Naomi Shersty and Ryn Wilson discuss commonalities in their artistic practices, risk, and the exploration of identity through self-portraiture.
Originally from Elkhorn, Wisconsin, Ryn Wilson graduated with an MFA in photography and video from the University of New Orleans in 2013. She's been a member of The Front, an artist collective in New Orleans, since 2014.
A Florida native, Naomi Shersty currently teaches and lives in Milwaukee. Wilson was Shersty's student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in 2005. In November 2014, Wilson and Shersty collaborated on a group exhibition, “Oppositions and Parallels,” with Robyn LeRoy-Evans at The Front.
Naomi Shersty: Since staged photography is something our practices have in common and we’re both interested in artists who use staging in their work, I thought we could start by discussing staged photography and why you feel compelled to utilize that format.
Ryn Wilson: You were actually a big influence on my entrance into the world of staged photography. You encouraged that approach in your classes and it clicked with me instantly. I originally wanted to be a painter and was interested in surrealism when I began painting and drawing at art school. When I moved into photography, I realized I could create the same effect. I would use myself in the images because I was an easily available model and I would create these fictional worlds around me that I found compelling. I still use myself in many of my images, but I do use other models sometimes. I think I prefer to use myself because I can lose myself in the world of the image I'm creating.
NS: I wonder if a lot of people who do self-portraiture use themselves because they are who’s readily available. I started photographing when I was 15. I remember a friend was in a photo class and she took me out as her model. The whole time she was shooting me, I wanted to be behind the camera calling the shots. I was telling her exactly how to compose the images and I’ve had this relationship with photography ever since. Oftentimes, my photographs are staged to either metaphorically or literally represent my past experiences. There’s something rewarding about the ability to conjure the past. Perhaps it’s cathartic to look at the images of myself. Much of my work deals with issues surrounding class, desire, loss, and memory, so I found that for the photograph to really feel like I was getting my message across I needed to use myself as a model.
RW: For me, it’s led to working with film themes, creating fictional film stills based on repetitive imagery or tropes of cinema. I use them as a way to show how much influence film has over cultural identity and personal memory. The staging aspect automatically suggests a before and after and that creates a clear parallel between still images and an entire film.
NS: I like that you mention before and after because then the audience is invited to determine what has happened and what will happen next.
RW: In your work, location is also important to the story. You will often travel to get the right location, which has significance to the image.
NS: It can be a source of frustration. I was hoping to get back to Florida, which is where I’m from, and photograph this spring. Now I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. It’s a hindrance because I feel like for the project to be fully realized I need to photograph in that location. Both of us are interested in identity, which place very much has a role in. Place is malleable and is always changing much like identity, but I live in Milwaukee and the climate right now looks nothing like the South. There’s something in my work that responds to the weight of the South—the lushness, how verdant it is. I’m drawn to the idea that the South can be paradise and at the same time it’s a dangerous place. It’s important to setting the scene or mood in my images.
RW: How do you work that into your practice now that you’re in the Midwest because you also take pictures there?
NS: I rely on metaphor a great deal. If I’m in Milwaukee and I can’t get away, I find that I might rely on houseplants in a space, rather than shooting in a jungle. I’ll do little things with lighting, costuming, or even Photoshop to manipulate an image. Say I have one fern, I’ll turn it into 20—not to make it look like the woods of Florida, but rather to suggest that idea. I’ll also use water. I have a photograph that’s probably one of my favorites where I’m floating in a bathtub. I wasn’t in a river, lake, or even in the springs that I grew up going to, but at least the water is in the image so it suggests all the metaphors that water has.
RW: That’s interesting that you recreate certain aspects of being in the South rather than using whatever is in the Midwest as a different scenario.
NS: I was surprised to find when I moved here that there are areas of Wisconsin that are incredibly lush. Although the ecosystems are different, if I want sweat, bug bites, and a green background, I can certainly find it here, depending on the time of year.
I met you in Milwaukee and you’ve lived in many places since. Now that you’ve lived in New Orleans for a number of years, do you find that the culture and the environment is a part of your work?
RW: Generally, I like to experience different locations to get ideas. It’s important to keep moving and keep finding new places, but New Orleans is very unique. It’s unlike any other city I’ve ever lived in. I am constantly inspired by my surroundings and that’s partly why I’ve decided to stay. It hasn’t gotten stale and I don’t imagine that it will.
NS: I think I’ll forever feel like an outsider while I’m living in the Midwest. In some ways, growing up as a woman in the impoverished South, I had this dream of becoming someone different or being somewhere different. I do find the Midwest to be inspiring for my work precisely because I don’t fit in.
RW: I think you become more aware of those differences when you’re in a place that’s not your home. It makes you think and interpret in new ways.
NS: In “Oppositions and Parallels,” you showed new photographs. I’m curious to know if at present you are working more with photography or video. Can you talk a little bit about going back and forth between the media?
