A conversation with Dawoud Bey
Editor's Note: Flak Photo is proud to feature this interview in support of Kelli Connell's Double Life, a book of the photographer's color portraits published by Decode Books in 2011. For more information about this publication and to order a copy for your personal collection, visit DecodeBooks.com.
Dawoud Bey: Where does your story begin? Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
Kelli Connell: I grew up in Abilene, Texas, a conservative town. I lived there until I was 14 and then my family and I moved to Granbury, Texas. I went to school in Denton and have also lived in Dallas. So I’ve basically spent most of my formative years in Texas and didn’t move out of the state until I took my first teaching job in Youngstown, Ohio.
Dawoud Bey: And what photographers first influenced you?
Kelli Connell: Larry Sultan would be one with hisPictures From Home. I was interested in his parents’ relationship and the environment that they lived in and how each picture made their story so rich. But I would say that Francesca Woodman and other female photographers who were engaged in making self-portrait work were my earliest influences. Francesca Woodman’s book was one of the first photography books that I owned and I was very inspired by her work. In college I had begun making self-portraits myself, but after seeing how powerful her work was, I started to research more female photographers who worked in a similar way.
Dawoud Bey: It is interesting that you talk about Francesca Woodman’s work because as you know she died very young but she was obviously extremely prolific. I think she probably made more work in her short life than some people do in a much longer lifetime. Her work first began to be talked about at a moment when the notion of photographic practice was really beginning to change. It was the moment when a move away from documentary practice to those photographing like Woodman in ways that were staged and directed began to become more a part of the photographic conversation.
Kelli Connell: I’ve always been interested in the contradictions that first arose in that moment . . .
Dawoud Bey: At the same time this notion of photographic veracity began to be seriously interrogated and challenged—there were now clearly other strategies that one could begin to use in making work. I’m wondering what caused you to begin to think more seriously about this idea of fact and fiction and the way they intersect within the photograph? Your work seems to describe things that are casually unfolding in front of the camera, even as they are clearly staged. Why and how did you more consciously and willfully begin to incorporate that idea conceptually into your work?
Kelli Connell: I was very interested in the intersection between fact and fiction, especially when fiction became a way to make my work look more factual or look more real than it had before. Before I started to make this work, Double Life, I had experimented with repeating my model, Kiba Jacobson, several times in a scene. There were maybe five, ten, fifteen of her in an image. And that didn’t work for me, it felt too Photoshopy, too technically based, which weakened the content.
Dawoud Bey: You felt that it was a kind of overly obvious device?
Kelli Connell: Exactly. But once I tried just two of her in a pair I was fascinated by how that image immediately began to function on multiple levels. The chemistry, body language, subtle visual cues you might find in a “documentary” image of a couple function identically even when the original interaction never happened. We believe photographs and so consequently believe that this is a relationship between two people. So I started to look at other photographers who worked in a more documentary fashion. I tried to infuse my images with the sorts of subtle portrait techniques that made for powerful documentary photos, hoping to figure out how to make my work look more like true documentation of two women in a scene, even though they have never been together at the same time.
Dawoud Bey: That evolution is interesting, how you looked at documentary work to understand it and then to perhaps appropriate its form, even as there is no deep buying in on your part to the underlining premise of authenticity. You needed to create the appearance of authenticity for the sake of the photograph taking hold of the viewer.
Kelli Connell: And that is why I wasn’t interested in collage, where the edges of the two figures in the same scene would be evident in some way. It was important to me that the work was primarily about creating a believable emotional connection in the relationship. That fascinated me and I’m still fascinated by that.
Dawoud Bey: What is the extent of your digital manipulation of the pictures? What exactly is the nature of your use of the digital aspect? How are you using it really?
