How I Got That Residency: Jennifer Garza-Cuen, Light Work Artist in Residence
February 13, 2018
From Jennifer Garza-Cuen’s series “Eden,” which depicts a community of Adventists, Mennonites and Quakers in Vermont.
To edit a series, Garza-Cuen says, “you have to separate yourself from the making of the images.”
PDN: How did you select the portfolio of 10-20 images that you submitted to Light Work?
Jennifer Garza-Cuen: I submitted the Eden series [from her ongoing “Imag[in]ing America” project]. At the time, that was my most recently completed series.
PDN: Photographers often struggle with editing their own work. How did you choose the images for the Eden series?
J.G.C.: You have to give it time. I’ll edit for months after I’ve shot a series. It’s also good to get feedback from mentors or colleagues. But editing takes time because you have to separate yourself from the making of the images in order to see what’s there.
PDN: What are your methods of separating yourself?
J.G.C.: I try to print [the work] and let it live somewhere in small format. I’ll put up a wall of images. I move images around, put them in different groupings, and sequences. The goal is to see how they stand up in relation to each other, and to find the images that continue to resonate after I’ve distanced myself from the making of them.
PDN: You see what continues to resonate: Can you explain that a little more?
J.G.C.: When I talk to my students, I say this is slow imagery. It’s not meant to sell something. It’s meant to reveal itself over time. You step away and say, OK, there are things that I know that I wanted, and I know were there because that’s what I saw when I was making the images. If I step away from them long enough, or find ways to surprise myself with the images again, then I can see whether what I was after is actually conveyed. But there’s only so much distancing we can do on our own, bringing in other people that you trust to respond is also really helpful. Also, if you can bring in people who are not from the photo world, that’s helpful too, because you get a sort of raw response from someone who doesn’t think about photos all the time.
PDN: Can you give me an example of an image that revealed itself over time to you?
J.G.C.: I was photographing a woman in a space in front of a piano. I had recently lost my mother. As I was photographing this woman, I realized how much her presence felt like my mother’s. It was a very haunting kind of moment. There was a calm over everything. When we finished shooting, she walked over to me, pulled out a handkerchief, and handed it to me very matter-of-fact. And all of these memories came rushing back to me because my mother had always, always carried a handkerchief. This was a very personal response to a shoot that lived very separately [from the photograph]. But I continued to look back at that image, and see that so much of what happened in that room is there: that sort of ghostly heaviness, that calm. And when people respond to the image, they will often make comments around that. So much of what happens in a space does come across in an image. Not the specifics of a story exactly—viewers won’t read what I just told you—but they do get a feeling of weight, or longing, or loss.
PDN: What tips or advice do you have about how to write artists’ statements?
J.G.C.: Jennifer Liese wrote a beautiful article about artists’ statements. She runs the Center for Arts & Language at the Rhode Island School of Design. And Anne West wrote a book about finding words to accompany your work, called Mapping the Intelligence of Artistic Work. My best advice for that is: Give it the same energy you would give an image, because it’s going to represent you to the people who don’t necessarily understand the work. You want it to be a kind of invitation to the work, to set up the work without answering any questions. A statement can be any number of things: a poem, a fictional tale, a list, or a manifesto, but my recommendation would be to read Jen Liese or Anne West because they’ve both written so beautifully about the importance of words in relation to artists’ work.
PDN: What are the pitfalls for those just learning how to write artists’ statements?
J.G.C.: Most of us, if we didn’t go to an art school, learned a liberal arts paper-writing model that gets translated into these drab, boring artists’ statements: “I do this because…” By the end of the first sentence, people have lost interest, because you’re leading them by the nose. Also, I think the biggest pitfall is telling people how to feel about your work. You don’t ever want to do that.
PDN: Why not?
J.G.C.: I’m not saying there aren’t times you can say “My work is about…” but when you give a solid definition of what your work means, and then it doesn’t feel that way to your audience, they are immediately arguing with you in their head as they’re looking at your work. You are also shutting them out of what could have been a really interesting response. We can’t ever know how our audience is going to respond to the work, so you want to leave a lot of space for them to decide what it means. We do all of this extra thinking to make sure our work goes out into the world in the way that we want, and sometimes the most magical things happen after that. The context of our society changes, or a major shift takes place in the culture, and the work changes beyond our imagining.
PDN: People often say artist statements should avoid art speak. Do you subscribe to that?
J.G.C.: If you’re changing the way you speak based on what you think other people on some jury will think, right away you are in dangerous territory. So let me get that out of the way. I do think that gratuitous art speak comes across as off-putting. But a lot of times art speak is the result of someone who has thought deeply about their work, they’ve read a lot, and so they’ve found very specific terms that speak to what they’re trying to get at. To me there’s real value in that specificity. But some of your audience will never have used this kind of vocabulary. Do you want to alienate them immediately? Maybe you have to do the work to translate those terms into everyday speech.
PDN: Any other parting advice to photographers about applying for residences?
J.G.C.: My biggest advice is, once you have the materials [portfolio, bio, statement, etc.] ready, you need to be applying a lot. Sometimes people apply for one thing, don’t get it, and they’re discouraged. If you get discouraged after a couple rejections, it’s going to be very hard to build a life as an artist. You really have to make applying to opportunities a part of your practice.