Gallery Director Hannah Reeves discusses with photographer Elaine Bezold the ideas and inspiration behind her work in the 2018 May Exhibit.
HANNAH REEVES: How are documentary projects and conceptual work different, and do those bodies of work ever overlap or intersect?
ELAINE BEZOLD: I tend to be a little more hands-off when working on a documentary project. I still compose, but I let action unfold in a less controlled way when I'm working on a documentary project. I have a theme in mind, but I let whatever is happening keep happening and I move myself around it.
In the work that's more conceptual, I can be a bit of a control freak. I like the pictures to look slightly incidental sometimes, but I'm pretty particular about how the pictures will connect to one another visually, and so I'm often thinking about existing images I've made while I'm making new ones.
And yes, they definitely intersect. The questions I have when I make pictures are often the same, but the approach is different. I consider it important for me to move between both categories of pictures to keep me thinking with "fresh" eyes for whichever is the other body I'm working on. I'm suspicious I'll get in a visual rut if I'm only shooting one way.
HR: I like noting your presence - your hand - in many of the images in The Narrow Abyss, and it makes me think of John James Audubon, arranging specimens to paint them. Do you relate this work to Audubon? And is arranging non-living objects differently meaningful than composing an image of a living subject?
EB: Yes, I love that you bring up Audubon, he's certainly in the back of my mind every time I make a photograph of a bird. I relate to his bird-zeal, and his willingness to study them with both a scientific and artistic eye. The tactics of early naturalists are consistently in my thoughts right now because so many of them were hobbyists, scientists, and artists in their own ways.
Composing non-living objects is completely different- especially when it comes to birds. I know it can maybe seem macabre at first, but I love photographing both living and non-living creatures because viewers can have a different relationship with the image and the animals. Obviously, there's a lot more control available when composing with an animal that has died, but there are challenges in both ways. I never want to be disrespectful in representing an animal, but nor do I want it to look like something it isn't. We (viewers) bring a lot of baggage to viewing images, especially those relating to death, so it's delicate territory.
As far as composing live animals, the hardest part is getting them to be still, so there's way less control, and I'm still trying to be vigilant that I make images that can separate themselves from "straight" nature photography images of animals. With birds that can be tricky.
HR: Could you talk about the series title, The Narrow Abyss?
EB: It comes from an expression John Berger uses in his chapter about animals in About Looking. His description of our (humans') relationship to animals resonated deeply with me when I first read it. He describes our separation from animals as "a narrow abyss," because we are animals ourselves, but because of the way we communicate we will always be looking across a sort of unbridgeable chasm at other animals. The expression was important to me, because it so perfectly described the way I feel when I find a bird that's fallen, or been killed by hitting a window. First, because animals are an everyday reminder that we are mortal, but also that we remember we're not the only living, breathing beings out there.
HR: Why is photography your medium of choice?
EB: I choose photography to work with this content because I think it needs to be seen in as realistic a form as possible. I say this because for us to grasp our physical relationship to another animal, having some kind of bodily reaction in a viewer is my way of deepening my point.
HR: What's your studio quirk?
EB: My studio quick is that I'm a "mouth person" while thinking seriously, and thus, the Queen of Beverages! That is to say, I have to be drinking something almost constantly while editing or printing, and I typically have three different beverages going on at once (no ADHD here). I think it's because otherwise I'd have to be chewing on something: my nails, my pens, etc. So, multiple beverages are a both my luxury and ritual now. In the morning it's usually: coffee, a can of sparkling water, and a cup of spearmint tea. It's usually some variety of those three elements- in the evening an alcoholic beverage occasionally enters the mix. Point being, if my brain is working, i'll probably have cups everywhere.