© Jo Ann Walters, Alton, Illinois 1981

 
 

Michael Serra: First of all, Jo Ann, thank you for agreeing to speak with me, and for offering some images from your forthcoming book, "Vanity + Consolation" to the readers of "Ahorn". I’m humbled and honored to have this opportunity. Let me preface the dialogue by saying that the questions that follow are voluble and carry their own assumptions, as any colloquy would do. I have tried to frame the questions in such a way as to point more directly to specifics. Unfortunately, the analytic reverts to the process of disassembling, which is too often inhospitable to the very process by which art lives: synthesis. I have tried to speak from a satellite’s perspective only in the interest of making evident and clarifying my own pre-dispositions of thought, and directing the dialogue. The rules have been set up, but as such, I am hoping for them to be changed, exposed, challenged, and ignored, in the interests of veracity, thoughtfulness, and a felicity to your own vision and concerns.

Jo Ann Walters: Thank you so much for asking. Your questions are thoughtful and heartfelt.

Writing doesn’t come so easily for me. I will try to use this interview to revisit old ideas and habits of thinking that I haven’t examined in a while. We all get comfortable with our thoughts and concerns. They become habitual and lose their urgency. What was alive in one period of our life becomes stale, eviscerated or bloodless in another.

MS: How long have you been working on these images? What was the point of departure in realizing these images as a coherent body of work? How else would you like to introduce these images to the readers?

JW: I began work on Vanity + Consolation shortly after graduate school in the mid-1980’s. The last few photographs were made sometime in the late 1990’s. I had recently begun my first teaching position at Yale University and shortly thereafter I received a Guggenheim Fellowship. My application included a proposal to photograph along the Mississippi River beginning at its source in Minnesota and culminating at its basin in Louisiana where the river and its tributaries drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

My original intention had been to extend my earlier landscape work of private yards, gardens and suburban woods to include the industrial development and rural landscape along the banks of the Mississippi River. However, I found I was driven by something more personal and urgent. My concerns shifted towards portraiture and my tangled memories of growing up along the river. My travels became the impetus for a journey inward that resulted in more than a decade of self-exploration as I photographed young women, girls and children. Each in their own right became a surrogate charged with questions of possibility, paths not taken, lives unlived or forgotten.

I have tried to find visual mannerisms that allow me to build and modulate tensions between depictions of historical time and other less articulated ways of knowing. Time unfolds sensually and variously. Seasonal time has different markers than linear time; what weather was there, what smell, what sound, what touch, what taste?

 
 

© Jo Ann Walters, Redwing, Minnesota, 1987

 
 

The book will be a collection of about sixty-five photographic portraits of women, girls and children. A good many of them were made in my hometown of Alton, Illinois, while others were made in the small towns, villages and suburbs I have lived in or traveled to.

MS: Acknowledging the irreducible nature of the photographs, the images you’ve shown me from "Vanity + Consolation" seem to be particularly directed towards a visual representation of the gravity and seriousness of the inward experience of young girls and women, especially. It is a subversive and rare gesture to acknowledge the beauty, gravity, and strain of childhood. The stature of the impressionistic experiences of youth in developing thoughts, and ultimately, character, is a terra firma of great spiritual and imaginative weight which seems to me to be neglected, implicitly, as trivial, decorative, or an object of realizing form or social change alone, in much canonized visual art depicting women and young girls. Feminist art of the 1970’s and 1980’s worked against the limitation of women’s freedom as an equipoise to the invisibility of the lives of women and female artists everywhere. Yet the artistic re-rendering of the image of youth and the home for all genders seems to have emerged in photography specifically, relatively as of late.

JW: In Vanity + Consolation, I have tried to show what it felt like to grow up female in a small relatively isolated blue-collar town in Middle America. What did it look like? What did it feel like? What was at stake? Is my experience representative in any way? Does it have relevance for young girls and women today or for the human community at large? The guises of vanity and consolation are deep and insidious, entangled and mutable. What is real? What is feigned or imagined? I’ve tried to show something of this and to render it with all of the ambivalence and contradiction it implies.

