A personal mythology

On September 19th the American photographer Joyce Tenneson held an artist talk at Fotografiska to talk about her solo exhibition that opened a day earlier. KUNSTforum got the opportunity to talk to her about the exhibition and the highly personal and intimate relationship she has to her art.

Joyce Tenneson, Dash and doves. ©Joyce Tenneson

Joyce Tenneson, Dash and doves. ©Joyce Tenneson

Your exhibition here at Fotografiska is called Light Warriors and is a retrospective. Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition and how it came to be?

I have worked closely with the curators, Anette Skuggedal and Ellen K Willas from the Norwegian based PUG, for 1,5 years to plan this exhibition. The idea was to present work from three of my favourite projects, alongside a new never-published project, and call the whole thing Light Warriors.

What kind of series are these?

The people I have portrayed in the show age from 7 years old to 97 years old, so there’s a huge life cycle that’s present in all of those rooms. My first series Transformations is from 1992, then Light Warriors from 2002 and Wise Women is from 2004. I wanted to present only that part of my work that had the energy of women who had made personal growth and speaking from their soul a part of their everyday life. Those who have already been to the show, have told me that it feels like a sanctuary there. That it feels very serene, intimate, they feel like they’ve gone into another kind of world. A timeless spiritual world, and what more could I ask for?

Yes, and I heard some music in the exhibition? Both that little room with the trees, and really, the whole exhibition, gives you a sensation of tranquillity.

Thank you. I’m glad you’re saying that. The trees for me are very much like the people, and I photograph them as if they were people. I was attracted to the ones that were fragile and those that were strong, and some that were old and had lots of stories to tell in their forms and shapes. The Norwegian composer Erlend Sæverud made the music especially for this exhibition.

How did you become a photographer?

I thought perhaps I wanted to be a writer, I certainly would have loved being a filmmaker but I landed in photography and I started teaching right away and did my masters in fine art photography. I was lucky enough to be chosen to be an exchange student when I was in high school to go to France for a whole year, and I lived with eleven different families in all socio-economical groups. Back then France was exotic. What I learned is that I could survive. It was so fabulous for me to live in these diverse families that had different goals and different values. I had a chance to discover many ways to live a life and to choose what road I wanted to take. A road I wasn’t quite sure of then. The road of art.

Joyce Tenneson, Katie and skirt. ©Joyce Tenneson

Joyce Tenneson, Katie and skirt. ©Joyce Tenneson

You began your professional carrier as a fine art professor in Washington DC and moved to New York to become a practicing artist. How did you experience this change?

Moving to New York was a big change for me, being divorced and all of a sudden being a freelancer and living of my art in a completely new and vulnerable way. Washington DC is the capital of The US, but New York City feels like the capital – the art capital. But it was really a challenge to keep my private, and kind of spiritual world alive there. Actually, I did that through creating the work that is in the gallery downstairs, all of the work was created in NYC. I created a sanctuary in my studio where I photographed, and that’s where I had the greatest moments of connection, intimacy and revelation.

What are you searching for when you photograph?

I’m always searching for the same thing, for some kind of transcendence, and if I’m lucky I can capture it some days. It’s not something you can order to exist, you can’t say ‘Ok, today I’m going to photograph and create these magical images’, it doesn’t really work that way unfortunately, you just have to keep back at it. Just as the writer has to face that white page every day, and sometimes something emerges that is worth keeping, and a lot of the time it just get edited out.

What are your main influences?

The people I meet, my own personal experiences and my own journey influence me. I think one of the most important things is to be true to yourself as an artist, and trust your own personal vision. That’s why an original always will be an original, and someone copying my style or way of working, only ever will make a copy.

Joyce Tenneson, Melinda. ©Joyce Tenneson

Joyce Tenneson, Melinda. ©Joyce Tenneson

Can you describe your work process from idea to work?

I never sit down and plan a project, I don’t know what’s going to happen but I let it happen. One of the girls in Light Warriors for instance, she was my assistant, and for her birthday I said that I would make a portrait of her. I asked her if she had any secrets that not many people knew about, and she told me she loved helping damaged small birds. To the question of how she felt doing that, she replied that she felt like she was one with them. The bird wing on her chest is something I had lying around, I love collecting found objects, and I just made the black hooded piece with some fabric. The wing is just taped to her chest and the fabric pinned, so the whole picture is something in the moment. I always make my own props. Everything that you see in the show is something I made, whether it’s the painted backdrops, or it’s these transformations that happen right on set.

So the symbolism in your images is more about the personal mythology of the sitter, rather than an inherited cultural mythology?

That’s how it is with all these images. I talk to the person I’m photographing, and out of that the photograph is created. I learn so much this way. In Wise Women I interviewed and photographed over 300 women. I asked the famous black author Maya Angelou what is most important in life, and she looked at me and said ‘Joyce, there’s really only one thing. It’s the journey’. If you’re not on the journey, you’re not really living, that’s true right? Then you’re sitting in front of the TV and just being passive. 

How is it different to be a photographer today?

I feel so terribly sorry for the people today. I’m sorry for the young students. Everything is harder, with expensive educations and no jobs.

You’ve made several photo books. What is it with the book format?

Yes, 16 photo books in total. The process of making a project into a book allows you to finish it. There’s an end to the project, and I can begin fresh on a new project. I always want to work on something new, never repeating myself. I think that’s the way with all artists, we’re really not in control unless we’re repeating something we’ve already done, and who wants to repeat themselves? I don’t think many artists do, so you’re always confronting a blank page, and you’re being pushed from an internal imperative discover and record something that you’re seeing that excites you and that is new. It excites the viewer when that happens, believe me.

What’s your preferable way to experience your photographs, in a book or on the wall?

Oh, the wall! But I’d have to say that I like both ways. I love walking into the show [at Fotografiska] and actually seeing the darkness, the dark brown walls and then the way the lighting design emphasise the work. You walk in and then you’re confronted with these strong and compassionate women, you know, who are light warriors. 

The exhibition is on display until November 23th.

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