Recently, I spent the afternoon with one of my favorite humans on the planet, the talented artist Rachel Styer, in her studio talking about the therapeutic quality to making art, levitation, and falling in love. Rachel and I recorded our conversation, and despite the quality not being awesome thanks to the hum of the AC and my shoddy equipment, we wanted to share parts of that conversation.
Rachel started out as a writer before realizing that visual art, and specifically photography, better expressed her thoughts and ideas. In this audio clip, Rachel explains why she found writing to be limiting:
Her love of writing led her to start a blog, and that led to taking pictures for the blog and buying her first camera, the Canon AE-1, and learning how to process and print black-and-white film at the Harvey Milk Recreation Center in San Francisco. Here Rachel describes printing at the Center’s darkroom amongst other beginning photographers and her shift into working with color:
Around the time she made the shift to digital color images, Rachel met her now husband Dave Richard (who is also a super talented artist) and began shooting s series of staged self-portraits with Dave out in nature on their weekend day trips around California. “The Weekenders” feels like a grimy tattered paperback copy of Pablo Neruda’s love poems that you’d find at a garage sale. The photographs are beautifully composed and the sometimes blurry focus and lens flare act as a metaphor for the blinding drunkness of falling in love. In this audio clip, Rachel and I discuss “The Weekenders,” photographing long-term relationships, and how grad school can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to our own engagement with our work:
Rachel and I both started grad school in 2009 at SVA’s Photography, Video, & Related Media MFA program. A year into the experience, Rachel was diagnosed with lymphoma and spent the last two years of her three years in that program going through cancer treatment and recovery while also working on her thesis body of work, appropriately titled “Treatment.” For anyone who has been through the physical and emotional trauma of cancer or the obviously far less intense but still stressful rigors of a masters program, the fact that Rachel did both at the same time is an impressive feat in and of itself. The fact that Rachel made this beautifully inventive project that not only comments on her own treatment, but that also helped her heal and come to terms with this experience, thereby becoming its own form of treatment, is why she is one of my favorite artists around. In this clip, we discuss the theme of flight and levitation in “Treatment”:
“Treatment” explores the paradoxical relationship between the physical body and the self through self-portraits in nature, photographic records of organic sculptures that represent both the body and a state of mind, as well as light-exposed damaged negatives that resemble blood cells seen through a microscope. There’s a performative and physical element to the work that Styer has describes as her attempt to visually represent the biological battle raging through her body and her emotional state during that time:
Now in good health and cancer-free, Rachel’s art process really helped her put that experience into perspective. While talking about the crumpled film images and pantyhose-as-muscle fiber sculpture images, Rachel talks about her anger post-treatment and sympathizes with Martin Short’s character from the movie “Innerspace“:
Rachel and Dave were recent artists-in-residence at C-Scape where they lived in a shack on the beach and made art. During that time, Rachel began making artist books, including a handmade book documenting her treatment with a page to represent each day. Similarly, her latest work continues her exploration of the physical nature of photographic film. Through a camera-less process, she crumpled and damages negative film and exposes it to light to see what results. As a finalist in CCNY’s Darkroom Residency, she was given access to their darkroom facilities to continue this work. In our final clip, she offers that rare glimpse into the trials of making new work:
Last weekend, after visiting CCNY’s Zine and Self-Published Photo Book Fair, I wandered over to ICP for a visit to their bookstore. I walked over with the intention of picking up a signed copy of Todd Hido’s new book “Excerpts from Silver Meadows,” which I did, along with the new 3rd edition of Taryn Simon’s new classic “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” that had been on my photo book wish list for a while. But as I walked there, I remembered that the fourth triennial was on display and decided to see what it was all about.
The exhibition features 28 artists working in photography, video, sculpture, collage, and related media. The show’s curators Kristen Lubben, Christopher Phillips, Carol Squiers, and Joanna Lehan have crafted a collection of work that captures the instability and violence of our time, as well as the way we consume the gluttony of images around us.