RW: The work I did for “Oppositions and Parallels” was different than the usual staged photography that I do. I had a large mirror box that I stacked mirrors and prisms inside so it was like an endless hall of mirrors—reflections upon reflections. Then I presented those on top of mirror shelves so that they would reflect themselves. The lighting also created a shadow that extended beyond the shelf. It was a new direction that I want to continue. I’m interested in exploring identity with the mirrors and the idea of fragmentation, but it also has to do with the mechanics of photography—light, shadow, and reflection. I have a show coming up in November at The Front and I want to create an entire room installation of projections with mirrors and reflections so it feels like being inside of the mirror image.
Video is the direction that I’m most excited to move into now, incorporating installation. In school I wasn’t showing as much and I was working a lot with two-dimensional imagery, which was completely satisfying. Now that I have more opportunities to show my work, I think more about the gallery space and the work’s interaction with audience members.
NS: Of course, you are my peer now, but as an educator one of the things I get really excited about with my students is when I can start to recognize cycles or a return. Listening to you speak about making this room with projections and mirrors reminds me of your early interest in surrealism and makes me think about Claude Cahun or even Maya Deren.
RW: Those are two big influences of mine.
NS: There’s a natural progression to what you’re doing. Sometimes I’ll look through projects that I’ve made or I’ll be working on a piece and realize I’m still hashing out the same issues. It’s one of the wondrous facets of being a maker.
RW: It reminds me of a piece I did for your undergraduate class.
NS: I feel like I already know what you’re going to say.
RW: It was the first time I had ever worked with projection. I was working with still images and the idea of decision-making. You suggested layering the images and then having the projectors flicker so that it showed the two potential scenarios in the decision-making process. That really affected how I thought about photography and its possibilities.
NS: I remember everyone crowding around and the lights were low. It gave this haunting, ethereal feeling to the still images.
RW: I still strive to create that feeling in my work and that’s another reason why projection and film are so intriguing to me. You are in a darkened space with this illumination that draws you in and takes you out of your own world.
NS: I wanted to ask you something else about the pieces in “Oppositions and Parallels.” You were present in at least one of the images. It was just a silhouette of you or a reflection or shadow. In a lot of your work, you or a figure is present. Was there something about your almost being erased from the image that was significant to the piece?
RW: I think it’s a reaction to my past work. Being out of grad school for a while and working within a collective rather than in a university setting, I’ve felt the need to reinvent myself and experiment with my work more.
NS: Installation seems like another way to experiment and explore fragmentation. The idea of time breaks down in installation because there’s no beginning or end. Your audience is immersed in the space, and, if you continue to work with mirrors and projections, the bodies will cast their shadows and actually become part of the piece.
One thing I was thinking about when I asked you about erasing your image: I find that when I do self-portraiture I will often hide my face with my hair, which is easy to do because it’s pretty big and unruly. Sometimes I will crop out the head from the image altogether. There is something about being anonymous that I hope will encourage viewers to fully insert themselves into the photograph/narrative. I want the photograph to trigger a memory. I like to play between what is painful and dangerous and contrast it with what might be really alluring or beautiful. I find it cathartic to lure the viewer in and then unsettle them just a little bit. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
RW: I think there is a bit of riskiness in the kind of photography we do. We often shoot in semi-public spaces in ways that would appear pretty strange to the random passerby. I have done a number of shoots where I end up with scrapes and bruises or ruining a costume or prop. I once snuck into an abandoned military complex just outside of Tokyo to do a photo shoot. I was in costume with a wig posing for the camera when a security guard drove up. He didn't speak English and I only spoke a little Japanese, but I understood that he wanted me to pack up and get in his car. I felt uneasy but didn't have much choice. He drove me to the edge of the property and let me go with a wave and a smile. Another time I was shooting on a rooftop and a gust of wind blew my tripod over and my camera was destroyed. That was a pretty bad one.
You’re often in swampy areas or precarious places when you shoot. Do you feel that you’re experiencing danger while making the work?
NS: I’ve had many photo shoots where I’ve been laying under a bush or something without clothes on and had things crawl over my leg. I’m not quite sure what’s going to sting me or bite me.
I don’t know if I ever told you this before, but I remember it well. I was photographing where I knew my father lived. I had never visited him there and I figured he’d be at work. It was during the day and I was staging all these mini deaths around his yard. As a photographer who uses staging, I’m used to working in a directorial mode that affords me control over the situation when I’m photographing. I realized all of a sudden I wasn’t in control because he happened to be home! It was his property and he wanted to know what I was doing there. That possibility had not occurred to me. It introduced another level to the psychology of the photographs and their impact. I was very sweaty. You can tell that I was agitated in many of the images and he is actually in the background of a few of them as well. That experience unintentionally showed me one reason I use staging in unstable environments; I think there’s something about putting myself a little bit at risk again to truly address the history I’m working through.