 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, Lincolnville, Maine, 1988
 
 

I find the typical depictions of women and girls either serve sentimentality or oppose it. Years ago, I read a collection of folktales and accounts of the supernatural by William Butler Yeats. He describes his encounter with sentimentality as a hollow image of fulfilled desire. His vision introduces a polemic across a range of sentiment. A prominent visual thread in Vanity + Consolation is my reflection on a spectrum between sentiment and sentimentality as it pertains to young women, girls, and children.

 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, from the series DOG Town. Alton, Illinois 2012
 
 

© Jo Ann Walters, Alton, Illinois 2000

 
 

Growing up, I found the social pressures of home limiting and hurtful. I left with the sense I had been lied to and misguided, and with a clear resolve never to be fooled again. Intent on proving my thesis, I returned with camera in hand to make a portrait of my hometown. I felt compelled to look closely, ritualistically, again and again, at the nearly impenetrable, seamless construction of stereotypes surrounding childhood, girlhood, motherhood and womanhood. I often found unhurried appearances that veiled diffuse anxiety, disorientation or muffled rage. The ambition to win validation and attention from men, as well as, the settling protections of marriage was paramount. Perfection was demanded at every turn. Nothing must fall out of place, not one's hair, make up, dishes, garden, children, emotions or desires. And shamefully, I left judging those who stayed behind as weaker and trapped within self-imposed misconceptions, intentions and choices. But, I was unprepared for the creeping realization that the girls, teenagers and young women that I was photographing were vehicles for my own projections. In truth, they were the conduits for the shifting guises and hollowness of my own vanity.

 
 

© Jo Ann Walters, Holly Springs, Mississippi 1988

 
 

MS: Could you speak a bit about the process of putting the book together, and the process of letting the images ripen over the years into something you wish to share in book form?

JW: I exhibited many of these photographs over the years and under different titles and rubrics. I always wanted to make photographic books but didn't want to push my work into this form prematurely. Maybe it's because I love literature so much. I didn't want to breach confidences or create visual correspondences casually or superficially. Also, I was uninterested in making a photo book filled with greatest hits. I refuse to be pressured and perform on a timely schedule. The ambition for commercial success, the satisfaction of publishing or exhibiting work in an effort to garner critical commentary or public validation is all good and well. There are numerous venues available to do so, especially with the Internet. Each achievement comes with its own pleasure and incentive. But, in the end, such ambitions are a threat to the integrity of one's imaginative work, which requires immense attention, concentration, vigilance and care. It requires time. Everyone must find his or her own pace. For me, it cannot be rushed.

MS: Why is it necessary to encounter the book for someone spending time with the images?

JW: On the one hand, a traditional literary book provides a container and formal way to engender expectations by way of the conventions and literary uses associated with it. In the case of Vanity + Consolation, and more broadly across all of my work, I look to fiction and poetry for associative strategies to invert, undermine or even support the documentary realism that dominates the experience of my photographic work. A traditional novel has an embedded organizing principle and a formal potential to simulate durations of unfolding time. It has both starting points and ending points and, then, everything in between.
One is compelled to start reading at the beginning and continue to move forward through its pages. With a collection of short stories by a single author concerned with an overarching concept, (along with everything else the book can be), the linear determination is, perhaps, less powerful, but equally significant. In a collection of poems written by a single author, the determination is even softer.

In a collection of photographs made by a single artist the determination is softer still. A photography book, at the far end of this spectrum, commands less obedience from the viewer/reader. We feel freer to open the book anywhere, at any point, any time and then move back or forward fluidly or randomly between photographic images. Still, we can count on our literary conditioning and learned expectations of narrative direction. We expect, anticipate and seek out narrative lines. As a consequence, I’ve tried to exploit these associations to encourage close, intimate and intricate ways of viewing the photographs.

Together, a book’s literary determinations conflated with the half-language of photography offer an amazing array of possibilities for generating intricate webs of narrative suggestion and associative possibilities. These forms can be manipulated to infer multiple and alternating experiences of time as well. However, photography is powerfully seductive. Its apparent realism and inherent ambiguities can be massaged to lull us into a sleep of feigned knowing with its doubling and tripling insinuations. Herein lies its danger as a propaganda device. But, it is also this same capacity that can be manipulated to suggest the tragedy,poetry and complexity of human experience.

