It is Rfotofolio’s pleasure to share the work and words of Photographer Jennifer Schlesinger. Her work is down to earth and at the same time full of dreams and stories.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I am a photographic artist and sometimes I write for an online magazine I co-founded called finitefoto.com. I have been doing photography since 1995. I graduated from the College of Santa Fe (now Santa Fe University of Art & Design) in 1998 with a major in Photography and a minor in Journalism. I have worked in the arts since that time in arts administration which led me to a position as the Assistant Director at the Santa Fe Art Institute, then eventually to the position I hold now as the Director of VERVE Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
How did you get started photography?
I had moved from the Northeast where I grew up and went to college for a few years in New Hampshire, and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia to take some time away from school to really figure out what I wanted to do. I was interested in the studio arts, exploring drawing and painting on my own and met a friend who put a Pentax K1000 in my hand. We explored parts of Atlanta such as Cabbage Town and other areas that were intriguing to me, and I started photography by doing street photos of these areas. I then saw a Sebastiao Salgado exhibit in Atlanta and I was struck. I got a job at a photo lab where I learned C-41 process and how to print black and white silver gelatin prints in the darkroom. After that, I took a trip to Europe and became enamored by the history of art, and photographed everything. It was on the return from that trip where I was convinced I wanted to study photography, and learn everything about it – the history, the art, the act, the philosophy. I knew I wanted to be in the Southwest, as I had visited my brother there once and loved the landscape, so in my search for photography schools in that area, I came across the College in Santa Fe. I made the transfer with my credits and finished my degree in Santa Fe. I’ve been here ever since.
Did your family and childhood affect your decision to become an artist?
I did not know I would become an artist until I was about 20 – and even then, I think I assumed I would do photojournalism. I grew up in the woods of Connecticut and played outdoors all the time. My family did a lot of outdoor activities when I was growing up and I loved soccer, softball, camping, and canoeing. My father is very creative and had a woodworking studio in our basement and my mom played the piano, and she still knits and is a great cook. I took an occasional art class or music class, but I didn’t feel like I was a natural at it – I really struggled musically, although my brother is an accomplished musician, I just did not have rhythm come easily to me. And while I could paint or draw ok, I didn’t consider that my strong suit either. So it wasn’t until I was about twenty when I picked up a camera that I truly identified with the art of photography.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
When I was learning about the history of art, I was drawn to the Surrealists, and to this day, I still am. I loved Hieronymus Bosch, Dali, M.C. Escher. Photographically I love documentary photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado, and historically I admire the street photographers, Henri Cartier Bresson and Gary Winogrand, but I also love the abstract photography of Aaron Siskind, Brassai, and Minor White and I love the pictorialist work of Julia Margaret Cameron, and Edward Steichen. I love contemporary photographers like Abelardo Morell, Gregory Crewdson, and Jerry Uelsmann.
And what about their work inspires you?
I love the Surrealist work, work that makes you feel like you are in some other reality. I love it when photography can confuse the viewer into thinking it looks real, like a photograph, but something is off, so it makes the viewer question the reality of it all. I love that photography can do that – no other medium relies so heavily on the viewer assuming the image is ‘truth’, and I find it intriguing to combine that assumption with a little bit of surrealism to make a picture that goes deeper into meaning.
In your mind what makes a great photograph?
Well, from what I can tell from all the photographic artists I love, what makes a great photograph is the combination of intrigue, composition, the play of light and dark (which photography is specially tuned to do), and a question for the viewer whether it be of truth, irony, sarcasm, beauty, context, emotion, and/or relation.
How do you hope your art contributes?
My main goal with my work is to express my own thoughts and ideas about life, which I can’t do in any other tangible way, as well as, to do it in a way that the viewer can relate to. I try to make work that may touch upon something that is universal, something we can all relate to but that each viewer can bring their own experience to, in order to relate to the photograph in their own personal way. I don’t necessarily provide answers to questions the viewer may have whether they be tangible or philosophical, but I like to help facilitate further thought. I like the end result of my work to also be about the object, the photograph as a fine art print and/or object.
When did you start to develop a personal style?