In Elliott Hundley’s “Pentheus” that avalanche of images takes the form of an immense photo collage / sculpture that really must be seen in person to be appreciated. Gideon Mendel tackles issues of destruction and flood quite literally with his portraits of people standing in flood waters from locations all over his “Drowning World.”
Other highlights for me included the deceptively gorgeous and sublime drone photographs of Trevor Paglen, Michael Schmelling’s photographs of hoarders’ nests, and Mikhael Subotzy and Patrick Waterhouse’s three towering lightboxes made up of tiny photographs that resemble the South African residential tower and depict all the television sets, front doors, and windows of each unit of the tower.
But the piece that really got under my skin was Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Touching Reality.” Set in the back corner of the ground floor behind a heavy semi-opaque plastic curtain, this video plays in a dark room and feel like a secret. When I first walked in not knowing what the piece was about, I was met by the furtive glance of the only other person in the room, who left as soon as I entered. The video is a single-shot of an ipad that displays a slideshow of horrific images of death and mutilated bodies from sources that seem to range from war zones to terrorist bombings to crime scenes and car crashes. The images flash before the viewer’s eyes with the flick of the female finger operating the ipad. Her finger flies by some images, scrolls back to others, and zooms in on particularly gruesome details of some images. I stayed watching these images for longer than I thought I would, which is part of Hirschhorn’s intention. He wants us to look at the effects of violence and confront the very scenes the media hides for fear of upsetting viewers and think about our methods of image consumption since the only place I’ve seen images this violent is online. We live in upsetting times, and “Touching Reality” jarred me out of my pleasant Saturday reality to remind me of that.
This weekend at CCNY is The Americas: CCNY’s 4th Annual Zine & Self-Published Photo Book Fair. Stop by this Sat. and Sun. 8/3-4/13 from 12-6pm to browse tons of titles and support DIY art books. As stated on the CCNY site: “The curators – Jade Berreau, Lindsey Castillo, Victoria Gondra and Erik van der Weijde – each have backgrounds in publishing, with close ties to artists from all over the Americas. They have curated a wide range of work that reflects the region’s great diversity in art and culture. As in past years, all proceeds from the sale of zines and photo books will go directly to the artists or small publishers.”
I stopped by the fair this afternoon to check out this year’s featured work. Personal favorites included Alyse Emdur‘s “Prison Landscapes” and Carl Gunhouse‘s “Falling Apart” road trip photo book. Both books are for sale and there were still copies left as of late Saturday afternoon, so be sure to check it out tomorrow if you missed it today.
I love that CCNY has been doing this fair for 4 years now and hope that it continues as a venue for self-published works on paper to be seen and supported. It was great to see such a wide range of different examples of binding and publishing represented. In a time where it is so easy and affordable to make your own books from places like Blurb or Lulu, I really appreciated the variety of physical objects on display.
That said, I singled out Gunhouse and Emdur’s books because beyond appreciating their design, the content of the work stood out for me in its cohesiveness and execution. It is easy to fall in love with a book on a pure design level, especially when the artist is making something in a small edition made by hand that pushes the boundary of what a photo book can be, but personally I want to be as drawn to the images themselves and the story told through sequencing to get excited about any photo book. I saw some great examples of this at the fair that made it worth the trip to midtown on a weekend, but not as many as I’d hoped. I remember once hearing a photographer at a photo book club meeting in San Francisco say that he often makes artist books as a means to essentially package outtakes and random images into some kind of tangible art object. His implication being that if he didn’t make a book out of those images, however disparate those images might be, they may never see the light of day. As a photographer, there’s something great about this idea. It takes the pressure off a bit to be able to work on an idea and make a book out of it quickly and move on to the next idea. But I guess the critic in me questions: sure you can take a group of okay photos and make a little book out of them, but should you? I think there’s a case to be made for both sides of that discussion and plenty of examples to argue both sides on display at CCNY this weekend.