I have tried to craft a simulated experience of institutional and emotional collusion. What does it look like to watch a child grow into a young woman with a body and physical countenance that is over-determined by the restraints of cultural predicament? Within this scenario of edge play, one is constrained in a painful place, forced to choose between a limited number of positions that each carry their own equally uncomfortable stresses. We become exhausted and fatigued from standing on tiptoe and subsequently we must shift into other more painful positions. The weight and gravity of the world presses and maps our bodies even if it appears otherwise. We are porous, like sponges, even against our will. We absorb our community’s darkest indiscretions and the broader culture’s accelerating quintessence.

I have tried to show something of this by layering visual depictions of recurring affects or states of mind and body. In Spinoza’s Ethics he clarifies that affect and feeling or emotion are not synonymous. Rather, "an affect or passion of the mind [animi pathema] is a confused idea" which can only be perceived by the fluctuations in the body's vital force.

 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, St. Louis, Missouri 2007
 
 

MS: You were a part of the exhibition "The Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991, organized by Peter Galassi. What was your experience of the show?

It was an honor to participate in such a wonderful exhibition. It spoke to a real moment in photography. Many exhibitors were beginning to build families at the time. A flood of popular attention and scholarly work focused on the seductions and numbing effect of suburban homogeny. Galassi’s exhibition depicted something of the real joy and pleasure available to all, but more times than not, it inferred a veiled dysfunction and brewing anxiety just beneath the conforming surfaces of the nuclear family and suburban flight. As poles, in terms of my own work, Larry Sultan and Nicholas Nixon’s photographs stand out in my memory.

 
 

© Jo Ann Walters, Guilford, CT 1991

 
 

I was intent on pushing my work into a highly personal place and beyond the culminating moment that the exhibition represented. Broadly speaking, the popular conceptual terrain of the time was settling into an overly simplified and derivative, ironic posture. It seemed to me that the impulse stemmed from a kind of laziness or was exploited to malign rather than invent. I pulled back from ironic tropes, careful to use them sparingly and strategically, sometimes for comic relief or to explore a myriad of impressions or affect. I have worked to construct intricate, subtle layers of associative meaning within and between pictures. Increasingly, my inquiry extended into mapping our experience of shifting mutable selves and its relationship to notions of integrity and character, real or imagined.

 
 

© Jo Ann Walters, Alton, Illinois 2007

 
 
MS: When I stumbled upon your work, a piece of the missing puzzle appeared in the lineage from artists and thinkers such as Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Julia Margaret Cameron and Helen Levitt, who regard the impressions and daily activities of youth, children, young girls, and mothers, and the experience within the home, as the foreground of their art. I immediately think of Virginia Woolf’s remarks from her lectures "A Room of Her Own" in the early 1920’s, that:
 
 

“All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded, I said…and went on in thought through the streets of London feeling in imagination the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life, whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo…or from the violet-sellers and the match-sellers and the old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women…

…Above all, you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the ever-changing and turning world…”

 
 

The nature of this wise-passiveness and attendance to one’s own inner workings, while imaginatively considering the inner workings of others and honoring their distance from our capturing of them in a sovereign knowing, is perhaps, a manifestation of wonder and mystery in our own humanity, and in the humanity of others. You’ve mentioned before the act of coming to trust your own intuition and voice. One of the treasured phrases from Robert Adams that I hold close is that “the job of the photographer is not to catalogue indisputable fact, but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.”

Deferring to Emily Dickinson here, who wrote that “No man instructed me” as well as “All men say what to me,” are you willing to speak to young women artists who are working to discover or hone their vocation and voice, and to come to trust themselves and their vision, amidst failures, barriers, and doubts?

JW: Emily Dickinson’s intelligence and gifts for language are immense. She availed herself of every literary resource at hand, and for all intents and purposes, men commanded this territory. And, rather than take instruction from them, she exploits their expertise and long experience by learning every trick and tool of the trade. She is brilliant at decoding the activating motivations and intentions of unexamined bias buried deeply within the dominant culture. She then, redirects the empirical associations in her poetry to give voice to private expression. She invents language so brilliantly felt, intensely clear, and at once highly abstract and opaque. In order to comprehend a poem’s meaning, one must decode it’s web of insinuations. The most learned men, ‘say what’ to her. They could not fathom her. She gave voice to what ‘no man’ could teach her, and perhaps, what ‘no man’ could know himself.

