A feminist undercurrent informs images plunged in the tension of everyday and sublime, nostalgia and heartache.
Sarah Workneh Before we got to know each other, I had thought of you as the bad girl taking on the history of bad boys. Bongs, nipples, booze bottles, band shirts: you seemed to be poking at a hyper-masculinized subculture. It was drugs, a little sex, and definitely rock and roll, but more Riot Grrrl than Tracy Emin. It seemed inherently feminist, but not so much about claiming your body as much as claiming your ability to have experiences, take up space and participate in the conversations that seemed to be decidedly “male.” As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, where did this defiance/insolence come from?
Melanie Schiff I don’t really get asked about that time in my life or work that often. Mostly, when I think back to when I was first making work out of grad school, I cringe. That was a long time ago, but there’s not a day that goes by where either the work I was making or the people I was working with don’t have an influence on what I do now. I think a lot of what I was making was akin to stomping around. I still like that as a way to get a point across; for better or worse, I still like showing my tits.
I was really just reaping my influences—hoping, more than anything, that by doing it myself, I would be able to figure out something about me. I grew up as this dirty, pissed off misanthropic kid. The way I try to think about it now is rather than be ashamed of living out so many suburban Midwestern clichés, I should embrace it. I still identify with my teenage self, and while sometimes it seems immature, there’s such pleasure in it that I can’t help but indulge.
SW I had forgotten that that body of work was made just out of grad school. It makes sense, because the next body of work was so different. It was as if you were negotiating the bad girl/bad boy, realizing the emptiness of asserted power or the emptiness of a lifestyle—the admission of which still felt feminist. With the images of Anna, in particular, there is a sensitivity and vulnerability that became part of the feminist narrative you portrayed, and an undercurrent that I think carries through. In a funny way, the women in those pictures seemed to stay the age you were in the first photos, with the same insistent claim of sexuality and power.
MS A feminist undercurrent in my work is something I am constantly striving for without trying to place too much emphasis on it. I try not to think about it too much anymore—although honestly, I try not to think too much about anything when I’m working. I love being a woman—the sexuality, history, power and pain. I believe that comes out best when I can work freely and throw myself into what I’m doing. I could see how that may not come across clearly in everything I make, but I think of it as my mark, and hope for a strong one.
SW I think it does come out strong, and what you said about not thinking about being a woman when you are making the work resonates with how I understand the work. Your feminism isn’t any less a part of your experience of looking and documenting, even if it isn’t the first thing we see.
MS I remember that the reason I really enjoyed photographing Anna and Natalie was that I missed being behind the camera. I missed being the photographer. But as I’ve regained that control, I also sometimes miss being able to embody the image. I think of the relationship of “woman and camera” as a transformative right of passage, both everyday and sublime. When I use myself as subject, I can enjoy it in a different way than when I’m behind the camera.
SW When I think about those photos in which it seems the environment, whether studio or landscape, became as important as the central figure, it feels to me like a kind of mirror image of you. The women are you, and the environment is also you. We see the images not just as pictures of girls or pictures of landscapes—each part carries a narrative. So when you talk about the relationship between “woman and camera” as being sublime, does the same hold true between “woman and landscape”?
MS I like that idea when thinking about women and their relationship to landscape, as there’s such an obvious and historical relationship between woman and nature. I like thinking that I can claim some ownership over that narrative. But that’s maybe where it ends for me. While I love being outdoors and have been photographing landscape and nature for quite some time, I do not have a relationship of preciousness towards these things.
SW Earlier, you talked about this idea of self-determination through making, and even though you describe your relationship to landscape as non-precious, it all fits with this romantic American experience of identity, landscape and Western Expansion. Do you think this also serves as the lens through which you were making your first works in Los Angeles?
MS Definitely. The work I was making when I first moved to LA stands apart when I look at it as a body of work, but when I take individual photographs and hang them with other works, it all makes sense to me. It’s taken me a long time to feel settled here; the light and landscape are so different to what I had known before, and a lot has changed for me personally—I’ve gotten married and have two small children—but I can see my work as part of a spectrum now. I’ve also lightened up about art and artists. I was so fearful to put out work that may not have been resolved in the past, but I’m starting to think that may be the whole point. The longer I have had a chance to make things, the more I get to see what I have been doing as a whole. It’s less immediate, but it’s starting to help me think more clearly, which for me was the whole point.
