In conversation with Stephanie Fysh

(all photographs by Stephanie Fysh)

SQ: You recently had your first juried show at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto in conjunction with Contact 2007. Can you tell me how that came about?

SF: I hadn’t planned to show at all this year – I had other things I wanted to focus on, including financially – but when the theme for CONTACT 2007 came out, “The Constructed Image,” it was irresistible – it might as well have been written for me. I had showed previously at the Gladstone, and was fortunate enough first that their call for submissions also fit a strand of my work that I very much wanted to show, and second that I was accepted.

SQ: How did it feel to see your show hung for the first time?

SF: Some of the work had more of an impact on me, to hang, than other parts of it. One piece had never existed except in my imagination and in fragmented form. Seeing it actually exist made the entire thing worthwhile, was the cake. Everything else was icing.

SQ: I first came across your photographs on Flickr, and my earliest memory of your work has to be the series of modernist Ontario architecture, photographs of Waterloo, and the gorgeous “theoretical abstraction.” Were these part of the group exhibition at Contact 2006? Where and how did your architectural photography begin? I’ve heard you say it grew out of your scholarly interests. Can you talk about the moment when literary and scholarly thought collided with visual stimulus, and further, how that intersected with your photographic calling.

SF: My 2006 CONTACT pieces were all of Toronto, five images in all. I don’t think they were chosen coherently beyond that, and I would do it differently now. But the pieces – Victorian detail, a piece of classic brutalism, some decay, etc. – were among what I considered some of my best work at the time. I was still in the process of understanding why it was that I photographed architecture, and I didn’t particularly apply what I’d learned.

I initially began shooting architecture simply because it gave me pleasure. I saw something that I liked seeing and recorded that. At first – thinking back to some photographs from the early 90s (I avoided cameras before then) – it was the building I was thinking of myself as recording. At some point that came to be the emotion that I sought to record. And at some point, I realized that what I was in the realmwhich I had been thinking when I left academic life. I never did publish any of that work, but I was, at the time, working on something that had crystallized as a study of the cultural and artistic delineation of physical space in descriptions of late-seventeenth- and early- to mid-eighteenth-century London, and turning that back onto physical space again. I’m not sure if I would have got to the understanding I currently have of that interaction if I hadn’t moved outside of language, though. Language has a habit of understanding everything in terms (recognized or not) of language. Outside of language, I could come to an erotics of physical space, and then come back to language to articulate that.

My interest in the surface of the photograph and in the visibility of the technology also has academic roots, or at least continues an academic interest – I had written in my doctoral dissertation about the materiality of the book as a moment of interplay between the conceptual text and the surrounding culture, though in more stilted ways than that. The ideology of the photograph as a direct representation of reality is not all that different from that of the purely linguistic literary text. I enjoy the games that can result from being aware of that general understanding, and using it.

SQ: You say, “At some point that came to be the emotion that I sought to record,” and that this coincided with your academic exit. I’m very intrigued by your noting a difference between architecture (or space) versus emotion. Do you think there was an unleashing of a sort, a parallel between academic thought and creative thought, and what you were allowing yourself to see? Is that part of moving outside of language?

SF: I do think that leaving academic life permitted me – eventually – to stop trying to analyze everything. It was an “eventually” though. When I first took up photography, during and just after my last years in the university, I really was analytical. I saw the photograph as a document, in a purist sort of way, and – not thinking of myself as a creative person -that appealed to me. I still analyze everything, but at the same time somewhere along the line I stopped living in my head. I still think the photograph is fundamentally a document, but it’s not always a document in a purist way, an understanding I arrived at after I had experienced it.

SQ: To my mind, the Rooms With Woman series continues your architectural exploration, further complicating it by including a female figure—yourself—engaging with both the space, and the photographic technology. In a review of that show, Bryan Partington notes that “constraint breeds creativity.” I would say that it also creates freedom. There is great clarity in the gestures of these photos, and great energy in the series. Does this series represent a moment of artistic self-discovery?

SF: It does, yes. In part it was a moment in which I fully permitted myself – without resistance – to follow the ideas my imagination foisted on me, and to let them supersede other ideas, such as that I had to present myself as attractive or even desirable, that I had to be the main subject of a self-portrait, that I was too much an amateur to attempt something on a larger scale. In retrospect, one thing I wish is it had been possible for me to shoot that piece with a male subject, or that I had liked the title rooms with person: it’s very hard to move photographs of women outside the question of gender, particularly when domestic space is involved, and to me gender was never the subject of the work. Indeed, it’s very much, in my own intent, about the mutuality of the shaping of architectural space and the shaping of selves; gender can enter into that, of course, but it happens outside of gender as well.

SQ: Yes, interiority is scripted “feminine.” Deborah Bright talks about landscape as being a “preserve of American myths about Nature, Culture and Beauty,” and it seems to me a good point historically, but why are women still so concerned with “self” and “interior?” I love Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, and I love your series, and I’m not even sure that I think women need to shift their gaze “outside,” but I do wonder how conscious we are of what we choose to focus on.