So why are women’s questions so often experienced by men as opaque or dull or inaudible? Or why are they incomprehensible even to us? I think we absorb the dominant methods of inquiry that are, more times than not, conflated with arrogance. Entitlements are forged. Mystification ensues. Emily Dickinson is masterful at comprehending this. She upsets authority in order to revise and reinvent its formulas. She turns the inherited established assumptions of her time on their head. Perhaps, more significantly, she makes room for herself. This is one clue.

 
 

© Jo Ann Walters, Norfolk, Connecticut 2001

 
 

It is a young artist's myth that if one chooses art as a vocation, it guarantees a life immersed in uninterrupted inspiration. The truth of the matter is no one arrives fully formed. We must take one small step at a time. It is difficult. The conundrum is that we can prepare for inspiration but that does not guarantee it will arrive. Nevertheless, it is imperative to understand that if you do not prepare, inspiration will arrive only intermittently or not at all. An artist's life consists largely of long, hard, patient work. Craft is of the first order. It is also necessary to cultivate a taste for the liminal. That is to say, an ability to occupy multiple, even contradictory, conceptual positions at once. To complicate matters further, it is necessary to situate one's imagination along the boundaries and within the transitional threshold of inner and outer experience. Here we are most fluid, open and permeable to those less articulate ways of making and knowing that exist on the periphery of our awareness. I know one thing for certain: Despite the inherent difficulties, I would have it no other way. If I had not pursued the one thing that continually gives me pleasure and joy and that allows me to feel most fully engaged and alive, I would end my days filled with deep bitterness and regret.

 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, Pregnant girl on guardrail, Vermont 2001
 
 

MS: You’ve mentioned before that Atget’s images have been close to you. At the risk of the description vanquishing the thing itself, could you speak to a few of the images that have guided you imaginatively over the years?

JW: My earliest experience with Atget’s work occurred when I happened upon a small exhibition of his garden photographs that had been curated by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

I think it was at the old ICP building in New York City. I moved from one photograph to the next feeling dizzy and breathless. I later saw the four exquisite and demanding exhibitions curated by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1980’s. My enthusiasm grew with each new encounter.

I later discovered the magnificent work of Helen Levitt, Julia Margaret Cameron and Cindy Sherman’s phantoms and chimera. My work shifted significantly under the weight of their influence.

 
 
Eugène Atget, Trianon,Parc de Sceaux, mars, 8 h. matin, 1925, Abbott Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden
 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, Norfolk, Connecticut 2001
 
 

MS: The Greek word "techne", that we get the term technology from, meant trick in ancient Greece. When Prometheus crossed the threshold from the spiritual world to the material world, bringing the stolen fire from the sacred fire of the gods to the realm of the human, this trick could be used to warm homes, illuminate the night, or cook food. But as a trick, it had unintended consequences: It could burn forests, burn their houses, or burn their fingers. One of the most interesting accounts of developing technology I’ve come across is from Hayden Carruth, who writes that “every new technology brings with it a moral regression in intelligence.” It seems that new eases often bring with them complicating difficulties.

JW: We wrestle with technique like some dark angel. Photographers have always had a love-hate relationship with technology. I know many who have seized and hoarded materials that would soon be discontinued. We feel directly or indirectly at the mercy of corporations and their economic determinations. The future life of our tools and materials are unpredictable and their obsolescence inevitable. We can play at guessing the maximum life span of each new technology and calculate the diminishing returns, or we can debate the moral contingencies of corporate entities as individuals. For the time being, we continue to manufacture desire, and, with it, tremendous pressure to conform and adopt each current manifestation. There are real economic and political consequences. Neglect, ignore or choose otherwise, at your own peril.

The practice of photography, with all of its uses and ambiguities remains relatively powerful. It is a highly conceptual set of tools that remains conflated with shifting ideological references and associations. Its descriptive potential always appears, more or less continuous, and at the same time, just on the verge of disambiguation. Joseph Marshal, my mentor in graduate school, liked to say that photography is a surface-swimming mackerel and we photographers are the bottom feeders and the riverboat gamblers of the art world.

