Collaborating with Other Photographers: “Photographs in Conversation” at Lenscratch
A couple of weeks ago, I was poking around Lenscratch; a photography website recommended to me by gallery owner, Michael Pannier. Under the Submit to Exhibitions tab, I found an intriguing call for entries called ‘Photographs in Conversation’. The concept involved bringing two photos together into one image, or diptych, to create the beginning of a narrative. The really interesting part was that the photographs had to be the work of two different photographers. The exhibition required partnering with another photographer to share photographs and collaborate on identifying a pair that speak to each other in interesting ways. When combined into one image, the photos begin to tell a story that is perhaps more intriguing, more complex, or completely different from the narrative each photo might suggest on its own.
The real point of bringing photographs together in conversation is to bring two photographers together in collaboration. The Call for Entries suggested that the pair of photographs might be connected in any number of ways, including theme, color, light, or subject. The photographs should also be consistent in size and aspect ratio, and I also assumed in terms of color versus black and white. Both photographs had to be joined together on a larger canvas into a diptych, resized, and submitted as a single image file. Since the point was collaboration, each photographer could submit up to two diptychs (two conversations with the same partner or two with different partners).
Lenscratch noted that the Photographs in Conversation exhibition is unjurored to help encourage ‘community and conversation’. So, all images submitted correctly would be displayed. By the time I had discovered the call for entries, there were only about 10 days left until the September 1st submission deadline. However, I decided to try to take advantage of the opportunity and reached out to two photographers I met early in August at the Forsaken Exhibition opening at the Southeast Center for Photography in South Carolina; Nancy O. Albert and Dale Rio. I had already viewed each of their portfolios online, so I was confident that my photographs could speak to some of the work of both photographers, although, as you will see, in completely different ways. I had also maintained contact with Dale and Nancy since the reception. Maybe one or both would quickly agree to collaborate on short notice.
Luckily for me, they both decided to pursue the opportunity and I began the process of exchanging photographs and ideas with each of them in two separate ‘conversations’. All communication was conducted via email and/or Facebook. Nancy and I agreed quickly on two potential photographs, while I went through a number of different combinations of photos with Dale before we agreed on the final image. In both cases, I combined the photographs onto a larger, white canvas to create a diptych, and then submitted it to the exhibition via email. The Photographs in Conversation exhibition ran September 8th, and can be found at Lenscratch amongst the other exhibitions.
I think we were all really pleased with our final diptychs. It was great working with both Dale and Nancy and experiencing how other photographers think about their images. It also gave me some unexpected insight into my own approach to understanding meaning through images and the literal versus conceptual narratives they can engender. Read on to find out about my experiences collaborating with both photographers and to view the products of each creative conversation.
Photographs in Conversation: “Barn Find”
The collaborative process with Nancy was pretty quick and easy. This is probably because we tend to photograph similar subjects and we each recognize the other’s photographic eye or perspective. For example, Nancy is working on documenting tobacco barns in North Carolina, while I’m working on photographing abandoned places in Tennessee and Kentucky for my series on the American Dream. Conceptually, both series have something to do with the passing of a way of life and how the built environment documents that passing. Visually, both are composed primarily of landscape photos shot outdoors in natural light and involve little digital manipulation of the final images. So, Nancy and I are running in parallel directions in some of our work with respect to subject matter, although not always with respect to style.
I knew that I had images that would work with some of Nancy’s photographs of barns. The challenge for us was more about similar aspect ratio, orientation and color. I originally envisioned using my image of an abandoned church (In Good We Trust) that I know Nancy likes, but this image is in portrait orientation and she didn’t have any appropriate images in portrait to pair with it. Eventually, we just exchanged several images of similar subject matter, and found two photos of barns that appeared to work well together right away.
I had noticed Nancy’s black and white photograph of the side of a barn with the headlight and grill of a classic car peeking out in her portfolio on her website (Tobacco Barn with Old Ranchero). I had included a photo of mine of a barn and old tractor (Ernie’s Old Tractor) in the ones I sent her, because I had this image of hers in mind. They are both landscape photos in the 3:2 aspect ratio, so they could easily be paired into a diptych. When I paired the black and white images on a white canvas to create a diptych and shared it with Nancy, we both agreed the photos were a great combination. In fact, as Nancy noted in an email, the images ‘almost mirror each other’.
The two photos work well together in both a literal and a visual sense. After all, they’re both photos of two old barns paired with old vehicles, and the combination is pleasing to the eye. However, when I experienced the two photos ‘in conversation’ in a diptych, I started to think conceptually in a way that neither photo had previously inspired on its own. The diptych inspired me to think of old barns, paired with the proverbial “barn finds” of classic vehicles they occasionally house, as summarizing symbols of a nexus of American cultural ideals popularized in the early-to-mid-twentieth century:
- The American Dream of equal opportunity, prosperity and home ownership for all – the material rewards of hard work and perseverance;
- The Family-Owned American Farm along with the ‘Small Town America’ Way of Life – also known as ‘the good ole days’;
- The American Love for the Automobile and the Open Road – the twentieth century carryover of manifest destiny and movement West.
All of these popular cultural ideals serve a purpose; like myths, they are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves to suggest who we are as a society.
