Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work of photographer Patricia Bender.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a Midwesterner through and through; born in Iowa, raised in Michigan. Even though my husband and I have lived on the East Coast for longer than forty years, I feel most at home in Michigan. I love the wide open landscape where you can stretch your eyes, the country roads and farms, and of course the lakes; in particular, the Leelanau Peninsula on Lake Michigan. Today I have the best of both worlds, a home with a darkroom in East Lansing, Michigan, where I grew up, and another in New Jersey. My first passion was dance, and I pursued it single-mindedly for twenty years. When my performing days were coming to an end, and I realized I did not want to teach any longer or choreograph, I began to search for something that would consume me as dancing had. I turned to writing — poetry and journalism — which I enjoyed, but not with the fire I was seeking. Just as I was beginning to worry I’d never find it, I stumbled upon photography about twelve years ago.
How did you get started in photography?
Completely by chance. While I’d always enjoyed taking pictures I had never considered photography as a career. I was writing for a chain of newspapers and looking for a creative outlet. Since I have always loved paper — its look, feel, and texture — I signed up for a paper-making class at a local art school. It was full, but there was a spot in the beginning black and white photography class. I signed up and was immediately hooked.
Which photographers’ and other artists’ work do you admire?
There are so, so many. Emmet Gowin, Robert Adams, Susan Derges, Joseph Sudek, JoAnne Verburg, Masao Yamamoto, Raymond Meeks, Judith Joy Ross, Harry Callahan, Todd Hido, Andre Kertesz, Mark Steinmetz, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Sally Mann. This is just the top of my list. My work is also greatly influenced by writers. Words are frequently the seeds of my photographic ideas. Some writers I particularly admire are Dave Eggers, Lydia Davis, Annie Dillard, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Susan Minot, Jim Harrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Jess Walter. Again, I could go on and on.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
At the risk of repeating myself, there are so many. But, if I had to pick one, it would probably be Sally Mann’s portrait of her son, “The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude,” in her book, Immediate Family. He is standing in a river with the water flowing around him, his hands lightly resting on the water’s surface. His hands are big for his body, like a puppy’s paws, and you can see the man he is going to grow into in his boyish face and body. This image stopped me in my tracks and remains seared in my brain. It is perfect. I love all of Mann’s work. I find her to be an extremely brave photographer.
Do you have a story about one of your images that you would like to share?
An image that I particularly love, and that often confounds people who view it, is from a series I call “Bystanders.” It is an image of a single individual turned so that his shadow dominates the frame. To me, it looks like a keyhole. Most people are puzzled by the image, wondering what they are looking at. It was taken in Hobart, Tasmania, from the top deck of a cruise ship, looking down on a large group of people as they gathered to go on day trips. I captured many combinations of people that day, but my favorite is that lone individual. It is mysterious and evocative.
Please tell us about your process and what would be the perfect day for you.
The primary elements in my process, both when shooting and printing, are play and experimentation. I want to have fun, and I want to be surprised by my work. When shooting, I try to get the best possible negative to use as my starting point for experimentation in the darkroom. I will try anything and everything – shooting from all possible heights and angles; using expired chemicals, films and papers; placing exotic diffusion screens between the light of the enlarger and the negative, or between the negative and the paper. As Chief Dan George said in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.” As I’ve played like this, I’ve grown to realize I am often trying to make my images NOT look like photographs. My perfect day shooting would be getting lost in the woods. I could happily spend the rest of my life photographing trees. My perfect day printing would be to have a stack of exciting, new negatives waiting for me in the darkroom to print and play with.
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or in the art world?
Pandering to, or creating for the market rather than creating for themselves. Too many artists today copy or repeat what is currently hot. They imitate rather than create, so you see scads of images of sullen teenagers hanging out on the street or sitting in their bedrooms, and way too many banal, soulless landscapes. We are all influenced by the great art we see, but as artists we need to move beyond what inspires us and find our own voices.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
Because I’m an “old fashioned” film and chemical-based darkroom photographer, dwindling supplies are a big issue – the films, papers and chemicals I use are increasingly endangered, save for a few small providers. I print most of my work quite small because my images are typically quiet, simple and unassuming, and I want to draw the viewers close, to encourage them to get lost in the image, much as I did when I took it. Because my images are small, they are frequently not taken seriously. Just as much thought and work and effort goes into making a small image as a large one. But in group shows, I’ll often find my work tucked into a corner or sky high on the wall above other pieces. And many people who buy art don’t think they’re getting a bang for their buck when the piece is small. This can be frustrating at times, but doesn’t dissuade me from printing as I do. With respect to creating art, I try constantly to push myself outside my comfort zone. This is hard to do because you have to leave the safety of doing what you do best and venture into the unknown. But I’ve found that this is often where my best work comes from. I
If you could spend a day with another photographer living or passed, who would it be?
There are many, many photographers I would love to spend time with. But I think tops on my list would be Harry Callahan. He was constantly innovating during his career, changing his subject matter, trying new things. He never grew stale or predictable. He used black and white film and paper to its fullest capacity, wresting unique tones, contrasts and juxtapositions from the medium. He seemed modest, which I admire, and I think he would have had many interesting things to say about photography in general and about his own work and creative process. My other pick would be Robert Adams, but he has written so extensively about photography that I feel I already know him, although I would love the opportunity to pick his brains.
How do you view this time in the history of photography?
I think it is a confusing time. Digital photography has obviously rocked the boat. To me, taking thousands of photographs and then picking one from the bunch is not art. It’s great for commercial photography – weddings and portraiture – but it is not making art. For me, art needs to be more deliberative and thoughtful, more purposeful. You have to invest yourself in the process. There is such a glut of images today. Everyone is a photographer, constantly recording the minutia of their lives. It is difficult for good work to rise above all the noise.
How do you overcome a creative block?
I don’t mean to sound smug, but I’ve never really had one. Perhaps because photography still feels so new and exciting to me –I hope it always will — and because I am still learning, I find I have more ideas than I know what to do with. I have journals in every room of my house, and in my camera bags, where I am constantly recording my thoughts and ideas. There are not enough minutes in the day, or years left in my life for me to accomplish all that I want to do.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images?
For me, photography is nonverbal; words are for ideas, images are for emotions. I hope my images touch a positive emotional chord in the viewer, that viewers somehow connect their lives to my work in a meaningful and powerful way. I am not trying to educate or provoke intellectual rumination or represent reality or inform. I simply want to celebrate life, and the environments we live it in, and to move you.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
Photography has comprehensively changed the way I see the world. I feel I was sleeping through life before I began studying photography. It has opened my eyes to the world around me. I see so much more. I pay constant attention. It is a magical and wonderful gift.
Where can we see your work, and would you like to share any upcoming projects?
I’m very excited about a new project that will push me completely out of my comfort zone. I am going to be collaborating with my husband, who will be writing an accompanying text, on a series of large-format, black and white portraits. This is scary because I am very shy and will have to deal with living, breathing people rather than living, breathing trees. But I’m looking forward to the challenge. I know I will learn a lot and I can’t wait to see where it takes me. In New Jersey, my work is represented by The Gallery at the Framing Mill in Maplewood. In Michigan, I am represented by Grove Gallery in East Lansing.
Thank you Patricia for sharing you work and your words with us.
To learn more about the work of Patricia Bender please visit her site at Patricia Bender.
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