Monday, June 23, 2014

13 conversations with Missy Prince

Missy Prince is a photographer based in Portland. 

BA: How was the darkroom? What did you find there?

MP: It was productive. Made some nice 16x20s. I found Bruce.

Bruce was there?

He was coming in as I was going out.

I see some similarity in your styles. Do you?

Absolutely. I always think when I look at his photos, "I would have taken that." 

Maybe what I see is just exotic. "I wouldn't have taken that." But I wish I had.

He said people mixed up our photos at the Camerawork show. They thought mine were his.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

A good thing. I feel a kinship with him. Probably no coincidence that I am drawn to him as a person just as much as I am drawn to his photos. There is some kind of connection between the content of his photos and his personality.

How would you describe his personality? 

Well, hmmm. There is a darkness around him, like someone in a Raymond Carver novel. He tells great stories. He is cynical and sarcastic but also very nice.

Yeah, cynical is a good description. Do you see that in yourself?

Most definitely. But I try to balance it with patience and seeing many sides of stories.

Which type of person makes better photographs? A cynic or an optimist?

I don't think it's that cut and dried. If I had to pick one I'd go with optimist because it takes a degree of hope to keep doing anything, but as a cynical optimist I wouldn't pick one over the other. I think both qualities combined makes for interesting photographs. 

Hm. Do you think your photos are cynical?

There might be some cynical notes, but I would hope that there is more wonder than anything else. Appreciation for things in the world. I have become less cynical over the years, I think.

That's what I see too. And actually I see that in Bruce's too. Talking to him you encounter a much different perspective than what he portrays photographically. Your photos seem not very cynical at all. Some of your landscapes have a true sense of wonder. Like, holy shit what planet have I found myself on?

Good. I would hope that because photography is a sanctuary for me I wouldn't drag all the everyday bullshit into it. 

Ron and I are blasting Metallica right now because we are pissed about our neighborhood turning into a yuppie playground. It somehow helps.

When did you first get into Metallica?

I listened to them when I delivered pizzas in high school.

Good pizza delivery music. When they're delivered using Yanni, service is delayed by at least 30%. Metallica keeps the pies moving.

Yanni pizzas are doughy and undercooked.

Many photographers I talk to are heavily into music. And I think you are too. 

Yep, you've seen my record collection. I own more records than anything else. 

I think there's some connection there between music and photography. Each activity focuses exclusively on one sense. And there is some aspect of collection and packrat activity too. Amassing a pile of...stuff. Do you view your records as a sort of curated collection? So that the collection as a whole takes on some meaning in addition to enjoyment found in any particular record? And what will happen eventually to your record archive?

I do see it as a library, a representation of my taste over the years, my listening history, and my listening intentions. I amassed a lot of random records during the years I worked at a record store. Many have been resold but some remain even though they never quite gelled, because one day when I'm looking for something I haven't heard a million times I'll put one on and it'll hook me. It's partly Ron's collection too, so there are a few records I don't care about, like Humble Pie Live. And there are records I'm glad are in there but without his influence might be absent, like every Jimi Hendrix album that ever existed. I do sit and look at the collection as a whole and admire it as a kind of capsule. I don't know what will happen to it. I'd love to know. How long will records be relevant? And when will people stop calling them vinyls?

What's the first band you really hated, then grew to love?

Well, the first genre I hated then loved was country, so maybe Willie Nelson? 

The Willie Nelson light came on for me in the mid 90s. I had a mental block about country for a long while. Then I saw him play live at Clark County Fair. The show was average, but it made me start digging into his archive.

He has a good live presence. I can see how it might have hooked you even a little. A friend of mine is chipping away at my Rush hatred. I listened to 2112 the other day and liked it.

Is that a culturally based hatred? or musical?

More musical. Geddy Lee's voice and the occasional happy flights.

I first listened to Rush stoned living with 4 people in a sort of transient situation. They really clicked for me. But probably a lot of stuff would've at that point.

I have no problem with nerds. That's the Rush cultural stereotype, right? Stoned helps. Oh! Grateful Dead. HATED them, but now appreciate them.

Well you had to be there. Their music isn't really the same outside the shows.

OK. Who is a photographer you first hated, then loved.

I don't think I hated any photographers. I feel indifference to many but don't hate them. 