I would say I started my own personal style after I graduated college and had been working on my own for several years. It was with my Earth Series where I really began to investigate how light and dark interact in photography and how I would choose to focus on my subject through those elements. In that exploration, I learned how to use the frame and the act of light to bring awareness to what I wanted to express in a photograph when taking the picture, and how to make it physically and technically result in the darkroom or in the printing.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
These days, the biggest challenge for me is time! Also to make work that is unique, strong and well crafted. Now that I am working in albumen, every moment counts. I do not even want to make a negative of something that I would want to ‘test print’ unless I am certain it will be worth it in the long run, because the albumen medium is such a long drawn out process. It’s not an immediate process like pressing the print button on the printer to get a proof, or making a Polaroid and seeing what you get right away or for that matter taking a digital print and viewing it on a screen. Making the albumen paper is a process that takes me sometimes up to a month due to my lack of time and its process. Then the printing can take a few days just to get a selection of perfect prints. It’s not something I take lightly, so the challenge is to make a good negative from the get-go. Sometimes one photograph can take a few months to make from the start to finish. I have to sort out an idea, create it, make the albumen and then print it – it’s a lot of work and that is my biggest challenge!
Please tell us more about the albumen process.
I started doing albumen because I was raising chickens with my daughter and had about twelve of them and couldn’t keep up with all the eggs they were producing. One day it just occurred to me to try albumen. The learning process was long, arduous, and a lot of trial an error. David Hyams, an artist who works a lot in wet collodion and lived in Santa Fe at the time, ran me through my first trial. Then I studied and practiced it on my own for about eight months straight, experimenting with papers and techniques. It was very difficult and I almost gave up a few times until I finally nailed down the perfect recipe and paper. Mark Ostermann and Christopher James were very helpful in troubleshooting via e-mails.
I love the process of albumen, as well as, the final print. The print has a unique luminescence that I have not seen in any other photographic medium, its essence is similar to that of a pearl. It seems like such a basic and simple recipe, but it really is a feisty one – which I love in that when it is all said and done, the final print may have taken awhile to get, but it is so satisfying and worth it to hold a perfect albumen print in my hand. I am also intrigued by the magical nature of the process, which is why I wanted the intent of the series to hold up to the process.
How do you over come a creative block?
I continue to make pictures, and even though I may be unhappy with them, I just pursue. I won’t necessarily print them in albumen or in the darkroom, but I will play around in the first stage before making negatives. Sometimes I just take a break and read about art and photography. Mostly, I try to come to terms with the idea that breaks are natural. No matter what ones profession, it’s rare that we as humans can continue to make good work all the time. We need to allow for breaks, research, and be easy on ourselves. It’s hard in this day of technology where the trend is to continuously pump out images – but my main goal is to make good work. I’d rather take the time to make good work I am happy with, then just make tons of mediocre work that I’m not fully satisfied with.
What subjects were you first drawn to?
I was first drawn to street photography and photojournalism. After I realized I was more of an introvert when it came to photography, I began to be very drawn to the landscape – where I found solace anyway, then I would take my camera with me and that was the perfect marriage of my two favorite things. To this day, I am still drawn to the natural landscape, and I have learned and continue to learn how to combine my love of nature with a human subject or idea to bring a larger scope to my own work.
And how to you go about planning a shoot?
Well, I am not much of a studio photographer, even though more often than not nowadays I do find myself setting up a shot, planning an idea and implementing it. I mostly come up with an idea, then go out and shoot it in its natural context, sometimes very unsuccessfully – where I will either re-shoot, or the idea will lead me to something else which turns more successful. In many cases these days, I will have my camera with me and shoot a landscape when there is a moment of good light and composition, then I will use that landscape combined in another shot that was perhaps more of a set-up. This can sometimes be a slow process, because I will wait months, maybe even years to one day use that landscape shot when I combine it with a set-up shot.
Would you tell us about your workspace?
I have a great darkroom and studio in my basement where I make my albumen paper and print. I have a fantastic ping-pong table that was in the house when I bought it that I use to this day for albumen making, paper making, matting and framing!
How important is it to your art form to have “creative community”?
As I stated earlier, I am an introvert when it comes to my work. I don’t collaborate often on photographic projects. However, I thrive being in a community of other artists, creative people. These people don’t need to be photographers per se. I have many friends in other professions who use creativity in unique ways to implement their everyday lives and careers. However, there is also a wonderful community of photographers in New Mexico and I am so fortunate to be involved with them. We have curators, educators, artists, activists, publishers, documentarian, etc. In the photography world here in New Mexico and we all support one another – it’s very unique the photo community – whether here or anywhere, photographers are a unique bunch and I love being around them.
How does your art effect the way you see the world?
It is an interesting question because I wonder if it is not the world that affects the way I see my art! I am very influenced by living and the experience of life and the emotions that come with it. I feel that it is this life that affects my art and it is a constant education learning how to project my experiences through my art.
Thank you Jennifer for sharing your work and words.
To learn more about Jennifer’s work please visit her page at Jennifer Schlesinger.