I am very pleased to post an in-depth interview with photographer Jennifer Loeber. Jennifer Loeber is a young photographer based in New York City. Jennifer’s portfolio reflects the exploration of an evolving artistic vision, from documentary series to portraits that have the quality to bridge both the subject and the viewer with a unique sense of intimacy. Her work was exhibited at a group show by the Humble Arts Foundation in New York City. Her latest series, Zeig Mal (Show Me), was featured in a profile on Gothamist.com and her first feature documentary, Fishkill Flea, is currently exhibiting internationally. Jennifer has also a personal blog.
Tell me about your beginnings as a photographer … when did you get into photography?
My background with photography began in high school when my homeroom was actually the school darkroom. Every morning in high school you would be required to report to your homeroom to get attendance taken- mine was not in a regular classroom but in the schools photography area and darkroom. I started each morning bumping up against enlargers and stop bath so it was natural to develop a curiosity about it. Prior to that I think I wanted to be a fashion designer, but photography got its hooks in me!
The death knell for my future fashion career happened during my first semester as a freshman when the photography teacher showed us a slideshow of Nan Goldin’s work. Having recently discovered a love for all things punk rock and downtown, Nan’s work was a revelation to me. I had no idea photography could be so raw, so real. Her work seemed to embody all the outrageous, dangerous fun a 14 year old from Queens, New York could only dream about.
So, you then moved on to acquire formal training in photography …
I enrolled in the undergraduate program at the Massachusetts College of Art studying under Nick Nixon and Abe Morrell. Nick was a huge influence on me in terms of encouraging me to run with whatever ideas I had- like shooting with the schools 4×5 Crown Graphic in the middle of punk clubs.
[note by Miguel: by the way check out the series of the Brown sisters, 25 yr, by Nick Nixon, stunning is all I can say.]
It is interesting that you studied with Nick Nixon. Besides encouraging your personal exploration -as you say- do you think that his work influenced your aesthetics to take portraits, snapshots of people?
When I entered college and started studying under Nick Nixon, I had only ever used a 35mm camera. Nick introduced me to large format cameras and the beauty of documentary work. I think he influenced my approach to composition much more than my drive to explore portraiture at the time, I spent most of college shooting a documentary style series focusing on my circle of friends and wasn’t particularly interested in formal portraiture.
Nick encouraged the unexpected while showing us how to really focus in on the specifics of what you want to capture. Its that idea of creating a stand alone world out of light and space and gesture that I have carried through with me as a litmus test of what I deem a successful image. I am not a fan of narrative series that fall apart when the images are pulled out on their own. Nick’s guidance and influence can be seen in any image I can create that tells a story on its own as well as within a series.
Which path did you take to initiate your photographic career after finishing college?
After college I shot paparrazzi for a little bit, and completely hated it.
Why exploring work as paparrazzi? Was that driven to access quick money?
Shooting paparazzi seemed like a decent way to make money and use my camera everyday after graduating. I hated it almost immediately- I found it hard to be a big enough bully to force my way through crowds to get a shot and the whole process was just totally uninspiring. Instead of shooting for the agency I was working for I asked to just work in the office helping them archive.
So I worked for a couple of different photo agencies until finally making my way into the photo departments at several big fashion magazines. Working behind the scenes was an invaluable experience that also taught me just how much I wanted to fully be on the flipside as a photographer rather than editor.
Which agencies you worked for?
I worked for Big Pictures and later for Retna and dealt mostly with fashion and celebrity magazines. That was my first real experience with photo editing and I learned a great deal in a short amount of time. I was eventually offered a job at one of the fashion magazines through a friendship I struck up with the photo editor.
Why you did not like to work as a photo editor?
Working at magazines both excited and depressed me- I was learning a lot about how to edit for narrative flow and seeing a ton of other photographers work, but I really started to yearn to be out there shooting as well. I eventually compromised and went freelance as a photo editor so I would have time to make my own work. It’s been an extraordinary learning experience but my passion is absolutely photographing not editing.
Who are the artists that have inspired your work?
