I was lucky enough to get to spend some time recently speaking with Portland photographer Holly Andres about her recent collection of images, “Sparrow Lane”. Andres’ mysterious and theatrical photographs have been enchanting the local art community for several years now, and it appears that the national scene is now starting to catch a whiff of the Portland darling’s talents. Andres’ was recently written up in both Art in America and Art Forum magazines (a very very big deal) as well as finishing up a recent piece for PBS. If this effervescent artist can continues winning hearts and making great art, she might just have what it takes to become the next important American photographer.
Jon Miller: Your photographs seem to contain a quixotic and unsolvable narrative. Do you go into the process of creating each photograph with a known solution to the question posed by the image?
Holly Andres: No, which was an intentional departure from my previous work – specifically Stories from a Short Street, in which each narrative is based on recreating a quite specific childhood experience. I felt like I learned something really valuable with the Short St Series, which is the importance of relinquishing control when you offer up your work to public consumption and interpretation. Despite the specific content that I was examining, it was fascinating to realize that ultimately people arrive at all art with their own life experiences, connotations and associations. Ultimately that’s part of the power of art.
I felt as though I wanted to exploit this understanding a bit as I embarked on Sparrow Lane. By juxtaposing rather suggestive and familiar iconography such as scissors, chrome flashlights, bird cages, skeleton keys, and open drawers, doors and windows, I’m interested in suspending any overt clues from the viewer so that they are encouraged to arrive at their own assumptions about what they think the scene is about. The body of work presents an elliptical narrative, a mystery, to encourage viewers, much like the characters in the images, to engage in and strive to solve along the way.
HA: For Sparrow Lane I specifically selected character’s that I thought would reflect our culture’s stereotypes of innocence and girlish femininity – hence the fair skin, blue eyes and light hair. Furthermore, Sparrow Lane is in some ways an abstraction of my own childhood experiences. I grew up in rural western Montana with very little ethnic diversity and most of my peers were similar in appearance to the Sparrow Lane girls. In addition, it often seems that when a photographer chooses to depict racial minorities that, unfortunately perhaps, race becomes a significant part of the content, and I did not want the work to explicitly be a commentary on race.
In regards to class – and race and class are undeniably intertwined – the girls appear to be relatively privileged, and I intentionally sought out to imply that the girls are sleuthing the grounds of a grand fictitious estate. Certainly not the environments that I experienced as a child, but they perhaps are fantasies of houses I would have liked to have lived in, maybe because they reference the novels I devoured, primarily.
JM:Each of your images is impressively staged. From a technical standpoint, can you explain the process of preparing for some of your more complex pieces?
HA: Though the photos weren’t all shot in rooms in the same house or neighborhood, I intended to create a fictitious space with hopes of creating more conceptual and visual unity with in the narratives. I’m really conscientious of the spaces in which the characters exist, and instead of finding houses to shoot in, I completely transform an existing space (usually my own home) to look like the one in my mind. They can be thought of as installations that are activated by the characters and then photographed.
This pre-production is a big part of the process. I engage in a lot of thrift shopping – often times I will find an object that will trigger a thought that I can craft a narrative around. I’m trying to create a non-specific time period. I like to think of them as sometime between the era of the 1950s – 1980s – but they’re not the present. I think this sense of nostalgia also reinforces the mystery.
Regarding the directing of my models, I revisited many of the Nancy Drew book covers that I read as a child and I love the melodramatic body language of the characters and opted to emulate that aesthetic – the way their bodies frame the scene, the separation of their fingers, the way their hair frames their face and their startling – but lovely- expressions.
The hyper-staged quality of the work is also part of the artifice of working with a large format 4×5” camera. Setting up the lights and dialing in the exposure is a very extensive process – there isn’t much room for experimentation – and so I exploited this limitation in the work. I should note that the photographic process is in collaboration with my husband Paul Rich, who is an excellent technical assistant. He’s an integral part of my work.
HA: Looking back on the trajectory of my work, it has always been self referential and filled with personal narratives. I continue to be quite mystified by the past and the experience of being a child.
‘Sparrow Lane’ was in part inspired by a conversation I had with my friend, Fiona – who I’ve been photographing since she was 7 and who is the little girl who loosely represents myself in the ‘Short Street Series’. She was telling me with so much enthusiasm how she had been reading the Nancy Drew novels, and it was delightful to reminisce with her, because I too had read most of the books when I was a young girl, and although I couldn’t recall a single plot, I realized the provocative images from the book covers were still nestled somewhere in my mind.
I also had been wanting to start a new photo narrative series with adolescent girls in more empowering depictions and of course Nancy Drew – the sleuth – has consistently been one of few smart, curious, and empowering role models for young girls.
I used these formal/thematic conventions as a point of departure, but ultimately the forbidden knowledge the adolescent girls are on the cusp of acquiring in the “Sparrow Lane” series is a metaphor for the precarious transition from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’.
My photo process has been also informed and influenced by my early training in traditional painting, my interest in religious Renaissance art and the mise en scenes of classic films – such as Alfred Hitchcocks’ work – the highly theatrical lighting, rich color combinations, compositions, and his many female protagonists. He was also a master at creating visual clues to communicate narratives without relying on dialogue.
Make sure to visit Holly Andres’ website to view the entire “Sparrow Lane” collection as well as additional photographs from her other bodies of work.