Hated — That's the wrong word. Whose photography have you made the most transformation to appreciate? Is that more PC? The Willie Nelson of photography?

I think more often the reverse happens. I get into someone then might get sick of them.

So what did you see in the darkroom today? Any surprises?

I saw some tumbleweeds.

Why were they surprising?

They weren't. I didn't see any surprises besides Bruce. It's really clean in there. They threw out a lot of stuff.

No surprises. So why go to the darkroom? I'm asking as someone who spends a day a week in the darkroom.

To feel the pleasure of seeing. The first part is being there and taking the photo.The second part is looking at a print you made of it. That first moment you lay eyes on the print is a real shot in the arm. You are lucky to have that time in the darkroom. 

How do you think it's different than seeing it on computer screen?

The computer has its merits. The backlit screen can do a lot for a photo. But a physical print done well has a richness and depth. Of course, the tactile quality can't be beat. Even if you can't touch it the physicality establishes more of a personal relationship.

Do you listen to music in the darkroom? I love listening to music in the dark. It's just one sense with no other competition. I think photography can be the same way. When you're purely visual and tuned in to making an image, the rest of the world dissolves.

No. When I went to Newspace I did because there was a stereo in there, but there isn't one at U-Develop and I don't want to figure that out. I hate earbuds, so that isn't an option. I tried to use my iPod once and the cord kept getting in my way and annoying me. I would love to hear music filling the room instead of the hum of the processor, the footsteps of the people overhead, and the sound of bamboo roots growing across the ceiling.


Cords bum me out.

How did you first get into photography?

In fits and starts. I convinced my mom to buy me a Pentax SLR kit from JC Penney when I was in high school. I spent many nights in my bedroom setting up weird abstract shots only to be mostly disappointed in the results. I have a few leftovers that I like. That camera got stolen from my first apartment and many years passed before I got another one. My friend Tom, who came to the Lightleak meeting at George's, got me into it. He had an XA and took great off the cuff photos. That inspired me to try. I got an XA around 2003 and it went from there.

When did the hook really sink? So you knew there was no going back? I take that back. You can always go back.

When I started seeing things I liked in my own photos. I remember a particular roll that I got back that had about five photos on it that looked like "real" photos to me. The sense of growth I got was very invigorating. I wanted to make more even better photos.

Where was that roll from?

I had just come off an eight month Polaroid bender. I think I had had it with the cost of the film and the restraint that results from it. I went for a walk around my neighborhood with my XA and shot with wild abandon. I shot like I didn't care.  It was very liberating. And I got results. That was the end of my affair with the Polaroid for a while.

Punk rock photography.


But it sounds like eventually you grew to care about those photos. What were you doing wrong in the earlier days that you've now changed? What advice would you now give your 2003 self?

I don't think I was doing any one wrong thing, I was just fishing, trying anything. I guess I would try to make my 2003 self better understand that the camera sees more literally than the eye. It seems obvious now, but it took me a while to learn that everything I know about a scene won't be apparent in the image. I think the mystery of how the camera translates what you see was a big draw in the beginning. I'd also tell myself to say fuck it and get in people's space more. I'm a little bolder now. 

Sorry, just found a shard of glass in my hand. I was trying to figure out where it came from. My beer bottle...

Evidence for accidents. Do accidents exist?....and if so, should we pay attention?  Bad question. Accidental question. Let me rephrase that...Are you religious?

I am not religious. I am philosophical. It could have been uglier. I could have swallowed it.

Aren't your parents religious? I'm just guessing from what you've told me and seeing the Jesus photo above your dad's head in that one photo of yours. But if that's off-limits I understand.

I don't mind talking about them. They are pretty religious, but they don't push it on anyone. I used to be more critical of their religious nature, especially in the context of religion screwing up the world and limiting free thought, but now I just see it as an acceptable personal choice for them. They are very sweet people who would never intentionally cause anyone distress. They don't do much, so it's a source of interaction. My dad sings in the choir. His bass tone can penetrate anything. 

I think religious people, or maybe I should say spiritual people, might take better photos. Because to take a good photo requires a sense of faith or optimism which purely rational souls might not have. But I could be full of shit. Thoughts?

I think there is faith involved in reason. No reason is air tight. Also, you can be optimistic without being religious or spiritual.