Kelli Connell: I’m actually using it in a very basic way. I’ve always seen Photoshop as a tool that I could use to achieve a certain amount of believability. I come to it with my ideas about the image and the contentforemost. The technology is a supporter to that. Most of my images are from two images that are loosely stitched together, except for 4th of Julywhich is composed of four images, but that’s about as far as the compositing goes. There are some images that are more complicated. If the sun is setting, the exposure and color of light will be different on the figure on the left compared to the figure on the right. The image, Carnival,for example, I think that image . . .
Dawoud Bey: I like that photograph . . .
Kelli Connell: Yes, I really like that image, too. That image was a lot more complicated because the color of the sky had changed; so the figure and scene on one side was blue and on the other side was magenta. I had to match the color on both sides to make sure Kiba’s skin tone would work. There have been instances where I had to reshoot because for me I’d rather reshoot than spend all the time on the computer to make it work. And so my extent of Photoshop work is pretty basic to where I’m just stitching two images together. It’s usually just simple retouching and color correcting when lighting situations need a little more work.
Dawoud Bey: You mentioned Kiba Jacobson, your longtime model. She is the person who, as you described, appears as both people in your photographs. One of the provocative things about Jacobson to me and about the pictures themselves is that she does in fact seem to quite convincingly embody the two different people who inhabit the relationship. That sets up this interesting conversation I think about the dimension of self—the male and the female self, the interior and exterior self, and perhaps the nature of narcissism itself—since this is one person. I’m wondering, what are your ambitions in using this one person, a model, to become this couple who inhabits your work?
Kelli Connell: There are many reasons why I use one person as a model for both characters in each image. By doing so, the image can be interpreted in two ways—as an image about a relationship between two people, and as an image about multiple sides of the self. Neither of these interpretations are as straightforward as they sound. In some relationships, we may see ourselves as the more dominant partner while in others we are the more passive, or one partner may be seen as more masculine and the other more feminine. Because Kiba takes on a variety of roles in these scenarios, the self is seen as fluid, not fixed. Over time, and after forming and forging a variety of relationships, who plays which role starts to seem arbitrary, and the idea of “the self” starts to reveal its own reflexive nature.
Dawoud Bey: So who is Kiba Jacobson to you? Is she a professional model? A friend? A lover or muse?
Kelli Connell: I met Kiba in an undergraduate photography class years before this project started. I didn’t know her very well when I began photographing her. Now we are good friends. I do also see her as a person, a model who I work through, kind of like a medium in a way. [laughs] That sounds kind of crazy. Many people think when they see the work that I am Kiba. They just automatically assume that the woman in my work is Kelli Connell. I show up at art openings, or as a lecturer, and people are surprised when they realize that it’s not me in the work.
Dawoud Bey: I’m surprised that someone would even think that.
Kelli Connell: And I think that is partly because this work feels intimate and close and other work that feels so intimate and close has usually been self-portrait work. But also, I do very much think of her as a stand-in for myself.
Dawoud Bey: So why use a model? How is that different from using yourself in the pictures?
Kelli Connell: Because these works are composites it makes a lot more sense for me to use her in the pictures because I have more control. She’s also honestly a much better actor than I am and I’m naturally drawn to directing where I can see what is going on in the camera. Kiba’s actual personality is very different than the characters she portrays in the images.
Dawoud Bey: So what is the process of directing her and staging the pictures?
Kelli Connell: Usually I photograph Kiba and a stand-in, someone who is available to play the other character in the scene. The majority of the time, this stand-in is me. I have used a self timer in almost all of the pictures in this series, where we’re both acting out the characters. She will be the one on the left and I’ll be the one on the right for one or two rolls of film and then we’ll go change clothes. I’ll put on the clothes she had on and she’ll put on mine. Then we’ll act out the other scenario. So in Photoshop I’m just removing myself and putting her in, but what is really recorded on the film is our interaction together.
Dawoud Bey: That adds another layer of meaning in terms of the idea of self-portraiture, since you were at one time in the pictures. But the quality of the performance of the person in front of the camera and your ability to direct them in a very even handed kind of way has everything to do with the effectiveness of the work. She is clearly someone who is able to perform convincingly in front of the camera and even more importantly not look like she is performing. Are you still working with her?