Personally, I am much more prone to experience photographs conceptually, rather than literally. This may be because my primary education and training is in cultural anthropology and social theory, or it could just be natural to me. Others that are more literal, however, may look at the “Barn Find” diptych and see only a metaphorical old couple that have been together so long they have nothing left to say to each other. If you are one of those people, I encourage you to look again and think about old, deteriorating barns as the places of obsolescence and broken things; as testaments to the passage of time, marked by shifting human industries and priorities. Certainly, barns-in-ruin are the forensic evidence in the built environment of a major social and cultural shift in American society over the last several decades; the takeover and corporatization of traditional, family-owned farms.
So, you see, these two photographs begin at least one very interesting narrative about socio-cultural change in America.
Photographs in Conversation: “Remains”
The Photographs in Conversation collaboration I undertook with Dale Rio was also thought provoking, but it was more challenging. I knew from reviewing Dale’s portfolio on her website that we have some subject matter overlap in our work, but our styles and techniques are very different. I remembered vividly her photographs of human skeletal remains, but I had to give more thought to her technique and vision when I attempted to pair a few of her photos with a few of mine.
Dale’s photographs of skeletal remains were shot in a studio at the Smithsonian on large format film under studio lighting. My bones and other remains are “found objects” in nature that were shot under natural light in color on a digital rangefinder camera. Dale composed her photographs with a very shallow depth of field, while I tried to maintain more depth of focus in my images. The subjects in my photographs are unintentionally or casually arranged by animals or other people, while the arrangement of Dale’s subjects is reminiscent of scientific specimens. I suspected that we might be able to bring some of our photographs of remains together in interesting ways regardless of these differences.
I don’t often come across people that photograph and appreciate images of what remains after the death and decomposition of creatures, so I really wanted to entice Dale into collaborating with me on a diptych incorporating bones, teeth and/or other remains. The first photo I sent to her to pique her interest in the exhibition was The Bone Collector (one of my favorites). I originally presented this still life of a container of white-tailed deer jaw bones in color in my portfolio, but I converted it to black and white in this case, as Dale’s images were all monochrome. I knew that, at the very least, she had some images of human jaw bones that might pair well with it.
We each contributed a few more photos and I worked to combine some of them into a range of possible diptychs. Despite all of the differences in style and technique, some of the photographs merged together in a way that I experienced as very natural and fertile. I found several pairs quite compelling. We took our time and worked together to narrow our choices down to just a few.
As we reviewed the options, Dale initially took a more literal approach in her critique, as she was concerned about the predictability of combining ‘bones and more bones’. She focused on some key differences that I did not, because I was too busy thinking conceptually about what it all meant. She pointed out, for example, that in one diptych, my photo of armadillo remains contrasted well with her occipital, because the former was clearly shot in a natural setting, while the latter was shot in a studio. Yet, I had originally combined them because I was interested in the armadillo shell and the human skull as protective natural structures.
Eventually, we narrowed it down to three possibilities (the three presented in this post), and then Dale narrowed it down to two (Armadillo and Occipital and Deer Jaw Bones and Human Spine). I made the decision to submit one, and then the next day changed my mind and decided to submit the other one (the jaw bones and the human spine). I regretted my choice almost immediately; it was that close for me. I think, however, that all three of our finalists engender curious and unexpected conversations.
Emerging Photographic Narratives of Remains
The diptychs remind me of some of the things I studied as an anthropologist or taught about in class, such as repeating patterns in nature and the cultural practices surrounding different types of remains; how we perceive them, handle and collect, or avoid and dispose of them. They inspire thoughts about the human remains collected from all over the world in the early twentieth century, that were measured and classified, and then deposited in museums under the defining and controlling scientific gaze. They also provide insights into how these museum remains contrast with those animal remains collected in a plastic tub on a back porch in Kentucky or found in the woods in Tennessee; found by chance, or kept, and eventually photographed, under the reverent and uncertain metaphysical gaze.
Our experiences of photographs of remains are influenced a great deal by context. We can view human remains in a museum with a cold detachment we might accord an anatomical model. Animal remains photographed in a natural setting are a bit more unsettling, while photographs of human remains outside of the scientific, medical, or religious domains are perceived as disturbing. I find that people either love or hate photos of bones, teeth and skulls. I personally love the patterns, textures and dynamism of these subjects. Look at how dynamic the diptych is of the jawbones and the human spine. Inanimate remains always suggest reanimation and motion to me. There is real beauty in bones and they can be the subject of some brilliant and engaging still life photographs.
Experiencing “Photographs in Conversation”
I really enjoyed preparing entries for the Photographs in Conversation exhibition and I also learned a lot from the collaborative process. Viewing your photographs juxtaposed with that of another photographer provides fresh insight into your work and your own creative choices. It also inspires creativity and affords much food for thought. I plan to continue to capitalize on the collaborative process, when possible, and I already have plans to continue some work with Dale.
Ideally, had there been more time, my collaborations with Nancy and Dale would have continued through the writing of this post. But the diptychs had to be submitted and this article posted on a tight timeline. Instead, I invite my partners to let us know their thoughts by commenting below. I am quite pleased with what we have produced. Be sure to check out the Photographs in Conversation exhibition at Lenscratch.
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-- Angela Martin
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