Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Conversation with Isa Leshko

Embden Goose, Age 28, I from the series Elderly Animals © Isa Leshko

Isa Leshko is an accomplished photographer, whose two projects attracted me with her sense of whimsy at first glance but with a dark undertone.

Finn Sheep, Age 12 from the series Elderly Animals © Isa Leshko

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

IL: I was born in 1971 in Rahway, NJ, which coincidentally is the town where George Tice made a number of his images. I was sick a lot as a child since I was born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which I outgrew in my late teens. I was a nerdy and lonely kid, and spent most of my free time reading and playing Atari. I lived inside my head and did not spend much time outdoors. I think part of photography’s appeal to me is that it gives me license to explore the world in ways I never did as a child.

I grew up in Carteret, a working class NJ town known for its bars, churches and nearby oil refineries. I was raised in a conservative Italian American household and I longed to get as far away from NJ as possible when I became an adult. I attended Haverford College, a liberal Quaker school in Pennsylvania, which was the furthest distance from NJ that my parents would entertain for my college education. What Haverford lacked in distance from NJ it made up for culturally. Over the course of my first semester, I underwent a radical leftward shift which has lasted through my adulthood. I returned to Carteret after my first year in college with a shaved head wearing combat boots and a leather jacket studded with noxious political buttons. The look certainly had its desired impact on my parents…

Moonie, Age 32 from the series Elderly Animals © Isa Leshko

I studied neuroscience and cognitive psychology in college and toyed with the idea of attending graduate school in one of those areas. I worked for two years as a research assistant for a neuropsychologist before I took a tech support job for Delphi Internet Services. After a few years, the company imploded and I spent the next 7 years working for various Internet startups before falling hard for photography. In my 20s, I also wrote for a few feminist and lesbigay publications and was Books Editor for the now defunct Sojourner Magazine. I couldn’t financially support myself with my writing, though, and my day job got increasingly demanding and interesting. I began working 12-15 hour days, so there wasn’t much room in my life for anything other than work.

I’ve spent most of my adulthood living in various New England towns including Providence, RI, Portsmouth, NH and Salem, MA. In October 2009, I moved to Houston, TX with my life partner of 18 years, Matt, and our three cats, Niccolo, Katarina, and Alfred. We’re all still adjusting to this major change, though I’m excited by the strong photography community that exists in Texas and the Gulf Coast region.

Pumpkin, Age 28 from the series Elderly Animals © Isa Leshko

NP: How did you discover photography?

IL: I spent my 20s as a workaholic and found myself well and truly burned out by my early 30s. Looking for a hobby, I took an introductory photography class taught by Ri Anderson at the DeCordova Museum School. Ri spent a portion of each class showing us work by photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann and Richard Avedon, Ralph Meatyard. Had that class simply been about f-stops and shutter speeds, I might never have become a photographer.

After that first class, I spent most of my free time at the Boston Photo Cooperative, which was a community darkroom that also offered classes. The place was over an hour from my house, yet it quickly became my home away from home. I found the darkroom very alluring after years spent behind a keyboard.

After about a year, it became very clear to me that I had found my life’s passion. I left the computer industry and was lucky to land a customer support job at Zona in Cambridge, MA, which was a photo lab geared toward professional and fine art photographers. It was the perfect job to meet local photographers and talk with them about their work. My coworkers were very passionate about photography and I learned a great deal from them. Zona’s owners generously offered free film processing and darkroom access to their employees, which I amply used. I’d work my shift and then spend my evenings printing. It broke my heart when Zona closed. I still miss that place.

I then took evening workshops at the New England School of Photography and assisted Boston-area editorial and commercial photographers. Eventually I took a job as Marketing Director of Panopticon Gallery of Photography. While working there, I learned about the business of fine art photography, particularly from the gallery’s perspective.

Rooster, Age Unknown from the series Elderly Animals © Isa Leshko

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

IL: Frequently it’s not obvious what compels me to photograph something. I try to follow my instincts and not question them especially when I am shooting a subject for the first time.

There have been times in the darkroom in which I’ve broken down in tears while printing an image for the first time and honestly did not understand why. The answers don’t emerge sometimes until after I’ve spent a few days with the work print hanging on my wall.

I do tend to explore my emotions (especially my fears) through my camera. For example, I grapple with separation anxiety, and found myself drawn toward photographing abandoned spaces during my first few years as a photographer. My childhood was not exactly a happy one, and there is a dark undercurrent that runs through my Thrills and Chills images. I am terrified of aging because grandmother died of dementia and my mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Confronting this fear is one of my primary motivations in pursuing my elderly animal project.

