Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Conversation with Amy Elkins

Bon, Brooklyn, NY. 2008, © Amy Elkins

This week's conversation with Amy Elkins reveals her inspirations and background in photography. Besides being a wonderfully talented photographer and artist, she is also the co-founder of Women in Photography and blogger of wanderlustagraphy.

Max, Brooklyn, NY. 2008, © Amy Elkins

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself?

Amy Elkins: I was born in Venice Beach, CA and was raised both there and in Santa Monica, Ventura, Oxnard and Ojai. My entire family is still rooted in Southern CA and I enjoy getting back there as much as possible. While out there I studied painting, sculpture, life drawing, lithography, book making, psychology and literature before coming to photography full time. When I first came across the internet, I would stay up all night publishing short stories (similar to blogging) and studying maps of places I had never been. As soon as I saved up, I traveled cross-country by truck/car several times. My first move away from home was to New Orleans; second was to New York. My first solo train ride was a month long loop across the US and Canada with a backpack. My first flight was from New Orleans to Stockholm. I love the desert and the ocean. I enjoy extremes.

I earned a BFA in photography from School of Visual Arts in 2007. Taking all of the above into consideration, this degree took me just under 10 years. I now live in Brooklyn. I'm represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York. I recently had several pieces in the group exhibition Versus at Hous Projects Gallery in New York, as well as several in the group exhibition Homesick at Carnegie Art Museum in California. In addition I've been asked to be a part of Exposure Project's Graphic Intersections v. 02.

Brendan, Brooklyn, NY. 2008 , © Amy Elkins
Momentary, Brooklyn, NY. 2007, © Amy Elkins

NP: How did you discover photography?

AE: The first time it was when my older brother received a blue Kodak-Fisher Price 110 camera for Christmas. I was really jealous. I was only 7 years old but I thought it was amazing. For my following birthday, my aunt gave me a red 35mm Minolta. I used it as a snapshot camera nonstop for eight years before it died. The second time it was when I talked my school and my parents into letting me leave half day to start taking photo classes at the college while in my last year of high school. The third time was when I was living in New Orleans and being mentored by Herman Leonard. He was 90 years old and completely schooled me on exposing film and printing in the darkroom.

I like the idea that I am rediscovering it frequently in varying ways, even though that sounds fairly cheesy.
John Ben, 7th Ward | New Orleans, 2009, © Amy Elkins

Left image: Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA. 2007
Right image: First Visit On Our Own, Santa Monica, CA. 2007, © Amy Elkins

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

AE: Besides being inspired by light and color, especially the way it is described in paintings, I am heavily inspired by other people and their stories. The idea of sharing intimacy and specific moments with people is very compelling to me. I guess I am just as drawn to being a voyeur as I feel most photographers are, but my fascination also mixes with a certain degree of cultural anthropology and psychology- a desire to glimpse at behavior, emotion and circumstance. My newest project Black is the Day Black is the Night taps heavily into this notion- of trying to enter a reality that is so far removed from mine, solely from what is shared and described directly between my subject and I in letters. It makes my imagination go wild. Also I've found much inspiration in the slowness of writing and receiving physical letters in the mail. It makes a profound impact on how I view and experience things, knowing that I will try to describe those life events in letters shortly after. It's been making me far more aware as a visual artist.

Inmate Christmas Portrait on torn chair, 2006, © Amy Elkins

NP: How do your projects come about?

AE: A lot of my projects come from personal experiences I’ve had with certain people or in certain places in my life (family projects, Gray, Weight of Air). Other projects stem more from curiosity regarding things unfamiliar to me (Wallflower, Black is the Day). At this point I am loosely trying to piece together certain projects that I've worked on in the past with newer projects to make a larger statement about identity, exploring varying ideas of masculinity and stereotypes: strength, violence, vulnerabilities, subtleties. All of this fascinates me wildly.. looking into something that I simply cannot ever fully understand or be.

The Real May Never Equal the Imagined, 2009, © Amy Elkins

Wallflower came about during the time my father spent in a federal state prison. It was spawned by my sudden intrigue regarding masculine identity, especially when one is stripped of personal context or when facing heightened states of vulnerability. It was really hard to witness my father have this sudden breakdown. My family projects and Wallflower portraits erupted at the same time out of my need to explore what was happening in my personal life. I felt removed by the 3000 miles that separated me from my family. That distance mixed with how my father's situation impacted all of us in such different ways became a catapult for how I photographed and absorbed time with family after moving away. Everything felt familiar but in the same breath, not at all. While "15 Minutes" and "Where I Found You" along with the self portrait project "Beyond This Place" dealt with highly personal content; Wallflower allowed me to step back and investigate the vulnerabilities and nuances of the men surrounding me- a mix of peers, neighbors and friends.

My newest project, Black is the Day Black is the Night, came about through a few online searches regarding how to get in contact with people serving prison sentences in the U.S. Consequently I started correspondence with several men serving death row terms and several men serving life without the possibility of parole. It began as a writing project, rather than a photography project. What drove me to the subject was the fascination with how those serving life/death terms relate to and maintain their notion of identity, self and / or their relationship to the outside world. I didn't start making work about this correspondence until about six months into corresponding. It's very much a work in progress. I suppose it started just like any other of my projects.. curiosity and the need to explore further what drives that curiosity.

NP: Could you tell us a little bit about wanderlustagraphy and WIPNYC?

AE: Wanderlustagraphy is a blog I started in 2007. It was in my hopes to set it up as a way of sharing work amongst photo peers, regardless of location and building on the idea of a virtual global photo community. I think the internet proves itself such a valuable tool because it helps connect those who might not live in an area with an active photo community. The work on the site is curated out of what is submitted to a rolling open call for submissions. Out of images received, mini themed shows are put together and posted to the site weekly. When Women in Photo was founded (in 2008) I started having difficulty maintaining two blogs and asked Clayton Cotterell to help me keep up wanderlustagraphy. We now alternate posting shows to the site.

13/32 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2009, © Amy Elkins

Women in Photography was co-founded by Cara Phillips and myself in 2008. It is primarily an online showcase for sharing and promoting the work of female photographers ranging in genre and career level, from emerging and mid-career to established. Since our launch in 2008 we have expanded from the online site to further help promote and share the works of women photographers; we've gained non-profit status through our sponsors Humble Arts Foundation and have given talks on occasion (such as our panel discussion with Robin Schwartz and Elinor Carucci at Aperture), we have curated a physical show as part of PPOW's Young Curators New Ideas II this past August and in June we were able to create the WIP-Lightside Individual Project Grant in the amount of $3,000 through the generous efforts of Lightside Photographic in NYC. It's been a truly great experience in so many ways. Make sure to visit in the very near future for information about how to submit for the 2010 WIP-LTI / Lightside Project Grant.

26 Years out of a death row sentence, 2010, © Amy Elkins

NP: What’s next?

AE: I have a few new projects that I am excited about starting, though they are coming along slowly. While attempting to practice patience, I'm interested in seeing how they will contribute to or play off of what I've been working on with other projects. I am going to continue working on current projects, especially Black is the Day Black is the Night and hopefully along the way I can find time to go through older works and revisit previous editing decisions. Often I feel things get lost along the way. I'd of course like to continue making work, showing work and traveling.. though a grant or residency would be amazing. For now, I am excited about being in a group portrait photography show at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain this coming June in Montreal.

Thank you very much, Amy! To see more information:
Women in Photography