Interview: Jillian Billard
All Images Courtesy of Savannah Spirit
As the name suggests, “WOMAN: A Bold Celebration of Women in Photography” is an exhibition of women-identifying artists whose work explores what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. Curated by photographer Savannah Spirit, the show features works from 11 photographers, including Lillian Bassman, Elinor Carucci, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Nona Faustine, Mona Kuhn, Monica Orozco, Sasha Phyars-Burgess, Symone Seven, Deborah Turbeville, Ellen Von Unwerth, and Spirit herself. Together, these artists present a cross-generational array of perspectives that muse on notions of femininity, self-love, and empowerment; while inciting a dialogue that serves to challenge societal expectations of women in the 21st century.
What unites women, posits Spirit, is the common struggle to be heard. Increasingly, women artists, photographers in particular, are using their platform to redefine themselves on their own terms; to embrace their innate elegance and power; and to lift each other up. “We are our own muses” proclaims Spirit.
The exhibition consists of a refreshing array of diverse imagery, from black and white cinematic glamour shots by fashion photographer and filmmaker Ellen Von Unwerth; to Israeli artist Elinor Carucci’s scenes of motherhood; to Atlanta-based emerging artist’s highly saturated, surreal photographs depicting and celebrating the breathtaking beauty of a woman. We spoke to Savannah Spirit, Symone Seven, and Sasha Phyars-Burgess about their contributions to the show, and what being a woman means to them.
Can you talk a bit about your life growing up? How did you first come to photography?
I was born in in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. Growing up in the valley in the ‘70s felt pretty free and innocent. We played outside all the time and rode bikes with the neighbor’s kids. My older brother used to dress me up in costumes like Olive Oyl from “Popeye,” while our mom filled photo albums with snapshots of us. I grew up in a family of artists and songwriters so my brother and I were encouraged to explore all creative facets.
When we moved to Carmel, California, I was exposed the work of Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams. Their images made an indelible mark on me that would later shape my visual style. When I was about 8 years old, I took a family portrait; not particularly outstanding; just a portrait of my brother and father. However, my brother proclaimed my future as a photographer, and that was that. My future was sealed. I received my first camera at 13 and I was hooked. I carried it everywhere. Probably the biggest influence is the stack of faded photo albums from my childhood.
Your work has a distinctive cinematic feel to it––as though a greater narrative exists beyond the frame. Is film a big influence on your work?
Yes, I am heavily influenced by films. I grew up watching a lot television and going to the movies with my brother. When I got my driver’s license, my favorite thing to do was go to the movies by myself. Later on, I started working at a video store in Santa Fe. I used to take stacks of films home. I was teaching myself about film and starting to understand that there was a real distinction between average movies and those that possessed beautiful cinematography. That’s when I started to pick up that style of working. I want you to feel you’re in a movie. The films that come to mind when I think of my inspiration are An Angel At My Table, Days of Heaven and The Conformist, but there are too many to list!
Many of your works center around the woman’s body as muse. What does it mean to be one’s own muse? How does the female gaze challenge traditional perceptions of feminine beauty, and counter the notion of the body as object?
I believe that to be your own muse is to own who you are and to worship the human within. When a woman feels her power within herself and recognizes it, she becomes her own muse. It doesn’t matter body size, shape or color––it’s what’s inside. Women have been manipulated with advertising to conform to society’s standards of beauty, or at least the “men in the boardroom’s” standards of beauty. It’s easy to fall into the trap. I’m guilty of it. Women are constantly reminded that their bodies should be hidden.
For me, the female gaze is about claiming ownership, not just about beauty or reversing the role of the male gaze. It’s the voice that comes with it and how women fight back against the patriarchy. It’s about standing up and not backing down. I just read recently about a young female student who couldn’t wear a bra one day to school due to a sunburn, yet was forced by the administrators to put band aids over her nipples because she was “distracting” the boys in her class. I mean, if that’s not sexualization of the female body, I don’t know what is. That’s mortifying for a young woman. It should never have been an issue. It’s her choice what she does with her body. Shame on the administrators who body shamed her. They have some soul searching to do.