The creative high I receive when I am working and know I’ve taken good picture is also a very powerful motivator. It’s incredibly addictive.

Finally, I draw inspiration from fellow artists and regularly look at work at shows and online. One of my favorite pastimes is to go to a bookstore, and browse through art books and magazines.

Dangling Legs from the series Thrills and Chills © Isa Leshko

Coaster At Dusk, Hershey Park, PA from the series Thrills and Chills © Isa Leshko

NP: How do your projects come about?

IL: I’m still somewhat new to a project-based approach to working. My early years as a photographer were spent largely undirected. I would go for drives and photograph whatever caught my eye. I had a few regular haunts, such as Salisbury Beach in MA, where I did street photography. However, even back then, I kept a list of things I wanted to photograph. I still maintain this list, though it now consists mainly of project ideas. That said, I think it’s important for me to take time to just wander around with a camera, and see where it leads.

My elderly animal project came as a result of a chance encounter with a blind 34-year old horse named Petey that was living at a relative’s farm. I was completely mesmerized by this animal and spent the remaining dwindling light photographing him.

Girl on Tilt-a-Whirl, Coney Island, NY from the series Thrills and Chills © Isa Leshko

Six months prior to meeting Petey, I had spent several months in NJ helping transition my mother to a nursing home. Her Alzheimer’s disease had progressed very rapidly and it was clear she was no longer safe living at home. When my mother got ill, I made a conscious decision to not photograph her. I greatly respect work like Richard Avedon’s images of his dying father or Phillip Toledano’s “Days with my Father” project or Keith Carter’s tea-toned images of his mother. But, I didn’t have a close relationship with my mother prior to her illness. I don’t feel like I have a right to photograph her when she is vulnerable and can not provide consent. My experience of caring for my mother had a profound impact on me though and I knew I would eventually explore my emotions from this time photographically.

The Claw, Topsfield Fair, MA from the series Thrills and Chills © Isa Leshko

After my encounter with Petey, I was compelled to photograph other elderly animals. I began this project by visiting farm sanctuaries mainly out of curiosity. Because of the nature of their existence, farm animals typically do not live out their natural life spans. I was intrigued to observe and photograph working animals that actually had reached a geriatric age. But, I plan on photographing a wide range of species for this project. I also want to photograph animals that are vibrant and seem to defy their age. I don’t want to focus only on animals that look old or sickly.

Waiting from the series Thrills and Chills © Isa Leshko

Point Pleasant, NJ #1 from the series Thrills and Chills © Isa Leshko

NP: What’s next?

IL: I plan on devoting the next few months on my elderly animal project. I received a lot of encouragement for this work at PhotoNOLA earlier this month. I’d like to have several new images in this series before my reviews at Fotofest in March.

This project was also recently awarded an Honorable Mention in the Houston Center for Photography 2010 Fellowship Competition that was juried by Brian Clamp of Clamp Art. Later in 2010 images from the series will be exhibited on the HCP web site.

My first solo show of my Thrills and Chills project will be held at the Griffin Gallery in the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA from April 8th through May 9th in 2010. I will be giving an artist lecture on Sunday, April 11.

My work will also be on display at the John Cleary Gallery booth at the upcoming AIPAD Photography Show in New York, March 18-21st. The gallery currently has several of my prints in its inventory, so if you’re in the Houston area, stop by to check them out. Boston area folks can view and purchase my work through the Boston Drawing Project at the Carroll and Sons Gallery.

Thank you Isa. Nymphoto wishes everyone a Happy New Year!


Michaela Harlow said...

What a wonderful interview. I am a huge fan of Isa's work, and this conversation revealed so many new and fascinating details about both the artist and her process. Thank you so much !

tread said...

nice interview and some superb images to match. Isa is a real gem.

Unknown said...

Great interview, Isa!! I knew we shared so much in common (much more than you think...). Please let me know if and when you come back to NJ-Rahway is the best and has changed tremendously-you would love the growing Arts District!! All the best to you in 2010, I hope to catch up with you either here or in TX. :O)

Aline said...

Delicious interview Isa! So great to learn more about you, and that only enriches your images! All the best in the new year!

nina corvallo said...

Fantastic portraits. Thank you so much for this conversation.


Thanks for the interview. Having known you such a short time while you were in Salem, your images told me much more than our few conversations could have and I know it is Salem's loss and Houston's gain. Thankfully the internet allows us connectivity to those who move away. Rock on.
Ellen Hardy