As I mentioned before, I had huge crushes on the work of Nan Goldin and Sally Mann in college and shot black and white exclusively. I quickly moved into Eggleston worship and started shooting more and more color film. I recently shot a documentary film thats making the rounds at both national and international festivals and that experience alone dramatically impacted my methods and influences as a photographer.
The films of Werner Herzog and Robert Bresson are influences. The color palette of photographer Evelyn Hofer’s portraiture and the gesturing of Rineke Dijkstra’s beach series are huge influences. I saw a show of Helen Levitt’s work while in Paris recently that just completely knocked my socks off. I’ve been traveling a lot this year and that in itself is an enormous influence- removing myself from the familiar has always been a huge creative impetus for me and has really played into my most recent work. The theme of doing the unfamiliar.
You have in your portfolio very interesting series and excellent portraiture. Could you please tell us about the conceptual process and purpose of your series and how did you get into portraiture?
Some of the series I have worked on (Fishkill, Coney Island) came about because of other creative endeavors I was involved with. Fishkill was a series I shot simultaneous to shooting of my documentary film because I really felt like the quietness of photography was a powerful tool in helping represent that space. It was also here that I really delved into portrait work- something I had not done much of before that.
I began making more portraits- pushing myself to set up more formal shoots, something I had not really had any experience with as a more candid documentary style shooter. Shooting nude portraiture seemed like a natural progression of my ideas to continue pushing myself towards the unknown.
I like a lot your work series Coney Island … the images could be qualified within the genre of street photography … do you like to do street photography? Some photographers like to document the life of people in communities taking portraits of the individuals that they encounter in the street after approaching them and asking for a picture. It is more staged, and at the same time allows for better control of the portrait. Is this an approach you like to explore in your work?
The Coney Island series was a bit of a departure for me, as I don’t consider myself a street photographer in the classical sense. I was inspired by whether or not I could produce something interesting or unexpected from such a well-documented place. I tried to focus more on the mini tableaux playing out as I wandered around rather than attempting to stop and control the situation in any way.
Do you consider your FishKill series a “side product” of your film? Which media did you feel is more effective in conveying the decay of the Fishkill Flea Market?
I think they both help describe different aspects of the location and people. The film was a collaborative effort between myself and my other two co-directors and we had certain narrative threads we wanted to follow and explore within it. My photographs are focused more on my personal relationships with the people of the flea market and my own affinity to the space itself.
The photo series was never specifically intended to be shown in conjunction with the film per se- we have used some of the images for promotional materials but the series came about because I had been interested in photographing there from the first time I visited. Due to interest in the project I just recently decided to publish a monograph of the photographs from the Fishkill Series through Blurb.com, which I’m very excited about.
Moving to portraits. What really drive you into portraits, a personal need to connect with the people, perhaps the need to document people’s? … what are the special challenges you felt while taking pictures of people?
My instinct to start shooting portraits was mostly based on my own need to explore the unfamiliar, challenge myself. I had wrongly assumed that portraiture was staid and unexciting. Once I began shooting them I realized that the scenario of two people in a room, staring at each through a camera was a surprisingly complex situation and rife with tension, anxiety and anticipation. That to me was exciting. I use that nervous energy to draw out what I think will make an interesting image. As a naturally anxious person, I’ve always tried to examine what makes others anxious and how that emotion affects interactions. Anxiety seems to stem from ones perception of the moment at hand so I was really interested in trying to visually capture that sort of concern in its different permutations. I use natural light and give very little direction, barring occasionally asking someone to hold a gesture I like. I prefer to let the scenario unfold naturally between us.
How did you get involved with them, how do you approach to a person to take a picture?
My subjects are a mixture of strangers, friends and friends of friends. Nothing in my approach is very complicated, I just ask. I’ve asked strangers at barbeques and parties and coworkers at some of the magazines I do work for, anyone I find interesting really. Most people are willing to at least consider it and almost all of them offer up friends they think might be interested as well.
Do you feel that your portraits of the Fishkill series portray the individual -as a key subject of the picture or they are just an element of the narrative of the story you try to convey?
In the Fishkill series, my subjects are all people I met during the course of filming and each image is both a portrayal of the individual as a stand-alone subject as well as a collective series about my experience of the place.
