What's your background in photography?
I carried disposable cameras around with me at camp and on family trips for quite sometime before I picked up a point-and-shoot digital camera around the age of 14 or 15. I was, and still am, most interested in paying attention to the simple, beautiful moments of everyday life. In high school I was determined to become a photojournalist. That documentarian mindset has stayed with me, even if the career trajectory has not. I’ve definitely started to explore outside that realm––mostly through self-portraiture––but my favorite images are still those anchored in reality. Many of my interests have been influenced by the various subcultures I’ve documented. For example, it’s fascinating to me how skateboarders see the world. For skateboarders, a stair set is so much more than just a means of getting from point A to point B––I want to see the world in a similarly creative fashion (and as photographers don’t we all?).
Your book American, is a modern take on the quintessential American road trip, what artists did you study prior to your 20,000 mile journey?
In regards to the road trip itself, I was frankly more influenced by literature than photography. A few years ago, I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and was smitten. When I was young, rather than going on a yearly road trip my family would save up and travel to Europe every few years. I’m incredibly grateful to have had such cultural immersions at a young age, but I remember envying my friends who would road trip across the country with their families. I suppose that envy stuck around, and rather than souring my spirit turned into fuel for projects such as this. Photographically, I’ve always been inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson. “The decisive moment” is a beautiful notion, and one that I always strive to capture (whether or not I ever do is a decision I’ll leave to you). After the road trip and while I was working on the book, I turned towards Stephen Shore. His work, particularly Uncommon Places, is so rooted in its time period yet so timeless. I really wanted that feeling for American.
When you look at the history of American road trip photography, from Walker Evans, to Robert Frank and more recently Alec Soth, what did you feel was missing and what perspective did you feel you could bring to the table?
My photography professor once told me “Everything worth doing has already been done.” Not exactly the words a 19-year-old aspiring artist wants to hear, but they’ve stuck with me nevertheless. I’ve reached a point in my life and career where I feel fairly confident in adding to the statement: “Everything worth doing has already been done; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be the one to do it again.” I looked a lot at The Americans; it’s an incredible time capsule, which is honestly all I wanted for my book. For me, knowing that I produced something tangible that people can hold in their hands and look at in twenty, thirty+ years and think, “Huh, so that’s what it was like,” was all the motivation I needed. I shot it for posterity as much as I did for myself. Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Alec Soth to a certain degree have very politically-charged images. The United States is at a very volatile point in its social history, but I didn’t set out to capture that directly. It’s not that I don’t care or that I’m ignoring the negative aspects of the United States, but we’re exposed to so much darkness every day… When I was younger I thought that I could never be considered a photojournalist because I didn’t take photographs of mangled bodies in war-torn countries; it was striking to me that that those were always the images winning awards. I’m not belittling those images––they are obviously important––I just wanted to shine some light. That being said, American ended up with a very bittersweet, melancholy tone. There is no light without shadow, after all, and I can feel those shadows creeping in on the images. I’d be lying if I said that a part of me isn’t worried about how the advent of certain technology will change our concept of the “road trip” (at the risk of sounding technophobic, I point to self-driving cars). I wanted to pursue a road trip while I knew that it still held the defining characteristics of the concept.
How did you organize the book and decide on a sequence?
When I left for the road, I didn’t have a specific narrative in mind, but trusted that through the overarching similarity of the American people and landscape one would arise. I actually was originally planning on sequencing it chronologically, so that the regional differences would be very clear and one would see the progression of the landscape, but I realized that ordering it in such a way would simply be too easy. I wanted to showcase various moods, and tried to order the photographs according to these.
I can imagine that traveling that far in such a short time, you may feel like a permanent outsider to these places that you visited. How did you manage to gain rapport with the people you photographed? Do you think Mary Ellen Mark was right in suggesting that there is an advantage to being a female documentary photographer (https://vimeo.com/33169308)?
I’ve been taking portraits of strangers for quite some time, so I was already pretty comfortable in approaching people. The advice I always give is to simply smile and be genuine; the worst they can say is no. My favorite aspect of the trip was the constant reminder that most people in this country are decent people who simply want someone with whom they can share their story; I was invited to church potlucks, given homegrown vegetables and free dinners, and welcomed into the homes of strangers. I tried to ask the story of the people I photographed as often as I could. If people are willing to give you their time, you better damn well be willing to give yours. Like anything else, there are upsides and downsides to being a female documentary photographer. I definitely think that I have an advantage in that I can approach people without them remotely feeling threatened––it’s hard for a 5’4” (on a good day) person to intimidate strangers––but I also am incredibly cognizant of the settings in which I’m surrounding myself, perhaps to a fault. So many people have asked me, “Were you ever scared? What’s the craziest thing that happened to you on the road?” but the truth is that I never put myself in a situation where I had need to be scared. I was, and am, cautious both by nature and necessity. On the whole, I don’t really feel that my concern for my safety has hindered me from capturing the images that I want to capture. Overall I think being a woman has helped me in the realm of documentary photography.