On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve actually investigated these questions nearly enough, and it seems to me that your investigation takes an angle that I haven’t seen–that architectural shaping of selves as you say. Can you say a little more about that? You photograph your own children, for example, but there too I get a sense of form rather than say Sally Mann, who seems much more interested in documenting domesticity or perhaps we come back to emotion/confession.

SF: The feminist in me says that we as women are trained to see ourselves in an interior mode. I’m not very good at that (a close friend once told me I was actually born a post-operative transsexual, and that didn’t feel wrong). I live domesticity of course, like any other woman with children, but when I photograph it I’m not thinking domesticity (except, occasionally, ironically or overdeliberately). I’m currently working on a set of material with my children as subjects, and we’ve talked about how to construct the photographs so that they have the potential to not be about them as children. Photographs of men are not always about masculinity; I knock my head all the time against the idea of photographs of women being fundamentally about them as women etc. I don’t want to have to photograph men in order to say something that isn’t gender-specific. So I won’t. Maybe eventually I’ll be able to be seen that way.

SQ: Where do images such as “Door” fit in to your series work? It was one of the first photographs I recall seeing where you entered the scene. Does this represent a kind of bridge from Rooms with Woman, to Eros? The latter series represents a larger leap in terms of your specific interest in the body, but it seems to me that some of the images predate the Rooms series. I’m interested in this simply because I find the evolution of your work particularly intriguing, and some of my favorite works—such as the piece below seem somehow to refuse category. Of course that unruliness intrigues.

Stephanie Fysh, “door”

SF: “Door” was, in the creation, partly an exploration of technique and partly an exercise in compulsion (I very rarely actually feel any need to photograph myself, but I did that day; that doesn’t, however, mean that I actually consider this or its companion pieces to be self-portraits – I don’t). In the end I found a release in them in accepting the outer limits of digital technology, though I’ve gone farther that was since then. There’s a strong school of thought that digital noise is ugly; I think it’s just new to us – there is no inherent reason for the preference of prominent film grain (as from an ISO 3200 film) over the equivalent extremes of digital noise. Both are the technology showing themselves.

My erotica is less an interest in the body than an interest in the experience of erotica: I am interested in the line between erotica and pornography, in how we see and respond to erotic imagery. I would like to find ways of controlling that response that push the viewer from the comfortable into the uncomfortable, without drawing upon the standard tropes of S&M and the like – fetishes, taboos, etc. There are more interesting lines than subject matter. In the meantime, I’m sure I’ll end up showing work that’s meant just to help me better understand how to light bare flesh. I’m a compulsive exhibitionist in the sense of not being very good at keeping photographs to myself.

“North bay, room #2

SQ: Now that you have produced more than one successful series of photographs do you imagine being able to think of a single photograph? I’m thinking of your portraits, the abstract series, and the new series, A Very Commonplace Gesture.
Stephanie Fysh, “A Very Commonplace Gesture”

SF: That’s an interesting question. I think I may have let something loose that’s hard to hold back. I learned that sometimes I can tell a bigger story – not in narrative, but conceptually – with more than one photograph, and also that I can break some of our viewing habits that way. We are accomplished, as viewers, in creating narratives around single images, sometimes too much so.

“A Very Commonplace Gesture” – the title is not mine but a project direction (the collective Utata has one project series in which the project-originator provides the title for images yet unmade) – could only be a set of multiple images because there is no other way to break the desire to see gesture as inherently real, particularly in a colour photograph. I have always – going back to my days in theatre classes – been interested in the ability of gesture to create reality. I want the viewer, in the end, to stop seeing the photographed gesture as genuine.

SQ: Recently I saw a major exhibition of Jeff Wall’s work at Moma. I am always impressed by the amount of narrative he condenses in his work. One Wall image can seem like a series. And also, I think Wall is working with gesture in a similar way. Can you expand on this idea of the gesture and why it might be interesting to problematize our assumptions of reality?

SF: I really hope that Jeff Wall exhibition comes here! I’d love to be able to see everything that’s going on in his work. Gesture is one of the key methods we have of self-presentation, along with how we shape and dress our bodies – gesture at the level of posture, of gait, as well as the more usual meaning of hand position and movement. To me it’s one of many things I would like to bring to a conscious level. And this is where I think my work gets really old-fashioned. Because if we can be aware of something, we can take control of it; and if we can take control of our exteriority and alter it, then we can also alter our interiority – our selves – which are essentially the same thing. It’s another tracing of the material world–culture–self triangle that’s fascinated me for years. It’s old-fashioned because, I like to think, art could maybe – just maybe – sometimes teach us to see something anew, and thus give us the potential for change.

SQ: What was the last art show you saw that blew your mind?