I find very interesting and intriguing that you are also involved in the making of films. How do you think that both media complement each other? How do you think that filming and photographic affects your approach for composition with both types of cameras?
I made my first film, a feature documentary, with two other people and none of us had any real filmmaking experience. Having a background in visual language as a photographer was incredibly helpful. Being forced to rethink how to make a composition work within the framework of a moving image both opened up my perspective and strengthened my eye. Shooting the film forced me to interact with strangers in a very direct way I never had before. It really taught me how well that risk could pay off.
Are you planning to combine both documentary film and still photography?
As far as combining the two mediums- I already have to a certain extent. Within the film we included a photomontage that acts more as a filmic moment rather than a more typical photography slideshow.
Your portraits are really extraordinary. Is this the main genre you plan to explore moving forward?
Thank you, and yes for the time being absolutely. I’ve only just scratched the surface in exploring what more I want to do with it.
Why do you think that nude photography was a natural progression for your work? Do you think that the challenges of nude photography are different from other types of portraiture?
Shooting nudes seemed to me to be the next logical step further in exploring the tensions inherent in portrait photography. One of the differences or challenges in shooting nudes is just finding people willing to pose. Men tend to be much more skittish about it in my experience. I think with all my subjects there is a certain level of trust applied to the situation but the normal feelings of nervousness and anticipation are heightened when you’re sitting starkers in your living room with a stranger! Each individual brings their own feelings about nudity to the scenario and that can very much alter the mood of a shoot and I think add another layer to the images.
What are the main challenges you have experienced as an emerging photographer and what are the main challenges you encounter at this moment in your career?
I think the biggest hurdle is simply getting eyes on your work. There are a lot of people all vying for the same galleries and contests and attention and you really have to find your own voice and stand out from the crowd. I’m still in the throes of feeling my way around self-promotion. My main challenges right now are just continuing to get my work out there. I would love to get into some smaller shows with the ultimate goal of a solo at some point. I’m also very interested in shooting editorial work.
Please tell me about one photograph, an image that is especial for you?
A photograph I shot of my husband standing in a motel doorway several years ago is very special to me. It represents the shift in my life back to photographer. After going straight into photo editing after college, I had abandoned shooting almost entirely. Around the time of that image I had just started to pick up my cameras again and feel the need to make my own work. We had also just begun production on our film at that point so it was a hugely creative period for me. That image encompasses all those feelings of hopefulness.
Would you mind to describe two photographers that you specially admire and you think influence your work, ideally one emerging photographer and one classic or established photographer?
I doubt she’s still categorized as emerging but a younger photographer I have always been incredibly drawn to is Katy Grannan‘s. Her work is both immediate and deeply thoughtful and I suppose I feel a bit of a kinship with her interest in disquiet and voyeurism. An established photographer I greatly admire is Helen Levitt, more specifically her color work. I was lucky enough to catch an exhibit of it while in Paris recently and it just floored me. Her wonderful sense of humor and affection for her subjects is apparent in all her work and something I deeply admire.
Do you feel that contemporary photography has evolved the aesthetics of photography in a significant manner from 30-50 years ago. Are we in a moment of evolution or revolution in photography?
The aesthetics of contemporary photography seems to me to be in a state of push/pull with the past. A new genre of digitally altered and manipulated imagery rubbing up against a resurgence of interest in view camera work. I’m not sure if that is indicative of an evolution/revolution or just a reflection on the seemingly endless choices our new digital age can offer. Old photographs look new! New photographs look old! 50 years ago the choices weren’t so vast.
How do you see digital photography affecting the photographic industry in the future?
The ease of digital is very democratizing, everyone can be a photographer! Unfortunately I think it also allows for a certain degree of laziness. It strips a bit of the thought involved out of the creative process and I think that can lead to a glut of sub par work, most specifically in the stock field. Will it change the industry? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that as someone who recently made the switch back to shooting negative film!
Thank you very much Jennifer for your candor to share your thinking and experience as a photographer. I really wish you the best moving forward and take for granted that I will be very interested to see your progression as an artist in the future. I think you are an excellent example of the new generation of photographers that will have a definitive and lasting influence in the field during the next decades. Never stop pursuing your vision, it is a joy for us to see it turning into excellent work.