Eric Weeks’ series of photographs of his wife, World Was in the Face of the Beloved, was recently exhibited at Wave Photo Gallery in Brescia, Italy and Pablo's Birthday in New York. A monograph was published along with the exhibition. Weeks received a MFA from Yale University in 1994. Eric's work involves the contemplation and exploration into the nature of human relationships, while making narrative photographs that reference a wide-range of cultural influences. His photographs have been exhibited internationally, and are represented in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Photography and Maison Européene de la Photographie, among others. He was awarded an Individual Creative Artists Fellowship Grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for 2007. Eric currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts and Hunter College, and is an advisory board member of the Tierney Fellowship. He will be exhibiting his work at the Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire in January of 2009, in conjunction with his teaching there this coming spring. His work is represented by Pablo's Birthday, New York and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

Eric Weeks

 

1. How did you start with photography?  I’ve recently listened to a record of your lecture at the School of Visual Arts.  You were talking about your mother as an inspiration of your photographic style and composition.  How important was her influence for your professional career?  How much is your childhood imagery still present in your photographs?

My mother was the family chronicler, and made all of the snapshots when I was growing up.  Some of the photographs were much more than snapshots, though.  These were the pictures that she spent a good deal of time setting up.  My brother, sister and I often had matching or coordinated outfits, some of which my mother made herself.  There are a few favorites of mine.  One photograph, made in the late sixties, shows the three of us dressed in coordinated Star Trek-inspired outfits.  Another is of my brother and I wearing matching plaid sport coats.  I was about three years old, while he was eight.  My poor brother looks so miserable, as if he was fully aware that he was being compared to his stupid little brother.  The situations my mother placed us in for the photographic event created unplanned reactions that often became the true subject of the photograph.  I don’t know if she understood that she was, at least unconsciously, producing a kind of mythology around our family history.    
I came of age with these little square photographs from her Kodak Instamatic 126 camera.  The colors were so rich, and the formal aspects of the best ones still astound me.  My mother didn’t think of photography as an art form, something to be studied in college, nor did she necessarily encourage me to pursue it as career.  But those photographs definitely influenced me, and I believe that there are parallels with the formal color concerns of those snapshots and the way I construct my photographs now.  There are also similarities in the way that they both suggest open-ended narratives.
 

2. Your wife’s portraits are very staged and quiet.  Those images seem to indicate your state of mind as meditative about your own life.  Does your Stacy portraits tell us something about your private feelings?  I look at her almost like she was your significant other but also as your self-portrait.

Yes, the photographs of my wife are photographs of her as a character, and are not necessarily “portraits” of her.  They are as much portraits of myself as anything else. They are not comments on our emotional relationship, or even about Stacy as a specific person.  Rather, they are meditative glimpses into moments in time that become metaphors for important life experiences.  These moments come from both real experiences from my life as well fictionalized ones.

I believe that all photographs have the possibility of being self-portraits because they represent a host of subjective decisions made by the photographer.  Some of those choices are made consciously, and others may not be, but they all offer clues to the artist’s emotions, thoughts, concerns and psychology.

 

 

© Eric Weeks, Amelia Earhart

 
 

© Eric Weeks, Pastoral

 
 

3.  You finished your studies at Yale University School of Art.  How much has formal training influenced your way of working in photography?  Talking about your personal experience as a teacher, what do you think about photography education?

I was very influenced early on in my photographic education by my high school photography teacher.  Although I made some snapshots before taking a class with him, I didn’t understand all the possibilities and enjoyment photography could offer.  He helped me get accepted to the School of Visual Arts in New York.

While I was an undergraduate student there, I was strongly influenced by a number of teachers and peers that made me think of photography in a different way.  If not for their influence, I may not have even used photography as personal expression, but would have been solely a commercial photographer.

The reason I wanted to go to Yale University was because of a few undergraduate teachers who had either attended or taught there.  In the early 1990’s I did not know of any other program as serious-minded about photography as Yale.  My experience at Yale was essential to the way I think about photography.  The teachers there challenged me in every way, by asking me to not be content with what I already knew or was successful at, and to examine both the ways in which I was using the medium and exactly what I was communicating through it.  They showed me how to work with more focus, and with a much clearer intent.  It wasn’t necessarily an easy time for me and I made a lot of bad photographs!  But through that experience, I learned how to continually challenge myself, and how to more deeply analyze the work that I make.

I have now been teaching photography for ten years at the college level.  I do not think that everyone has to be formally trained to be a good photographer, or to enjoy the medium to its fullest.  There are, however, a lot of benefits from a systematic approach to thinking about and discussing images.  The ultimate goal for most artists is to make as rich and complex an inquiry into life through the act of making some object. The greatest advantage of formal education is the opportunity to discuss these objects with like-minded people.  Formal critiques facilitate discourse between photographer and viewer that help one to better understand the process of making art and the intentions the actual photographs suggest.

 
 

© Eric Weeks, Flower

 
 

4. Tell us something about your book World Was in the Face of the Beloved.  When did you decide to choose Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem as the title for you book?  Was the project born to be a book?

I worked on these photographs years before the title, or the idea of the images being presented in book form, occurred.  I started with the simple idea of making a portrait of Stacy.  The first photograph is titled Doll.  It suggested a kind of narrative to me, and also reminded me of Hans Bellmer’s photographs from the 1930’s.  So I started making more of them.  They just seemed to multiply and the series took on this own life, very separate from my original intentions.  The photographs became more and more narrative-based, were visually engaging and seemed to question the world through this crafted, almost literary, protagonist.  

