Interview with Heidi Norton

April 12, 2010 · Print This Article

I first encountered the work of Chicago-based photographer Heidi Norton only recently, when one of her photographs was included in landscape/portrait/still life, a group show curated by Philip von Zweck at Hungry Man Gallery. For me, von Zweck’s show provided the curatorial equivalent of a restaurant tasting menu: it offered small but pungent bites of different artworks, laid out according to a fairly broad curatorial premise.  I came away with a short list of artists about whom I was curious and eager to learn more. At the top of that list was Norton, a photographer and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teaches color photography and multi-level studio. Norton earned her MFA from SAIC in 2002, and has participated in numerous group shows in Chicago, New York, London, and Spain.  She will be exhibiting her work at  Next / Art Chicago (April 30 – May 3, 2010) with Swimming Pool Project Space. Heidi was kind enough to engage in an in-depth Q&A with me about her current photographic practice and the state of the photographic arts in general. I’m very grateful to her for the time she took to answer my questions.

Installation view of Heidi Norton's "Deconstructed (Rebirth)", 2009 (left)Â at Hungry Man Gallery. Right: Andreas Fischer's painting Original Location.

CI: You seem to move easily in and out of three traditional photographic genres–portrait, landscape, and still life–without residing solely in any one. The photograph “Deconstruction/Rebirth” in “landscape/portrait/still life” seems to fit into at least two of the categories that that show was exploring. Can you talk a bit about the ideas behind “Deconstruction/Rebirth,” and how that image fits into the tradition of landscape and still life while subverting them as well?

HN: The relationship between photography and painting will always be a subject worth exploiting. For years the two have worked reflexively, borrowing from one another when it suited them, dissing one another when they felt inferior. Photography lagged behind for many years until its introduction to the art world via the museum institution. However,  Modernism also brought with it a tremendous number of failures within the medium of photography itself, i.e. technical prowess dominated by men exclusively. Works by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Minor White, for example, use landscape, figure and still life in a highly vapid yet monopolizing way. Their works lacked any conceptual content, relying instead on technique and shallow representations of beauty.  In these works, nature, light, and the female form are reduced to popular notions of  the sublime and the meditative. This becomes problematic in that beauty is classified as idyllic, cliched and subsequently artificial. In all of my works I am interested in reexamining these traditional ideas, but also in deconstructing them by using more contemporary and conceptual methods.

Heidi Norton, "Deconstructed (Rebirth)," 2009

Heidi Norton, Whitescape, 2009

Heidi Norton, Blackscape, 2009

With the painted plant works I am interested in simultaneously preserving and deconstructing the idyllic beauty represented by the the plants, through the application of paint. The paint initially concerned me because I thought it would kill the plants. However, the plants soon begin to grow out of the center, shedding the acrylic paint and moving back into the their natural forms. This is where the subversion begins. The paint is the medium added to the still life, interrupting its identity as the “perfect” formal still life. The green paint is strewn onto the image in a chaotic and “messy” manner, the forms are no longer perfect, and the plants sit somewhere between life and death.

CI: Can you tell me about Self Portrait (after Callahan), 2009? It looks to be modeled after one of Harry Callahan’s series of photographs of his wife Eleanor, such as this one.

HN: What interests me about Harry Callahan is mostly his process and the fact that his personal relationship to his wife, Eleanor, was implicit in his process. From a feminist perspective Callahan was criticized, along with Alfred Stieglitz, in that they used their lovers as “muses,” exploiting them through their lens. However, Callahan used the energy of his wife to create the images that made him famous. The photographs of Eleanor are intriguing in their realness. I wanted to recreate an image that encapsulated this power. Her power is what was seductive about the image. So this image is more of a nod to Eleanor than it is to Harry Callahan.

Self-Portrait (After Callahan), 2009

CI: The images from your The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch photographs are intriguing. I’m trying to locate connective threads tying the individual images visually together in a series. There seems to be a conceptual back-story happening. Can you tell me about some of the ideas underlying this work?

HN: These works further exploit photographic pictorial strategies (as mentioned previously) that were adopted during Modernism. By revisiting the clichéd trope of idyllic beauty- sunsets, shells and beaches–it adopts a vernacular that speaks specifically to the intentionality of commercial and art photography. The works also intentionally reference inherent characteristics (and some of the alchemy) of the medium–double exposure, the “magic hour,” and the freezing of motion. This creates a disruption in the viewing process–an incongruity between what viewers think they are looking at, and what they are actually seeing.

The conch shell image was the entry point into this body of work and probably speaks best to its conceptual framework. Here you see a classic still life of a conch shell against a background of a sunrise and a beach. The conch is shot through vertical blinds that emphasize its construction and artifice. The image speaks to the idea of beauty as cliché and camp and the double exposure of the railing is this disruption that I previously mentioned. Further, the two stickers, 29.99 and “Product of the Philippines” borrow from postmodern approaches to consumption and the spectacle.

Conch Shell and Sunrise, $29.99, 2009

All of these works are shot on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a place I’ve visit several times a year since I was very young.  [Chicago gallerist] Monique Meloche, a friend of mine, once jokingly called them the “resort images” which I found to be humorous but also somewhat accurate. All of the images rely on clichés of primitive beach life. For example, Riders on a Beach shows wild horses running through the picture plane. The horses’ manes are mangy and their ribs are showing. However, behind them are a group of photographers and tourists snapping photographs of them. Seemingly natural and pure, this was in fact a highly constructed annual event that takes place in the town of Chincoteague, MD. They corral horses from the wild National Park of Assateague and force them to swim across a channel of the Chesapeake Bay in order to raffle them off for “charity.”  So here I have documented the natural and wild but also the constructed, manipulated, and artificial.