I can easily moralize my feelings about technologies lost. The dying chromogenic process feels like a loss of breath. It was difficult but possible to massage analogue/chemical processes to simulate color temperature, barometric pressure and atmospheric density in convincing ways. At my best I was able to work the synthetic dyes embedded in the film and plastic sheets of printing paper to create sensual experiences akin to seasonal changes. It appears as if ambient light and atmosphere are emanating from within the photographic image.

 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, St.Louis, Missouri 2005
 
 

I am enamored by how the shifting pressure, density and colors of atmosphere can mark our awareness. In Vanity + Consolation, I have interlaced depictions of weather and ambient light with the cultural artifacts of place. Simultaneously, I have tried to show how our bodies and physical countenances are shaped by its influence.

 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, Phoenix, Arizona 2000
 
 

I continue to shoot color film for the time being but I now make digital inkjet prints. When I first saw early examples of digital prints they looked like photography on crack, and in some instances this appeared appropriate to the content of the work. Digital materials are increasingly sophisticated and malleable (Not the same but full of potential). I find Photoshop to be equally infuriating and amazing.

One unexpected response I’ve had to digital technology: I’ve begun to work seriously with cell phone camera technology. I have made thousands of pictures with my two-megapixel camera. I am mesmerized by its beauty and poverty.

MS: You recently published your first website. Having been a part of the photographic community in universities and museums for decades, it is a remarkable act of omission to have been dedicated to your own vocation to the neglect of this new form of participation in the life of the image for so long.

JW: Yes, it is remarkable. I worked on different versions of a website off and on over the last five years. I did a lot of work, but just never pushed the publish button. It was perverse. It seemed so public, like a frog. I have always had long periods of reclusiveness. I don’t particularly enjoy gallery openings or the networking that goes along with them. It is a kind of shyness. Also, I find it difficult to mix business with pleasure. I don’t begrudge others for doing it. Some people are brilliant with the whole business thing and it is fascinating to observe.

I like to keep my distance from the fault zone. When it comes to my work and my efforts to hone my attention, I find the rapid exchanges between fashion and popularity along with laudatory or dismissive opinions to be detrimental to my work in both the long and short run. I don’t mean to say that I don’t enjoy attention. I think it would be very difficult, nearly impossible, to work without external validation. But in the end, I am easily seduced by popular opinion, so I am inclined to stand on the sidelines and a bit in the shadow.

MS: One of the basic metaphysical inheritances of the Romantic spirit supports the Platonic division between spirit and matter—adding to it the idea that an inner force of creativity and plentitude is restricted by some exterior force from materializing itself and moving across the threshold to actualization. In this picture, the person is always up against almost insurmountable odds from a hostile world, and is in a deep sense, divided inwardly between vocation and existence. We have characters such as George Buchner’s "Lenz" or Thomas Mann’s "Aschenbach" from "Death in Venice", who symbolize this spirit in hyperbole. Now that we encounter a social world of constantly mutating and changing products and identities, and in a time when an artist has more possibilities for material expression than in any time in history, what barriers exist to vocational recognition and pursuit?

JW: I have come to understand my work, at least in part, as coming from a romantic impulse. It is romantic in the sense that it comes from a desire or yearning for consciousness. Technology brings its complicating difficulties for sure. Institutional entrapment is real. “Size circumscribes ---” and then, “The Giant tolerates no GNAT,” as Emily Dickinson accurately recognizes. We are expected to conform and shut up. “Gianture” repudiates defamation in order to gain or hold ground. Emily Dickinson is a heretic and sees clearly what is at stake. “Intrinsic size” most often ignores the generative possibilities that thoughtful analysis of one’s merits and faults can engender. Instead, it hears only defamation and slander.

It is terribly difficult to suspend oneself above or beyond one’s cultural predicament. It requires immense will, intense observation and I think, courage. You have to give into and defy gravity at once.

MS: You spent some months living with The Egglestons during your time making work in the Southern United States in relationship to your Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986. Are you willing to talk about some of the things you learned and discovered during your time with them?

JW: William Eggleston’s ‘war with the obvious’ became my first introduction into various worlds of photographic art. I encountered his work early in the 1970’s, well before I had begun any formal training in photography.

