Wednesday, March 18, 2015

No Medium But Experience

—A chat with Stacy Kranitz and Missy Prince:

Blake: Stacy, I know you grew up in Kentucky but that's all I know about your earlier history. How did you get into photography?

Stacy: I was born in Kentucky but I grew up in Tennessee, Florida, California and Oregon. I was very interested in documenting things from an early age. I was obsessed with Harriet The Spy and would fill notebooks with observations about my friends and the neighbors on my street. I got my first camera from my grandmother for my 16th birthday.

B: Where did you live in Oregon? (Missy's in Portland. I'm in Eugene)

S: Yes, I was thinking about my time in Oregon when I realized you both live there. When I was 16 I was sent to a emotional growth boarding school in the Ochoco National Forest. I lived there for two years and two months. The school has since been closed by the state of Oregon for abuse of children.

B: What's the story there? Emotional growth boarding school?

S: It is a whole industry of survival wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding schools. Parents sign over the rights of their child and these schools can do what ever they want. Many of the people running these programs are untrained and so you have a lot of weird experimenting going on. There were 60 of us stuck in the woods, 9 hours of group therapy a week and lots of weird bioenergetic workshops and labor projects.

B: So you were there against your will? Why did your parents send you there?

S: Yes, I was taken there by an escort who handcuffed me in the back of a car. There was a lot of abuse in my house and social services pulled my brother out of school one day to interview him about our home life. This scared my parents and so they found a place they could put me until I was 18.

B: Wow. Sorry to hear that.

S: It is okay. It was a long time ago. One time the school put 8 of us in a van and we drove to Eugene, Oregon. We had to listen to Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack the whole way there

B: That's totally bizarre. I was just listening to that last night. My son is learning another song by Philip Glass on piano. What about your grandmother? What was she like and why did you give you a camera?

S: My grandmother was wealthy and believed in education. She paid for my undergraduate education. This was a remarkable thing. We were not close but I think she was very formative in creating opportunities for me to learn. She passed away this year. I think we should move away from sad stuff so I don't start crying.

B: Maybe I'm twisting things but I can't help comparing emotional growth boarding school to some of the communities you've embedded with for photo projects. A small isolated tribe with undercurrents of misbehavior. Was that a root of later explorations?

S: I think my childhood is at the root of all of my work. Early on I realized that what we know as right and wrong were not alive in my home. I was drawn to the murky grey area between those imperatives. I am drawn to places that society deems outside of normative parameters. I am drawn to people who might be considered "wrong" but once you get close to them and understand their life you realize that right and wrong don't work as defining the choices people make at all. Certainly my experiences at the school in Oregon were a part of this.

from The Island, Stacy Kranitz

Missy: I'm drawn to the same kind of people, though my background is less chaotic. How did you end up in Isle de Jean Charles?

S: I've lived in Louisiana on and off for a number of years. I read a story about the island in the New York Times many years ago and started visiting. I became very close with a family there, the Chaissons.

B: Maybe this is too personal. Have you ever photographed your own family members?

S: Yes, I photographed my parents a while back but we don't have the easiest time being around each other so the images were kind of awkward.

B: I get along with my family but I don't think I've ever made a good photo of my parents. Missy has, though. Do you think you make better photos when you're at ease around people? You seem to seek out people surrounded by tension. Or seem attracted to it.

S: Yes, I'm drawn to uncomfortable situations, I like contention and I seek it out, sometimes without realizing. I love the Chaissons because they make fun of me, taunt me, give me a hard time. It's not a polite experience when we are together. At any moment I might be yelled at or pantsed. But I feel safe because they are very open and honest about how they feel about me, even when it is not good. I appreciate the transparency of our relationship.

M: I've been there and your series nails the vibe of the place. I got the same treatment from the few people I spoke with. Except Theo, who owns the store.

B: It's weird that you'd feel compelled to photograph people who might reject you. I read you had the same experience when you photographed the German War re-enactors. They were suspicious. Maybe that's a sort of fuel for you. I seem to work the opposite. Antagonism scares me away. What about you, Missy?

M: There was a biker, last name Ledet, who I felt was trying to make me nervous but I thrived off of it as a challenge.

S: Once on the Island I was chased by a woman with a hoe down the street. I was friends with her grandchildren and she was not happy about it. At first I did not get what was happening but then the kids told me to run. So i did. They thought it was so funny. She is screaming at me and they are cracking up. I got in my car and drove to the edge of the island and stopped she came after me with the kids in the car. She jumped out and ripped my shirt, told me to get off the island. I looked over at the kids and they were waving and laughing. Everyone on the Island found out about it and they just laughed.