Riders on the Beach, 2009

The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch is the title of the whole body of work. The title is borrowed from Paul Gauguin, who used it for one of the many paintings he did of a young Tahitian girl. Gauguin is significant in that he is one of the founding fathers of modernism and actually set the tone for many of the machismo “rules” that established the movement. The controversy with him painting the primitive and eroticizing women is something that I am slightly interested in and thought about specifically when I photographed Young Girl Under the Umbrella (Lindsay at 16). It was important to me that I choose an adolescent pubescent girl on the brink of adulthood but she also had to be “all American—blonde hair and skinny.”  So this to me works in two ways: it brings it back around to the artifice of idyllic beauty, but the image also speaks to the vernacular of commercial imagery of the 1950’s—the classic pinup, the seductive innocent girl lounged on a beach under an umbrella with glowing dune grass around her.

Young Girl Under the Umbrella, 2009

Paul Gauguin, Riders on the Beach, 1902

Paul Gauguin, Aha oe feii? (What! Are You Jealous?), 1892

CI: From your own perspective as an artist, as well as your experiences teaching photography at the School of the Art Institute, why do you think artists continue to want to make photographs today? I ask this question in the context of a) the omnipresence of the internet as a digital image medium and b) the weakening and/or loss of photography’s claims to “truth” and factuality given the ease of digital alteration. Visual imagery is so fluid nowadays – I’m really curious about how a younger generation of photographers, which includes yourself, are thinking about their own practices.

HN: I think the pliability of the medium is what makes it complex and therefore intriguing. I love where photography is right now and that it will be different tomorrow. Curator Douglas Eklund wrote in his essay for the The Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘s show The Pictures Generation (which Eklund curated):

“The famous last line of Barthes’ essay, that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,’ was a call to arms for the loosely knit group of artists working in photography, film, video, and performance that would become known as the “Pictures” generation named for an important exhibition of their work held at Artist’s Space in New York in 1977.”

The artists featured in Eklund’s show set the course for image-making over the next thirty-three years. Appropriation and manipulation of the photographic image was prevalent before the birth of Photoshop in the late 1980’s. The technology has only made is more accessible and therefore more complicated. We were confronted with the ethical issues of medium in the 1990s and 2000s – and we all questioned the validity of the image as a truth-teller once again as Walter Benjamin did in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” A lot of artists embraced this notion, but teaching the acceptance of new technology was and is complicated and challenging.

The thing I fear most right now is the complete loss of celluloid. The science and mechanics of photography make it a unique medium, dipping into physics, chemistry, optics. Technology romanticizes this notion and we see a lot of contemporary artist like Walead Beshty, James Welling, Sheree Hovsepian (there’s a great show of Beshty’s and Hovsepian’s work on at Monique Meloche gallery presently) embracing the materiality and the physical. In broad terms, digital photography and the ease of its dissemination has caused a shift in the way we as artists handle the choices we make, both technically and conceptually, when constructing images. To most artists that primarily use photography, like myself, we think of digital as a “tool”, a means to become more efficient. It has made our lives much easier because we no longer have to spend hours upon hours in the darkroom.

Digital (not just as a “tool”) has also helped create many new niches in the art world. Blogs transformed many people from the everyday photographers to heavy hitting artist. The Tim Barber and tinyvices camp propelled many into the “high art” scene and made big money off Ryan McGinley who now has billboards in NYC and LA.  Midwest photographer Alec Soth’s blog was a phenomenon and he’s now one of the most prolific photographers of the decade. The other niche we see are young artist using digital as the conceptual content of the work. They are using photography as a way to make a statement about this new dissemination/fluidity of the photographic image. In the 2009 exhibition at the New Museum “The Generational: Younger than Jesus,” we see subject matter that embraces this idea, articulated by the show’s curators:

“the show was put together very fast; in a year. The initial selection was done Facebook-style. The exhibition catalog is also a compendium, mostly of musings from the popular press on Generation Y, or the Millennials, with each curator contributing necessarily impressionistic profiles of a generation still very much in formation. Characteristics assigned to these artists include having a second-nature relationship to digital media; a preference for sentiment over irony; an aesthetic interest in reorganizing existing materials rather than trying to invent from scratch; and so on.”

Recently, Bea Fremderman, an artist in “Younger Than Jesus” curated an exhibition at the alternative space Monument 2 Gallery here in Chicago. In Fremderman’s curatorial statement, she noted that

“technology is no longer a distant component in our cultural lives – it has been integrated and infused with traditional values and principals, which in turn have affected our social behavior. As Marshall McLuhan puts it, “…when technology changes, man changes.” It is not to be doubted that this system stems outwardly into the production of ideas in which art becomes affected as well. Within this, comes the confrontation of new and traditional art media existing on the same creative plane. This stratum of work is most interesting because of its inner complexity through sheer medium conflict and cultural relevance.”

Kate Steciw, artist and a founder of The Photography Post (a New York Times of the Photography World merging all aspect of photography—commercial, fashion, art) wrote an article titled the “The Kids Are More Than Just Alright, which also mentioned Brad Troemel, a young Chicago artist. Through his various projects Troemel touches on the many new ways artists are thinking about the medium of photography. Recently Troemel curated a show, AN OPEN CALL FOR WORK TO BE INCLUDED IN THE EXHIBIT: READY OR NOT IT’S 2010 where artist were invited to post art work on LACMA’s Facebook wall.

So, yes, photography is in a very different place than it was back in 1977, and it will continue to change. It’s hard to imagine what it will be like in another two years, but I have a feeling it will be something pretty amazing and transformative.

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