I’m particularly interested in the ways that your work serves to subvert and reclaim the male gaze, specifically in your black and white photographs, as the images often appear to honor traditional representations of feminine beauty (pinups, etc.).
In shooting the black and white images I realized that it wasn’t about being looked at. It was to reclaim my power in an internet world. Strip it down (in this case stripe it down). In this work I only show the body, never the face. In my mind I feel that by removing the face it becomes less about what we think as feminine beauty and more about line and form. I admit, I love looking at the female body. I think a woman’s shape is beautiful and soft but that doesn’t mean it solely exists to be looked at. What I mean is that it’s human nature to look and admire a beautiful body but I’m trying to do something different. The black and white work, for me, breaks down the nude body to a form which takes away the body as a sexual object. Placing the body within the confines of lines changes the dynamic.
When a woman feels her power within herself and recognizes it, she becomes her own muse. It doesn't matter body size, shape or color––it's what’s inside.
Can you talk a bit about your Censorship series? What inspired this? Why is it so important to consistently fight censorship?
The catalyst for the Censorship series came about because my social media accounts kept getting shut down. I wanted to literally say something on my body about this issue so I used the same idea as the striped work but in a way that would have the same impact. I’ve been fighting censorship on social media for about 2 years. It’s exhausting, especially because you don’t know if it’s an algorithm thing or if you’re getting reported. For me, freedom of speech is the real issue, and that’s really what I’m fighting for. It’s not, “Oh I just feel like showing my nude body today” to see what I can get away with. It’s because the more people fighting against the establishment, the more we will be heard. The closer we get to changing minds about the body as an object.
You are also an activist. Can you talk a bit about this, and how your work acts as a catalyst for action and change?
I started shooting protests when Occupy Wall Street was unfolding in 2012. My contribution was capturing the action while being a presence at the marches. Being in the thick of the protests was exhilarating; knowing that at any moment we could be arrested. I learned to shoot from the hip so I wouldn’t get my camera taken. I’m not sure if the work was a catalyst for change but shooting and posting work contributed to the shifts in consciousness on social media. People could see the issues that we were fighting against. Now it’s a myriad of issues. Where to begin? Since then I’ve photographed Black Lives Matter, People’s Climate March, Women’s March and Anti-Trump protests, but the OWS movement was about awakening. The first time I went to photograph it there was a large meditation circle at Zucotti Park. That meditation circle was a sign for me that there was a collective global consciousness happening. That was the catalyst for change for me.
When did you begin curating shows?
I began curating in New York City about 10 years ago. First in a small gallery space in Chelsea and then co-curating in artist studios around Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that point I was pounding the pavement, meeting a lot of diverse artists and just learning how to put together shows. It was around that time that alternative spaces were taking over. In 2010 I started thinking about curating a show that would be a real departure from what I was doing and what I felt was missing from the art world. No one was really going there with erotica since it’s a risky subject. Plus, the art world takes itself so seriously, a show about sex and pleasure was needed. In January 2011, Hotter Than July: A Sexploration opened. It was the first in the series held in a now defunct but gorgeous space called NY Studio Gallery on the Lower East Side. It was a gallery known for taking chances. I’ve done that show 3 times and it’s exhilarating to put together every time. It’s really a blast to curate. I hope to do it again soon.
Is this your first virtual exhibition? How did the opportunity to work with Artsy come about, and what has been your experience of curating an online show?
I have a wonderful relationship with the woman who represents my work at Undercurrent Projects, Katie Peyton. Katie decided to work with Artsy because she saw more opportunity for artists and guest curators to make more of an impact online. There are no barriers, no white walls and it’s great that anyone far and wide have access to see exhibitions. The gallery model is costly and this provides a space for smart shows to exist. Artsy is wonderful to work with and are supportive of shows like this because it’s cross-generational and gives new life to the art. It’s been a terrific experience.
What inspired you to put together this exhibition? How did you select artists to feature, and what was your thought-process behind making it cross-generational?
