Sunday, August 2, 2009

Daniel Gordon Interviews Elaine Stocki

Back in June, I posted some of Elaine Stocki's beautiful and disquieting photographs. Although the images themselves are quite revealing, I was left wanting more of a personal explanation from Stocki regarding her process and philosophy. As it turns out, Too Much Chocolate delivered exactly what I was looking for. Daniel Gordon's interview with Stocki addresses both.

"Jeff, 2009"
© Elaine Stocki

Daniel Gordon: I think the first time I saw one of your pictures was on the invitation card for the 2009 Yale MFA thesis show, and I was immediately transfixed by what I saw. If asked, I don’t think I could tell you where these people were or what they were doing but I couldn’t get the image out of my mind! The color and the light are great, but the expressive faces were extraordinary. To me it felt a bit like they were either watching a performance, or they were a part of one–do you ever think of your work in these terms? If not, how DO you imagine the activity that they are doing? Do you have something particular in mind?

Elaine Stocki: Yeah, there is definitely an interest in the performance, or, to use the term very loosely, the ‘happening’. I like what you said about the people in the photograph either being part of a performance or watching one because in that image I think it’s both things… they are performing, but they also seem to be taking sincere pleasure in watching each other perform as well. I was seeking some sort of genuine expression of emotion in what is a contrived situation. I wanted to bring people’s heads together, and I mean that in a literal way. It sounds really simplistic, but the desire is to see something I have not seen before… and a bunch of heads together, men, women, black and white, wasn’t something I had seen in that way. I guess another way of saying this is that the ideas I always get most excited about are always really intuitive and entirely unacademic, because they have the potential to explode into something much more complex in the visual.

DG: I think that your process of improvisation, both in the making of the pictures and in the “happening” of the scene you are shooting gives your audience space to enjoy your pictures in a uniquely visceral, intuitive way. But, I think there are also other levels to your work that you touched on in your last response that deal with issues of race, class, and gender. It feels kind of like your coming at these issues from inside, as opposed to documenting or illustrating it from the outside–do you have any thoughts about how your process reflects your point of view about these topics?

ES: I think that I’m interested in ideas that I have questions about. And the ideas that I had questions about in this body of work were ideas of how to look at race, class and gender in a way that was different from the heaviness of what I had seen before. There is an honesty in wondering about how the world, real and contrived, looks when it is photographed, and I think that that spirit of curiosity comes through in the photographs, so that the work is free of documentation with an answer already in mind. Given that I am a young white woman, and given the history of both performance and the history of the portrayal (photographic and otherwise) of African-Americans in the United States, the fact that I photograph African-American men could be viewed as problematic from the get-go. Good work that deals with class, gender and race is rife with wit and wickedness. I aspire to that. I have no interest in weighty morality or somberness. New images of social culture are not made with that burden on your shoulders.

DG: Where do you find your subjects and what is your relationship like with them?

ES: Initially adverts, either put up at the library, or on craigslist. And because I was always interested in groups, most of the people that I photographed introduced me to other people that they knew. So, in large part the people that I worked with had ties to each other: friends, family, colleagues. My relationship to most was limited to the photo shoot. A few people that I took pictures of over the course of two years I’ve developed relationships with that extend past the photographic.

DG: Formally, your pictures are very interesting to me. They feel wild and fantastical, but at the same time they are firmly rooted in reality. Can you talk a little bit about how you formed this visual style?

ES: I suppose that trying to find new ways of photographing people is directly linked to formal concerns. I was interested in how groups of people could fill a (most often) square frame. A lot of my photographs are not taken straight on eye level, so yeah bodily proportions begin to be skewed.

I’m also excited about how the tools of the medium can be used to exploit content. So using high-speed film on a sunny day really ramps up the color saturation, and perhaps that, in conjunction with what is happening in the photograph, lends itself to a reading that is ‘wild or fantastical’. The platinum prints do something similar with a technique that is ‘handmade’, and the use of a printing style that has been traditionally used for very non-contemporary subject matter. How does that clash with the content when I use it today? I find these questions really exciting…I’m intrigued by how the tools of the medium can be used in a symbiotic or antagonistic relationship with content. There is the potential for a real push/pull when it becomes part of the message.