Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Conversation with Laura Heyman

Untitled, 2005, The Photographer's Wife, © Laura Heyman
Untitled, 2006, The Photographer's Wife, © Laura Heyman

Laura Heyman is an amazing educator, photographer, artist and curator and I was so privileged to have spent fours years as her student at Syracuse University. Incredibly articulate and thoughtful, her series, The Photographer's Wife, are a series of portraits of herself in a performance of sorts as Heyman takes on the role of a photographer's muse. However, never portraying exploitive or romantic expressions, Heyman normalizes what it means to be a photographer's wife. Heyman doesn't have a website portfolio yet so I'm glad to have this chance to share her work with you all.

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself?

Laura Heyman: I was born in New Jersey, one of six children. My mother was an English teacher who eventually opened an antique shop, and my father is a lawyer. I studied photography at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. At the same time I was a founding member of the cooperative gallery Vox Populi. This created a dual interest in photography and curatorial work. When I moved to San Francisco, after graduating from college, the first thing I did was open a gallery.

Untitled, 2008, The Photographer's Wife, © Laura Heyman

NP: How did you discover photography?

LH: My oldest sister took a photography class in high school. I would have been in sixth grade. She often asked me to pose for her. The poses weren’t what I was used to from our family portraits at Christmas - they were a little looser. She would photograph my sisters and I in the landscape, just standing still. She never asked us to smile. The day she brought home the black and white prints from our sessions I was hooked. I took photography in high school, and then received my B.F.A from University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and my M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Untitled, 2006, The Photographer's Wife, © Laura Heyman

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

LH: Pretty much anywhere: art, books, movies, people, places. Sometimes a simple gesture exchanged between two people I see on the subway will give me an idea I’ll work on for months. I often travel for work, and being in unfamiliar cities and landscapes also opens things up, lets me to see things from a different perspective.

Untitled, 2005, The Photographer's Wife, © Laura Heyman

NP: How do your projects come about?

LH: With some projects, the process is very simple - there’s something happening that I feel should be recorded, as in the case of The Last Party, which documents the final days of Ocho Loco, a warehouse I occupied in San Francisco from 1990 – 2003. By the time we received an eviction notice in 2003, Ocho Loco was one of the few artist warehouses still in operation in San Francisco proper; most others had either been turned into live-work lofts, or moved to the outskirts of the city where rent was cheaper. For our final event at the space, all of the bands that had ever played there were invited back for one last show, which would last almost 24 hours. I drank a lot of coffee and photographed the party from beginning to end.

Tom, 2003, The Last Party, © Laura Heyman

With other projects, the process is a little more complicated - it may start with a question, something I’ve been turning over in my head for a while. The Photographer’s Wife was partially influenced by a story a friend told me about the wife of a well-known photographer in San Francisco. In college, I had seen the requisite images of Eleanor Callahan, Edith Gowan and Bebe Nixon that were part of any photography student’s education. I was always fascinated by those women, and wondered about their lives, and what they thought about the images we’re all so familiar with. Now I had received some sort of inside information on what it was like to be a strong intelligent woman involved in the process in a very direct way, but without any of the rewards that artists normally expect or receive. I realized these women weren’t the romantic figures I had imagined them to be when I was younger, but they weren’t tragic or exploited either. I had been making some images of myself, not self-portraits, more like performance stills, and hearing this personal story made me view those images differently.

This led to a series of images that presented a female subject gazing intimately at the camera, suggesting that an artist making images of his lover. Because I was playing both roles at once, it created a fictionalized photographer as well as a fictionalized subject. The model/subject’s job is always performative — she must be able to portray not only a true self, but also an idealized version. Here, I was conveying not only this multiple subjectivity, but also reflecting back to the viewer an imagined photographer husband. The images examine the disparity between the sexes in the history of art and portraiture, excavating it to uncover not only the discouraging actualities of gender disparity, but also the magic that might occur when these different possibilities interact in some way.

Bagdon, 2003, The Last Party, © Laura Heyman

Curatorial projects function in much the same way – some look at a specific type of technical or conceptual practice, for instance, an idea or way of working I might see happening on the East and West Coast at the same time, as with the exhibition Flipping the Bird, which was exhibited at Vox Populi gallery in Philadelphia in 2003. Sometimes it’s more specific and directed, as with Who’s Afraid of America, which opened at Wonderland Art Space in Copenhagen in November 2008. That exhibition examined American documentary photography and the way it often positions both itself and its subjects as outside of societal norms. The photographers included in that exhibition were Justyna Badach, Larry Clark, Cheryl Dunn, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Zoe Strauss and Tobin Yelland.

Maggie, 2003, The Last Party, © Laura Heyman

NP: What’s next?

LH: Right now I’m working continuing work on The Photographer’s Wife, which will eventually be a book.

I’m also researching a project about the Venice Biennale and its relation to the current boom in cultural tourism, which has generated its own micro-model of capitalism (i.e., a relatively small and wealthy group at the top of the system, with the number of individuals expanding and remuneration shrinking as you move down the pyramid). At this point there are over 200 international biennials in the world. As they continue to proliferate I want to look at the circuit of cultural tourism they create, how it functions, and what purpose it serves.

I chose the Venice Biennale as the subject for this research because it’s both the first and currently the largest biennial in the world. It also has a huge influence on the value of an artists work, and this influence is felt throughout all of the smaller art fairs and biennials.

I’ve just been in Venice documenting some of the individuals involved in running and servicing this year’s Biennale. I’ll use these images to apply for funding to complete the project at the next Biennale in 2011.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I love these interviews. I also thought that the work "the photographers wife" is not only beautiful but the concept is so interesting and strong. It is so great to hear how a fine artist works. I have worked too long with commercial photographers its great to hear another point of view. oh and its inspiring...thank you..