M: That is the good stuff. It's a very isolated place and they are mistrustful of outsiders for very good reason.

B: I don't know much about the island. That tells me a little bit. But what's the good reason to mistrust? Because outsiders will invade? Or change it?

S: This was maybe my 3rd or 4th visit to the island. I had gotten close to the Grandchildren and they invited me to come on a boat ride so we were all heading back behind the house when the grandmother came out in a rage. I had not yet met the Chaissons. This changed things. I was just a visitor until I met them and got close to the family. It takes time to get close to people and it is reasonable that there is a lot of mistrust in the beginning.

M: It's complicated, but it's basically getting destroyed by the oil industry. It's shrinking quickly and what freshwater there was has become adulterated by saltwater. They can't farm, they can barely fish. The industry wants their land so they can keep raping it. The classic story of Native Americans getting screwed.

B: So Stacy is viewed as an oil rep? Or just a symbol of the mean outer world?

S: I think the island is uncomfortable with mass media. And when they see a camera they think I am with a newspaper that is going to write some story that says they should leave the Island because it is sinking. This is a legitimate concern that I try to be sensitive about. The best thing I know to do is to come back again and again bring pictures and show them what I am doing. That I am interested in depicting the reasons why people would want to stay even when the island is sinking. What is special about this place. Why should we spend government money to save it. Some people will become more comfortable with my presence and others will never be okay with it.

B: This touches on one issue I wonder about looking at your photos: Access. Is that typically how you become involved with insular communities, through one person who gives you entree? Is there typically a level of mistrust of you? Or do you become accepted by the point you begin photographing? The Post-pubescent Manhood project, for example. Did anyone there care you were making them? Or notice or hassle you?

S: It has been different with every project. I usually start by showing up. Sometimes by myself and sometimes with someone who knows someone and can make a proper introduction. I started going to Skatopia 6 years ago. I drove there from New York where I was living at the time. I went with my friend Marisha and we just showed up. Everyone was so kind and open. One of the first people I met there was a young man named Aaron. I fell in love with him at first sight and invited him to visit me in New York. We were together for three years.

B: Which guy is he in the photos?

S: Here is a picture I took when I first met him.

B: He looks comfortable in front of a camera.

S: I am 100% confident he was drunk. But he got sober while we were together.

B: That relates to a comment I read elsewhere (Colin Pantall), that you shot some or all of these photos drunk and/or high? Is that correct?

S: Yes, I like to drink and I like to smoke marijuana. I was high and drunk like everyone else. The problem with being high is that you think everything you shoot is brilliant and it isn't. It took a long time to figure out how to push through that and make good work while I was high. I waste a lot of time looking for things in my camera bag too. That is another downfall and why I do not believe in lens caps.

B: I've shot photos high. They don't usually look this good. What's the secret to making good work while high? How do you filter out the "everything looks good" effect?

M: Blake, I see a shooting while drunk and high workshop in your future.

B: In my past too. Early bird special: sign up now and receive a fifth of Vodka.

S: Yes, there are tricks to learn !!!

B: Antoine D'Gata has written about this some. He is often intoxicated while shooting great photos. I think it's an area of photography that isn't appreciated or discussed much.

S: The main thing is that you must shoot a lot more than you normally would to make up for the fact that you think it is all brilliant. But one of my favorite things is how you get very excited about some mundane detail and find it the most fascinating thing in the world. Sometimes those images are really exciting and different from anything I would ever think to shoot when sober. Sometimes they are just really stupid details of a pile of dirt. But I also think the down time when you are hanging out with people and laughing at stupid jokes to be a really important part of the process.

B: I think Robert Adams must be stoned a lot, judging by his photos. High pile-of-dirt quotient. 

S: Also when he is writing ... I totally see that in his clear cutting series from Oregon.

B: Samaras was on shrooms probably. For Cindy Sherman it was Prozac... Just speculating. What are the tricks to shooting drunk/high? How integral is that aspect to the work? 

S: I don't think my intoxication is integral. It is more a choice that I make because I enjoy getting high and drinking. I do it just as much when I am alone editing pictures late at night. FYI: Also not a very good idea.

M: In some ways the hanging out is more important, because it is direct experience. It is the art and the photos are a byproduct.

S: Yes I agree. They become ephemera of the shared experience.

B: If you are at a big party scene and everyone is drunk/high, that's how you mesh with the scene. If you're the only sober person your photos will not look very involved. It's a bonding thing, I think at least with Skatopia and the Sausage Castle. 

