an evolution of creative spaces

For someone as messy as I am, the organization and appearance of my personal spaces are surprisingly important. My bedroom, my bathroom, my car- all spaces that I spend so much of my time in, that are astonishingly messy, but in a way that I find sort of comforting. I, as a person, pride myself on not being messy. My spaces might be messy, but I am not a mess. Not usually, anyway. I'm a nester, which on good days means mostly that I like to make spaces immediately mine, no matter how long I'm actually staying in them, and on bad days, means that everything I own ends up in various strategic piles around me. 

My studio space is maybe the one general exception to the rule. Because it is a personal space, but one that I'm often inviting other people to spend time in, I make a much bigger effort to keep it habitable than I do for say, my bedroom.

The first studio ever granted to me was a three-walled, 12'x12' space that I shared with my friend Rona in the Gallery building at the Burren College of Art. It was my third year of undergrad, and I was working almost exclusively in 2d digital photography. I'd never been given so much space to work in before, and I was pretty overwhelmed by it. I kept a worktable, chair and pile of books there. Halfway through the semester I used some of the wall space to consider several large maps of the area that I'd purchased. I never used it for anything else, hence why I have a photo of Rona's space, but not mine:

Rona's half of our first shared studio at the  Burren College of Art  in Ireland.

Rona's half of our first shared studio at the Burren College of Art in Ireland.

In the spring of that year, Rona and I chose to move into a smaller-but-brighter studio affectionally referred to as "the Fishbowl". Our space in the Bowl featured high ceilings, a 12' shared wall, a sink, and a long set of low shelves. Rona had the back half of the space, granting her another 6-8' of wall space, while I took the half of our shared wall and the courtyard-facing wall made of glass panels. I was still working overwhelmingly in 2d, although I'd added a painting course to my schedule that term. The Fishbowl was a interesting experience in the public-private duality of artists' spaces- tourists who came to view the castle on the grounds of the school often had to walk past our space on their way to or from the Gallery building, and would stop to view us through the aquarium-like walls. Children would point at something that was going on in the space, asking their parents about whatever bizarre-looking thing we we working on that week. I don't know what sort of answers those parents gave their young ones- none of them ever came inside to consult us.

The view from my studio table in the second space that Rona & I shared, looking into the courtyard. It was often obscured by my work prints and wide edits, due to lack of wall space.

The view from my studio table in the second space that Rona & I shared, looking into the courtyard. It was often obscured by my work prints and wide edits, due to lack of wall space.

Looking from the castle through the courtyard. Rona and I shared the left 1/3 of the set of windows on the right.

Looking from the castle through the courtyard. Rona and I shared the left 1/3 of the set of windows on the right.

The campus cat and I, sitting behind my studio table. This cat really did love me. Rona's half of our shared wall begins behind me.

The campus cat and I, sitting behind my studio table. This cat really did love me. Rona's half of our shared wall begins behind me.

When I returned to my home institution after a year of studio indulgence at the Burren, I didn't quite know what to expect. I knew that the space generally granted to Photography thesis students was limited, but I thought for sure that they couldn't expect all twelve of us to share a space only twice the size of the spaces that I'd shared with Rona in Ireland. I was wrong. 

The Corcoran gave each Fine Art Photography thesis student a 5' long table and the wall immediately in front of it. Some of us rearrange our spaces in such a way as to take better advantage of what we had versus how we needed to work- I replaced my large table with a much smaller pedestal in order to better access the wall space, many of my peers installed shelves for books and supplies, and one of us removed their table and replaced it with a cushy armchair, abandoning the pretense of working in the space completely. I like to think that our shared clown car-esque experience really brought us all closer- that mightn't have been true, but it sure felt like it.

Ta da! The entirety of my studio space as a fourth-year BFA student. For reference, my space begins at the door frame, that hanging print is 55" wide (4.5 ft), and the roll of paper in the bottom-right is leaning up against my roommate's studio table.

Ta da! The entirety of my studio space as a fourth-year BFA student. For reference, my space begins at the door frame, that hanging print is 55" wide (4.5 ft), and the roll of paper in the bottom-right is leaning up against my roommate's studio table.

The MFA studios at UAF, where I've been for the past year and a half, are housed in a gutted graduate student triplex. The building was condemned as a housing unit at some point, after which it was given to the Chemistry department, after which it transferred into the ink-and-paint-stained clutches of the Art department. It's not ideal, but it has a lot of potential. We can't make many structural changes to it, which is disappointing, but it's a space, which is a good thing.

The first space that I occupied in the MFA studios. My space began about halfway through the last windowpane on the right and included the wall on the left and the wall at the back of the photo. It was about six square feet that housed a work table and a low set of shelves, with 5' of wall on the left and 6-7'ft of space on the back wall.