When I curate, I always want to give a fair shot to both men and women. I’m aware of how important it is to be inclusive. However, in the social climate we’re in right now, it felt right to bring together women who I found personally inspiring to me. I originally had more women but came to realize that smaller is better. I picked artists I felt had a lot to say about their lives as women and in turn made incredible work from it. I also love the idea of women looking at women, how do women see themselves? How do we perceive each other? I challenged myself to work with larger galleries who would understand the importance of a show like this as well as see value in blending emerging, mid-career and established artists. For well-established artists it gives the work a chance to co-mingle with contemporary artists breathing life into the work. For emerging artists it’s thrilling to show work alongside these incredible women who have changed photography. I’m looking forward to curating a second “WOMAN” show in the Fall. It will be more theme based but the same premise.
What does it mean to be a “woman”? Why are the relationships and bonds between women so valuable? How do women empower one another?
I feel it’s about being who you are with no apologies. It’s about holding your own in a predominately male world and standing up to “power.” Voicing it, shouting it. Giving a shit about your neighbor and helping and also not giving a shit about the petty stuff. Women empower one another by raising each other up. When women can transfer strength and vitality to each other, that’s when it becomes valuable and magical. Women achieve great things when we get together in numbers. A perfect example is the Women’s March. I am proud of the sea of Pink Pussy hats enveloping the country. So beautiful! Gotta keep the magic going and stand with each other.
Many of the works in this show possess a sense of vulnerability. Why is vulnerability so vital to shifting the way that we see and perceive women?
There’s a strength in vulnerability. To show vulnerability is to be human. If everyone was stoic and nothing bothered them it would be a boring place. When we see another being vulnerable that’s the stuff from the heart. The good bits of life. I feel the 4th wave feminist movement includes men in the conversation. Men who see women as their mothers, sisters, daughters and treat us with respect. Perhaps it’s about men being empathetic to the women’s movement. I feel the vulnerability isn’t just about shifting how we see women but how we see men as well.
Symone Seven is a 21-year-old emerging photographer based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Let’s first talk a bit about your background. How did you first come to photography? Where are you based?
I’m a photograpHER based in Atlanta, Georgia. I specialize in beauty photography but I also shoot portraits, products, and fashion. I’ve been a photographer for a year and some change now, beginning my journey in January 2017. I embarked on this journey as a quest for self discovery after experiencing a series of traumatic events that pushed me to start fresh. I found myself in need of a healing outlet, and photography became this outlet for me. I needed something unfamiliar and fresh. I shaved my head and created a new name for myself: Symone Seven. Before I came to photography I was a journalist. Not only did I have a disinterest in photography, but I had a hatred for it! Needless to say, “Never” isn’t in my vocabulary anymore. Once I decided to do photography, I dedicated myself to simply pursuing the idea of it. I never would have guessed I would of completed over 100 shoots; shooting celebrities and a double magazine cover for Bonheur Magazine in my first year. I built a network of people that inspire me, I do work I’m proud of; and that’s so much more than what I started with.
What does it mean to be a “woman,” to you?
Being a woman is the greatest gift I never asked for. My essence flows out of my femininity; from the softness of my southern accent, the mildness of my manner to my bold approach toward creating and my tenacity once I make up my mind about something. I feel incredibly blessed to be a woman. I’m in awe of us, honestly. I often work with all black woman teams on my shoots because of the energy that they bring. It’s this soulful creativity yet this fearlessness in executing an idea. We will make it work! One way or another! Okkurrrr!
How did you go about selecting your works How do Embrace, Flow, and We Are One to include in this show?
Savannah Spirit, one of the curators of the exhibit, actually discovered my work on social media. She selected those specific pieces and I was honored to be a part of something bigger than myself. I was especially happy to plug into a message I really stand by: championing other women and validating our existence through representation.
Your self-portraits are breathtaking. When did you begin shooting self-portraits? What does it mean to be the artist and muse simultaneously? Would you say that it allows you to explore multiple facets of yourself?
Thank you! I actually began doing self portraits before I ever became a photographer. I was doing it without even realizing it. I started an instagram July 2016 and started posing self portraits with my camera, a tripod and wifi remote app on my phone. I would get creative with my looks and edits. Then one day, an old friend from high school Byron who knew me as a writer told me I was actually a photographer! He urged me to begin studying the craft and developing my talent. So once I actually became a photographer I used it as just that. I use it as a tool to develop my style, take creative risks, and learn techniques. Using myself as a muse is amazing advertising. I’m a walking billboard for my brand. I just realized how deep photography runs. I noticed that if I’m feeling really insecure that day in how I look or how I did on a shoot, I might over-edit to compensate for how I feel. Photography really brings awareness to me on all levels. So now, I’m on a all natural campaign using models with little makeup and editing to build my confidence.
Each of your photographs so succinctly captures each subject’s divine, innate natural beauty. What is the process of collaboration with your subjects like, and how does your sensibility as a muse inform the way you shoot others?
The experience of shooting itself isn’t as grandiose as the final product. The final images I produce comes as a bit of a shock to my clients and my collaborators because the shoot is so relaxed. I really love my job as a full time photographer because I feel like I’m getting paid to hang out with people. During my shoots, we just chill and have fun. We share stories, we dance to the music, we play around with different approaches. It’s very light hearted. That comes from my personal background in photography. Before I became a photographer, I absolutely hated to be photographed (apart from selfies) and I hated taking photos. I fully empathize with people who don’t like how they look on camera, fear of being awkward, and all of the things that get us worked up about cameras. So I make it my job to take the seriousness out of the experience. I play their favorite songs, I don’t over direct, I ask them about themselves while we shoot, I don’t ever judge them. The most rewarding part for me is being that peace for people. You never know what people are going through; but to know that while they are with me, they feel safe, valued and at ease, puts me at ease.
I feel incredibly blessed to be a woman. I’m in awe of us, honestly.
Many of your works play with surreality. Can you talk a bit about your sources of inspiration?
Salvador Dali was the visual artist I had the most exposure to. In my hometown Saint Petersburg, Florida, there’s a huge museum dedicated to his contributions. It’s this immaculate glass building contoured into a geometric shapes, and a garden complete with a maze and oversized Dali inspired sculptures. I remember when it first opened, I was a teenage reporter sent to review the experience for this youth publication called Tb-two*. I had never been so moved by paintings before. Dali taught me how to see the world through my own eyes and redefined what an artist could be. A pretty landscape on canvas was the norm but he literally melted time away with withering clocks and floating objects. I always felt like I was different growing up and he showed me that my true power was in my uniqueness. Whenever I create, I tap into that power boldly like Dali did.
Why, in your experience, is community and collaboration between women-identifying people so vital?
Community and collaboration are a vital part of art because art is the expression of the human spirit. We are an interdependent species and our inspiration is drawn from our interactions. Personally, I can attribute my growth as an artist to the kindness of people. The internet is a helpful tool but human resource is the greatest resource. I don’t rely on YouTube tutorials. When I want to learn, I seek out people who can show me the way. I message people daily on social media. I set up meetings every week with new creatives to chat with about their journey and techniques. I shadowed photographers from the very first week I called myself one. Special thank you to photographers like Jerrod Douse, Byron Boykins, Terrol Henderson, Chad Flucas and Rainey for being such incredible mentors to me from the very beginning. I take notes and I’m never afraid to ask the stupid questions. It’s helped me from a technical standpoint but also it nurtures me. I believe we are shaped by every interaction we have and I wouldn’t be who I am without connection. Everytime, I meet someone new I’m opened up to a new possibility of my own potential.
Sasha Phyars-Burgess (b. 1988) is a photographer whose work is “a search for why and how some people continue to live underneath the conditions of blackness.”
Let’s first talk a bit about your background. How did you first come to photography?
There is no long interesting story here. When I was in high school I had a friend who said he wanted to take a photo class, and because I thought he was super cool, I said I would take a photo class too. So I signed up and that basically started it.
For this series, you photographed scenes from black fraternities and sororities at Cornell University Campus. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for this series and your experience of documenting students of color in these intimate spaces?
