Name: Rachel Stern
Zodiac Sign: LEO
Hometown: Marion, MA
Album of Choice: no specific album but I can’t seem to get enough Blossom Dearie or Sam Cooke
Movie of Choice: at the moment Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre - normally Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
Medium of Choice: Mamiya 7, Tri-X, D76, Ilford Multigrade Matte, & D72
Book of Choice: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Dream Job: ART SUPAHSTAR
Midnight Hour: What was the first piece of art you ever made?
Rachel Stern: When I was probably seven I made a photo album of all of the flowers in my mother’s garden. It was the first thing I ever made that really felt like Art with that capital A. I had gotten a small red camera for my birthday. It took this crazy film that looks like a mini telephone and it came with a book on how to make a good photograph. In the book it told me to make images of nature - perhaps some flowers? it suggested. I remember walking around the gardens with that camera and thinking ‘ok - these have to be good, I have to be careful.” It was a deliberate action and there in lies the transition from taking a photograph to making Art works.
Midnight Hour: Why did you choose photography at RISD?
Rachel Stern: I never really chose photography - photography just sort of happened. Both of my grandfathers were photographic hobbyists, but quite serious and talented and my father’s best friend is a photographer. I grew up with the stuff of photography all around me, but I am not exactly from a family of artists. I found my Grandfather's Nikormat f1 in my attic just before starting high school and began making photographs seriously. I applied to RISD with a portfolio of all photographs and the three home test drawings were - quite literally - stick-figure quality. I remember being totally confused freshmen year when people weren’t sure what they did - what department they were going into. It was so clear to me that I had assumed everyone went off to school just knowing. So it is not that I chose photography at RISD but rather that I chose RISD - I was going to study photography no matter where I went or what I did.
Midnight Hour: How did you develop the concepts behind "A Collection" at Red Eye?
Rachel Stern: “A Collection” was a really interesting project for me to work on. I had been working through a lot of issues I was having with photography and contemporary Art in general and as a result had written a manifesto in collaboration with Matthew Leifheit for a movement called “New Sincerity.” I was thinking a lot about beauty, sense, and novelty in art and was feeling burdened by an overwhelming sense of irony that seemed to be a consistent thread in much of the work which I was seeing. “A Collection” was an exercise in obsessive archiving. My idea was that by looking at my photographs as a means of collecting my experiences I could create an edit that summarized my understanding of life; a selection of photographs that represented purely my emotional response to my world. Perhaps it was an attempt to examine my own subconscious. The photographs in that show ranged in style and date but came together under four main themes that were consistent in my work and therefor of my world view. I think that that show and project were more than anything else an important building block for me. From that body of work I began my current body of work titled “Instances of Orientalism” which seeks to instill a sense of wonder in our lives by repurposing the Orientalist gaze to look at my life instead of the East. It is a more focused means of addressing the same issues that I was beginning to examine in “A Collection.”
Midnight Hour: Do you have any overarching aesthetic goals for your pieces?
Rachel Stern: I want my photographs to look historically new. By this I mean I want them to be in dialogue with history and carry the weight of historical importance but at the same time to feel fresh and real. Most importantly I want my images to look as though they have mystically appeared in front of you - like a message in a crystal ball. They should look and feel like slow-motion flashes before the eyes - as though you have been seized by a vision of great mystical import but slightly amorphous meaning. In the manifesto I write that the Shaman (a term which can loosely be substituted for the Artist) should take light from the Fire (a mental creative space) and create with it a constellation in their own image and in which their audience sees themselves. While these are experiential goals beyond the purely aesthetic, one of my main projects is working to cultivate an aesthetic which effectively communicates these emotions.
Midnight Hour: What are your favorite things to photograph?
Rachel Stern: The photography movement called “Provoke” which began in Japan immediately following World War II was started with the production of a book called “Hiroshima” by the artist Ken Domon. The photographs look at the aftermath of the atomic bomb in a very straightforward way. In fact, they look at the reality of what happened so closely that the images are totally surreal and seem to have nothing to do with an actual physical place on the surface of this planet. The whole movement of Provoke seems to answer the question, ‘Two atomic bombs have just been dropped on your country. You are a photographer. How are you supposed to make photographs now?” I think that this is my main inspiration for how I find subject matter. I ask myself “The world exists as it does. You are a photographer. How are you supposed to make photographs now?” This sense of total overwhelm with my mere existence and then at a larger scale with the condition of human culture makes me want to photograph everyday life, objects, faces, places, etc. but to look at it all so closely that without using any tricks the real becomes surreal.
Midnight Hour: What have you been doing since graduation?