The first space that I occupied in the MFA studios. My space began about halfway through the last windowpane on the right and included the wall on the left and the wall at the back of the photo. It was about six square feet that housed a work table and a low set of shelves, with 5' of wall on the left and 6-7'ft of space on the back wall.

I don't have any photos of my first studio setup because I wasn't very comfortable in it. I didn't have much space to spread out and I didn't feel at all like the space belonged to me. Working in borrowed space is fine for a certain amount of time, but after awhile it can grow tiring. This January, I was able to move into a vacated space on the other side of the basement. The long, continuous wall is ideal for organizing wide edits and really getting to sit with the work I'm making. Even after moving to a largely digital workflow, making work prints and sequencing physical images is the only way to visualize what shape the final work will take. I plan to begin making final prints at the end of this semester, and this wall will allow me to hang several of them together at a time, rather than just one or two (like my previous space would've allowed).

My current space in the MFA studios.

My current space in the MFA studios.

The perfect, unobstructed 15-foot wall that runs along the left side of my space. 

The perfect, unobstructed 15-foot wall that runs along the left side of my space. 

All photos in this post are mine unless otherwise noted.

nailing it

The MFAs got to hang a small works-in-progress show in the University gallery this past week.  



Ceramic work in the foreground by Dustin Auerbach.

You should appreciate this timelapse a lot, because the first time I ever had to hang any of my own photographs (which was only actually five years ago), I ended the day sitting on the floor, crying, surrounded by bent nails and three different types of hammers.

Exhibitions was not my forte. I've gotten a lot better, obviously, and also sworn to never hang salon-style again, no matter how much the work would benefit.

I hung three 11x17 pigment prints in plain white frames (my go-to when someone, like my advisor, makes me use them at all) and called it a day. I knew my work would contrast pretty harshly with what my peers would be showing, and I didn't want to call any more attention to that than I had to. I did, however, make some very specific choices about titles, which I don't usually do and have been exploring more lately.

Because the show title was very generic, and our statements were hung separately from the work, I wanted to be very purposeful about naming the photos. I'm not a big fan of overly verbose or descriptive titles, and haven't used them at all in the past. 

image.jpg

From left to right: When We Thought It Was Cancer (I Wish It Was Cancer), May 2013; I Don't Live In This House Any More/ Does Anyone Live In This House Any More?, une 2015; After Physical Therapyctober 2015.

My art history professor/committee member said they made her cry so I guess they're good titles.  

"can you be on a plane to barrow tomorrow at 6 am?"

I got asked this question last November, and I answered "sure, why not?". 

I got to meet some incredible people, ate fantastic Inupiaq dishes, and hang out with Edna MacLean for 24 hours.

Edna is something of an Alaskan treasure. She's a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, hanging previously taught in the Alaska Native Languages program. This past September, UAF Press published Edna's North Slope Inupiaq-English dictionary- a lexicon that took Edna and dozens of Inupiaq elders nearly 40 years to complete.

Aurora Magazine, UAF's alumni & friends publication, was strapped for photographer options when they called me up asking if I wanted to spend a day in Barrow, so I don't know how much of it was faith and how much of it was desperation, but I jumped at the chance. Barrow is the northernmost incorporated community in North America, with around 4,500 people occupying a narrow strip of Alaska's Arctic Slope coast at the confluence of the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Read the rest of the feature on Edna, and see the rest of my photos (including the cover!) in the Spring 2015 issue of Aurora.

ednacover



ceci n'est pas une pipe: on the truth of portraiture

Portraiture is arguably the most immediately accessible genre of photography. It's easy to understand a portrait- a photo of a person, usually. A face- something recognizable, something familiar. It's easy to look a photograph of a person and imagine what their life may be like, based on what we can see. 

The images above are selections from Alec Soth's Sleeping By the Mississippi. The first time I completed a body of work based in portraiture, the first feedback that I received from a professor was "I'm so glad these images don't look like Alec Soth". That single comment has shaped both the way that I photograph portraits and how I perceive them for the last four years. 

Allow me to rewind, momentarily.

These are selections from work made by Edward Curtis in the early 1900's. Curtis has been viewed as the father of ethnographic portraiture for the better part of the last two centuries, but in my own experience, people in the last ten years finally seem to be copping on to his crap. Curtis' Pictorialist style- softer focus and manipulation of the print color or chemicals in order to elicit a somewhat dreamlike appearance- renders the ethnographic validity of these images immediately null. Pictorialism is often spoken about as the catalyst for photography's exaltation to the realm of fine art in the mid 1900's. Why, then, have Curtis' images, especially those of indigenous North Americans, been viewed for so long as true representations of the people depicted? The idea of manipulation, of both the image and the viewer's emotions, are literally part of the definition of Pictorialism. Curtis' portraits are socio-cultural propaganda at their most basic.

