AMY ELKINS's photographic portraits question traditional assumptions about gender, identity and emotion, revealing vulnerability and fragility in the masculine experience. Her work has recently been seen at the 2012 International Young Photographers' Exhibition in S. Korea and The Bursa International Photo Festival in Turkey. Based in Portland, Oregon, Amy is currently an artist-in-residence at Villa Waldberta International Artist House in Munich, where her work is also on view in Next Generation: Contemporary American Photography at Amerika Haus.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your work has some painterly references even though you are a photographer. What are your influences in terms of portraiture?Amy Elkins: I think this is something that I do quite subconsciously. I studied painting, drawing, collage, printmaking and other forms of hand-to-paper art-making for years before taking my first photography class. While I fell in love with photography and the way that it could instantly transform or capture reality, I’ve always been drawn to painting. I remember the first time I walked through the Metropolitian Museum of Art and saw early Dutch and American paintings depicting people in dramatic light and lavish environments with rigid and elegant postures…that visual contrast resonated with me. I've been abroad in Munich at a residency for the past few months, and I constantly find myself in so many museums. I've easily spent hours/days just looking at the awkward qualities in these paintings—the gestures, expressions and environments. Contemporary photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s series of young matadors had a huge impact on me, and I still believe they are incredibly compelling. I'm also influenced by Lise Sarfati and her portraits of young inmates in Europe, Fazal Sheikh’s daylight studios in refugee camps, Carl de Keyzer’s Siberian prison camp portraits and definitely the works of August Sander.
Brendan, Brooklyn, NY
OPP: In your statement for your ongoing series Wallflower, you say: "In a reversal of the traditional male gaze, the images confront some of the cultural grounds underlying gender, opting to focus on the beauty, sensitivity and vulnerabilities found in a sex that has long been held to masculine expectations and stereotypes." Can you define the notion of the female gaze in the same way the male gaze has been defined throughout art history?
AE: I think the two types of gazes we are referring to can be seen very differently depending on the type of work we are connecting it with. Throughout art and photography history, the male gaze is used to explore and portray female sensuality, sexuality, beauty and vulnerability. This portrayal suggests to the audience that women should be seen this way. I am not trying to reverse the role of power that has been assumed by the male gaze. I am simply turning the gaze around a little and exploring the notion that females aren’t the only gender susceptible to fragility and vulnerability. Society looks at gender in very black and white terms, and those terms seem so far from the actual vast gradient of what makes up who we all are. In my image making, I ask the viewer to engage in questions regarding gender code and societal standards of masculinity and femininity.
OPP: Two bodies of work, Black is the Day, Black is the Night and The Sunshine State, are ongoing explorations of inmates on death row. The pieces are portraits but not in a traditional sense. I'd like to hear more about both of these projects.AE: I’ll talk about Black is the Day, Black is the Night first—it’s the catalyst for Sunshine State—and a project that isn’t currently on my website: Parting Words. Black is the Day, Black is the Night began through my correspondence with men who were and still are serving primarily death row sentences across the United States. It all began one rainy afternoon in Brooklyn when I came across a website for prisoners seeking pen pals. There were advanced search options for those who were serving life in prison and those serving on death row. Out of morbid curiosity, I clicked on the death option. What unraveled before me felt equal parts disgusting and mesmerizing. I saw hundreds of profiles staring back at me. After a lot of thought and recurring visits to this website, I decided to write several men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who had entered prison as juveniles. I sent them letters introducing myself. I began my interactions with very simple questions about identity, memory, time and distance. I was curious about how being so far removed from society impacted their notions of self, of others and of home. I was curious about how facing life or death in prison as a result of acting out on a violent impulse brought them into a heightened mental state of stress and vulnerability.I never thought any of these correspondences would turn into a photography project. Simply put, I was curious about their lives. I knew that this was a rare opportunity for me to be in touch first hand. I felt it deeply connected with the multifaceted exploration of masculinity I had already been working on. I never expected what ended up unfolding. There was such sincerity in the letters, and such a readiness for collaboration. So I began constructing images from the text they were sharing with me, and then I would send those images to them. They critiqued and sometimes decorated their cells with the images. This went on for years. These images were the only types of portrait that I could make of them. Of the seven men with whom I originally corresponded, I remain in touch with only one. He has been in solitary confinement since 1995 for a crime he committed at age 16. One man was released in 2010 at the age of 30 after 15 years in prison. Three men opted out of the correspondence. One man was executed in 2009, and another met the same fate in March 2012.
OPP: How are your other two projects different from Black is the Day, Black is the Night?AE: Sunshine State and Parting Words spurred off of Black is the Day, Black is the Night. That's when I became more involved in my research about the U.S. death penalty. Sunshine State encompasses every mug shot from one of the most populated prison death rows in the country. For every portrait, I remove all details of the original image until it becomes just spectrums of color and light. Through this process, I speak to the loss of self within such a massive prison population. I do this knowing full well that these experiences are just part of an even more massive, nationwide prison death row population.In the forever ongoing project Parting Words, I combine mug shots from every inmate executed in the state of Texas with their last words. The new portrait is made entirely of text and gradiations. The portraits are recognizable and clear when seen from far away, but as the viewer approaches them they dissolve into text. These are the last vestiges of each man that still remain. This project began when one of my prison pen pals in Texas was executed.