Rachel Stern: Mostly I have been working on “Instances of Orientalism.” I have been shooting and printing bonkers amounts of photographs and am preparing for a show at Colo Colo Gallery latter this month and another there in March. I have also been really excited to be writing for an Australian online photography journal called Excerpt Magazine. I work in the Department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design at RISD’s School of Graduate Studies with a program called Project Open Door which helps underserved teens create portfolios and apply to art school. I’d like to move to Paris next year so that I can be in the thick of Orientalist culture and have also been working to figure out how I might be able to get there!
Midnight Hour: What is the relationship between your essays and your photography?
Rachel Stern: I firmly believe that to make Art without writing about it is to do oneself a huge disservice. The making of work is certainly one kind of very important critical thinking but it is equally necessary to remove oneself from the process of making and the type of thinking it demands in order to effectively realize the whole of what you have done and are trying to do. I write both in response to what I have made and (more often) as a premeditation or means of forming an idea that I have into something that I am able to make. While I consider myself to be primarily a practitioner of photography I am also very interested in writing about photography and photography theory as its own developed practice. My writing and my photographs are in a constant ebb and flow of dialogue that is caught up in the chicken and egg conundrum - it is often hard to tell, even for myself, which came first.
Midnight Hour: How did attending RISD and living in Providence affect your work?
Rachel Stern: I think that RISD offered me many things - in fact too many to list here - that shaped who I am as an Artist. I will list here three of the many things that RISD gave me. I worked for many years for the artist Graham Day Guerra who teaches in the Foundations program at RISD. Graham told me that one of the most important tenants of a good art school education is to instill in young artists the ability and desire to go to the same place, at the same time, every day and make work. So, the first thing - show up and work hard. All the time. While at RISD I also worked for Henry Horenstein - a great photographer and educator and major asset to this institution as a whole. Henry tells a story about when he was a student at RISD. He had never really worked as a photographer before coming here and was really interested in stories about people but unsure where exactly to point his lens. He went to Harry Callahan who was then running the photography department and told him that he was at a loss and had no idea what he was supposed to photograph. Callahan asked him what he liked to do when he wasn’t photographing and when Henry answered that he liked country music and going to the horse races. Callahan told him to do just that: photograph country music and horse races. Henry today has published many beautiful books two of which are titled “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music” and “Racing Days.” The second thing I’ve learned - its only worth doing it if you love it and loving what you do yields the best results. The last thing I learned does not have such a neat anecdote. Michael Bühler Rose who also teaches in the Photography department runs a trip during winter session to India. I took very few photographs on that trip - I was really overwhelmed by the complex photo-ethical questions and cultural schisms that I saw. For whatever reason (really today I cannot figure out why I reacted the way I did) I was particularly unnerved in the temples. Seeing people pray - and I mean really have religious experiences - was so far removed from anything I knew that in a very basic way it scared me. This experience had the most direct influence on my work today. I think that seeing people really feeling and believing in something (in this case religion) while simultaneously really feeling and being moved by something my self (in this case fear, confusion, and wonder) really pushed me to start thinking about the ideas that ended up first manifesting themselves as “A Collection” and later as “Instances of Orientalism.” I will just briefly add a last note to say that obviously since each of these points was demonstrated by an experience I had with a mentor that one of the greatest things I took from RISD is that great teachers count for a lot - I have listed only a few here but I am constantly blown away by the dedication and knowledge of the faculty and staff I worked with at RISD.
Midnight Hour: What reactions do you hope your work provokes from non-artists?
Rachel Stern: It is essential for a New Sincerist photograph to be able to stand on its own, apart from its author. If the artist pours as much of themselves into their creation as possible, they increase the possibility of another empathizing with it. In contemporary society authoring and reading are very separate events, and life can be added to art on both ends. The more life a photographer breathes into their photograph, the more likely it is that the viewer of the photograph will breathe their own life into it. Whether or not a photograph is interpreted based on the biography and biases of its author, it must be authored. Because of this necessary insertion of humanity into the mechanical process of photography, New Sincerity finds it only logical to insert as much humanity as possible in order to fight the naturally dead nature of the photograph.
This short segment from the New Sincerity Manifesto explains my process of giving meaning to a photograph. I hope that “Instances of Orientalism” will provide my audience - any audience - with two reactions: first, “How strange!” and then, “How familiar!” If the great Orientalist painters made images of a place curated out of the real world to form their idea of perfected Otherness then my pictures would hopefully do just that for a more familiar society. I want to instill in my audience a sense that this very place in which we are existing right now is both very strange and very real. In a word I hope that the photographs would make any audience remember that they are in fact alive.
Midnight Hour: Any last words?
Rachel Stern: In the spirit of shameless self promotion lets go with: