Monday, March 18, 2013

Kathleen Robbins

Into the Flatland

I met Kathleen Robbins at SPE about a week ago, and interviewed her in the hotel lobby. We had an inspiring conversation about her work, entering other people's space, and promotion. 

Kathleen Robbins is an associate professor of art, affiliate faculty of southern studies and coordinator of the photography program in the McMaster College of Art at the University of South Carolina. Robbins was raised in the Mississippi Delta and received her MFA from the University of New Mexico in 2001. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally in over 50 venues. Her work is part of numerous collections including the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and the South Carolina State Museum. She currently lives in Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband, Ben, and their son, Asher. 

View more of Kathleen's work here 

In Cotton 

Ashley Kauschinger: How did your series In Cotton begin?

Kathleen Robbins: It started in July 2011, my prior project was Into The Flatland, that project is about my family in Mississippi. I started noticing a shift in the landscape toward the end of that project. In the delta where I’m from, cotton started disappearing from the landscape, and corn was replacing it. It was a visual thing initially. Driving around, I started noticing that you couldn’t see the horizon anymore. That was historically one of the things about the delta… that you could see to the very limits of the horizon. Another thing I noticed driving around, as I would stop and photograph is that these places were abandoned, which is common in these rural areas. It occurred to me that there were fewer inhabited places than uninhabited places. Farms had been abandoned. I wondered how many people were still living on the farms and farming crops. I found about 10 still farming cotton. I was curious more than anything, so I wrote a grant and applied for sabbatical. So, I had time and some funding.

In Cotton 
AK: Where did you get the grant?

KR: From the university, it was a generous grant from USC, where I teach. They have a great grants program, and have been really supportive of the arts in the last several years. I’m really lucky.

AK: Do you feel like that work connected to the work about your family or do you think it created any metaphors for you as it was evolving out of images of your family farm?

KR: No, I think it’s funny a lot of people think they are so similar and I think they are really different. I don’t know, I think they are certainly connected; they’re in the same place…

AK: I think they feel really emotionally different.

KR: Yeah, Flatlands is a little more sensitive… emotional. I think in a way, it’s an entirely different thing for me to do work about. It’s really different for me to do work about other people. I’ve always done work that is connected to my family, and my identity. This is the first time I have done something else.

In Cotton 

AK: For me, it’s hard to go up to other people or go into other people’s space and photograph them. I think that’s why I do self-portraits or photograph my environment. What was it like to talk to people and to go into their spaces?

KR: That’s a great question, actually. It was easier than you would think, for a couple reasons. One is my cousin, Mary Carol. She would drive the truck, and I’d photograph. We’d land on someone’s farm and she would do the talking and tie up the farm and the family. I could have free reign.

AK: That worked out so well!

KR: It was brilliant. It was totally accidental.  Initially we were like yeah, come along, and see what happens, and she ended up being completely necessary. And I don’t know about you, but when I photograph I need space to think. I need quiet.

AK: I can’t feel pressured.

KR: Yeah, I need time and space. I don’t want anyone watching me necessarily.  It makes me uncomfortable.  So, it was great. She would take them into a room and then I could walk around the house and photograph. I would tell them that was my process before hand. And I knew a lot of the families. I had grown up in the area, so I was familiar with most of them.

In Cotton 

AK: Did you have to get them to sign releases?

KR: I’m not at that point yet. I haven’t yet. The project is under review at the University Press of Mississippi. They may require that in the future.

AK: Are you going to have a book?

KR: I hope so. The Flatland project actually just got green lit by USC Press.  It’s coming out in spring 2014. I just found out on Wednesday. So that book will be out next spring, and In Cotton would be the following year. I’m not finished with the In Cotton project. I’m pretty slow. I hope to be finished shooting by December, so I can get it ready for publication.

AK: Do you shoot during different seasons?

KR: Yes, I think that is one thing that differentiates (In Cotton) aesthetically from Flatland.  The Flatland project was almost entirely shot during winter breaks. So over six or seven years, almost all of it was during December. With the Cotton project, almost all of it is shot during July and October. It’s greener.

AK: I can’t shoot during December, I have a hibernating period. The light feels different to me.

KR: Yeah! And that works for Flatland.

 Into the Flatland

AK: So, that transitions nicely. How do you work on a series for years at a time? How do you know if it’s done?

KR: I don’t know how to work any other way. I think it’s a luxury that is afforded to professors. As an educator, it’s really lovely to feel like there is no rush. I know when I’ll have time to shoot. I know it will be during a break, and I can schedule it out. Also, working toward an exhibit and a book, it takes a long time. So, the Flatland work has been traveling as an exhibit for 5 years, during different stages. I wasn’t finished when I first started traveling it. Now, it’s still traveling, and I can promote that work while I’m shooting the In Cotton project. That works pretty well because I know I’m still shooting In Cotton maybe for a year, maybe for two years but I’m showing and I’m doing other stuff with this other project. The next project will have the same lifespan. In Cotton, I’ll finish shooting it, start traveling it, get a book out, and start a new project. I’ve already got inklings of a new project…

AK: In the someday box?

KR: Yeah, in the someday box.

 Into the Flatland

AK: So, what is your process of promotion?

KR: Well, Mary Virginia Swanson.

AK: I know!

KR: I’ve known Swany since the late 90’s. She came to UNM when I was a grad student. She spoke to all of us at Jim Stone’s house. She was there, and telling us to get your domain name! And nobody had a domain name in the late 90s. But I was like, okay, done! I’ve been in touch with her every since, but she is always right. Always. Promotion is not my favorite thing about photography for sure. But it’s definitely easier for me online. I’m not necessarily shy, but I’m also not…

AK: A ruthless go-getter?

KR: I’m not a ruthless go-getter. It’s much easier for me to post a link to something. I do a lot of promotion by email. I stay in touch with people the best I can. I also do a lot of things like SPE. I got to Photo Nola, usually. It’s my favorite thing. It’s a small world, the photo world. You see the same people at all of these things. It’s not a pain to do it, because it’s like keeping in touch with your friends. It’s all people being supportive of one another. Its not just pushing your own agenda… it’s about being connected to everybody.

Into the Flatland

AK: What advice would you give to brand new photographers, who don’t know anyone yet?

KR: Produce a lot of work, for one. That’s the main thing. I have a lot of students who get so overwhelmed about inserting meaning into their work that they stop creating work. There is this point where you become so confused by all the details you stop. That’s the worst thing. Shoot as much as you can, as often as you can. Try not to worry so much about the significance of it.

AK: That’s hard to do.

KR: Well, I think it’s important to keep asking questions, and pushing the work. But making the work, that’s the most important part. Also, staying connected to the people who are helpful to you. You have to create your own network out of school. The luxury in school is that you have a built in support system. People to look at your work and give you feedback. The most disruptive thing for students is loosing that. You have to be proactive. You have to make sure you are staying in touch with the people that are helpful to you. I need to be able to talk to people about what I am doing. I need to keep talking about photography, and be around people who are excited about it.

In Cotton 

AK: Sometimes I think about marketing, if people are going to like my work, and where is it going to go while I’m photographing. Sometimes it can get in my way. Does that ever happen to you?

KR: Not as much any more. I entirely understand what you are saying. But it gets easier, in a way. I’m tenured now and I’m not planning on going anywhere. I don’t feel any rush. I’ve been out of grad school for 12 years. I’m making the work, I know I’m going to show it to people and I have people who are supportive of my work. People who will be sincere and honest. If they don’t like these 20 images that I shot in Mississippi, I’ll go back and shoot some more. But it does get easier. Partly because your support system grows as you go along.  

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