What photographers do you most admire? What inspires you about their work?
"I can remember the moment I knew I wanted to be a photographer, and it was seeing Sally Mann’s work on the cover of the New York Times Magazine when I was in college. That image and the ones inside were so seductive and wondrous in their silky, almost liquid, appearance, and fantastical, yet quotidien, depiction of childhood, that I fell in love immediately. What I know now is that her work looks like it does because of the camera and film that she uses (and of course how she uses them). The view camera allows you to control focus in an unparalleled manner – either so that you can correct for distortion and attain a depth of field that goes far beyond what humans can focus on, or so that you can selectively choose planes of focus that create the sense of being in a dream – and the film is so fine-grained that you can see more detail than is visible to the human eye and makes all surfaces seem like they’re covered in the finest satin. The landscape work that came later is my favorite, and is a clear influence on my practice. What I learned from Mann is that you can take a seemingly dull and overdone subject – landscape – and make images that are so haunting that the viewer can sink into them and stay there for hours. And isn’t that the goal of art – to make you look?
Other photographers I count as influences are: Man Ray (and other surrealist photographers) – I love both the imagery and the sense of playfulness and invention; Julia Margaret Cameron, Carleton Watkins, and other 19th century photographers who were both extraordinary artists and innovators in the medium; Francesca Woodman, whose life was cut tragically short, and yet who created an amazing body of work that is both haunting and playful; Irving Penn, whose sensitivity and formal sensibility is unparalleled; Chris McCaw, who is a friend of mine who somehow has managed to innovate in the medium in a manner that still harnesses the history of photography, and whose work is absolutely gorgeous; and I’m sure there are many more I’m completely forgetting."
When you are taking a picture, how do you create a narrative?
"I wouldn’t say that my goal is ever to create a narrative, specifically, but rather to follow a conceptual thread. I am never the photographer who walks around observing things. I am not spontaneous or improvisational and, in fact, consider myself to be a bit of a control freak when it comes to my work. I always work within a series, and I construct an explicit project with concrete parameters – which is not to say that there is no flexibility, but rather that I need to set up strict rules within which I can work freely. My process is usually thus: I open up the space in my head to welcome new ideas, and then start paying attention to them. Frequently an archetypal image will lodge itself in there, and I will try to figure out what it means to me, unpacking the symbology and testing it for expansiveness. I am a lifelong procrastinator, so I generally need a deadline in order to start – a grant proposal, a portfolio review – and then I begin to construct a project from that seed of an image. And I should note that I absolutely need the structure of a project with a strong conceptual framework in order to make images, meaning that, if I happen to make a good photograph simply because I observed something interesting or beautiful – but it isn’t part of a larger series or idea – then it doesn’t 'count.' I don’t trust it, and it never sees the light of day."
What is your relationship to the editing/darkroom process?
"Interestingly (and tellingly, I guess), I understood this question to be asking about choosing which images to highlight rather than editing in Photoshop. Alas, I am a dinosaur. I’m attached to the darkroom, and have no interest in making artwork from digital images. That said, I am not personally a great printer, and I have been working with a man who prints my work for exhibition for about a decade. Most of the 'stuff' that is done to my images happens in camera and/or on the film, and my prints are pretty straight. But, going back to my original misinterpretation of your question, I do very strongly believe in the editing process when it comes to picking and sequencing images – especially since I work in series. If you embrace the fact that the photographer has the ability to control meaning with every decision he/she makes, then exactly which images are selected for viewing, and what order they are viewed in, can manipulate what the viewer sees (as in: understands/thinks/feels). It’s like poetry or music where rhythm, pacing, and meter shape perception."
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© Jessica Kaufman