S: You don't need drugs to have that experience and there are plenty of projects where drugs don't factor in as much but with the post-pubescent work I was not sober much.

B: What about Target Unknown? Was that an aspect there too?

from Target Unknown, Stacy Kranitz
S: Drinking was a huge part of the re-enactment scene. The men were drinking all day. But my friend Marisha was with me during most of the project and she doesn't drink at all. I think it is different for everyone.

B: She comes on most of your projects?

S: Marisha and I worked together for many years. Unfortunately, we have not been shooting together for the last three years. This has really bummed me out. 

B: What is their motivation as best as you can understand it? Are they Nazi sympathizers? Or just history buffs? I can't get a handle on it.

S: I see several motivations at play for most of the re-enactors I have met. There are a small number of participants who are affiliated with hate groups but most participants are not interested in politics of hatred. They may have started as American or British re-enactors but find playing the bad guy quite appealing. Some re-enactors are interested in their own German heritage and others were invited to participate through a friend so they just end up at these events to escape their life for a couple days to drink beer and play with guns. 

I recently blacked out from too many drugs while shooting in West Virginia and that was pretty bad. But it was also kind of great for the work because someone picked up my camera and photographed me completely lost inside myself. I have no memory of this and in one of the pictures my eyes are moving in two different directions.

Stacy Kranitz (bottom), Author Unknown

B: Missy, you said hanging out is the actual event and the photos are secondary. That seems like an anti-photography stance. Or maybe a photo-ambiguous stance. Do you really think photos are unimportant compared to life experience?

M: I don't think the photos are unimportant. I usually spend some time with the people I photograph, and I usually come away from it invigorated from the interaction but also excited that  there might be a great photo to come out of it. It's not as satisfying to take a quick snap of someone and move on. It almost seems like cheating to me. I speak only for myself.

B: That's sort of a Devil's advocate question. But photographers might focus too much on finished product. One cool thing about Stacy's projects is that they've pulled her into all these weird scenes and probably created many strong experiences and memories which we an only guess at. So maybe the photos are just a relatively unimportant residue. A camera is a passport. Cliche but true.

M: And a great motivator.

Los Angeles, 2015, Missy Prince

B: Like that guy you met in Venice Beach. You talked to him for half an hour and only got a few photos. I think it was more fun for you just to engage with him. I have pretty much the opposite motivation. I don't like people too much. Or more accurately, people make me nervous.

S: I think when I first started taking pictures I loved stealing away after I got my shot. I was so scared of getting close to strangers. But as you keep making this kind of work you want more from the experience. Once you master how to take a really good picture it becomes less exciting. 

B: Do you really feel it's easy to take a good photo? 

S: I’m not sure. I just know that I am well trained. I studied photography in school and then I shot for years and years on assignment for magazines and newspapers. I think part of my ability comes from this experience and at a certain point I knew I was good at being a photographer and I wanted something more. 

B: What about you, Missy?

M: It might seem that way in hindsight once you have some good photos, but I would say no. Every once in a while everything comes together in your favor and you know it is going to be good, but most of the time it's a matter of constantly searching. Surprise is important. You can figure out how to take certain types of photos well and take so-called good but formulaic photos, but then they aren't really good. The X factor is important.

B: Stacy, can you describe what was happening at Skatopia and your interactions before and after the photos? From the photos it looks like drunken anarchy. Is that an accurate reflection?

S: There are certain times of the day where it feels like absolute chaos and I can’t tell where to be because you have a band and a mosh pit to the left, kids skating to the right, some people over there shooting fireworks out of their butt and then in the other direction there is a stage with women stripping and dancing. At other times things are slow and relaxed and everyone is sitting in the shade drinking beer. I got really into the weird and complicated relationships that developed before and after the photographs. So right now I am really trying to make work that speaks to that experience and so like Missy said, these refined perfect images that say "I was there and nailed it, I am a good photographer" are less important. 

B: When you reach the final stage you can leave the camera home. Just go talk to people. Those are the highest level photographers. The photo exhibition is just a memory in your mind. Zen bliss.

Friar's Point, Mississippi, Missy Prince

M: I was just talking to Ron yesterday about artists who have no medium but experience.

B: Like performance art? Or live music? Here and gone? 

S: My impulse to understand, know and document things can transcend into many different mediums, writing, drawing, sculpture and performance are some that interest me. Photography is still the root of it. A passport and motivation. I like knowing that there are many other ways to get at what I am interested in.

B: Those are all physical mediums. What does "no medium but experience" mean?

M: Just living. No mediator, just brain to world. Every decision made is a brush stroke.

B: Lebenskunst. That's the German term.

