Monday, August 12, 2013

Kristy Carpenter

Kristy Carpenter was born in 1987 and grew up on her family farm in the small rural town of Bronson, Michigan, where there are probably more farm animals than people and only two working traffic lights. She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, started college at Harvard University, and fell in love with the city of Boston. Ensuring that she would never be employable and signing herself up for a lifetime of starving artist jokes (usually from my family), Kristy graduated with a BA in Visual and Environmental Studies. She spent the last few years living in Rochester, New York, which she quickly learned is actually the arctic, judging by its cruel weather. Finishing her last year of graduate school at Rochester Institute of Technology (a campus composed almost solely of hipsters and engineers) she recently received her MFA in Imaging Arts. Her work continually takes her back home again, which is where she is now, exploring family ties and my strong connection to place.

View more of Kristy's work here 

Ashley Kauschinger: Your series, Something other than I had planned, takes an in-depth look at your mother's life and your relationship with her. Can you talk about how this series formed and evolved?

Kristy Carpenter: This series about my mother actually evolved from a body of work I had been making about my father. That project, Since We’ve Spoken, was something I spent the majority of my first year of grad school working on. For most of my life, photography held this role as a method of recording, a way to preserve snippets of our lives and the world around us. It wasn’t until college that photography really took on a new meaning for me and became a way to more critically examine and explore important themes in my life. I still use it to record, but now with more conscious motivation and intention. With the work about my father I found myself struggling to capture the absence of someone, trying to build a portrait of a person that was already gone, focusing on the traces left behind and the memories those triggered. Working through those photographs and viewing an environment that was evolving from what once was his into a space that was inhabited and now solely shaped by my mother, my focus too began to change. In many ways I see this series, Something other than I had planned, as the next chapter of that work, a natural evolution from what I was shooting before. The driving force has always been the same – this inherent compulsion to freeze time, to save all these moments spent with my mother, knowing they will eventually be gone.

 I continually find myself going back to a quote from Larry Sultan from his book, Pictures From Home, “What drives me to continue this work is difficult to name. It has more to do with love than with sociology, with being a subject in the drama rather than a witness. . . . I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.” That’s really what led to this body of work, and really much of my work before it. I’m always trying to stop time, to resist the inevitable, and ultimately preparing myself for the loss I know I’ll have to accept later on. I recognize this now, but it took a long time and a lot of film to come to this realization. In the beginning of this project I was working on several different things, convinced my work was more about the construct of family, focusing on the family album itself. Around the same time I started photographing my mom and the things we were doing together, without a clear idea about what I was trying to capture or what they would be used for later. I also started reexamining our own family traditions and history, asking my mother questions I had never taken the time to voice before. For quite a while I was making work along several different tracks, running mostly parallel to each other, but occasionally intersecting. As is par for my usual process, I tend to shoot a lot, focused on the act of making, while in the background trying to slowly figure out where it’s all leading. For this project I finally had to force myself to take a step back and really examine what was at the root of all these threads, which ended up all leading back to my mother. Some parts had to be discarded, or at least shelved for now, to really return the focus to her and create something more cohesive that an outside viewer could understand and connect with. Once I realized that all these separate pieces were a part of this extended portrait of my mother, the work came together – I knew what I was making and what I was trying to say.

AK: What was your process of photographing your mother? Were you in control of the situations--directing her through your ideas? What was your approach?

KC: A lot of the early images were really a reaction to what was going on around me, a bit spur of the moment. Mostly because at that time I still didn’t know they were going to be anything other than a record of our time together. They were less intentional, more relaxed, and honestly quite fun to make and rediscover amid my contact sheets. As the project continued and I recognized the types of images that worked best and were more engaging, especially to outside observers, my approach to photographing her shifted – I became more of an active participant in the process of shooting. While I enjoy heavily constructed images, I tend to avoid making them myself, as it’s just not a process that feels natural to the way in which I observe and shoot. Some images were still made in passing, something quickly glimpsed and captured as we went about our daily life, while others caused me to step more into the director role, asking her to repeat actions or things I caught her doing, or random outbursts of “don’t move” as I darted to grab my camera when something caught my eye. As my vision for the work became more direct, so did my approach in making the images, as well as my mother’s engagement in the entire process. In the beginning it was new to us both and there was a certain level of awkwardness and distance, which is present in those early photographs. I was trying hard to be only an observer and she was more self-conscious about the image she was presenting to the camera, quick to obscure her identity. As we both became more comfortable with the camera, both in front of and behind it, things shifted. She stopped caring if her hair was done and I stopped worrying about tiptoeing around her and as a result the photographs became much richer, less illustrative, and more nuanced.

AK: How has creating this work influenced your relationship with your mother? What do you feel you learned about her and yourself?

