Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Conversation with Juliana Beasley

Juliana Beasley is a wower. I first came across her Lapdancer work at a benefit auction several years ago. Her personality, writing, and her photographs are bold and gutsy, at least more than I could ever be. Her project Last Stop: Rockaway Park along with the amazing tales on her blog, Juliana's Lovely Land of Neurosis, has become a photo memoir, in which she recounts her experiences with her subjects. I've thoroughly enjoyed her virtual company the last couple of weeks as we worked towards sharing the following Conversation with you. Grab a coffee or a tea before going on and be prepared to be taken by Juliana.

Fish Bowl, from the series Last Stop: Rockaway Park. © Juliana Beasley

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

JB: I spent the first five years of my childhood in Philadelphia at 3110 West Penn St. I lived across the street from my best friend, Liz Fritz and her tag-a-long baby brother, Georgie. They both had electric red hair like Ronald McDonald in the cartoon commercial. My Mom called Liz, “the Lizard”. I was just Jul, a nickname only a few people in my life still call me.

On summer evenings, when my Mom returned from work, we begged her to drive us around in her red TR6 Triumph named Tony. The sun was low and the heat still. We sat up on the back of the hood, held onto the convertible’s roll bar and she eased up on the gas as we circled the block again and again. I felt the air rush through my hair and over my sweaty face. She played a precarious game of stuttering the pedal with her foot, stopping and starting the engine. We laughed. Could we stand up, we asked.

On summer nights we played with my sister and the other older kids in a game of hide and seek reaching as far as the perimeters of the entire block, avoiding the backyards of disagreeable neighbors and those haunted with ghosts and witches.

The Lizard and I caught fire flies in jelly jars. We also built a playground set, complete with a slide, in a shoebox built for inchworms we had collected from leaves. We crushed their little bodies, in an attempt to teach them how to use the juggle gym. They died before term. We dug their graves with sticks, in a secret burial site on the side my house, performing the most loving memorials in the name of every one.

These are the sweet memories; the flawless nostalgia read in a required reading book for a high school English class, two hundred pages before the darkness and the shadows reveal themselves to our sweet and fragile narrator.

How magical the past can appear after a frontal lobe lobotomy!

Paddy's Mid Afternoon Nap, from the series Last Stop: Rockaway Park. © Juliana Beasley

NP: How did you discover photography?

JB: My unfailing consumption of photography began when I discovered a family in a series of photo album—my family.

I found them in a collection of snapshots, meticulously arranged, glued in with Elmer's, and bound my silver screws. There were five books in all, numbered one to number five.

On nights of Ritalin and Seconal, my mother had painstakingly, pasted pictures of me and my sister, wearing matching outfits (my father always forever absent) into two early albums. We were stacked single file in-between numerous postcards she had bought at Buckingham Palace of her latest obsession, Queen Elizabeth.

Album Number One: there was my mother in black and white, before I even knew her, a young woman on her way to medical school in a series of photographs, hamming it up for the camera in a storyboard performance from beginning to a finale where she mocks her own death at the gas station pump, her tongue hanging out.

What I had believed was my life and family, abruptly ended short mid-way through Album Number Five. My intuition told me the author had lost interest like a child who tosses last year’s favorite toy away and moves towards the next fad.

Isabelle's Room, from the series Last Stop: Rockaway Park. © Juliana Beasley

After the predictable order of a perfect life filled with beaming smiles, birthday parties and aging parents had disappeared; I felt an empty void, a huge misunderstanding in my formative years.

In junior high school, your family became my family. I spent evenings on sleepovers at my friends, Nancy Goldman and Nancy Kaufman. The traditional bonding ceremony towards best friendship meant pulling out the family photo albums, revealing un cool fathers with plaid polyester pants and mother’s who wore their hair the same way that they always did. My mother was avant-garde in the suburban realm.

Henry, from the series Last Stop: Rockaway Park. © Juliana Beasley

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration! I am inspired when I see, for example, a grown woman who collects a specialty brand of dolls at fairs where they meet other woman whom collects the same dolls. No less, the man who teaches his dog to count to ten with his paw thrills me. These people prove to me everyday that without purpose—however stupid or great—there would be little left for most people to ponder, including myself. I revel in the differences of other people and places…I dare to see things from a fresh perspective. I am admittedly, greedy to fill my belly with information. I want to devour it all…the stories of Oliver Sach’s patients, the characters in Edward Gorey’s Poems, the gritty starkness of Boris Mikailov’s work, the soft nurturing of the portraits of Sally Mann, the raw poetry of Eileen Mayle's, the perfect word beyond the idiom, the sugar coated grandiose and morose memoirs of Elizabeth Wurtzel.