Kelli Connell: I am. It’s interesting because now that this project has lasted for nine years I often get questions or pressures from the art world saying, “Are you still working on this project? When is it going to be over? What are you working on now?” You feel the pressure as an artist to show a new body of work every two or three years. About a year ago I was giving a lecture at a university and someone asked me that question and I said, “I think my model and I are breaking up—I think this is about it.” A few weeks later, I was thinking about that and it just didn’t feel right. I felt like I was giving over the control because I was giving into the pressure to move on, especially as Kiba was aging. But I was still fascinated by the ways relationships change as we get older, and realized I was still passionate about the project. So as long as I stay interested about making the work I plan to continue.
Dawoud Bey: One of the things I have always found very attractive about your work is the quality of empathy that I think I’ve located in it, both in terms of your respectful observation of the fictional couple and also in the way that they appear to relate to each other. And again, factually that’s not what’s happening, but you very credibly create this kind of empathetic quality that transcends race, age, gender, and sexuality. And yet these pictures are very much about two women and their relationship. So it’s resolutely human but also very specific. So what is the place of the larger discourse around sexuality and sexual identity in your work?
Kelli Connell: I’m glad you asked that. For me I’ve always seen identity as something that is very fluid and as such I usually shy away from labels altogether. Still, a large part of this work explores the nature of identity formation. In my own personal history, the process of questioning my sexuality was confounding, because the conventional categories, and even the need to categorize in the first place felt like something that was part of an external construct—something being pushed on me. Meanwhile the internal experience of my sexual and gender identity was quite natural and yet not a static thing at all. Perhaps this work is trying to figure out why we rely on categories and labels the way we do.
Dawoud Bey: At the same time, I think there is a universal quality that allows the viewer to look at the work and see some aspect of themselves in that work.
Kelli Connell: True. For the most part, I’m not actually thinking so much about representing two females in a relationship. I’m more so thinking about the multiple sides of the self in the overall human experience. That’s why when I give lectures I am very honored when a straight male will come up and say how much the work really touched him and spoke to him. That is really important for me, that the work is not put into a small box because it’s a lot broader than that for me.
Dawoud Bey: When you talk about the guy coming up to you after your talk, telling you how much he appreciated the work, it’s something that I have often found fascinating and intriguing about the work. Even some of the more intimate pictures, like The ValleyorSunday Afternoon, one could easily participate in viewing these pictures in a voyeuristic kind of way: a man looking at two women being intimate. There is a whole industry that’s predicated on that. And yet, when I look at your work I am always mostly aware that I am looking at two people who are sharing a space and in various ways engaging in a relationship with each other. The tendency or even the possibility for a certain potential voyeuristic kind of participation never seems to take hold in your work. Because of the quality with which they are made you almost subliminally make the viewer experience these situations on your terms. And you have kind of precluded them from having some other kind of experience. And that I think is one of the real accomplishments of this work.
Kelli Connell: Thank you Dawoud — I appreciate that observation. I think the intimacy between the two in the pictures is key in diffusing the voyeuristic gaze. Since the images are composites from multiple shots of my model, and as we were discussing I often serve as a stand-in, the relationship of the figures to the photographer is particularly absent. This absence of “the photographer” helps the interactions feel completely private, inviting viewers to project themselves into the roles portrayed versus imagining their own relationship relative to the figures.
Dawoud Bey: Nothing that is going on here seems overtly performed for the camera. I think it’s one of the things that very much works to the advantage of the pictures even as you are then stitching these pictures together. It’s not only that you’re making the camera itself disappear, but you’re making this digital manipulation disappear as well.