Later, when I was traveling on a Guggenheim Fellowship, a colleague who was aware of my admiration for William Eggleston’s work suggested I call him. However, I was also told not to expect hospitality in the conventional sense of the word.

It was funny. I called when I first arrived in Memphis. After introducing myself, Bill asked me where I was staying. I was sleeping in a van at a campsite just outside of the city limits. His response was, issued in an unmistakable southern drawl: "I'm sorry. I can't relate to that."

The Eggleston’s invited me to stay in their home. I lived with them off and on for several months over the course of my fellowship. I have continued to visit, though infrequently, over the years.

With their home as a base, I took day or weeklong trips. I would return to recuperate or make pictures locally. Once, Rosa (Bill’s wife) and I traveled to Holly Springs, Mississippi to visit a friend of hers. I photographed much of the time and made a few of my best pictures there. I photographed their children a bit also. Two pictures of their daughter Andre, who is now an actress, will be included in Vanity + Consolation.

Bill and I spent a lot of time looking at pictures together, sometimes for hours at time. I would help him choose exhibition prints from the batches received from his lab. He was reluctant to choose one version over another. He saw each photograph as equal but different and endlessly open to interpretation. He often drew comparisons to musical improvisation.

I made my own C-prints and had very specific ideas about color and light and so I was quick to choose. I would work long and hard to find an interpretation that came closest to what I had determined best described the content of each of my photographs. This is not to suggest that one criteria was better or worse, but a variation in sensibility. His broader and more inclusive response challenged me to question my perfectionism, which at times interferes with my work. I poured over William Eggleston’s Guide for many years and absorbed much of it before we met. In doing so, I discovered that we share a sensibility for the subtle colors and intricacies of ambient light. I found that we also share a taste for the homely.

 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, from the series DOG Town, Alton, Illinois 2011
 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, Memphis, Tennessee, 1997
 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, from the series DOG Town, Alton, Illinois 2009
 
 

I came to enjoy Bill’s eccentricities and found them instructive. This helped me make sense of the surprise and invention I experienced in his work. It was also liberating. He had immense confidence in his intuitions regarding unorthodox subject matter and point of view. He was direct and unapologetic. Watching him, I learned to trust my own intuitions and idiosyncrasies and to see the place where I was born and raised as a rich and endless resource.

 
 
© Jo Ann Walters, from the series DOG Town, Alton, Illinois 2012
 
 

MS: Making and thinking about photography as an art form hold a relatively new place in higher education, starting with the program at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1940’s. Yet it was not until the late 1960’s, it seems, that BFA and MFA programs in photography as a discipline or medium unto itself, rather than simply the handmaiden of arts and sciences or a technical process, began to be sustained on a national level. This is also a time when one did not hear the names of women artists in art history curriculums. You were ahead of the undergraduate program of art at Yale for a time, taught in the MFA program, and have been in the throes of higher arts education for decades now. It seems you’ve been able to navigate a heavily male-dominated community of teachers in photographic arts education for many years.

JW: I suppose you are right in regard to my experience with higher education. I have been able to stay afloat in a field that is predominantly male, though there are many more women on faculties today. Once in a while I step back and am surprised by my successes. Teaching remains endlessly rich and rewarding for me.

I have also been fortunate to work with many excellent artists and teachers. However, the world of politics is typically motivated by vanity and a veiled agenda, consciously or otherwise. Duplicity is endless. When principles are at stake, it seems that those involved do not understand or choose to forget that beliefs are merely instruments.

I like men. I do not like patriarchy. At the very least, patriarchy is unreasonable and a nuisance. In its more powerful manifestations it is malicious, injurious, cruel or physically violent. Feminist theories have been useful to me as instruments for analysis.

The connotations of my portraits are relative to a particular time and place: a small, relatively isolated, racially segregated, blue-collar town in a southern Illinois. Nonetheless, I have tried to show, in a small way, the effects that the deep wells of gender bias have had on the psyches, bodies, and spirits of a generation of women.

MS: What type of kinship have you had with some of the other teachers and artists you’ve worked with along the way?