Principal among the commonalities between Curtis' and Soth's photo is the anonymity of their subjects. The generally accepted idea of portraiture is to reveal the identity of a person- and while these two photographers may do that in the most superficial way, we cannot truly identify anything about these people outside of their frames. Seth's images, though most of them include some environmental context, are the height of Anywhere, USA. There are things we can infer based on the settings of some of his subjects- this person is on a bed, that person is outside, the other person is probably in a church. But the only reason we have a more specific geographic clue about his locations is because he gives it to us. Without a title, Sleeping by the Mississippi would become Sleeping Literally Anywhere. And suddenly, this anonymous mish-mash of folks becomes the precedent for what people look like in that part of the world. Likewise, Curtis' images of regalia-ed Natives provide little to no cultural context of the clothing or adornment portrayed. His subjects are depicted often in either ceremonial regalia, traditional clothing with a specific purpose, or, as in the case above, what appears to be an entire bear skin. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of pretty much any of the thousands of Native groups in North America should know that none of these things are everyday wear. How did the war bonnet become synonymous with typical Native garb? Curtis.

I'm reminded of another "ethnographic" work of pseudo-non-fiction by our dear friend Robert Flaherty, titled Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, produced in 1922. The silent "documentary" tells the story of an Canadian Inut man, Allakariallak ("Nanook"), of the Itivimuit, his wife Nyla and their child Cunayou. In reality, various accounts from individuals who knew Flaherty and Allakariallak have revealed that this woman and child were not Allakariallak's family at all, but instead Flaherty's. Flaherty encouraged Allakariallak to hunt in the "traditional" way of his people, instead of with the gun that Allakariallak would normally use. Flaherty in fact refused to capture any film in which evidence of European contact was apparent, instead staging scenes capturing what were basically re-enactments of pre-colonial life in the Canadian Arctic.

But I digress. 

The two most important bodies of work that I am currently involved in are, at their most basic, works of portraiture. Not only in the sense that I am making photos that are mostly of faces and people, but in the sense that both bodies as a whole are meant to represent something. Like Stieglitz's Georgia O'Keeffe, A Portrait, the images I'm producing aren't meant to be viewed one at a time. They're a progression of an experience- one, a portrait of a matriarch with a terminal condition. The other, a portrait of a community grasping to stay rooted in our heritage. Obviously, neither of these works are as simple as what I've tried to boil them down to here, but then neither are my feelings regarding the totalitarian nature of the idea of a portrait. To believe that we can know someone by viewing an image of them is naive. To believe that we can capture even part of an individual's personality in a still frame is naive. To make our life's work out of depicting the faces of the world and to say that those images are a representation of everyone else who looks like that person is naive (cough, Steve McCurry). Making portraits never appealed to me until I realized that all we have to do is recognize that images of people are not the same as the people themselves. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, right? The image is not the object but merely a screen of a representation of the object. I just finished re-reading Jaques Lacan for the third time in four years and he still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that part I understand. 

I want to see aspects of my identity represented in the world so badly- on magazine covers, in movies and television, and in the music industry. I want to see people who look like me, talk like me, have similar experiences to mine out in the world, existing and being recognized. That's the main impetus for both the work I'm doing on my mother and the world that I'm doing with other children of Pacific immigrants. But through both of these works, I have to keep reminding myself that what I'm making will never be the same as what those people are living. My images are not their identities, my photographs are not their experiences. An image of the object is not the object.


what is the group name for the palins?

…a flock of Palins? A disturbance of Palins? A screeching of Palins?

Since moving to Alaska, many friends from home have managed to weave Sarah Palin into our conversations once or twice. Although I haven't seen her, or her infamous backyard, I was fascinated by these photos released by the Anchorage Police Department today. About a month ago, a fight broke out at a birthday party at which some of the Palins were present, and the police were called. They released the evidence photos today on the APD website, and I spent a long time this morning considering them.

Evidence photos are not intended to be works of art, and yet I find myself drawn to these images. Photography has been considered for a long time to be a reflection of reality, and only in the last decade or so has begun to be distrusted as much (if not more so) than paintings or drawings. The argument is one any photojournalist is familiar with, and even Dutch student Zilla van den Born knows all too well. But we still use photography, despite all it's deceptive ability, to document and to record. These evidence photos appear un-doctored to the naked eye- and I have confidence that if they were examined more closely, their data would reflect that as well. The images that feature human subjects intentionally obscure the identities of those depicted. The harsh flash and the apparent disregard for composition or framing marks these images as intentional records rather than a constructed reality or conceptual framework. And yet, these are also the traits that keep me drawn to the imagery- a kind of half-way between Nan Goldin and Paul Seawright comes to mind.

Nan Goldin,  Nan one month after being battered,   1984

Nan Goldin, Nan one month after being battered, 1984

 Paul Seawright  fts  Sectarian Murder

 Paul Seawright fts Sectarian Murder

Regardless of the intent behind the Palin evidence photos, their intrigue is undeniable. Whether the intrigue is born out of the family's fame or simply the strangeness of these specific pictures remains to be seen.