SW Do you think it is just time that allows that freedom? Or is it specific experiences? When you look at all the work up to this point do you feel like it mimics the trajectory of your personal life?
MS: I actually really like that my photographs change with me. I want the work to have some aspect of myself in it. I suppose you could substitute wine for whiskey bottles, but it’s more that I don’t put as much emphasis in identifying myself with those objects. It could just be a matter of how much time I feel I have. I want to try and direct my brain to more specific places. I’m not as interested in lingering in all the same places I used to. I think it would be weird if I was. But even now, as the subjects have changed, part of why I like film so much is that so much of the image making takes place in my head.
SW Do you feel like there is certain magic of image making that gets lost with digital processes? Are you attracted to the risk of film? Or is it that it requires a certain kind of confidence and power to take a picture when you don’t know how it will actually turn out?
MS Lately I’ve been thinking that it’s really about the camera. I don’t like working with a digital camera; I’ve never really liked a DSLR, and committing to a digital medium format system just stresses me out. I continuously have to keep shifting my justification for why I won’t get onboard. Maybe what I’m saying now will end up being ridiculous in my future. A curator was in my studio recently talking about my romantic view of the world through my photographs, but I don’t really think of it that way. I think it’s a legitimate viewpoint, and it touches on similar fears I have regarding nostalgia, but I rather think of it in terms of ache—like, my heart aches for so many things, photography too. I hope to make work where I can let that happen.
SW Yeah, the work does appear romantic at first glance, but the ache is there too. It’s like a Wuthering Heights type of romantic. Especially the “Native” series—it’s all kind of haunted. When I look at Mane (2014), or the others in the series, I see opposing forces at work: stunted nature, but also a nature that’s fighting its way in. There is an almost melancholic tension. I have to say the same feels true for the “Shroud” series, or the two “Threadbares,” where the light is fighting its way through. Is that what you are doing? Or are the objects more in harmony?
MS I do think that I’m trying to create a tension between two forces in the photographs. I am drawn to work like that, whether in art, music or film. I feel like it allows the work to critique itself to some extent: there become boundaries for the viewer to ping pong from, even if it seems at first glance like they’ve been left to float about. Maybe the very thing of having these polarities also allows for harmony. But these decisions usually come later for me, I have to turn some things off when I’m working.
SW I feel like you are fighting against the romance—like in Blood Bank (2012), where there’s almost no grandeur in the image or like in Flash (2015) or in Triple Falls (2014), with the use of double exposure, where you are creating an image by obfuscating it. Are you using the tools against themselves?
MS While I feel like a sensitive person, I don’t have very much space for sentimentality, which may allow for some of my best photographs: the objects and subjects in an ideal scenario get to rest, to be themselves without that baggage. In that sense, they are a mirror of my desire as much as mirroring myself. Those moments are not commonplace, where we get to rest in our own selves, and they lend themselves perfectly to photography.
SW Is it Sontag who talks about photography as being simultaneously about presence and absence in order to create feelings of desire? Does that speak to the tension too? Is it that they aren’t looking backwards, but are rather a kind of a forward-looking longing?
MS I feel like this goes back to the idea of opposing forces, but is a more poetic way of talking about it. I wonder if every time there is a dichotomy, it can be simplified to those feelings, presence and absence. I think that would make sense, but maybe it’s that my opposites aren’t always opposites: instead of being two things, they are one thing but with two parts, working it’s way backwards from desire.
Melanie Schiff (American, b. 1977) is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. She is represented by Kate Werble Gallery, New York, and Kavi Gupta, Chicago. A solo show of her works will be held at Kate Werble Gallery from 28 October–10 December.
Sarah Workneh is a Co-Director of the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. This fall, Workneh is partnering with curator Natasha Marie Llorens, 80 WSE, Foxy Productions, Participant Inc, and Maccarone to produce public programs around the work of Ellen Cantor.
Images in order of appearance: Triple Falls, 2014; Natives V, 2015; Pains, 2015. Courtesy of the artist
Portrait by Sterling Ruby