SF: The Girodet exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute in 2006. I’d have been happy to have seen nothing but Girodet’s Danaë; there is an erotic play in it that was fascinating to trace – to do with touch and touchability, with the gaze of the subject on herself, with a repeated refusal of our desires as viewers. It is tempting to move from there to the idea that Girodet could do all this in 1798 but we have lost that ability because of more hard-core options, but I know better as a cultural historian – they had those too. We just don’t see the forest in retrospect, only the best of the trees.

SQ: Thank you for pointing Girodet out, I hadn’t heard of him before. You make an intriguing point about touchability, and I wonder if your idea of “hard-core options,” refers to our ability to recreate or acquire much of what we might desire. It seems to me that without restraint our imagination suffers, and when our imagination suffers, so does our desire.

SF: Well, in a strict sense, I’m just thinking hardcore porn. But hardcore porn doesn’t leave us with actual desire left, only a sense that there was desire there. To maintain a state of desire we need to not be given everything we want, and yet be left still wanting. Erotica can beg us to touch but at the same time remind us that we can’t touch, we can’t see that other angle or light that shadow, remove this veil.

SQ: What role has Flickr played in the development of yourself as a photographer?

SF: One I can’t possibly understate. Pre-Flickr, I had studied photography in community college, though I never completed the program I was in. At the time I saw myself as potentially a documentary photographer; I admired (and still do admire) Eugène Atget, the FDA photographers and the like. But most of my actual photography was documenting my own everyday life, my children.

I joined Flickr to share photographs from a family reunion with relatives. And when I discovered there was a whole community there, I uploaded some older photographs as well – and people responded. There was nothing, I discovered, quite like having someone actually see your work, and even to know what they thought about it. It gave me confidence I hadn’t had. And seeing other people with other everyday lives making wonderful things sparked a desire to go back myself, and to pick up my camera for more than documentation. It was akin to permission: permission to think of myself as a photographer, permission to be an artist, permission to try things new to me.

I did find that I got hooked on the feedback. At one point, I know, I was photographing for that audience, and I deliberately unlearned that habit. And for my exhibition this year I found that it was important to me to show work that I had shown to no audience, in no virtual venue, before. That’s not to slag those virtual communities in any way, but for myself I needed to keep a foot there and to place a foot firmly in the traditional bricks-and-mortar art world, the one in which they raise one eyebrow when you acknowledge you participate artistically in Flickr (or DeviantArt or wherever else people are, I suppose some would say, playing ‘artist’ now).

SQ: I’m glad you brought up the addictive quality of instant feedback because I think it is stimulating, but as you say, it’s also problematic in that it makes one want to perform, or shoot a particular subject. I think the question of how one strikes a balance between connecting with “an audience,” and going deeply into oneself to direct the work is an important one. Can you tell me about that moment of understanding?

SF: It’s nice to be liked, isn’t it! I do find that I have to remind myself, often, that if I only seek to please an audience I may miss my other goals. You can please an audience – even a large one – by giving them what they know they want. But you can inspire an audience, or touch them deeply – move them, in the medieval sense of movere – by giving them what they didn’t know they could want. Every once in a while you might get both, but I’ve learned that I get more satisfaction, personally, from the harder pleasure. Moving away from my established audience was a gesture to myself, both as a more concrete reminder that it wasn’t that easy pleasure that mattered and as an act of faith in myself. If I could believe in the work enough not to test-drive it, then I might be able to do even more.

SQ: Who are your influences? Do you find inspiration in other forms of art?

SF: I’m not really sure who my photographic influences are right now. When I realized I would never be a social documentary photographer – taking pictures of strangers makes me quite anxious – I didn’t replace those photographers I wanted to emulate with others. I love Nan Goldin’s work, though, more for personal than for artistic reasons, and, since someone pointed me his way, William Eggleston’s. I love the Victorian pictorialists (they’re currently wending their way into my work), and Berenice Abbott’s sublime, and good cinematography as well. There is at least as much to inspire in a Wim Wenders movie, to name just one, as in anything in the still visual arts today.

I suppose I find much of my inspiration outside the visual entirely. Architecture, obviously: inhabited art. A phrase in a novel or in a song, even the music in a song or in a work of philosophy, will sometimes send me somewhere that is ultimately visual.

SQ: Would you say then that you respond to other arts as much as visual arts?

SF: Very much so, but in different ways. I still love a good novel, one that can reach imaginative places I’ve not been to before. And music can move me in a very visceral way; I really don’t understand music, though – visceral is everything there. But that’s not at all a bad thing, not at all.

SQ: What is next for you? Where do you see your work in five years?

SF: It’s really hard to say. In the nearer future, I do need to find time to build a proper print portfolio and the like – you can’t be seen if you don’t do something about it, and what’s the point if nobody sees it? I’m not one for art-as-personal-therapy. I do hope, in that more medium term, to have found ways, aesthetically and technically, to communicate more of what I want to than I’ve been able to do so far, and to have built that into a more coherent body of work. Realistically, it’s a slow path: there’s work, and family, and though I can’t honestly say that art always comes third, it can be hard to carve out the right kind of time and space to make it happen. That Virginia Woolf thing, you know. She had that right.

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