OPP: Can you expand on the underlying connection between violence and vulnerability in your work? It's present in both the inmate projects and Elegant Violence, which is an ongoing series of portraits of rugby players.
AE: This is a connection that I have been making only in my most recent work, but have wanted to explore for some time. In Wallflower, I look to male subject matter in a way that pushes and challenges gender stereotypes by placing both masculine and feminine together in one frame. Because the men are out of context—they are sitting bare and in a created/fictional environment that is neither mine nor theirs—the viewer is left to read simple body language and gesture against a floral paper backdrop. The subject's vulnerability comes through in the portrait, and the relationship between sitter and photographer.
Recently I looked again at gender stereotypes. Rather than push against or challenge notions of gender, I examined the idea that men act on violent and competitive impulses. How do those impulses create vulnerability? The physical exertion, the rush of adrenaline, the injuries...these create a less guarded portrait of heightened vulnerability. The rugby athletes are not entirely focused on me and my camera but rather on what they have just experienced in the game.
The letters and images I made with inmates over the years look at the vulnerabilities of living a life in infinite solitude, or of facing one's death as a result of acting out on violent impulses. The men I portray had already served 12-26 years in prison when I first contacted them. Time forced a break in their notions of self. Through our exchange of letters and art, we looked into memory collapse, changing notions of self and how infinite time impacts both. The act of violence is broken down in both projects, but that's mostly due to circumstances. I often look for that moment of vulnerability, that moment of being unguarded. That moment is when I feel compelled to make portraits.
Lucas, New York, NY
February 07, 2010
OPP: I like the term "longitudinal portrait" that you use to describe your bodies of work Lucas and Gray, which are both portraits those individuals. What's it like to photograph the same person over a series of years, especially a young boy going through the process of adolescence and becoming an adult man?AE: I love what unfolds before the camera when I make extended portraits. There’s a patience that has to exist because I know that the project(s) could go on for years; they could endlessly shift in direction, too. The only concrete elements are the subjects themselves. Their lives and environments may shift in numerous directions. I have no idea what future portrait sessions might be like. This is true for both Gray and Lucas. Gray had a serious medical condition that had the ability to shift the way he felt and the way his body, face and mood appeared before the camera. His body was physically altered through illness, surgery and recovery. I started photographing him when we lived together in 2004, and I've followed him ever since. The project is loose and flutters in and out of both of our lives.The project with Lucas began when I met him at a friend's wedding. He was 12-years-old. He was at the wedding with his parents; I contacted them a few weeks later to ask if I could make his portrait. I didn’t necessarily think that I would photograph him for years to come, but here we are several years later and I'm still working with him. It happened organically. We both agree that this has to continue. Over the years, Lucas has literally grown up before the camera. There are so many subtle shifts I catch during these portrait sessions that would otherwise go unnoticed in the day-to-day. In this project, things are far more structured and formulaic; I photograph him every 3-4 months. The shifts are massive when look at the images in sequence. I find this fascinating.
OPP: Right now you are in residency in Germany, correct? Tell us about the residency. What will you be working on while you are there?AE: Yes, I am currently a month into the Villa Waldberta International Artist Residency Program, which provides artists (writers, actors, poets, film makers, photographers, painters, sculptors, musicians) with a furnished apartment in an historic mansion. It's located in the countryside, an hour's train ride outside of Munich. Each artist receives a stipend. I am here for two months thanks to a nomination from Curator Stefan-Maria Mittendorf, who recently assembled an exhibition of American photographers (including Alec Soth, Doug Rickard and Laurel Nakadate, among others) called Next Generation: Contemporary American Photography.
Given that the work environment is very different than my own fully equipped studio back home, I’ve learned to work in new ways. I’ve spent quite a lot of time editing images that I've taken in my past seven weeks abroad. I shot formal portraits for a new project that I worked on during my two-week stay in Copenhagen. I also shot informal, lo-fi images that I see as a response to being a foreigner traveling alone for an extended period of time. This is a new experience for me. I’ve been experimenting with printing these lo-fi images on various paper types. I played with sequencing them into several small books/zines, temporarily titled Whilst I am Drawing Breath, which is taken from a poem by Rose Ausländer.
Both projects are too new to talk about in further detail. They are still very much evolving. I have a little under a month left here, and while I’ll continue to work on these projects I also plan on attending Paris Photo and visiting London and Salzburg before heading home. My trip back includes a four-day layover in Iceland where I will soak in geothermal pools, and another several days in NYC to work on Lucas. When I return to Portland, I'll shake off the jetlag and start making work prints. I’ll have been out of my regular reality for three-plus months, and will definitely be ready to jump back in.