Director’s Choice winner for Fact & Fantasy, Zoe Zimmerman speaks about her studio practice.
Her Mother's Garden
Describe your path to alternative process photography. What led you to it, where did you start, and how did you end up working with albumen prints?
When I was a kid my mother taught me how to make a soufflé. She did not tell me that people find making soufflés challenging. It was something we ate. We had chickens, lots of eggs at all times and not a lot of money. To my mother a soufflé was the logical choice to feed the family. I did not find making a soufflé difficult, just that there were many steps involved. More than making an omelet. The steps were worth it. An omelet is good but a soufflé is miraculous. So delicious and truly much more than the sum of it’s parts.
I came to albumen printing in much the same way. I already had a leg up, what with the egg separating expertise from the soufflés. Albumen printing requires more steps for the final satisfaction of a beautiful print. Each step in itself is not difficult, there are just a lot of them. The result is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It is miraculous and better than an omelet.
That is the poetic answer, but there were also circumstances that drew me to alternative process work. I have always been a stickler for print quality and when I was in art school there were students churning out ‘work’ prints for critiques, hundreds of the horrible, muddy things that we were then expected to discuss. I was genuinely offended by the ugliness and the gross quantity of what I was seeing week to week. Couldn’t I find a process that was involved enough and beautiful enough to justify pinning up just one or two gems for a critique? My teachers did not love me for it, did not encourage my methodical insanity, but I felt so much better with one successful albumen print than with reams of concept driven drivel. I started making albumen prints as a form of rebellion. I was not a Julia Margaret Cameron throwback, I was a cocky little punk.
Her Dream III
Your work has a surreal and sometimes theatrical element to it. How much pre-planning is involved in the making of a photograph?
My brain stays pretty busy. I have files upon files of ideas in there. Most of them will never see the light of day. I suppose one could say that the pictures take a lifetime of planning…or no planning at all. I keep things very simple in the staging and execution of the images but some of my operatic nature leaks in nonetheless.
The image Her Dream III was planned for a long time. I bought the dollhouse from a junk store with the intention of burning it (there is a sub-theme of cathartic arson peppered throughout my work) but at the time my daughter was too young for the picture to tell the story I intended. The picture is about being a tween; that uncomfortable edge one walks between child and teenager. This year my daughter announced that she wanted to get rid of all the effluvia of childhood in her room…so I knew it was time to take the picture.
Tell us more about this series. What was its evolution? How has using your daughter as your model influenced your work?
The ongoing series of pictures of my daughter is the marriage of my two main modes in life. The dance of Artist/Mother is a challenging one for me and though the ultimate goal is grace and balance, I do not find it easy. How does one carve out the time and energy for a creative endeavor without neglecting some of the needs ones children? How can I say, “ I am here for you.” When what I really want is to be in the studio messing with pictures? This series started as a means of including my child in my studio life.
When we first began, I directed her and she happily joined the game, but quickly she began to have ideas of her own and the project became a collaboration. Her ideas are always more spontaneous and less concept driven and this keeps the project from becoming too static. Now that she is older, she reminds me to continue the series. “Mom, we need to make a picture today” Do you know how satisfying that feels?
Working in the studio you have to construct your images from scratch. How does this process influence your work?
I did not always shoot in the studio. When I was learning my craft, I was more of a hunter/gatherer; loading the large format cameras into some disreputable vehicle that was bound to overheat and scouring the countryside for a beauty that sparked me. It was good. I was a professional trespasser.
I moved into the studio because my life changed. I had my son and, well, if he wasn’t with me then someone needed to know where I would be. If I was going to get any work done, I had to be available.
The studio was intimidating at first. It was “creating” as opposed to “finding.” I started slowly with still lifes that were metaphors for emotional states and then worked up to more narrative images. I have grown more comfortable with the process and appreciate the control the studio affords. Creating things from scratch comes naturally to me. You know, like the soufflé. It just takes more steps.
Finally, we ask this of all of our artists, what does success in art mean to you?
Success as an artist is having at least one person (who isn’t your mother) who gives a shit about your work. Art is a form of communication. If you are communicating clearly, someone is going to get it and applaud. If you are lucky, that somebody is a curator or a gallery director or an art critic who can lead you to a larger audience of somebodies who get it and applaud. Applause feels good. Understanding feels good. But really all you need is one person (who is not your mom) who would be heartbroken if you quit.
Fact & Fantasy is on view at The Kiernan Gallery through June 28.