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Q&A with Hannah Whitaker

Hannah Whitaker, one of our six contributors to Mold: Ebb, sat down with us (ie. graciously returned our email request) to answer a few questions. If you're in NYC this summer, Whitaker is currently participating in a terrific group show at Taymour Grahne-on view until 6 September. You can see more of her work here.

You admirably wear many hats in your artistic practice. Do you see a connection between the work you do commercially, for example the recent portraits you shot for an article on bisexuality in the New York Times Magazine, and your personal work?

My commissioned work and my artwork don’t exactly have a mutually productive relationship the way they do for some photographer-artists who are interested in the slippages between these two modes. I like keeping them separated. They are distinct both materially (for the most part, I shoot my artwork on film and my assignments with a digital camera) and conceptually. For me, editorial assignments and ad work require transparency. They need to communicate a something clearly to a reader or consumer. My interest in photography as an art form comes from a place of almost total opposition to this. I’m interested in ways to complicate a photograph and in playing with, but certainly not subscribing to, the presumption of transparency that photographs have.

I’ve begun to think about the 4x5 sheet of film as both a physical and a conceptual space, so that my photographs become prescribed by its limitations and possibilities. I ask myself: what are the things I can and can’t do here? And then the work becomes partly about this structural framework. In a way, you could think of this mode as giving myself an assignment.

Additionally, as a contributor to Triple Canopy as a writer/editor, do you feel the process of writing greatly influences the visual work you make?

Yes. I find writing to be enormously helpful in clarifying ideas, as I imagine most people do. Photography is so contingent on other things to make any sense--whether its personal narrative or historical context or what have you—that it seems like most photographers need to contend with the written word in some way. A photograph without context basically doesn’t exist.

However, I don’t exactly enjoy writing the way that I do making photographs, probably because it comes less naturally for me. It’s a fraught, if worthwhile, process. A professor in college once told me I write like a lawyer.

What are you thinking about these days?

I just got back from a symposium on text and image at Ithaca College. I gave a short talk on borrowing the action of reading as a way to look at photographs, which is an idea that’s been on my mind for a while. In addition to single photographs, I’ve been making sets of images that are meant to be experienced together. A set of photographs begs certain questions: are these meant to be experienced left to right? Linearly? In a particular sequence? The more they are positioned in rows and experienced left to write the more it feels like reading. I’m interested in borrowing the organizational structures from different systems, say linguistic, numerical, or musical, and applying them to photographs.

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