Friday, August 1, 2008

A Conversation with Jessica M. Kaufman

I met Jessica earlier this year in Houston at Fotofest, where we became fast friends between reviews. Realizing that we were both New Yorkers, we promised to stay in touch. Fotofest was an opportunity for me to learn from the portfolio reviews but also a chance to learn as much, if not more, from my peers who were being reviewed. I was able to see a range of works, many of which were amazing in person, some I had admired prior to going and some that were new discoveries. Jessica was one of those "discoveries" and I am glad to have this chance to share her work with you.

Untitled © Jessica M. Kaufman

"I was drawn to the landscape as muse, but uncharacteristically chose one loaded with meaning, burdened with a history so cumbersome that I initially was afraid to pursue it." This is how Jessica M. Kaufman describes her project Panopticon.

Untitled © Jessica M. Kaufman

"The title of the series, "Panopticon," refers to an 18th century circular prison model that allows for secret surveillance of all prisoner activity through natural illumination. The subject matter is the grounds of the Nazi concentration camps. Far from being documentary in nature, these photographs are decontextualized excerpts through which I sought to dispose of the most recognizable clues to the specific places, and focus on the surrounding, and surviving, environments in order to recast them as sites for new meaning. The resulting images, mutated through a technical process that relays on decay as an operative force, do suggest trauma, but don't require a reaction that emcompasses a response to iconic horror. Instead, I make this work in the hope of inspiring a dialogue between the viewer and imagery that fuses indeterminate disturbance with transcendent beauty."

Untitled © Jessica M. Kaufman

Untitled © Jessica M. Kaufman

Untitled © Jessica M. Kaufman

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

JMK: I spent my childhood in Philadelphia, then moved to New York City when I was 12. I got my BA from Yale, then moved back to the city, living in Brooklyn and working as a commercial photography assistant. After 4 years, I moved to San Francisco where I continued to try out all other Plan Bs – working for a dotcom, writing and editing for a photography magazine, doing commercial photography – until I couldn't take it anymore, and finally went back for my MFA at Massachusetts College of Art. I've been back in NYC (and making art) since 2003, and currently live in Brooklyn again.

NP: How did you discover photography?

JMK: It's embarrassing to think of now, but my first foray into photography was as a photography editor of my high school yearbook. Back then we shot b&w and spent all our time in the darkroom, but none of us knew what we were doing. I was the artist of my class (not that there was much competition) – I was always drawing, but never took a real art class until my sophomore year of college. My first drawing professor encouraged me to major in art, and once I took my first photo class a year later, I was hooked. It was intoxicating to find I could draw so much better with the camera, and it freed me to work more conceptually. After that, I never looked back.

NP: Where do you find inspration?

JMK: Certainly in the work of other artists, but often I find that I'm drawn more to sculptors and multi-media artists than photographers – Anselm Kiefer, Kiki Smith, Antony Gormley, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Bill Viola are all favorites. I'm drawn to artwork that evokes a visceral reaction, that's emotionally manipulative – which is true for the music and literature I favor too. I've always been interested in theory and psychoanalysis and their intersection with the personal, and consistently have mined my own obsessions for series. In the past several years have been focusing on the landscape as a proxy for identity.

NP: How did this project come about?

JMK: I had the opportunity to apply for a travel grant, and after working with the landscape for a few years, wanted to figure out a project that allowed for a more personal connection, more site-specificity. I grew up going to an Orthodox high school, an Orthodox synagogue, and was told over and over again that the Holocaust was my personal history. The lessons and stories resonated of course, but I felt like it was a false claim since no one in my family or close to my family was affected. The more I thought about it, the more that conflict interested me, and led to the initial idea to travel to the concentration camps and photograph the landscapes there. After that, I found that the conceptual material in the project just fell into place for me, and was thoroughly thematically connected to all the work I had done before. I was attracted, too, to the challenge of pursuing such a loaded and risky project, and found that the fear of falling flat on my face (as well as the trauma of being there) kept me very focused.

NP: What's next?

JMK: Right now I'm working on another project I received grants for (through the Brooklyn Arts Council), titled "Seep," that deals with the enormous oil spill in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I've been shooting in the section of Greenpoint most affected by the spill, as well as on Newtown Creek, and will be building special frames with hidden reservoirs holding a simulacrum of crude oil in which the prints will sit, simulating the the seepage into the water, soil, and air of Greenpoint. The first exhibition of "Seep" will be in the fall of this year. I'm also hoping to get further funding in the near future to continue "Panopticon."

Thank you Jessica! We will keep you updated as the exhibition information for Seep firms up. We are looking forward to it.

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