FotoFilmic: Since graduating from Yale University in 2005 (MFA), you have produced two main series of work, first “The Gray Line” – an intimate and poignant exploration of the Western American male figure, social discipline and individual identity through the prism of cadets’ lives at the West Point Military Academy, and more recently “Manifest” – a second opus following the same aesthetic and narrative vein but widening your story to the photographically charged historical background of the conquest of the West. Running parallel to many founding myths of American identity your work seem to time-travel to and light anew, the two series also illuminate photography’s own past and present tensions between for instance social realism (documentary) and naturalism (artistic beauty), fact and fiction, etc. As a 21st C. female photographer revisiting the “wilderness of man”, its photographic archive and remaining social footprint altogether, can you talk a little about how you work in general with your subjects, as well as how you approached creating your last series?
Kristine Potter: Once someone has agreed to work with me, I generally try to walk the line between directing them toward the image I want to see, and paying attention to all the variables I can’t control to see what else might evolve. I consider the pictures fictitious but deeply related to the documentary style. I like the tension that creates.
For the latest series, my working practice is a lot more open than it has been in the past. I’ve found a tiny town on the western slope of Colorado, which I visit several times a year. I use it as a jumping-off point for photographing in the surrounding area. There are folks in the town who know me now… the redheaded, Brooklyn photographer who is seeking out wild men and even wilder landscapes. I’ll generally spend my days out exploring by car and foot. And as you’d imagine, I’m fairly fearless about just asking strangers if I can photograph them – sometimes it works, sometimes not. There’s a rush built in to that moment that excites me. If they agree (and sometimes this takes a little coaxing) we get to it right away or I make an appointment to meet them later. From there, word-of-mouth can often help in finding new subjects.
F/F: The historical tension inherent to your photography mentioned above also happens to be a technological one, your own practice involving both photographing on large format color film, digital capture and complex post-processing to achieve the subtle, finely detailed black-and-white photographs you exhibit. Can you briefly explain your process, as well as the role and place film occupies within it?
KP: My first instinct with almost all photographs is to use my 4×5 with color film. There are a few reasons for it… First, because I like the way a view camera describes space. Also, I like that the camera introduces a kind of slow precision and seriousness to the making of an image. This is particularly helpful when photographing people. And finally, I love the way film describes light. It’s softer than digital.
As for why I use color film, that was originally something of an accident that turned into a practice. The truth is, I find that scanners (of all ilk) are better at describing the midtones from color film than from black-and-white. Also – I want to be able to determine exactly how colors translate into a monochromatic spectrum. Shooting on color just gives me so much more control and the fringe benefit is that I don’t have to process it myself in the darkroom – a task I never really enjoyed.
I do use digital capture sometimes and I love it for its own reasons. It’s just a different tool and it is ideal for certain tasks. For example, I have photographed some men out west who were… how do I say this…. unwilling to really stay still for my 4×5. I needed a faster tool. Also sometimes I’m out hiking around dangerous cliffs and unsteady ground and I just feel more nimble with my digital camera than with my 4×5. I like to be able to work both ways but prefer the methodical nature of composing on a ground glass.
I just read some article about my generation… those born in the late 70s… as bridging the gap between the solidly Generation Xers and the much maligned Millennials. The point was made on the astute reasoning that we experienced the shift to digital while we were in junior high and high school. We know the world before and we were still coming of age as the wonder of digital began to present itself. I have to agree with the notion that our relationship to digital is one more hybridized into our daily life than say… a forgone given like it is with younger people. We see it as useful tool, but we totally understand how (and why) to get along without it. I guess I see that relationship play out in my working practice. It’s probably also why I have an Instagram account that I barely use.
F/F: Has your current photographic practice slowly developed over time, or have you on the contrary worked differently in the past (i.e. solely on film or digitally)? Do you foresee any changes to the way you work in the future, and if so why?
KP: Sure, my practice is always evolving. I’m not tethered to a particular process out of nostalgia, rather I work toward making a certain sort of encounter and image happen. Whatever tool is on hand and most suitable is what gets used. If film continues to become more and more expensive I imagine I might turn more readily toward digital. I need to be able to make mistakes. But I can also imagine forgoing digital altogether. Who knows… the work will tell me what it needs.
F/F: You are based in Brooklyn, NY, USA but are also a frequent traveller with your last series “Manifest” all shot in Western Colorado: how is film photography culture and its waning industry doing right now in Brooklyn and elsewhere you’ve recently been to? Do you for instance still find easy access to film processing labs and analog photography materials? Are other photography artists around you still attached to film or have they all resolutely ‘switched’ to digital (or any in-between step)?
KP: New York City has a strong foundation of support for film photography. We still have several labs that process film and produce analog prints. We have several stores that sell specialty film and paper supplies and we have rental darkrooms and printing facilities. Among my photographer friends, many of us still use film, although most of us now print digitally. There are few remaining photographers who are committed to both film and wet printing processes. For example, Ted Partin is doing really beautiful 8×10 work with chrome. I think maybe he bought all the cibachrome chemicals left on the planet… It’s just a countdown until that process is finished.
About your geographical point, I’d say that when I travel I am acutely aware that these institutions do not exist far from metropolitan areas. When people learn that I’m shooting film, especially large format film, they greet it with wonder. It’s entirely worth it but I have to be careful to watch my film supply and to plan in advance. It takes 5 days to get 4×5 film sent to Colorado.
F/F: FOTOFILMIC is dedicated to promoting the new generations of photographers working on film today: what essential advice or recommendation would you have for them?
KP: I teach photography in University and I see a lot of interest in film from that generation. They are smacked with the label of being digital natives and it’s true that all things digital come very easy to them. But I observe that they are also looking for materials that feel physical and of this world. They like the challenge of film and I think they like the difficulty of it. If digital is easy, then film is a challenge. For them it’s exotic.
What’s my advice? Don’t over sentimentalize it, but use it if it is the better material for your work.
F/F: How do you see the future of film and analog photography in general? Do you think it will succeed in remaining a relevant artistic medium somehow?
KP: I think film will stick around and I think black-and-white printing materials will continue to be available. Color RA-4 darkroom materials however, will vanish. They were never very good in the first place. They are already fading into the specter of fetishism and once everyone stops making photograms and splashing chemicals, there won’t be much life left in that lot.
F/F: What have you been up to recently? Any recent achievements, projects, news?
KP: I’m still shooting out west and adding to that body of work. My goal is to finish a book dummy this summer. I’ve teamed up with a writer from Colorado and I’m very interested in how his words are complicating and informing the work. Once I finish with this semester’s teaching, all my focus will shift to making this book a reality. As I see it, it’s a long process of editing, sequencing and designing an experience – much different than planning an exhibition.
F/F: If anything was possible, what would be your next ultimate project photography-wise (or else)?
KP: I would hit the road for a solid year – with limitless gas, film, a van full of eager assistants and good music. Whatever evolved would be the project.
© All photographs by Kristine Potter
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