True. But with those folks it's ingrained. 

I dunno, maybe not.  Maybe religion strengthens their ability to be optimistic and without religion they would spiral into darkness. Optimism merely requires emotion and thought.

But I think there's some sense of optimism that's essential in making good photos. Like, you take the photos and you have this faith that somehow it will be more than what you saw. Without that faith you never get past square one.

Definitely. Otherwise, why try unless you are a complete masochist.

That's where the accidents creep in. Because obviously they add elements beyond what you could see. Faith in accidents is key, even though they don't exist. 

The accidents are miracles. I love them. I hope for them.

Didn't you major in Philosophy?

I did.

So you're used to aimless rambling over nothing practical. Good. 

In addition to faith you need the willingness to fail miserably and take stupid photos.

But with most photos in the world I don't think there is any faith. They're just taken out of fealty to reality. X = X. There's no sense that X can equal Y too.

If that's what you're into, that's fine. Fealty to reality is not wrong, but it can be boring.

When you're out with a camera, what catches your eye? If you can generalize?

I don't know if I can answer that. It depends. There are the things I always notice, then there is the next level, when a scene presents itself and everything stops and it's all you see. If you're lucky you get to take a photo of it. In a way some of those missed opportunities are etched into my mind more vividly because I don't have a photo. I can think of a few that happened in the past few months. It's sad in a way, but it's also an exercise in acceptance. I managed to avoid particulars in that answer.

What are the things you always notice?

Oh...Monte Carlos and El Caminos, things that are rough around the edges. Details that are some kind of evidence of the way people live. I hate my car fixation.

Is that a Shore thing? I listened to the MAN interview with Shore and he was very conscious of including cars in his work because he knew they would most easily date the photos. Most other things would change gradually but he knew cars were a fashion item and could quickly identify the year. So he consciously included them.

I thought it was an innocent incidental factor.

Who knows. He may have made it all up later to explain his earlier self.

I'm probably influenced by Shore. But I love cars. I love movies about cars. Two lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, etc. I grew up watching TV in the seventies. There was a car chase in my living room every night.

So old cars are one thing you're drawn to. But many of your photos don't have cars yet they still have your sense of setting and framing and I'm not sure what it is. Nostalgia? Mood? How do you decide what to photograph?

Yeah. I've been trying to include more modern cars, but they are so unexciting. If the scene is good enough it shouldn't matter right? It's one of the things I'm working on. However, why should I pass up a cool car if it excites me? I am lucky that I am excited about things. Some people aren't so lucky.

That's what I'm getting at. What excites you when you're out looking for photos?

I hope it's not nostalgia. I prefer mood. I can't pin point it. Can you? That's kind of the thing that makes it so special. The surprise. I mean the surprise factor is what makes it special.

It's easier for me to pinpoint later. I can look at photos and say, that works, that doesn't. But before shooting the photo it's far less clear. And that's the moment I'm most curious about.

Exactly. I take photos, then later I can look at them and draw lines through them.

What future do you envision for your photos? Is someone going to care for them?

I ask myself that question every time I go into the darkroom.

Hold on...cranking up Metallica...That's a big burden. Every time you print you gotta think about legacy? Is that just part of getting old? Not that you're old. I mean "older". 

Not part of getting older. I feel like getting older has been a good thing. I am becoming more solid as I age. More grounded perhaps.

But you're thinking about where these prints will wind up, as you print them? Because I know I am.

I mean it's so expensive to make big prints and they are mostly just going into boxes. I just sarcastically ask myself why am I doing it? The answer is because I want to. No, the questioning why I print is part of being poor. I don't think much about legacy when I'm printing because who the hell knows. I've imagined all possible outcomes ranging from rotting in a landfill to ending up in a museum. 

I do. I've been selling prints to pay for my latest hankering to see my favorite prints large. I'm making an archive.

I think that's the ultimate preservation system. If you sell prints or give them away or whatever, if they are out there in the world, it will be very hard to extinguish your legacy. Of course it will be hard to organize too. But it's the grassroots version of the donor/collector world. One primary reason that world exists is to create physical legacy. This can be achieved through other methods cheaply. I have less faith in digital legacy. Which is a paradox, because 99% of people encounter my work digitally, not physically.