Arriving to the Cornell University Campus, and Ithaca, New York at large, to start my MFA was a very disorienting experience. I had spent the time between undergrad and graduate school, in, for the most part, spaces with predominantly black people or people of color. Ithaca at first glance, is incredibly white and so is Cornell. But of course, this is only at first glance, if you care to pay attention any longer than that you will see that both Cornell and Ithaca has quite a few students of color and I knew they had to be congregating somewhere. So I looked. The undergrad culture at Cornell is predominated by Greek Life, and I have always been very curious about this, particularly about Black Greek Life. So I contacted the Alpha Phi Alpha and Alpha Kappa Alpha organizations and asked if I could photograph them, and found that they threw these parties on campus. The parties are heavily attended by black students, and they become spaces, where people can stunt, look good, and experience the full expression of their bodies without the complications and misunderstandings of white people. I’m not trying to say these spaces are without their problems, but what I am saying that to be in a space, where you can express your body without the constraints of hegemonic impositions of decorum is a powerful thing. Being in these spaces reminded me that in undergrad, my friends and I sought the same moments, and feelings, which is both disheartening that the black body, no matter it’s age, status or presentations is always a policed body, and reassuring that wherever black people and people of color are we still seek solace in each other.
In your artist’s statement, you write “I have come to realize that my interest lies not just in the taking of photographs but the ways in which the act of photographing allows one to be within a space without the pretense of knowing or necessity.” How does photography act as a form of exploration for you? What is the distinction between creating an image and documenting a moment? How does this allow you to interrogate the space around you?
Photography is my excuse to look at people. Looking that entails not just the ocular act of receiving the world as described by light, but also the entire interaction that is necessary in order for a photo to be made. I explore the things people are willing to give me in the photograph, and things people are not willing to give me. I explore the manner in which the photograph is neither truth nor lie, but just presence. I am also interested in the ways in which photographs attempt to build understandings of others, and how easily this can be manipulated. The photograph allows me to interrogate confusion, which is often linked to what is around me.
Being a woman to me means that I get to live in communion with all the forms, representations, and presentations of women that exist. That I get to to appreciate these women, and that we get to live with without the tyranny of sexual oppression.
What is the dynamic of photography in relation to fact and reality? I’m fascinated by your statement that photography allows one to look a bit longer, but it is neither truth nor lie, rather it is “the gap between knowing and seeing.” Can you talk a bit more about this, and how our perceptions and certain visual signifiers can elude us?
This is heavy, and I don’t quite know if I can answer this succinctly but I will try my best. There are the things that we see, and often believe we know, or understand just by seeing, and the things we believe to be true. I will relate this specifically to the ways in which seeing has been linked to knowing in terms of racism. One of the many reasons that racism persists, is because (white) people continue to connote what they see of black people and people of color to what they believe they know about what it takes to be human. Since they see their humanity, as the pinnacle of humanity, they will continue to ignore the facts that present themselves, that in actuality there is no difference biologically between them and this person they have deemed as other. This is that gap. I suppose in simpler ways, that gap is perception. So perhaps there is reality and this is perception, and there is objective truth, that lies way beyond that, it is easily accessible, but less sought, especially if it does not align with your perceptions. I think, tangentially that humans are quite simply psychologically fallible, but incredibly strong in other ways. Octavia Butler deals with this quite a lot in her writings.
How does your understanding of blackness continue to unfurl through your practice?
Blackness, it’s political, social, cultural, economic, intellectual, and psychological depth (amongst other things) is so vast, so wide that I can’t even begin to comprehend it. I’m interested in all the ways that blackness has shaped modernity and has tilted the axis of the world. I’m also just plainly interested in knowing all of the places where black people exist, how they got there, and whether or not I can go there and photograph them.
What were your considerations in selecting works to include in this show. What does it mean to be a “woman,” to you?
Savannah Spirit, the artist, photographer and curator who curated the show, chose a group of photographs I had taken from a selection of a body of work I had taken at Cornell University. One thing that excites me about watching people in their teens and early twenties deal with gender, femininity and womanhood, are the many the ways in which they actively flirt with all variances of gender and the presentation of such. Being a woman to me means that I get to live in communion with all the forms, representations, and presentations of women that exist. That I get to to appreciate these women, and that we get to live with without the tyranny of sexual oppression.
Why is the relationship and dialogue between women-identifying people so vital?
Because we are alive and we deserve to live those lives fully. Also, I just want all my girls to get on.