The title of the series came to me when re-reading a collection of Rilke’s poems that contained the Duino Elegies, among others.  (The Eighth Elegy is one of my all time favorite poems.)  The short poem World was in the face of the beloved really resonated with me.  Stacy, as the beloved, is both specific to me, but also a gesture to a more universal character.  Rilke suggests an obsessive need to “drink world”, to hold it and allow it to fill one’s body, and spirit.  This he does with his own beloved until he himself is lost.  I believe there is an obsessive quality to my collection of Stacy photos; I have made a lot of them!  Much like Rilke, I have also lost myself in some ways in the work. 

 

Making the book was a rewarding and educational experience.  Thanks to Arne Zimmerman, the owner of Pablo’s Birthday, who published the book, I had complete control over the entire project.  I worked closely with the designer, Gabriele Wilson, from the sequencing through to the reproduction. 

 
 

© Eric Weeks, Doll

 
 

5. How many pictures do you usually take for one single subject?  Please tell us about your process of editing.

The process of making photographs of my wife is different from when I am alone, making still lifes of nature or other subjects.  With Stacy, I only attempt to make one photograph at a time.  The process usually starts with an idea, a location, or a costume.  Eventually, I will set up the scene and try different variables.  I still shoot film with a 4 x 5 inch view camera, and sometimes a Mamiya RZ medium format camera. There is an object quality derived from analog photography that is very important to me.  To truly experience my photographs, one has to see an actual print.  The way that line is subtly described by film, and the way three-dimensional space is inferred through an analog print, is completely lost on a computer screen.  

I often make polaroids throughout the shooting process to check form and exposure.  The amount of film can vary from as little as four sheets of 4x5 film to fifty frames on 120 film.  I never leave a scene without some kind of image because I will spend time finding a specific form for the photograph, watching the light, moving Stacy in and out of shadows, etc., until all of the parameters fit into place as “perfectly” as possible.  I never go from one setting to another in one day when making photographs of Stacy.  I focus all of my energy on making a single photograph.   Even with all of this control, though, my work is at its best when I am somehow surprised by the results, and photography has taught me something.  

Not all of my shoots yield a usable photograph, and I’m usually sad at first about all of that lost effort.  Oftentimes I will attempt to make the photograph again, addressing whatever the failure was, and usually, the re-shoots have been some of the very best pictures in the series.  One of my favorite recent images, Big Star, happened this way.  I first made the photograph at a similar, but very different, ice cream stand location.  The place was wonderful, but the photograph I made there wasn’t.  The light was poor, the color uninteresting, and the form even worse.  I was pretty upset, but I tried again a week later at the Big Star, and everything fell into place.

My editing process mostly involves living with the film and work prints for a good while.  The really bad are obvious.  The good photographs are the ones that continue to talk to me over a long period of time, while the okay, but not great ones nag at me because something is just not right.

 
 

© Eric Weeks, Big Star

 
 

6.  Are you still working on the series of still lives of nature (as metaphors of emotional and psychological states)?  I think your earlier work shows some of these emotions inside still life images.  For example the photograph titled brood tells us something about memories of our childhood, and how we felt proud at the same time scary looking at the future.

Yes, the studies of nature are still an important subject for me.  I have been working on a series of photographs taken in the basement of my house in Pennsylvania.  I am captivated by the cobwebs and pipes and how they reminisce with my memories of hanging out in my parent’s basement when I was a young boy. 

Observations From Beneath My Bed was an exhibition I had in New York in 2003.  It was one of several shows where I have exhibited images of varying subjects that have an implied dialogue with each other.  Narrative can come from the way two or more photographs speak to each other, and I very much enjoy working within these possibilities in search of allusive meaning.  I will be putting together an exhibition of this type in a year from now at Pablo’s Birthday, the gallery that represents my work in New York.  In it, I plan to juxtapose photographs of Stacy with my basement pictures, as well as who knows what else?!  

I have Brood hanging in my studio now.  It is one of my favorite photographs.  I like your reading of it.  It does address childhood, identity and the tenuous nature of life.  For some reason, the twin pigeons quickly become more than fragile baby birds on a windowsill, are anthropomorphized, and serve as metaphor for the human condition.  They are so vulnerable and ugly, precariously perched, yet full of life.

 
 
© Eric Weeks, Brood
 

 

7.  What was the last photo book you bought or received as a gift?

I recently bought The Printed Picture (Museum of Modern Art, New York) by Richard Benson, who was my teacher at Yale, and later the Dean of the School of Art there.  Richard is a wonderfully warm and generous man who also happens to be one of the greatest authorities on the printed image.  He has been instrumental in vastly improving the way photographs are reproduced in books.  This quote, from his introduction, describes what he addresses in The Printed Picture:

            “The intention of this book is to explore this many-layered subject
            [image reproduction] through an examination of the different ways in 
            which printed pictures are made.  An underlying premise of this book
            is the fact that printing, photography, and digital technology, as applied
            to pictures, are all aspects of a single ancient process: that of creating
            fixed visual forms in multiple copies.  I believe that pictures are as
            important as language, and that together they form the glue that holds
            society together.”

He starts by discussing cave paintings, moves to woodcuts, engraving and every form of image reproduction through to digital.  It is a beautifully printed and very informative book.

 

 

 

 

Interview by Anya Jasbar, Daniel Augschoell