Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Conversation with Toni Pepe

© Toni Pepe

“It’s my dream. A world where all would be silent and each thing in its last place, under the last dust.” -Samuel Beckett, Endgame”

I met Toni Pepe in between portfolio reviews at last year’s SPE Mid-Atlantic Northeast Conference in Woodstock. We became fast friends and kept winning awards together at SPE Conferences. (Always a plus!)

Her series, “Angle of Repose” has a cinematic and dramatic quality that emphasizes on questions rather than answers. Toni has exhibited widely in the US and currently has a solo exhibition at The Center for Photography at Woodstock through January 11, 2009.

© Toni Pepe

Absence and presence is a recurring theme within this series, implying that each image works to reference something beyond the frame. Photography best portrays this thematic approach since by nature; photographs possess a fundamental quality of absence. All of the elements within the frame—the props, costumes and gestures prompt the notion and tangibility of loss and memory. If we had never met could I still have a memory of you? Can we make present something that is absent?

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

TP: I grew up in the Boston area and recently moved back after being away for about 7 years. I studied English and Visual Art at Michigan State University during my undergraduate career. In April of 2008 I received an MFA in Imaging Arts from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Graduate school really gave me the time and space to figure out where I fit in within the medium of photography; it allowed me to recognize that I could combine my passion for literature and writing with visual art.

© Toni Pepe
A variety of performative devices from theater, cinema, and literature reconstruct visions and moments experienced within the walls of the character’s mind. References to memory are embedded in her gestures and body language. Though the poses are appropriated from family photographs, at the same time they evoke the classical and art historical. Recurring motifs such as dust suggest the past, calling to mind the idea of remains and decay.

NP: How did you discover photography?

TP: I took my first photography course (Photojournalism I) during my sophomore year at MSU. I had always wanted to take a photo class, but put it off because I was more involved with writing and literature. It may sound cliché, but I absolutely fell in love with photo after that first day of class. I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue, so I started interning at a local newspaper and spent the majority of my time shooting or in the dark room. I went on to take a photo course every semester before I graduated. Even though, I enjoyed photo class, I didn’t really connect with my job at the newspaper – in fact, I grew to really dislike going on assignments and felt that there had to be more to this medium. I don’t think I figured out what that was until I was out of school and started to experiment on my own – away from all the categories photo seems to be put into (photojournalism, fine art photo, nature photography, commercial, etc.).

© Toni Pepe

NP: Where do you discover photography?

TP: Each project I start is never a complete departure from my earlier work. I tend to draw a lot from the personal – the family album, old clothing, the mannerisms of friends and family, identity as it relates to the narratives of my relatives. I also pull from broader, more universal material like advertising, literature, television/movies. I think the foundation of all of my work, however, is a need for tangibility – I surround myself with objects from the past – objects with a sense of history, it’s comforting in a way.

© Toni Pepe

NP: How do your projects come about?

TP: I tend to work with a certain core of ideas and I don’t think I’ve ever really considered a series done. When I stop shooting one particular series and move onto something else – I move on, but I never really leave anything behind. Similar ideas and aesthetics may be carried to a new series, but I always try to push myself beyond what I did prior. Usually, I’ll sketch out an idea (typically a drawing so poorly rendered only I really know what it is) and once I start shooting the elements will either fall into place or not – that will usually lead me to something new or keep me on the track I started on in the first place.

© Toni Pepe

NP: What’s next?

TP: Right now, I am working on a series that explores familial history – identity as it relates to one’s nationality/heritage and one’s name. I am drawing from the aesthetic of the miniature and illuminated manuscripts –which give a concentrated amount of information/narrative in a typically tiny amount of space. I like the idea of the compact – fitting identity into a name or a symbol – squeezing it into a frame of a photograph, etc.

NP: Thank you very much, Toni!

To see more of Toni's work, check her website at She is also a contributor to an art critique blog, Art is Hard.

She currently is in a solo exhibition at The Center for Photography at Woodstock through January 11, 2009. She is also the Northeast Exposure Online's Artist of the month at the Photographic Resource Center.

1 comment:

nina corvallo said...

thank you Jane & Toni for this conversation - amazing images!