Yeah, I'm at about 98.5%. I'm a big fan of giving prints away. I have boxes of prints and proofs that I would love to have people come over and dig through and take out of my apartment. 

So each large print you make you print one for the archive?

One always goes into the archive.

Darkroom prints vary. Do you keep the best one for yourself or send it out to the world?

Best one goes to me. 

You want to please you more than others.

No, I want to please others as much as I have pleased myself. But the most important thing is that I am pleased because I am me. But even my opinion of best varies. Sometimes I think I see a difference when I'm printing, then when I get home I can't tell the difference. That's why I mark on the backs as I go. You can fool yourself into thinking one is better when it doesn't matter. I keep the best, but I usually make "the best" then make more based on the same specs. Those get released to the world.

And what happens eventually to that big pile of prints? What do you expect? And what is your best-case scenario?

Ron keeps saying one day when darkrooms are extinct people will want them because they will be archaic fetishes. My best case scenario is that each one will find a person who is excited to have it. That's probably the ideal. 

Wait. You want to divide the stash? Isn't it better as a collection? It seems like it's building into something. And then to be dismantled... I don't know. 

You mean my copies? The archive? Ron will open a roadside attraction museum.

Do you consider the physical prints to be the best or most meaningful expression of your work?


What do your parents think of your photos?

They love them.

Do they like the same ones you do. Or do their favorites sometimes surprise you?

Their favorites never surprise me. They are pretty obvious "good ones." Dramatic landscapes, skies reflected in water, etc. My mom is a painter so she has an appreciation.

What does she paint? 

She is really good at recreating what she sees.

Have you told her that a camera can record scenes more faithfully than paint, at a fraction of the time and cost?

She hasn't painted in years and I've been trying to get her to get back into it. I suggested she paint some of my photos and she loves the idea, but she isn't motivated enough.

I'm imagining the Tumblr stream now. Your photos matched with your mom's interpretation of them. Can we make that happen?

I wish she would do it. It would be so great. That Tumblr is itching to happen. She claims she has no imagination. She finds images she likes in magazines or wherever and takes a small part of it, blows it up, and paints it. It's not recognizable as a copy of anything.

If she has no imagination she should be a photographer. The world imagines stuff for you.

Then she would have to leave her house.

So that's not part of her world at this point?

Her world is her house and the grocery store and church. I guess you could get a good photographic body of work from those three places. I'd be interested to see what she came up with.

Sudek worked very locally. From his yard. And Paul Strand. 

I don't know Sudek. Just Googled him. There is a cool photo of a room in a cathedral filled to the rafters with books.

The Poet of Prague. Part of your modus operandi seems the opposite. You choose far-off locations and immerse in them.

And there is a connection there. I grew up with parents who never did anything. I begged them to go places to no avail. Even the beach, which was just a few minutes away. Maybe that's the root of my wanderlust.

Are you doing the Grid Project too?

I'm not, but I wish I could. I don't have enough time lately to take and print my usual photos. The past few grids looked very promising. Scott was in the darkroom printing some great ones that he got from a church service in The Mississippi neighborhood.

Every grid is promising. That's why it's so fun. I was going to ask how shooting strange locales compares to the grid. But now I can't. Do you think you need to be in an unfamiliar setting to make the photos you make?

I don't need to, but I like to. I'll take photos anywhere, but it's really exciting to go somewhere else and do it.

Where to next? For your next trip?

I'm not sure. I'm not planning any trips because I'm saving for a work truck. It's one or the other. I'd like to go to Mississippi this year, but I'm not sure it's going to happen. There is one specific place in Holly Springs I feel the urgent need to revisit before it's gone.

Where will it go?

It will probably get torn down when the man who owns it dies, and he's getting up there.

OK, darkrooms, records, film, old cars... there's definitely a retro theme running through your work and activities. I won't call it nostalgia but it's in your photos too I think. They look like they're from the 1970s. 

The seventies thing is an aesthetic. I don't want to go back there. It just looks cool. It catches my eye and I can't deny it.

And your concern for Holly Springs is I think related. A sense of looking back. I know all photography is rear-view vision. But yours more than most. Does the future scare you?

