand and explore spatial environments and encounters is the driving force behind my practice. While this satisfies me intellectually, it more often than not leaves the activist in me unsatisfied and I am reminded of the E.B White quote: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” In the end, I have spent a great deal of time wondering what place, if any, social justice activism has in my practice.

At times, when feeling optimistic, I believe that space is perhaps one of the first and most important things to grasp when understanding a person, experience, conflict, adversity, etc. Looking back to my undergraduate semester abroad in Northern Ireland, I remember how we spent our first few weeks situating ourselves in the landscape that surrounded us before diving into the details of the conflict. Robert Frank once wrote: “”There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” For years, this quote guided my practice. But these days, I wonder how can we assume the humanity of the moment? How can we understand what that might be when looking at an 8×10 photograph in a museum or gallery? These questions confirm my suspicion that understanding space remains important. Context is critical.

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of the artist transforming the space (works by Ann Hamilton, Tara Donovan, Rachel Whiteread, Olafur Eliasson, and Miya Lin all come to mind). And yet, I’m also attracted to the idea of humanity, and idealistically, a strong desire to believe in humanity. I hope to somehow eventually stumble upon the place where I can make them both comfortably, seemlessly, and radically merge. Of course, none of the artists listed above are photographers – is my goal possible as a photographer?

I am far more influenced by literature and film than I will ever be able to fully articulate. This all makes sense to me as I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. Last year, my practice was subtly driven by writers such as Jack Kerouac, Michelle Tea, John Steinbeck, Dave Eggers, Arthur Miller, and Colum McCann. The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, Eldorado, Everything is Illuminated (hated the book, loved the movie), Conversations with Other Women, and Snijeg/Snow are among the films that I watched and thought often about during the year. As a political science major, my undergraduate education gave me little in terms of contemporary art history. Well aware of these knowledge gaps, I am constantly trying to fill them in as much as possible. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

The long-running joke is that I don’t have an apartment, but rather a bed in my studio. Most of my walls are filled with photos and dry-erase boards. My windowsill is lined with spray paint cans, resin containers, different kinds of adhesive, and other tools. My bed is lofted to store larger framed works as well as supplies and materials. One closet is full of film, negatives, and prints. And books are all around (I’m currently in the midst of a bookshelf crisis). While I am well-settled (personally and artistically) in these 510-square feet, the truth is that my studio can easily exist with me in all locations. I rarely travel without a camera and laptop, and can live easily for several weeks at a time out of a backpack. Even my backpack packing skills have been adjusted to accommodate my practice first (if you don’t bring another pair of shoes, you have room for more books, rolls of film and memory sticks go in specific spots, etc.). And in the end, I thrive off of the stability of a home studio with the freedom to move it with me at any time as needed.

All that said, my practice is quirky. I work best when working on multiple projects simultaneously (same goes for reading multiple books at the same time). My fingers ache if I don’t work with my hands regularly (I cook more now that I am not using a wet darkroom). I need to allow ideas to stew for a long time before working (and then they often explode without me quite understanding why…and then I let them stew some more). I can’t write without wearing a baseball cap (strange, I know). I have a hard time even looking at contemporary photography (sculpture and architecture clearly appeal to me much more these days). Despite this, I am deeply attached to the camera as a tool and photography as a practice. I am curious as to the role of visuality in photography – healthy vs. diseased vision, sight vs. other senses, human eye vs. camera lens, sight influenced by perspective and time, etc. Finally, I am interested in re-thinking what photography is, how photography can act, and why photography should exist.