Kelli Connell: Right. And I also try to erase any idea of these characters as specific people. I’m continually trying to make that definition disappear or change or shift based on interpretation and context. The Brickhaus Cafe image was one of the first pictures that I made and it was based on my own observation of watching people in a coffee shop. I watched different people interact—male and female, two males, two females. And It was especially interesting to me when they were two females. Sometimes one of the women acted a little more masculine than the other in her body language or how she presented herself. It seemed like there was this code that I needed to dissect in order to figure out how that system worked. But it is interesting also that you mentioned taking the camera out. I’ve always been fascinated with how to make a photograph where the camera or the photographer could be removed. In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing,there is a chapter that talks about the idea of trying to remove the camera. I often think about that challenge. This work in particular has allowed me to remove the obvious presence of the camera as far as I possibly can.
Dawoud Bey: Or at least create the appearance that you have in the final pictures.
Kelli Connell: Right. It helps me to find that moment because I take so many pictures during the shoot. There are several different possibilities—I will have ten to twenty frames of the figure on the left and ten to twenty frames of the figure on the right, endless combinations of what that picture could be in the end. In fact my favorite part of this whole process is making these tiny collages to see which figure on the left and right work the best together. Often times I’ll have about six successful options to choose from. In the end it comes down to what overall mood I want to convey with the work. I tend to be drawn to the combinations where the emotions are heightened.
Dawoud Bey: I had this interesting experience a few nights ago that made me think about your work. I was out with some friends and after dinner one of them took out their phone to make some pictures to record the moment of our all being together. I said to one of them, “Let’s make a picture together.” After seeing the picture on the phone I remarked, “We look like a couple.” Her joking response was that we didn’t look like a couple since we looked too happy. This of course suggests that relationships are often fraught with certain degrees of tension. That tension, for the most part, doesn’t appear too often in your work. The nature of the relationships described in your photographs could almost be considered idyllic for their sense of quiet repose and reverie. You talked about it a little before but I wonder if you can talk a little more about what your pictures are saying about the nature of relationships?
Kelli Connell: Well, in many ways the work reflects what is going on in my life at the time. The work is based on my own personal experiences, sometimes movies or books, or watching people in public. With that said, there are definitely groups of photographs that might have a different tone than others. You could group them into ones where there is a harmonious undertone, ones where the figures are very sexual and are really into each other, or ones where there is a quiet weight in the air that needs to be discussed. But I think you’re right that for the most part, many of the images come across as more idyllic.
Dawoud Bey: Perhaps this has something to do with your subjective desire to create your own kind of idealized relationship through the pictures?
Kelli Connell: Sometimes. I think that points to how we all buy in to some type of fantasy in our relationships. It’s funny that you mentioned the word “reverie” earlier because one of the pictures in this body of work is actually entitled Reverie, and it plays with that idealized romantic fantasy. One of the figures is laying wearing a red negligee on this soft rug drinking wine—you could image a fireplace not far too away. But my most recent images push other tones that are not as prevalent in the earlier works. They expand upon the highs and lows of relationships. They are bringing moments of darkness, boredom, despair, or frustration into the range of the work.
Dawoud Bey: Along with that, I also think there is a wonderful quality of slowing down of time in your pictures. Your pictures seem to create a space where two people are able to give each other their undivided attention. It creates a sustained experience quite different from the pace at which contemporary life often unfolds.
Kelli Connell: I often think that my photographs lie as documents but tell truths as images. There is the essential fiction here that I didn’t photograph two people at the same time and place. But that fiction enables the photographs to portray inner thoughts, vulnerabilities, or memories on the surface. So as an object, an emotional truth is created.
Kelli Connell received an MFA from Texas Woman’s University in 2003. Her work is included in the collections of Microsoft; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Columbus Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Recent publications featuring her work include Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography, Photo Art: The New World of Photography, and Vitamin PH: New Perspectives in Photography. Connell teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
Dawoud Bey is an American photographer renowned for his portraits of young subjects. His essays on photography and contemporary art have appeared in numerous publications. His works have been exhibited extensively in museum and galleries in the United States and abroad. He is currently Professor of Art at Columbia College Chicago. Born in New York, he received his Masters of Fine Art degree from Yale University School of Art.
Posted on Friday, October 21, 2011.
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