The Value of Feedback from Viewers

Once an exhibition goes up, it can be difficult for artists to get feedback about viewers’ reaction to the work, especially if the venue is not in the place you live. But because “The Thread in the River” is currently being shown at the Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati (until April 2), I have been able to meet with multiple classes of high school and university students who have shared their thoughts about what they see in the work and how they experience it. This has, in turn, led me to think a lot about how I might proceed as I continue to develop this project.

A student asked me why I presented the images that appear in “Twelve Summers” as a video animation, rather than as still images. 

Twelve Summers, 1999 – 2013

My answer was that I had tried out numerous ways of presenting them as still images, both on the wall and in book format. But nothing I tried captured the idea of the sometimes subtle transformation of a child from one age to the next. I was also failing in conveying the idea that our childhood selves are still buried somewhere deep inside us, despite the layers of complexity that we gain as we age into adulthood. Putting these pictures into a video that allowed for layering them with different levels of opacity allowed me to speak to these ideas successfully. This conversation made me ask myself in what other ways I could use video presentations for future work.

Discussing “The Wind Telephone” with students reinforced for me how important it is to not have the work answer too many questions for the viewer, to let the audience ask and answer questions for themselves.

The Wind Telephone

They liked it a lot that this particular body of work didn’t explain the answers that my relatives gave me when responding to the questions I had asked of them. The students said that it made them ask themselves what their own answers would be to these questions, and made them more interested in the work.

One series, titled “The Long Arc”, consists of many self-portraits that I began taking when I got pregnant in 1995 and continue to take up to the present day. I asked the students what they saw as the difference between my self-portraits and “selfies”, as they take them and understand them. One students’ reply has stuck with me (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here): “Selfies are all about covering up who you really are, while your pictures are about revealing who you really are.”

While talking with these students, I felt like I was learning things about my own work that I hadn’t yet seen. Unless I am invited to an exhibition venue to talk about my work, opportunities to talk with viewers in a gallery while a show is up don’t happen a lot. Because this is the first time that this work has been exhibited, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get this kind of feedback.

Artists I Like- Hiroshi Sugimoto

I was fortunate to have been able to visit Amsterdam, Netherlands, recently, where I saw an unbelievable amount of art. But the first place I visited after arriving was FOAM, the city’s museum of contemporary photography. I discovered that three new shows had opened there only a few days before, and one of them was work by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

I have been familiar with Sugimoto’s work for a long time, but had never had the pleasure of seeing it in person. The experience left me literally speechless, and I know that I will never be able to put into words what it was like.

In summary, the show consisted of pictures from 5 different series that Sugimoto has created over the course of the past few decades. Each series was represented by 5-7 photographs, which was enough to give the viewer an idea of the concept of each. Each series was in its own room so that the viewer could take the work in without it competing with other pictures. Although the size of the prints varied, they were all relatively large. I would guess that the smallest was @ 3ft. by 4 ft. All were framed, covered in non-glare glass, were lit beautifully, and hung on medium-to-dark gray walls.

The effect was mesmerizing. Sugimoto is a technical master, something that is becoming rare in today’s photographic world. But his technical mastery is always in the service of the ideas he has, and these ideas include some of the most basic that photographers can ask (What is the nature of light? How can it be controlled- or not?) as well as some that go far beyond what a lens can record (What is the nature of time?) His approach to photography is spiritual in nature, which is underscored in this interview.

In each series, Sugimoto had me wondering if what I was looking at was real- but “real” in what sense of the word? It didn’t matter if what he photographed was a seascape, electric sparks, wax figures, or museum dioramas. I could look at his pictures for endless hours and always find something new in them, as they cause me to ask questions about what I am seeing. The beauty of it is that I come up with different answers each time.

Seeing his work was sublime, spiritual, mesmerizing. His work is about so much more that the actual objects being photographed. If you ever find yourself near a gallery or museum with his work in it, do not miss it.

 

The Thread in the River- Show Opening & Acknowledgements

“If you make art that makes people curious, then people will lean towards it.”  ~Moby (singer, songwriter, DJ, musician, photographer and animal rights activist)

The Thread in the River opened two days ago at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati, OH. After working on this project actively for over 3 years, it is almost unreal that it is now out there in the world. The opening itself was crazy- over 400 people came and it was packed from beginning to end.

I have been helped by so many people along the way, and wanted to thank them for the role that each of them played. First and foremost, my enduring gratitude goes to my soulmate-in-the-search-for-perfection, Laura Fisher, whose tireless efforts went well above and beyond the call of duty. Working with her and Alex McClay was pure joy.

Alex McClay and me at the opening

I am also grateful to Whitney and Phillip Long for sponsoring the exhibit, and to Dennie Eagleson for her unfailing support and encouragement.

Me and Dennie Eagleson at the opening

Invaluable technical support and advice was provided by Jon Cone, Walker Blackwell, Cathy Cone, and Dana Hillesland of Cone Editions Press in Vermont. Every artist should be so lucky to have a framer par excellence like Laurie Gilbert. I would also like to thank Michael Everett, Larry Danque, Andy Marko and Charles Woodman for their input and efforts on my behalf.

Finally, my appreciation for my family knows no bounds. Without their patience and willingness to participate in my photographic activities over the years, even when they didn’t necessarily understand what I was doing, this project would not exist.