Photography is a complex and ever-changing art form as are the artists that practice the craft. Rfotofolio has the pleasure of sharing the work and words of Grace Weston.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I was raised in New Jersey in a working class family. Despite my dad’s lack of formal education, he was very interested in the arts, culture, history, philosophy, and politics. He was well read and self-taught, and made sure to get me to the museums in New York. I learned about Impressionism before I got into grade school. So, I grew up with a deep appreciation for the arts.
In my early 20’s I moved to the West Coast, starting in Southern California, and eventually making my way up to Portland, Oregon, where I had the great opportunity to assist photographer Mark Hooper. This introduced me to studio photography, and the notion of starting with the blank canvas as opposed to my previous treasure-hunting style of shooting what spoke to me out in the world with available light. The studio changed everything for me, and I was enthralled by the idea of creating imagery from my imagination. There was a big learning curve, studying lighting, working in color and with larger format cameras. And it took years for me to figure out what I wanted to express and how I wanted to depict it. I currently live in Seattle, Washington, but plan on returning to Portland eventually. It is a great town, with a terrific photo community that I miss tremendously.
How did you get started in photography?
I’ve always been a visual person. I created art as a kid and all throughout school. In high school I started carrying around an instamatic camera everywhere I went, documenting my friends antics – we were constantly donning outfits and costumes, or posing in made-up dramatic scenes, just goofing around. I did not consider this “art” (and my camera shot off-center), but it was a great practice – not unlike always having a cell phone camera available these days. I took art classes in a junior college, including basic photography and darkroom, where I became the darkroom assistant. Whereas I would struggle in my painting class for the whole term to complete a single painting, in photography I excelled and was able to produce many good images rather quickly – instant gratification! I had a teacher, Bill Barksdale, who recognized my aptitude and encouraged me enormously.
Ironically, now the kind of photography I do requires a good deal of time just to create one image!
Which photographers and other artists work do you admire?
There are so many, so here are just a few: Duane Michals, Paolo Ventura, Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Annie Leibowitz, Sarah Moon, Gregory Crewdson, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Erwin Olaf, Richard Tuschman, and among my contemporaries, Kyohei Abe, John Chervinsky, and Tami Bone. Obviously, I am drawn to narrative.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
Duane Michals’ series “Alice’s Mirror” had a profound affect on me since I first saw it in school. One thing amusing about photography as a visual art is the presumption (pre-Photoshop, anyway) that it represents reality, and I love when that idea is turned on its head. I relish illusion and visual sleight-of-hand. With scale and point of view, Michael’s up ends our assumptions.
Do you have a story about one of your images that you would like to share?
I offer two stories here (one form the Neo Noir work, one from the more detailed vignette work) – you are welcome to choose one or both, as you see fit. One of my first images for the “Neo Noir” series was “On the Train”. I was struggling with a new, detailed vignette image, and in a moment of distraction, I allowed myself to just goof around, loosen up and play with photographing this little man doll – not focusing on detail. I was surprised at the success of the shot – how much atmosphere, mood, and tension was in the image precisely because details were ambiguous. I felt that the emotion and psychology of the character really came across. It was so much fun to shoot a lot and to just watch what happened. I continued in this vein, and soon saw a narrative developing that addressed feelings of confusion and mystery. I could see the reference to Noir film, spy movies, and pulp crime novels, but also it became evident that it reflected my own state of mind, having moved to a new city where everyone was a stranger and everything was unclear. My new city, though beautiful, was very different, and I was a stranger in a strange land, after having left my home in Portland after twenty-two years.
My image “Satiric Muse” obviously references Andre Kertesz’s image “Satiric Dancer”, which has forever held a place in my mind. I love the spirit of the scene – so kooky and playful, capturing the free-spirited zeitgeist of 1920’s Paris. I thought it would be a funny homage to re-stage it in miniature. In doing so, I became curious about the model – who was she? Why didn’t we know about her and her life? I researched her. Her name was Magda Forstner and she was a cabaret performer with a successful career of her own. That is just about all I could find out. I started thinking about artists’ muses in general. Usually women, often depicted nude (which tends to eliminate any clues to the woman’s roles and identity in her real life) we are denied information on who they were and what their lives were like when not posing for an artist in a romanticized scene. My “Satiric Muse” re-imagines the muse in her household, in the role of a mother, taking a breather from her overwhelming day.
Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day is for you.
The work I am most known for are my staged vignettes as seen in my ongoing series “Short Stories/ Tall Tales”. These are very detailed miniature scenes requiring characters, props, and sets, created, found and/or altered. The perfect day is a full day with no distractions, no “business” to attend to, with all the props I need at hand. In the perfect day, the shot has started, because the very first steps are the hardest part and where I have the most resistance. So many choices, so many directions to go! So the PERFECT day is the one where the pieces are all falling into place, the lighting is bathing the set in it’s magic, and looking through the viewfinder, the image from my imagination, the illusion, is coming alive as I imagined, or hopefully, even better.
It truly feels like magic, and I’m under a spell.
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or in the art world?
I wish the general public valued artists’ work and recognized that it IS work, that it is valuable to society, and is essential to the culture. The artist’s job is to make us think, and reflect in a way we might not without that prodding. I would like to see the public respect artists and realize that it isn’t just fun and ego fulfillment. Imagine the world without art – you can’t.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
My process is slow. Accepting and respecting that it takes me time to develop my ideas and present them precisely the way I want is a challenge. There are a multitude of skills I need to create my scenes. Some of my skills are much stronger than others. Being able to balance the attention “out” and the attention “in” is challenging. That is, the work of getting the imagery out into the world AND the work of creating it, come from a completely different mindsets, with different needs to support each mode. And there are the money challenges: marketing, the cost of attending review events, entering calls, mounting shows, getting the work seen, all of this adds up. Photography has always been an expensive art form, and promotion adds that much more. That being said, I feel it is important to constantly review the questions behind my drive to do this. What are the real reasons I pursue my art, how does it fulfill me, what do I need to explore, am I growing, am I addressing these questions for myself? Am I being true?
If you spend a day with another photographer living or passed who would it be?
Man Ray, when he was in Paris.
How do you view this time in the history of photography?
Paradoxical – I feel there is a Renaissance going on in creative ways with so much experimentation and exploration resulting in very exciting imagery. At the same time, it seems a devaluation of photography is going on because of the plethora of photographers, the bombardment of imagery, short attention spans, and easy access to image making (and image stealing!).
How do you overcome a creative block?
I try to take in art that inspires me – any kind. I look at art or read about creative lives that inspire me. I look for props and imagery that feel magical. I refer to my sketchbook and ideas. Sometimes just taking action – starting on SOMETHING – even if it ends up not working and abandoned for a different idea gets things moving again. Being around other artists and talking about art also inspires me. Although so tempting, I try to avoid beating myself up, or, at least, notice when I’m doing it. Blocks happen, and seem to be part of the process. Sometimes the block is just the last point of resistance before the next great breakthrough.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images?
I hope viewers have insights into their own psyche, noticing their reaction to a certain idea, questioning one’s own assumptions and society’s, noticing the absurdities of life, and the humor therein. We are a hilarious and tragic species.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
Even though I never photograph actual humans in my work, my work is all about being human. So, I observe and notice. I am intrigued by the idiosyncrasies of the human race, how we relate to each other, our own selves and to other species, and how we deal with isolation. Of course, the inverse, the way I see the world, affects my art. I’m constantly noticing contradictions in the world, and how curious, troubling and funny the human race is.
Where can we see your work, and would you like to share any upcoming projects?
I plan to continue addressing the idea of the Muse throughout art (including photo) history in my detailed vignette work. I’m also working on a book of my “Short Stories/ Tall Tales” series. My work is seen at Wall Space Gallery in Santa Barbara, Paci Contemporary in Italy, and Photo-Eye’s Photographer’s Showcase online.
Thank you Grace for sharing your work with us.
To learn more about Grace Weston please visit her site at, Grace Weston.
You can read more about Duane Michals’ work here. ” The Last Sentimentalist”.