Robert Frank's Americans he took over 27,000 frames during his trip. Roughly how many shots did you take and how did you ultimately arrive at the final images?
Over the course of 82 days I took about 7,700 shots. Of those, I selected about 1,500 that I really liked. From there, one of my photographer friends helped me narrow it down to about 500. And from there, my sister, her fiancé, and I got that number down to the 115 that ultimately made it into the book. It would have taken me infinitely longer had I not gotten editing help––it’s so hard to cut selections when your judgment is clouded by emotions and general nostalgia. We based our selections on the strength of individual images as well as how they fit alongside other images.
How does shooting digitally affect your mindset in approaching project-based work? I can tell that many of these shots, especially the landscapes, were not happy accidents that you later discovered. How does your approach vary between digital and analog work? How is it similar?
I definitely struggle internally over the fact that I never learned to develop film (yes, you read that correctly; go get the rope). Digital or analog, if you miss the shot you miss the shot. I try to approach my photography with a sense of urgency and intention. In the case of American, I had more than myself to disappoint should the photos not have turned out (Kickstarter backers don’t like when you don’t make good on your promised rewards), which is why I decided to stick with my more confident, digital medium. I am a firm believer in tangible photography, however, so I also shot Polaroids on a 350 Land Camera and sent them to backers. I didn’t set out for the road with specific images in mind, nor a specific itinerary. I would stick to the backroads and two-lane highways and see what caught my eye. I guess it was nice knowing right then and there that whatever I shot either worked or didn’t, but I was shooting so much that there actually were quite a few photographs I would consider “happy accidents” because I didn’t pay any attention to them until five months later when I was reviewing all of the photographs while working on the book. Shooting digitally has definitely given me more wiggle room. I probably shoot twice as many photographs than I would if I were shooting analog, but I try to retain that sense of intention because I’m indecisive enough as is and sure as hell don’t need the added pressure of selecting from even more images!
Were there any shots that you took and immediately said, "Yes, this one is definitely in the book?”
There’s one particular image that comes to mind––Las Vegas. I was in Vegas for about 12 hours. I arrived on a Sunday night shortly after midnight. I went to park the car in a garage, stepped out, and saw the lights of the casinos through the parking ramp window. Immediately after shooting it I knew that it would make it into the final cut. It’s a perfect example of my “beautiful ordinary;” to anyone else, it would probably have just been an elevator hallway in a parking ramp. To me, it was my collective feelings about the Vegas Strip captured in one frame. I had been in Vegas for all of twenty minutes by that point, but already knew that I would be leaving satisfied.
What were some of your fears in bringing together this first book? Talk me through the risk/reward feelings that came with publishing.
My biggest fear was that I would get home and realize that I hated every single photograph I shot––that none of the photographs would work together and that not having a more fine-tuned concept was going to be my downfall. It was a ridiculous fear, but like many others I am definitely my own worst critic. Because the project was funded on Kickstarter, I also had this deep-rooted worry that I would disappoint everyone who had donated. I used that worry to push myself; I wouldn’t let myself have a day off from shooting or forget that this time around, I was taking the photographs for individuals other than me. I self-published the book, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I had complete creative control. On the other hand, it was a lot of money up front, and I’ll be the first to admit that I need to work on my marketing skills. But I’m really, really pleased with the way the book turned out. I printed it through Shapco, a local Minneapolis company who have printed a lot of Alec Soth’s work. The biggest reward has been seeing people’s eyes light up as they page through the book, and they ask questions or bring up tales from their own journeys. I’ve never purported that my photography is going to change the world, but if it can get one person to appreciate the beautiful simple in ways he or she had not before, I am happy.
From project conception to book-release, how long did this project take?
A few years ago I thought of taking to Kickstarter to make a project like this possible. I kept on making excuses not to pursue it––oh, I have a job, oh, I need to find a job, etc. etc.––but it was always in the back of my mind. Then one day I was describing the project to someone, whining about how badly I wanted it to happen, and she asked, “What’s stopping you?” It was then that I realized that I was the only reason it hadn’t happened. I started writing my proposal for Kickstarter in January of 2014. I received the finished book in January of 2015.
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