Helen Tuchmann | Issue Eleven Interview

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work 

I have been engaging with photography since High School, where I was fortunate enough to have access to a darkroom and a wonderful teacher. I recently received my Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College in Studio Art, with an emphasis in Photography. I also spent time in the photography department at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. I am currently living and working out of my hometown in Portland, Oregon.   

Tell us about the themes you pursue in your work 

I am drawn to photography for themes inherent in the medium itself. The camera, a looking and framing device, has a unique capacity to address light and perception, allowing different versions of time and space to exist simultaneously. In my work, I try to honor the passing of time without creating an explicit narrative. I often use elemental imagery such as the sun, horizon, dust, and sky in order to invoke a sense of both the cellular and the celestial, as well as explore relationships between the existential and the intimate, clarity and ambiguity, and abstraction and representation. In this manner, I hope to draw upon the capability of art to act as a means to break apart what we think we know, or have learned to assume. As a result, our sense of time, place, and relationship to the world is revealed as not static but fluid, and constantly in flux.

How would you describe your approach to photography?

Photography is so interesting because it is deployed in so many ways in our current life. Photographs may serve journalistic, artistic, archival, personal, and commercial uses. This duplicitous and democratic use of photography has rendered photographic images simultaneously vital, and superfluous in our society. The history of photography is still recent, and unique, and very accelerated relative to other artistic canons. Given the genesis of photography as representational, and the perception of photographic images as “the truth,” this representation can be particularly dangerous and easily manipulated for specific agendas. Of course, this idea of photography as a truth-telling medium has shifted in recent years. Most people are very aware of how deceptive a photographic image can be.  

With this in mind, I definitely struggle with how to thoughtfully create photographic images, as well as what makes a “good” picture. I personally find that my individual images don’t really stand alone. They function better in a series or group in order to create some sort of mood rather than a specific message. I tend towards minimalism and abstraction, so I am often trying to include hints of narrative and representation in my images in order to create enough tension for the viewer to stop and consider what they are seeing. 

I am not trying to be especially provocative or forceful in my image-making (although I do believe there is an important place for these messages in art), but I do believe the simple act of paying attention to our own perceptions can be a particularly powerful tool in negotiating a world infiltrated by so many images. In my work, I attempt to open up a space, where beauty, uncertainty, and hopefully wonder can coexist, as well as draw attention to our own processes of recognition.

What is your working process?

I primarily view my work as an exploration. I am still relatively young, and figuring out what I want to say and how to say it. I rarely begin with a specific idea and work towards completion. While I have themes that greatly interest me, I don’t like to start making anything with a clear notion of how or when it will be complete. I deeply value process, the “journey” if you will, more than the final destination.

I find that allowing myself to work with room for uncertainty allows me to drop some of the rigidity and fear that is more present in my daily life. As many would attest, using film and the darkroom is helpful in this regard as it slows down the thinking process and requires an acceptance of a lovely mix between control, intention, experimentation, and chance. I often employ various means of disruption or distortion to my images, such as manipulations of scale, flattening of perspective, and extreme cropping. I also like the idea of a viewer trying to discern what actually is in the image they are looking at, of bringing attention their own process of identification and perception and awareness.

What do you feel the role of artists and photographers is in society?

Art can do a lot, but it can’t do everything. Photography itself is a selection of attention, and of course attention is a double-edged sword. Photographs, and thus the photographer, wield a great deal of power with what they choose to represent.

For me, on a personal level, art is just the best entry or point of access that I have found to help me to engage, to pay attention, be mindful, work hard, and have discipline and curiosity. People find this in all sorts of arenas, and I have found it in art. These are all qualities I attempt to foster in myself as a positive citizen because I believe that curiosity, attention, empathy, and engagement can have powerful ripple effects in a society. I personally don’t really have any motivation to be particularly provocative or groundbreaking in my own work, especially at this stage in my life. What I produce at the moment is mostly for myself, a very small offering to a larger complicated and muddled conversation. For those who have an audience, the very presence of this contribution brings an amazing potential for discussion, and for criticism. Of course, for this to work meaningfully, it is imperative that the conversation involve a diversity of voices, ideas, and contributors.

As a young, white women I often have the inclination to “stand down”, to leave room for people whose voices have historically been stifled, or for those that have something more specific or developed to say. I am constantly reminding myself that a photograph, a series, a project, does not have to say everything to say something.

How can artists raise awareness for mental health?

They can take care of themselves, and keep doing the work. I believe art – looking at it, making it, being inspired by it - is inherently related and beneficial to mental health. Being alive in this world is not exactly conducive to constant wellbeing, nor should it be. I think it is most important, as individuals and a culture, to retain the ability to accept and experience an expansive range of emotions, which may often be contradictory, confusing, or dissonant.

In this case, I think artists and art have the potential to play a vital role in facilitating a space where difficult emotions can exist, and perhaps most importantly, combat shame. Some of the most meaningful connections start from a place of isolation. Awareness develops when stories are released from isolation and allowed room to breathe. Art, which can be beautifully expressive for the maker, will also most wonderfully, transform and expand when viewed by another person.


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