Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Conversation with Justine Reyes

Justine Reyes and I go way back- to the first day of high school at LaGuardia H.S. (a specialized school for the Arts in Manhattan). We were on the same train and I noticed her heading toward the 1/9 with all her anklets tinkering under her full length gypsy-like skirt, looking way cool. We ended up being in the same foundation art class and eventually in the same photography class. Her work has certainly matured and evolved since then and she's changed fashion styles many times over. Justine has been on a quest to explore and define herself (as we all do) and where her travel and work has taken her is right back to what defines her the most, her family. By photographing her family members, she shares what is closest in who is present and absent and the struggles within as she deals with aging loved ones.

Untitled, Home © Justine Reyes

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself.

Justine Reyes: My mother left my father in 1980 by telling him she wanted to take my brother and I to my cousin’s wedding in NY so she could visit my family. She packed one suitcase and never looked back. That’s how I got to be a NYC girl instead of a sunny California girl. I often wonder who I would be if I had grown up on the west coast instead of in Queens with my mom, brother, grandmother and uncles, Al and Vinnie.

Untitled, (work in progress) © Justine Reyes

NP: How did you discover photography?

JR: Oddly enough it was one of my dad’s first visits to NY that he brought me a Polaroid camera. When I was nine my uncle Al bought me a neon-orange point and shoot that I took everywhere. I remember putting my mom’s shoe on her head while she was sleeping and taking a picture once. I have no idea why. I guess I’ve been terrorizing my family with a camera for a long time, although now they’re more active participants.

Bermuda, Away From Home © Justine Reyes

Palermo, Away From Home © Justine Reyes

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

JR: My process is very intuitive and each project builds organically. Much of my work demonstrates the power of objects to bear witness to intangible ideas and emotional truths and employs the iconography and symbols of common everyday objects as a means of communicating shared experiences.

Barcelona, Away From Home © Justine Reyes

The death of my uncle Vinnie profoundly impacted me and has in large part brought me to my most current bodies of work, many of which include my family, the idea of leaving and returning home, and the longing to hold on to things that are ephemeral and transitory in nature.

Untitled, Home © Justine Reyes

Untitled, Home © Justine Reyes

NP: How did this project come about?

JR: I have been photographing my immediate family for the past 6 years. This work entitled Home combines portraits, with images of empty interior spaces throughout the house. When I began I was photographing my mom and two uncles, all of whom raised me since I was two years old. These images portray them doing everyday things like cleaning, eating, watching TV, and doing nothing in particular. The catalyst for making this work began with my fear of losing them and trying to capture a moment slipping by faster and faster as they get older. After my uncle Vinnie died this work changed a lot. I began focusing more on their fragility; my uncle’s broken nose, or how tired my mom looks, etc. The image of the empty bedroom represents my Uncle Vinnie and his absence.

Away from Home began shortly after Uncle Vinnie’s death when I booked a cruise to Bermuda for my mom, uncle, brother and myself. I thought we all needed a vacation from grief and sadness. Since then we have gone to Spain, Italy and Australia together. The hotel rooms become grand stages for dramas that never quite unfold. I focus on the subtle underlying tension created by being slightly out of place and out of your comfort zone and the little things we do to try to recreate a small piece of home wherever we go. By staging them in foreign spaces costumed to have the look and feel of domestic comfort I begin to draw relationships between Home and Away from Home, both literally and metaphorically.

Untitled, (work in progress) © Justine Reyes

Untitled, (work in progress) © Justine Reyes

NP: What’s next?

JR: I am currently working on a still life series that I began while in residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. This series is inspired by Dutch Vanitas paintings and incorporates personal objects of my own as well as objects that belonged to my grandmother. Pairing these objects together speaks to memory and the legacy one leaves behind. Both the decomposition of the natural (rotting fruit and wilting flowers) as well as the break down of the man made objects, reference the physical body and mortality. These objects bear witness to a spiritual trace or imprint that is left behind or residual.

Untitled, (work in progress) © Justine Reyes

Thank you Justine. More images and projects can be found on

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