No. And I wouldn't call my interest in records and film retro. Those things are from my era. It's what I started with and the world changed around me. I changed as well. I have CDs, an iPod, and two digital cameras. But my heart is with the other stuff cause I think it's more fun. 

Why is it more fun? 

Because it's a hands on process. And I won't lie that it's fun to traffic in obscurity. The future is interesting to me. I like to watch it unfold. I'm not a luddite or a curmudgeon. Incidentally, United Pressing in Nashville, the biggest record plant in the US, is planning on doubling it's output. So there.

What does traffic in obscurity mean? You mean part of the appeal to film/darkrooms is their unpopularity? Or are you referring to something else?

The obscurity is incidental, a bonus quality that has emerged around something I'm already into. I lucked into being in obscurantist. It's fun continuing a tradition that not everyone partakes in. I'm sure you feel that pleasure yourself, right?

Yes. It's been fun to see film become sort of an antiquarian pursuit. A silver gelatin print nowadays takes on a special significance that it probably didn't have 20 years ago. Just because they aren't as common anymore.

What are your photos about? At their core?

I wonder this, but all I can say is without the element of fantasy in my life I am not happy. It doesn't matter what form it takes. Reading novels, playing music, painting, designing gardens, traveling, daydreaming. Photography helps me go somewhere else. Plain and simple. What you see when you look at my photos is largely a mind needing to wander.

They are about my mind wandering into places it can fantasize about. But they are also about wanting to show someone (whoever) places I think are interesting.

So you make up stories to go with your photos? Or what is the fantasizing aspect

It's hazy. It's just a feeling. I'll put it another way. I've always wished I could write short stories better than I can. My photos are the product of a frustrated writer. I can only hint at stories. The viewer has to fill in the blanks

You're a writer?

I'm a dabbler.

What about Tumblr or Flickr reactions to your photos? Do they ever surprise you or show you something about a photo you hadn't considered? Or what do you get out of posting to those places?

Yes. Sometimes I know when a photo is going to be a hit or a miss and why, and sometimes there are occasional unexpected reactions, which is great because it makes me reexamine my assumptions about what makes a photo interesting. 

I used to get a lot more from posting my photos to Flickr and Tumblr. The feedback and the sense of community in the early days of Flickr were an indispensable source of encouragement and excitement. Now it feels like an empty routine to post to Flickr. I hate it but I still do it. Tumblr still excites me because there is more inspiring work there, but there is a disconnect without so much commentary.

Tumblr seems like a product of NOW. There's no time to comment or dig in much. It's just look, note, move on... I was never on Flickr so I can't compare to early days.

Yeah, Tumblr fits a busy lifestyle.

Maybe you should post a photo that's completely whack. A digital composite with ugly colors. Just to get a reaction.

Nothing I do would surprise my parents. My mom would probably love whack ugly abstract photos. When I was a kid she bragged to people about my "weirdness."

Yeah. You were  a weird kid? How? That one there. Future artist. Probably will move to Portland. Watch out.

I was weird enough for Mississippi. The usual stuff, crazy hair, crazy music, crazy ideas.

Alienation is a powerful creative force. Especially in photography. I suspect most  good photographers self-identified as weird kids. I took great pride in my weirdness.

Yes, it was a useful revelation. In many ways certain qualities that might have been negative became an asset once I realized it was an option to just be weird.

Alec Soth spent much of his childhood wandering in the woods with imaginary friends. Weird.

I did a lot of woods wandering. I lived by I-10 and the woods there were filled with bum camps and trash. I loved coming across that stuff. It made my imagination soar. When I was five my best imaginary friend was The Six Million Dollar Man. 

Yeah but wasn't he sort of real? 

Oh he was definitely real. I remember one day my mom made me so mad about something that I wanted to cry, but I didn't let myself because I didn't want Steve Austin to think I was a sissy. I was hanging out with him on my swingset, trying to keep my cool.

I got a signed photo from him once. Lee Majors personal message to Blake Andrews. Why didn't I keep it? I would frame that thing.

I've been thinking about your mom losing the motivation to paint. That's sort of a scary prospect because I think it can strike anytime without warning. Right now I feel a strong urge to make photos but maybe it will go away. And then what? It's hard to generate that feeling externally. And it makes you wonder where it comes from. I'm not sure if I have a question. But a growing sense that you need to shoot now while you feel it. Because it can go away.