Leopard Lady, from the series Last Stop: Rockaway Park. © Juliana Beasley

I have been working on a project about a community on the Rockaway’s peninsula called “Last Stop: Rockaway Park”. I began in 2002, when I was a passenger in a car driving with friends on a tour ride throughout Queens. I hadn’t been out to the Rockaways since my college years. I never thought about the Rockaways; I suppose most people living in the other boroughs rarely do, unless, they are hipsters who go out there to surf throughout the year. Before, Rockaway Park became part of my life-repertoire; it was simply just a nebulous point on a map. After, repetitious traveling from one point to another, the two hour trip became ingrained inside me more as a feeling than a location, breathing and alive with photographs to be reinterpreted every time, I looked over contact sheets and work prints. 116th St. became a second family of people, who really didn’t know much about me and nonetheless, accepted me into their lives.

“Last Stop: Rockaway Park” came into my life like many projects—unexpectedly. A witness to a fight at a boardwalk bar, I watched the bartender jump the bar with a bat in his hand, chasing away an angered ragged man. I later learned his name was Butchie, a soft and generous man at the core.

Maria, from the series Eyes of Salamanca. © Juliana Beasley

NP: How did this project come about?

JB: In the spring of 2006, I went down to Mexico on a vacation with my dear companion, Victoria. I learned a photographer’s vacation is difficult without indulging in snapping the shutter. Upon driving into a small town in the Southernmost part of the Yucatan coast, I noticed an older man, white and quite freckled and burnt by the strong sun. He was talking at a pay phone, along the main street. He wore a uniform, a blue-checkered shirt, suspenders, and a straw hat. Stop the car, I said, a block away.

I approached him while he was on the phone and he motioned for me to wait until he was finished. When he had finished, we met at a stucco wall outside of a Catholic orphanage. We began a conversation in broken English which pleased him, and even more so, that we were Americans. He introduced himself as an elder of the Mennonite Camp called “Salamanca”. His name is Isaac Schmitt. Soon, into our conversation, he invited us to afternoon lunch after their church services on Sunday.

Holding Hands, from the series Eyes of Salamanca. © Juliana Beasley

When we first arrived, the “elders” invited us inside Isaac’s aluminum built home, into a cramped living room where they surrounded us and in what seemed a multicultural round table meeting. One younger man began to ask us about our American lives. I noticed a piece of paper in his hands as he delivered a Q&A. I felt like an American ambassador.

We spent a sweaty afternoon, playing with curious children (initially, they ran away from us in fear) and exchanged information about our very different cultures with the adults. The children marveled when I pulled out my digital camera and began to take photographs. I was showered with young “oohs and ahhs” in unison, when I showed them their semblance on the back of the Canon LCD. For once, digital truly might have a purpose.

Sunday After Church, from the series Eyes of Salamanca. © Juliana Beasley

Young Cowboys, from the series Eyes of Salamanca. © Juliana Beasley

NP: What's next?

JP: In the spring of 2009, I will be returning down to the South of Mexico to live with the Schmitt family amongst the other Mennonites in the Salamanca farm community. At this point, I couldn’t tell you what the project is about even if I go there with a few ideas. I think this is way I normally work. I go in with a larger net than necessary and come out with the small fish in the end. It takes me more time, as it does in all relationships, to understand things clearly and to move beyond the external. My plan is to live in the community for one month, photograph, blog at a computer center in the closest town, ride in the back of buggies and have a Mennonite dress tailor made to fit me. Maybe even relax a little.

Blonde Braids, from the series Eyes of Salamanca. © Juliana Beasley

Thank you Juliana! To see more of Juliana's work, pay a visit to her site, and her blog, Juliana's Lovely Land of Neurosis. To own a piece of Juliana's work, go to her sale.


Anonymous said...

Great interview, Rona! Thanks for participating, Juliana!

Tema Stauffer said...

There is something about these photographers from Philly ... it's not pretty but it's intense and raw.

The photos of the Mennonites are amazing, surreal, utterly fascinating.