The act of photographing my mother has strengthened our relationship and brought us closer together over the past few years. In the beginning she was really just humoring me, but as it evolved it became more of something we were doing together. It was also a really great excuse to spend so much time with her and really force myself to examine her and her life in a way I hadn’t before. Hearing her stories, looking back through our family albums, and constructing this portrait of her to introduce to an outside audience was such an amazing process of discovery. I think it’s often during the time in our lives where we’re trying to figure out who we are as individuals that we find ourselves turning back to our roots, trying to understand who and what shaped us into the beings we are - at least that’s how it was for me. In order to understand why I photograph the things I do, I had to first uncover the driving force behind these compulsions. Really getting to know my mother as an individual and as a friend, rather than only as a parent, I was able to see more clearly how much her life has influenced me, whether consciously or not.

Bunny Slippers from Kristy Carpenter on Vimeo.

AK: There are also short atmospheric video pieces that accompany the photographs. What do these pieces represent for you in the series? How are the videos presented in a gallery setting?

KC: For me the short video pieces operate more as extended stills or moving images rather than what I tend to think of when I think of video work. Many evolved from still images that seemed to be missing something, photographs that weren’t quite able to capture specific moments and feelings I was experiencing while photographing my mother. In some ways they exist as the moments between some of the more iconic still images, they might be less obvious, but equally vital in creating this experience of understanding the central figure, my mother. They showcase little moments of our daily lives, emphasizing her humanity in ways the still images can’t on their own, with their movement, as well as into a gallery setting. Within the gallery they were presented looped on a screen, interspersed into the linear sequence of photographs hung on the walls. The audio from the videos filtered through the gallery, building more of an encompassing experience for viewers interacting with the work, drawing them into the sounds of the environment they were observing in the photographs.

AK: You recently graduated with an MFA in photography from RIT. For those interested in graduate school what advice do you have for the application process and for the journey to finishing an MFA?

KC: In many ways I feel the answer to both is the same – stick to your guns. In order to do this you first need to discover what they are. I’m not saying you shouldn’t push yourself to try new things or to evolve, but in doing so, you also need to be true to yourself and your work. At times this has been one of the hardest struggles I’ve faced in grad school. It’s so easy to let your work be shifted in the direction someone tells you it should go, whether that’s your professor, a classmate, a portfolio reviewer or someone on the admission committee. Most often those suggestions of where to go with the project or what to try are worth exploring, if for no other reason than to figure out what you don’t want to do or what you don’t want your work to say, you just have to be willing to speak up (confidently and politely) if it doesn’t feel right or you can quickly lose authorship of your work. There’s no point in showing and creating work to please someone else because ultimately they’re just one person who’s opinion might not matter tomorrow or to anyone else down the line. If you’re not excited about and happy with the work you’re making, you’re going to have a very hard time getting anyone else interested in it. When applying to grad school, be yourself, do your research and apply to places that seem to be putting out work that you can connect with. If for example all the faculty working there and the graduating students are producing highly conceptual work and you live for photojournalism, keep looking, run far away, even if they have incredible names there, because if their style and program tend to follow a very different track, you probably won’t be happy there or you’ll feel pressured to follow suit. Submit work you’re proud of and invested in, don’t just try to show a wide range of disconnected pieces. Grad school is more about honing the skills you have, embracing your strengths, finding your unique style/voice and putting that into everything you make.

AK: What is your process of self promotion? How do you balance creating work, promoting it, and living life?

KC: I will be the first to admit that I need to do more of this. In the scheme of things, promotion is always what seems to get the short end of the stick when I’m making work. I guess my main tactic is trying to maintain a fairly consistent presence on the web and doing what I can to get my work out there in the world – keeping my website updated, submitting to calls for entry, trying to stay aware of what others are making and putting out, interacting with the creative community both locally and virtually through things like Tumblr, and always keeping an eye out for opportunities that might pop up. I think one of the greatest assets for me has really been expanding my community of fellow artists. I hate the term networking and feel a bit out of my element approaching it that way, but it’s been so wonderful meeting others out there making such great work and it’s amazing what that can sometimes lead to. We’re all in this together and it’s nice having people who are supportive of each other, passing along opportunities you might not hear of elsewise and offering encouragement. One of the best bits of advice a professor gave us in grad school was to simply be nice and support each other because the longer you’re a part of this community, the smaller it gets and you never know who could be your boss tomorrow, or the curator you’re dying to get your work in front of, or on the hiring committee of that dream job. Simple advice, but very valuable to remember. As for balancing everything, that’s always a challenge – for me, and everyone else it seems. I won’t say I ever do it perfectly, it’s a lot of give an take, and often I do best when I parcel things out and only focus on one at a time. Grad school, like college, really tests your time management skills – and often shows you very quickly how they’re lacking. I tend to do best though when I’m busy, thriving under pressure, so now with the structure of that gone (since graduating), it’s become something I need to have the discipline to create myself in order to stay productive. I think one of the things that’s most important for us as artists, as creative individuals, is to put as much value on that time spent working on creative endeavors as one would with any job or craft. For me the best way of maintaining that balance in all aspects of my life, both creatively and personally, has been to create a schedule or designated time for each part to make sure nothing gets neglected. Granted, it isn’t always something formal, but it’s important to really set aside the time, minus other distractions, to really focus on making new work, working to get your art out in the world, living your life and doing what makes you happy…and in my case now, applying for jobs. It’s always a juggling act, but it’s what keeps life interesting.

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