Yes, I think about the possibility of reduced drive. Whenever I go through periods of not taking photos I wonder is this it? It's usually the result of lack of time rather than lack of interest. But I think it can sneak up on you through neglect. Habit has a degree of sustaining power.

Is that what happened to your mom?

I suspect neglect is a factor in her case. She also fell out of her creative surroundings. The group of friends she met in her art classes kind of dissolved so maybe she was no longer surrounded by people who inspired her. I try to pep talk her into getting the paints out. She was also into pottery. I'd love to set up a studio for her and say, here, now you HAVE to do it.

You've been posting XA stuff recently. Why did you go back to that camera?

I had to finish up a roll I still had in the XA from my Arizona trip. Speaking of dry periods.

Arizona. Dry periods. Ha. How do you shoot differently with the XA vs. the Mamiya?

When I look at a scene I know instantly whether it's an XA or a Mamiya shot. The Mamiya is more sober while the XA is dreamy or spontaneous. The XA feels more appropriate for less formal type shots. I don't think it has to be that way, but that's how I end up using them. I keep meaning to take more XA-like shots with the Mamiya. I'd probably be happy with the results.

Chris Bennett told me the only way to do it is to leave the XA at home.

Have you tried that?

No, I'm dependent on the XA. It hurts to think about it.

So it sounds as if you've shifted to Mamiya as your primary voice. 

I take the Mamiya more seriously. The XA is kind of a venting tool.

I've got the same equation. I've always shot 35 mm b/w, but accompanied by a continually evolving sequence of secondary cameras. Noblex, Holga, Diana, and recently the Instax. I shoot one style w/ b/w film. The style I know well and which is really me. And with the secondary cameras I'm looking for something completely different.

I love your Instax style.

Thanks. I need to feel my way with that camera so it's less predictable. Which is what I need for balance. You've gotta have accidents. Or inject a sense of that artificially. Or else it's hard to move forward. For me at least.

It seems to me that you're already there. I feel like there are more surprises in your instant shots. I'm surprised more anyway.

That's slightly distressing to hear. But OK. 

I figured that might sound bad, but it's not. Maybe it's because I respond more to the colors and the different layers of action.

I shot a Mamiya 7 for a few years and could never overcome the predictability of it. The photos were amazingly rich but they didn't surprise me much. It just wasn't me I guess.

Yeah, Mamiya has a static quality. That's why I need 35mm around.

What do the digital shooters use for that balance?


Probably artificial pharmaceuticals.

Produced in Photoshop.

I think what we're circling around is the fact you need to stretch your eyes a bit. If you fall into one way of seeing it can become static. So a few cameras, or drugs, or whatever it takes to stay visually limber, is helpful.

In photography and in life.

Maybe that's my problem with Instagram or digital in general. The possibilities are seemingly so abundant with the post-photo filters and controls that maybe you lose a bit of natural stretchiness. You tend to lean on the technology instead of the eyes. Then again, leaning on a camera like the Instax is probably not much different.

Post processing only offers so much, though. Content and form still have to be there.

What's your favorite photo show you've seen recently? Either in Portland or maybe elsewhere.

Bryan Schutmaat's Grays The Mountain Sends show at Newspace was hands down the best thing I've seen lately.

Did you ever connect with him later?

No. I think a lot of folks were demanding his time. Maybe we'll run into each other one day.

I was going to ask you how he's dealing with the gush of attention lately. But I think the fact you didn't connect answers that question.

It's probably safe to say he's delighted but overwhelmed.

(All photos above by Missy Prince)


BH said...


George LeChat said...

I really like her pictures. She has her own style.


Faulkner said you were don with the Missy interview, so I had to read it.
Always love to see her work. We should start a fund to send her to Mississippi.

jannx said...


"keep rockin' the free world"!


Unknown said...

Fascinating conversation. Love to see the creative process discussed and examined by practicing photographers.

Patrick Dodds said...

Thanks for this. Also:
"I suspect most good photographers self-identified as weird kids."

Matt Kowal said...

What do the digital shooters use for that balance?

I use my phone+vscocam as a compliment to the dslr. Reminds me of Polaroids w/ a touch of post-production.

Love Missy's work. Thanks for the interview.