JW: I formed two important relationships with women while at Yale. One is Laura Wexler, who will write an essay for Vanity + Consolation. She is a professor in American Studies and Women’s Studies there. She appeared at a presentation I gave on my early landscape work. We talked for a long while and the bond was set. We have remained in touch ever since. I am continually amazed by her immense intelligence and spirit of generosity.

Jan Groover was the first photographer working in color to be invited to teach in the Yale Photography department. Joel Sternfeld was the second and then, myself. Jan didn’t stay for long. She had little tolerance for the absurdity and pettiness of most academic politics. We taught together on several occasions when she returned to Yale as a visiting artist.

Later, when she moved to France, she bequeathed her classes to me at Purchase College. She loved the students there. I do too. They are really gifted, street smart and often the rough and tumble sort. As an artist, Jan was so visually intelligent and searching. Her work displayed a deep interiority and integrity. I remember being a graduate student in Ohio listening to her discuss her work. She talked of the acclaim she had received for her photographs of pots and pans and kitchen utensils. Instinctively, she retreated and began to make work she found more challenging, risking both popularity and critical attention. Acclaim was a kind of litmus test for her that indicated that she was repeating herself or had become too comfortable.

Nancy Davidson, a sculptor and installation artist who worked at Purchase College, SUNY, for many years has been a wonderful mentor and supporter of my work. Though my interactions with her were mostly formal, faculty meetings and such, I would find the occasional note in my mailbox during my early years teaching there. She might write a few sentences saying how much she appreciated having a strong woman on the faculty, or telling me that she appreciated my influence in the department. It was so generous and thoughtful. It seems like a small thing on the surface, but it was so thoughtful and helpful. Harriet Schorr, a painter on the faculty, also took me under her wing.
 
I am very attracted to a kind of restrained sensual beauty, memory mixed with desire, but also tough-minded and descriptive. In this regard and to various degrees, I feel a photographic kinship with Judith Joy Ross, Greg Miller, Doug Dubois, Mark Steinmetz, Andrea Modica, Laura Letinsky, Nick Nixon, Emmet Gowin, Jed Divine, Jan Groover and Helen Levitt. I really admire hardworking, nose to the grindstone kind of photographers who love the craft. I include all of those mentioned above, as well as other visually amazing artists who doggedly comb the landscape like Steven Smith, who has been photographing the American West for many years.  I love the work of young conceptual photographers like Nicholas Muellner and Adam Schreiber, who explore language, philosophy and visual anthropology and poetry. To me, they are the real thing. Additionally, I think it is really important to say I have been inspired by the work of many of my students past and present. Young artists like David Nadel, Kris Graves, Peter Baker, Matt Albanese, Jason Hanasik, Cari Will, as well as established artists like Steve Smith, Amy Stein, Andrea Modica, Laura Letinsky, Gregory Crewdson, Mark Steinmetz, who I mention above. They are now wonderful artists working independently. I love teaching. I have been so lucky to be able to earn my living this way.

As a graduate student I worked with Joseph Marshall, an amazing young teacher. I spoke of him earlier. He had just received an MFA and MA from the University of New Mexico where he had studied with Beaumont Newhall. He also studied briefly with Minor White at MIT.

He was hired as a sabbatical replacement and had come to the position with a recommendation from Newhall describing him as the most brilliant student he had ever worked with. In terms of both my personal work and my teaching in the classroom, there is not a single day that goes by that I do not feel his influence in some significant way. He was a true mentor. I left his office after showing him my work for the very first time. The appointment had been scheduled for thirty minutes but it extended nearly two hours.

I must have looked dazed and confused because another graduate student waiting patiently by the office door asked me what had happened. I said, “He asked me questions I couldn’t answer.”

MS: Coleridge speaks of the idea that a great mind is androgynous, perhaps meaning that it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided. Woolf writes “All of this pitting of sex against sex…all this claiming of superiority and imparting of inferiority, belong to the private school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides.’”

JW: The space of imagination appears fluid and mutable to me: less predictable, darker and not always full of light and unity. I don’t think it has much to do with greatness or distinction either, though distinction sometimes accompanies it. It is always shifting and liminal. Mary Oliver describes it as, “The difference between the shape of a star and the heat of a star.”

 
 

 

www.joannwalters.com

 

 

Interview by Michael Serra