M: We were speculating on mental illness as unchanneled or unmediated creativity.

B: Definitely a connection between creativity and mental illness.

M: The person who made me think of the idea the other night with Ron is this guy I used to go with back in MS. He was always talking about this other realm he inhabited, specifically when he slept, with beings he interacted with regularly. There were a lot of good and evil vibes involved. I didn't want to just roll my eyes and say whatever because I liked hearing him talk about it. And for some reason I never asked literal questions about what this place was and whether he really thought it was real. I think I liked the mystery of it. So in my mind I imagined that what he was doing was similar to what a writer or painter does except he skipped the medium part. Instead of compartmentalizing his imagination he just let it mix with real life and maybe it was more enjoyable or more vivid that way. Instead of saying "okay everyone now I'm talking about some stuff I made up" he just let it come out and was fine with possibly alienating people. We weren't together long. Interestingly, he had given me a ring with a big black onyx stone in it and placed a lot of importance on its connection to the "place." I took it with a grain of salt. But after I broke up with him (which he was very upset about) I noticed that the onyx had a big crack across it. I can't remember what black onyx supposedly represents to those who give gems meaning, but it seemed interesting at the time. I think it guards against negativity. So that is the origin of my idea of living art and also the speculation on mental illness being unchanneled or unmediated creativity.

S: I am interested in the transference of experience into mediums. It is the part that allows me to process, reorder, contemplate and understand this world and the human condition. I think I will always need, want and desire some sort of medium. I come at all of this with a passionate desire to make sense of things that lack logic and reason. I find it incredibly cathartic to transfer my experience into something.

B: Yes, me too. Otherwise I wouldn't be a photographer. I think there's definitely an aspect of clinging to life as it passes and trying to create some physical memento. Pack rat. Not very zen at all. Alec Soth has written about this

Ron probably has a different approach. I wonder about live musicians or performance artists who exist only in an ephemeral space. Lately I've begun deleting many of my Facebook posts to make them more time-dependent, more like a real conversation. I'm not calling that art. But it's the idea of just engaging with no permanent after effect. There's something sort of pure about it, and maybe threatening to mainstream fine art. The art world needs products to sell. How do you sell "just living"? So maybe the gallery machine encourages physical objects?

M: That's the beauty of the just living genre. Galleries are irrelevant. An audience of any kind is irrelevant. It's a self-contained kind of art that involves no medium besides a person's existence. There is no pandering, no commodification, and no artist statement. It's just a way of looking at a person's character. Some people are a work of art. The fine art world can keep on trucking unphased.

S: Certainly the gallery machine encourages physical objects. It also encourages a lot of other things that makes it a system to be wary of. 

M: I find that when I return from a place after taking photos the final edit becomes an account of the experience that is different from my memory. It's a very satisfying version of reality because it seems stable.

B: Photos and memory are often in conflict.

S: Yes, very stable and if you don't like it you can reorder it or remove things from it. Memory is also in conflict with itself all alone.

M: It's a delightfully puzzling conflict.

B: Speaking of non-permanence, Stacy, what happens March 20th? A note on your site says you're leaving LA.

from As It Was Give(n) To Me, Stacy Kranitz

S: Yes, on March 20th I combust into experience. No actually I switched it to the 31st a few hours ago. I am waiting to pull together enough money to go back to Appalachia for 4 months. I am publishing a monograph of that work in 2016 and I want to be out shooting more before we sit down and design the book.

B: Where in Appalachia? Someplace new?

S: There will be some new places I will visit but I am also revisiting many of the places that I've been in West Virginia, southern Ohio, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee and Southwestern Virginia

B: And the subject of the book is Appalachia? A loaded topic as you know from experience. Do you consider it home?

S: I very much consider myself an outsider.

B: Sounds like a challenge. What about LA? Do you consider that home?

S: No. Right now all of my stuff is in a storage unit in Commerce, Ca and I am not sure where I will go to live once I finish shooting in Appalachia. Nowhere feels like home. But hopefully that will change at some point in the future.

B: "Nowhere feels like home." I think that may be the key to your work. You can enter all of these small microcosms as an outsider, become accepted, shoot pix, then leave. It might be harder for someone to do that who had a strong sense of home or place. 


drake said...

Another fascinating interview.
But did I miss something? Who is "Ron?"

Blake Andrews said...

Ah yes, the mysterious Ron. I'll get to him later...

Anonymous said...

Interesting .
interview...I like how Stacy's pictures are the result of a strong connection with her subject. from the Apalachian project to the Island these places very different from the urban world where I live are very fascinating, as the people who live in such places.