fetish: 1.1 An excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Big article in The Guardian about how photography has become the “hottest new investment choice”. Duckrabbit responds with a review of Jim Motram‘s book Small Town Inertia, a blog post much more measured than the one you are reading now. (In fact, you should probably just spend your precious time reading that, rather than this.)
But I will continue whether there are readers here or not, which is kind of the crux of what I’m about to talk about . . .
I realized a long time ago that no one buys my photos. Well, that’s not entirely true. I occasionally sell one or two to some individual and, more often, to institutions. But I’ve known for a long time that there’s no real future for me (fiscally speaking) in the good-old sell-prints-as-art scheme. And I’m fine with that, it leaves me free to pursue other ways of thinking about why I take photos, what they need to look like, how they are assembled and distributed, and their use and usefulness.
Now you might be a photographer who’s sensibility, interests, aesthetic and skill set makes your work desirable to folks who need a photo or two to flesh out their walls. Maybe gallery representation and selling prints is part of your income flow. And maybe your photos are more than mere decorations. Great. I’ve got no problem with that. But please, if your photographs really are mostly decorative don’t attach some after-the-fact rationale that attributes a socially conscious subtext to them. Have the balls or the ovaries to own what you do.
But, me, I’ve never wanted my photographs to be precious, never thought of a photograph I’ve made (or, as I prefer, taken) as “a piece”, unless you consider piece to mean one small thing that goes with other things to make a more complex whole. I’ve never tried to be an artist, I just want to experience, learn and communicate.
Yes, yes, I know I’m speaking totally categorically here. I know that there are nuances and complications to everything. I know that not everyone wants what I want. I know that what I see as some decorative bobble might move someone else to tears. I know that, as Simon Norfolk says, “beauty can be a tactic”. But I hope you get my point: that markets drive, in subtle and often unconscious ways, content.
Naomi is energetic, to say the least. A gallivanting Canadian, she travels all over, lives in her car a lot of the time and is constantly accompanied by her sidekick, Maggie the dog. She seeks out and photographs, for lack of a better word, characters.
With her latest project, EUSA, you could see the people she photographs as eccentrics, or as folks creating some kind of dream. But the photos also show how caricature can (and does) become an idealized version of a reality that doesn’t really exist. Or does it? Aren’t all our realities manufactured?
Read on as Naomi talks about how she finds projects and subjects, what she does once she’s got them in her sights and what she does for fun . . .
How do you choose your projects? What makes you decide to spend your time and capital on this, rather than that?
To date I typically find one project while working on another. Like when I was shooting my first project Haddon Hall, I used to go to a nude beach and would hear everyone around me talking about these parties that I was never invited to. I discovered that they were talking about swingers parties and when I was invited to go as a “key” so a single, male friend of mine could go I said sure, why not, because I’ll do anything once (the invitation was to come with no strings attached as I am a photographer and he figured I’d be into seeing it). So that led to my project America Swings. Then when shooting the last swingers project for the book I was in the mountains of Georgia and had time to kill so went to a little tourist town called Helen that was all done up in Bavarian. I did some research to see what other places in the US looked European, then looked into American themed places in Europe and voila, EUSA was born.
How do I decide what to spend my time and money on though? I guess I need to feel like I’m gaining something out of the experience, learning something about other people and myself. I usually shoot things that are far far away which is silly as I accrue all sorts of travel expenses when I should shoot something in my own backyard. But guess that’s the wanderlust in me.
The next few projects I’m working on are a huge departure from my current work habit. I’m leaving the documentary style behind and attempting a more performance art approach. I find it more and more difficult to make interesting photos these days as more and more people are glued to their phones 24/7.
Tell me a little more about EUSA.
It’s a series of photographs, mostly portraiture, that I took over the course of 8 years, but not consistently. Most of these events happened during the summer months and usually many things happened over the same weekend so had to pick which side of the pond to be on when. And after I shot a bunch of places in 2010 I put all the shot film in my freezer until 2013 when a friend who worked in a lab was quitting their job and told me to give them the film so they could process it for free for me! That was a tremendous boost. And when I finally saw the images 3 years later I was like, “Whoa, I like what I’ve got, damn I better finish this project finally!” and got cracking again.
But what is EUSA? In a nutshell it’s American themed places in Europe and European themed places in America. It’s my take on how globalization has ruined cultures creating a homogenized universal culture. Did I intend this when I first started shooting the project, no. But the more “the same” I’ve seen us become the more I realize that this is the true underlying current to the work. We are all becoming drones shlocking the wares of global companies like Apple, Adidas, Levis, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, the list goes on and on. That our cultures have become “Disneyfied” if you will…the to be German is to stuff yourself with brats while wearing a lederhosen T-shirt or if you’re American you are either a cowboy, Confederate soldier or Native American…and don’t get me started on Europeans dressing up as Indians.
How do you approach your subjects, how long do you spend with them and how much do they contribute (in the sense of collaborating) to the process?
Each project is different for me. For example when I photographed Haddon Hall I moved into the hotel itself living there for 2 months and then relocating to Miami and lived there while working on the project. It was very important for me to be ever present and really gain the trust of my subjects. I wouldn’t even necessarily take my camera out, just hang out on the veranda and shoot the breeze as we watched the world go by. Or taking them to doctors appointments or helping with grocery shopping. All this is part of the process. Gaining people’s trust helps grant you permission to photograph in those off moments. But these people also became my surrogate grandparents as I grew up not having any other than my paternal grandmother who died a few years earlier, and for many of them I was like a grandchild. This was a time in my life when I had the luxury of time and had saved up some money to be able to work on this project but that’s not always the case.
When I photographed for EUSA or even the America Swings work I didn’t really get to spend much time with people in the sense that these were events. With the swingers there was the added pressure of needing to connect quickly since everyone there is there with an end goal in mind, and that’s not to get their photo taken if you catch my drift.
Typically I work slow. I always drum up a conversation, try to connect on a certain level and create an interaction with my subject. I want them to be a participant in their portrait, to not only be directed but to be present which I hope comes through at the end. During Trump’s first 100 days I drove around the country meeting people and photographing them in order to get a sense of how Trump was elected president. I talked to many people, not always photographing them. I think that’s important to say, that this photography thing is a process and a tool to connect with people that doesn’t always need to culminate in a photograph. Photography is experiential, the fact that there is a photograph at the end which you can share with others is just a byproduct.
What do you do for fun?
I go to bed most nights at 9 so that eliminates most social activities. I get up early, hike the dogs, make a smoothie (got to get in those greens!) and then get to work. I don’t remember the last time I’ve taken an actual holiday. But I guess I’m having the most fun and feeling the most “at home” when I’m in my car on a road trip. Sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, figuring out where to go next while Maggie is asleep next to me, this is the greatest source of joy for me.
Thank you for your time