Before I can transform materials, I have to transform myself. I need to create an image. I never start with a plan, I just draw a mark on my face and respond to it. I look at the mark and ask myself what do the other features of a person with those eyebrows, or cheekbones, or dimpled chin, look like? I just keep moving forward after each step. Conjuring myself is done quickly so that I can’t get caught up in trying to make the evolving character look perfect, or pretty. I want real. As the face starts to take shape I find myself adjusting my posture and starting to frown, or squint, or sneer at my reflection. Again, simply responding to what I see in front of me. Then I raid the closet. I do not allow myself to buy anything specifically for my portraits, as that would lead to searching for the perfect shirt or wig when I really need to be on the path of taking pictures.
People often ask what my relationship is to the people in my portraits. Well, since they are all self-portraits I guess it’s pretty close. But at the same time I don’t know them for any longer than it takes to snap a picture. I guess I empathize with them. Life can shift so quickly; it’s so fragile. I do love looking at genuine mug shots though. If I pick up copy of Crime Times or Busted! I laugh at the pictures on the first page, but after a few more, it’s not so funny. I want to capture that emotional shift in my work. I’m just trying to tell a story with a single image.
Photographing weddings for several years allowed to me observe thousands of people through a camera lens. I was there to document a ritual – a moment of transition – and I always felt that the photo paper was not up to the task of conveying the importance of the moment. I wanted a way to give a photograph more substance.
I love the materiality of photographs. I remember seeing a Man Ray print, Erotique Voile, that had so much silver in the blacks they sparkled. I imagined touching the print would feel like dipping my finger into a pool of liquid metal. I wanted that tactility in my work. I looked to old photo processes in an effort to make the printed image more substantial, but most people couldn’t see the difference. I put down my camera for a while. I started grad school thinking I might make giant cyanotype photograms on linen. I never made a single cyanotype. I took a jacquard weaving class and decided to try weaving with wire in an effort to make an image using silver shine against a matte black surface, like a daguerreotype. The finished piece was surprisingly fluid; I could see it from a distance, but it slipped away as I approached. There was depth to the surface and something magical about watching the image come and go. Normally only the photographer gets to see and image magically appear in the darkroom, but everyone who looked at that piece got to share that moment. I felt like I had found the materials and process I’d been looking for. I picked up the camera and turned it on myself.
There was depth to the surface and something magical about watching the image come and go.
Usually when transitional moments are documented, they are staged. We play a part in ritual and our role is identified by ceremonial garb like a graduation cap and gown or a wedding dress. But mug shots are a profound moment where a person is caught in limbo between guilt and innocence. They are going through this process alone with no time to cloak themselves in protective armor. They’re even stripped of personal accessories like jewelry and baseball caps. There is no rehearsal and there are no retakes. Mugshots are kind of a metaphor for life I guess. We reveal ourselves at low points, when we are vulnerable, so I make myself vulnerable. Over and over again, in front of the camera, for a split second I feel lost, or resigned, or defensive, or any of the other ways we respond when we are exposed.
One of the things I enjoy about this work is that it continually surprises me. Normally I can visualize exactly what the finished product will look like, and all the work leading up to that point is carried out to achieve what I envisioned. But with these weavings I have an idea, and I know how to make that idea come to life, but I can’t see the work already finished in my head. Every step is a discovery.