Monday, September 24, 2012

Tealia Ellis Ritter

Tealia Ellis Ritter was born in Illinois in 1978. After attending Columbia College Chicago, where she completed her BA in Fine Art Photography, she earned her MFA at the University of Iowa with a major in Fine Art Photography and a minor in Printmaking. Her work has been exhibited internationally, most recently by The New Yorker, at PRC: Exposure 2011, on Women in Photography, by the Corcoran Gallery of Art with 100 Portraits: 100 Photographers, at Catherine Edelman Gallery, by Taschen NYC and at Humble Arts “31 Under 31” exhibition. She now lives and works in the Chicago area with her husband Dave and their son, Finn. 

To view more of Tealia's work, visit her website:

Ashley Kauschinger: What are you thoughts on a perceived persona? Do you feel that your portraits deal with who each person truly is or the persona they project into the world?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: Persona is inescapable. We all have an idea of who we want people to perceive us to be. That idea of who and what we want to present to the world may operate at different strengths in different situations but it is always operating. People express persona in varying ways, clothes, makeup, speech, mannerisms etc. Today persona is magnified by the web where people can truly create and curate their own image.

My portraits deal largely with persona, but I think that by recognizing the persona that someone is trying to portray you often gain more insight into who that person is and what is important to them than you would if you tried to create a portrait about who the person really is. People are complex, lives are complex, there is no way one photograph can tell you who a person really is but it can tell you a little something about who that person was trying to be in the split second that the lens opened. To me that is more interesting. The idea of a person.

AK: What influence do you think your presence as a photographer is contributing to their projection in the moment of capture?
TER: There is no doubt that my presence is influencing the subject. We are engaged in a very unnatural act together. I am standing behind a giant camera with a black cloth over my head staring at them. They are trying not to be nervous, trying to be still, trying to please me, trying to look the way they want to look. We are negotiating an experience together and so we both influence one another. The interesting thing is that people want to reveal themselves in some way but they also worry about revealing too much. So during the photo shoots people often tell me very personal things. It is in those moments when people begin to let down their guard but are still conscious of the camera and my presence. I think the m
ost interesting photographs happen during this moment because their real life and their persona are present at the same time.

AK: I find the intense gaze of each of your portraits seductive to look at and examine. How do you arrange and think of each portrait - where do you find your subjects, what connection do they have to one another, and how do you view them together as a series but also as individuals? 

TER: For the most part my subjects are strangers to me. I approach them on the street or in stores/restaurants and ask them if they would like to pose. The work is not about the people being strangers though, so a few of my subjects are people that I know personally. The subjects are all tied together though by geography and the desire to present themselves. I am always a little surprised when people agree to be photographed, it is a brave choice in my mind. The wonderful thing that I have learned from this project is how much people want to be recognized and acknowledged as being special. Even if people don’t agree to pose they always get this huge smile on their face when I approach them and ask if they would like to pose.  I don’t think people feel seen and understood in their lives, so it makes them feel good just to be noticed. Once people have agreed to pose I set up a time and place to meet each subject, generally their house and when I arrive we walk around together and choose one or two locations to take the photos in. 

  I like the setting to either enhance or conflict with the way that the person has presented themselves. At times finding the right spot to set up the image can be challenging, in those circumstances I tend to look for a wall that has nice light where we can shoot a head shot. I always ask people to look directly at the lens (this is hard for some people to do) because I am not trying to create a natural looking scene. I want there to be an awareness by the subject and by the viewer that I am watching you and you are watching me. I like that confrontation. I think each of the images can stand alone and still have merit but as a unit I think the work is more interesting because it delves more deeply into the tension between who people want to be and our perception of who they are. I also think that when you look at the whole body of work there is a sense that many of these people’s dreams for who they want to be will not come true. The sporadic inclusion of objects or interior spaces from the subjects’ homes breaking up the portraits also helps to illuminate the lives behind the portraits. They are like intimate clues.

AK: What is your process and self promotion? How do you balance making work and promoting it?
TER: I have made a conscious effort to try to be a better self promoter for a few years now but it does not come naturally to me. I have found a group of people in the photo community that really like my work and champion it. That has been a really wonderful blessing. I’m trying to deal with my shy nature and build on that support. I love making work and have often considered just not showing it but in the end I want to communicate something and that necessitates trying to get the work to be seen. Currently I am trying to find a new balance between making the work, promoting it and being able to be a good mom to a 3 year old. It is definitely hard to balance everything once young children are in the picture. If anyone has any tips on how to strike that balance, I would love to hear them!

Thank you Tealia for having this thoughtful conversation with me!

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