Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Conversation with Jennifer Ray

Fruit, Dentures, and Viagra, 2008, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

This week we're proud to showcase Jennifer Ray as part of our Conversations series. Jennifer's series titled, Go Deep Into The Woods, investigates the human presence after sexual encounters in public wooded areas. She used information gathered from online communities to trace the aftermath of sexual encounters. These photographs remind me of the 1970s infrared photographs of Japanese photographer, Kohei Yoshiyuki, where he followed people into the park and caught them in the act. Jennifer's take is not of the act itself, but of the evidence that remains after a seemingly private act in a public space.

Under the Willow, 2008, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself.

Jennifer Ray: Growing up in North Carolina I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself in the woods. My mom had a rule that my brother and I had to spend a certain amount of time outdoors every day. We were supposed to stay within earshot of the house, which is actually pretty far, so I had a lot of autonomy. I used to climb this one particular tree – it was the taller than all the others – and I would just sit up there for hours at a time, swaying in the breeze and watching the animals go on with their business down below. I grew up feeling connected to the natural world and experiencing it on a really intimate level.

Entwine, 2008, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

Although I loved much about North Carolina I didn't like the politics, so I left to do my undergrad at Oberlin College in Ohio. It’s a liberal, freethinking sort of place - very different from my hometown - and I came away from it with a profoundly different understanding of the world. It uprooted some of my most deeply held assumptions – beliefs that were so ingrained that I didn’t even realize they were beliefs. In particular, Oberlin introduced me to new ways of thinking about sexuality and gender, which has had a direct impact on my current project, Go Deep Into the Woods. Nothing was taboo there, and my courses, conversations, and experiences chipped away at calcified ideas I had about what is natural, and by extension, moral. Beliefs about these issues are vitally important, affecting what behavior we criminalize, what rights we grant, and who we persecute.

Impression, 2008, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

Tommy, 2009, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

How did you discover photography?

JR: I think I’ve always been an observer, possibly a bit of a voyeur, so when I first picked up a camera on a family vacation when I was twelve, photography felt natural to me. I photographed obsessively after that, and my dad taught me how to use my grandfather’s old manual camera, a Canon AE-1. During my first semester in college I took a photography class on a whim, and everything fell into place. I had intended to major in politics, but art appealed to me in that I didn't have to locate myself within one particular ideology and it allowed me to respond to the world on a personal level. I had an amazing professor, Pipo Nguyen-Duy, who is still a great friend and mentor to me, and who taught me to take photography seriously as an art and as a means of communication. He always told us to make ‘seductive’ images, and I still think about that every time I make a picture.

Shelf Fungus, 2008, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

JR: I’ve had a lot of crazy experiences while shooting: I’ve been taken into police custody on suspicion of planting a bomb, I’ve chatted with undercover cops, and I’ve paid a prostitute when I inadvertently scared away her customers. I’m a boring, nice girl from the South with a rock collection, and I love that photography gives me a reason to be impulsive and brave and maybe a bit reckless. Those experiences fuel my work, even if they don’t show up in it explicitly.

Totem, 2008, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

I want to make pictures that make people a bit uncomfortable. When I’m shooting, I often know that I’m on the right track if I’m uncomfortable myself. I choose subject matter that forces me to confront my own assumptions, and my attitude toward my subjects tends to shift over the course of a project as a result of my experiences. I try to reveal things that many people are afraid to look at; by doing so, I hope to coax out a moment of self-reflexion from the viewers.

Iced Over Porn, 2009, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

The act of photographing is a means of learning about something; it’s an excuse to poke around in something that isn’t your business. I try to keep my eyes open, literally and metaphorically, and notice when I see things out in the world that strike a note of resonance with the things I’ve heard on the radio or read in the newspaper. It’s incredibly important to me to make work that contributes something to the cultural dialogue, and I hope that my work is both complicated and engaging.
Beneath the Cottonwoods, 2009, from Go Deep Into The Woods, © Jennifer Ray

NP: How do your projects come about?

JR: I constantly explore, and my projects are always a result of my natural curiosity; they are a way of processing the world I find myself in. I began Marginal shortly after I moved to Chicago and was a bit taken aback by the rough city I encountered. I found these remnants of lives lived on the edges and margins of Detroit, Gary, and Chicago. In a strange way, the places I photographed reminded me of my childhood spent in the woods, of finding comfort in the crook of a tree or in the protective obscurity of dense foliage. I think it's possible to photograph things that are foreign to you without being a tourist, and the pictures in this project are a record of my subjective experiences and efforts to understand, on a personal level, what I saw.

Go Deep Into the Woods
follows quite a similar framework and emerged directly from observations I made while working on Marginal. I was wandering around a park that I had never been to and started to notice condoms and porn scattered around the bases of several trees. I did a little research and realized that I had stumbled onto a cruising ground, a place where men went in search of semi-anonymous sex. The Larry Craig scandal was fresh in my mind (the Idaho Senator arrested for 'toe-tapping' in an airport bathroom stall), and cruising brought up questions about sexuality that I didn't know how to respond to. As it often does, the ambivalence I initially felt motivated me to pursue the subject.

Blue Hanger, 2007, from Marginal, © Jennifer Ray

I’m just about to finish my MFA at Columbia College, and I’ve learned to be disciplined in my approach to building projects. One of my mentors, Dawoud Bey, often advises students to stand in one spot and dig a deep hole, rather than digging a bunch of little holes. It’s easy to start a project and then abandon it when you reach an impasse, but you get somewhere much more interesting if you can stay with it for a while. I can’t say that I’ve always done a great job of applying that advice - I tend to get restless - but it’s something I always keep in the back of my mind.

Frosty Suitcases, 2007, from Marginal, © Jennifer Ray

NP: What’s next?

I’m three weeks away from finishing grad school and I’m both thrilled and terrified! Work from Go Deep will be up in several exhibitions in Chicago in the next few weeks including New Insight at Art Chicago, New American Landscape at Las Manos Gallery, and my thesis exhibition at Glass Curtain Gallery. I’ve got a list of projects that I haven’t had the time to work on, and I can’t wait to get started on them. The end of grad school brings a lot of things I’m not looking forward to, like student loan bills, but I’m dreaming about the freedom to do exactly what I want with myself, at least until the money runs out.

Mattress and Pillow, 2007, from Marginal, © Jennifer Ray

Thank you Jennifer! For more information, please visit

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