The Self-reflections of an American in Paris: the Photography of Rachael Woodson

After many conversations, artistic and non, I’ve had the great pleasure of becoming friends with and getting to know the photography Rachael Woodson more intimately. I met Rachael shortly after her move to Paris, from New York and since then, her work has appeared in the magazine Nylon and she has exhibited at Révélation 4 in Paris, during summer, 2010.

After many conversations, artistic and non, I’ve had the great pleasure of becoming friends with and getting to know the photography Rachael Woodson more intimately. I met Rachael shortly after her move to Paris, from New York and since then, her work has appeared in the magazine Nylon and she has exhibited at Révélation 4 in Paris, during summer, 2010.

Cloud, 2005, Band of Outsiders

What has been your photographic education thus far?

I started photographing when I was in high school. My mother would drive me into New York City where I took classes at Pratt and the School of Visual Arts on the weekends. I’d also spend hours at the local library looking at monographs by Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark. After high school I studied at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), and this really opened up my eyes and heart to photography as I learned about it’s history and discovered what a powerful form of expression it can be.

How would your describe your work pattern? Do you set strict goals for yourself, or is it more of an organic, natural process? (do you seek out your models, places, etc, or let them come to you)

My process has its ebbs and flows and I don’t set strict rules for myself because I rely on intuition to lead me to my photographs. A sensitivity has developed overtime that triggers in me whenever I find something I’d like to photograph. It’s usually a moment that visually represents an emotion or experience from youth. There are also certain people that incite these same ideas, like my brothers, so whenever I visit them they very often inspire new photographs.

Le Cerisier, 2010, Disconnected

By in large, your current work is contributing to, and expanding upon a project originally about your brother. When did you begin this project and how would you describe the visual evolution?

I have been photographing my family from the time I started at 15, but the project with my brothers really began to take shape during my first year studying at SVA, two years after my father died. I was making black and white photographs of my family in the house where I’d grown up in New Jersey. I would project slides of family photos taken by my father into the different rooms of the house, and photograph the results.

So the urge to photograph my home and what it signifies has been there since the beginning, and that evolved into an ongoing series that followed my two brothers during their adolescent years. While photographing their lives I also drew on feelings of isolation from my own youth. The project challenges the notion of childhood as a period of naïveté and simplicity and explores moments of detachment that are experienced in times of fragility and uncertainty.

Aaron Sleeping I, 2004, Band of Outsiders

You photograph a very personal subject. What challenges do you face while photographically exploring your life?

It has never felt like a choice to photograph my life and the people close to me. I’ve always felt the strongest connection to my art while photographing them. When I photograph one of my brothers, for example, there is a unique contrast of familiarity and discretion in our exchange. That said, the realities and complexities in your own life and of those you care about can be difficult to accept even when filtered through art.

Navy Man, 2006, Band of Outsiders

There are also times when I struggle with how the people I photograph feel about their portrayal, considering that the qualities and emotions I am looking to reveal are typically quite personal. In the end, I see it as a responsibility that the photograph upholds the respect and honesty that the person in it has shared with me.

What attracts you to continue working on the same theme?

An intuition is hard to resist. The consistency in mood has definitely been shaped by my experiences growing up. This leads me to find new ways to explore the ideas that really motivate me. However much a photographer evolves, I think it’s important to find a connecting thread throughout the work that ties everything together.

In expanding upon this theme, how do you incorporate new elements, new portraits, new views, etc ?

The concept for my latest project, Disconnected, stems directly from the series of my brothers. Photographing them opened up an insight towards moments of detachment, whether found in the look on someone’s face or a scene that I happen upon. Photographing these scenarios allows me to investigate ideas of abandonment, disconnection and isolation on a broader scale, and share these discoveries with other people.

Le Lama du cirque au camping, 2010, Disconnected

Where do you hope this project leads to next?

Outsiders and lifestyles that ignore conventional rules of social behavior have always interested me. There are many different stories there that are worthy of being brought to light. On another note, I’ve been visiting Dunkerque a lot, and have found it to have a unique identity that is amazing to photograph.

The ensemble of photos on your website, for example, is a blend of portraits and images of spaces. When taking someone’s portrait, how do you capture the feelings you are after?

I am drawn to photographing unique people who have an enigmatic quality about them. While photographing, I attempt to draw out some of that mystery, and ask them to present themselves naturally, without forced expressions. Often an element of cautiousness comes along with asking people to let down their guard, but this creates an interesting tension in the photographs. In my experience, there is a delicate beauty that exudes from a person who reveals themself to you in this way, and it is important that the photographs realize this beauty as well.

Jeannie, 2008, Disconnected

What catches your photographic eye when looking at places and spaces?

Something interests me photographically when it recalls a memory, or portrays an element of surprise in otherwise banal circumstances. This usually occurs when several factors randomly come together to contribute to the moment. For instance, the way light and shadows fall can illuminate a place or an object in such a way that lends to this sense of revelation.

Tiergarten, 2010, Disconnected

A year ago, you moved from New York to Paris. How is the photographic transition going?

It’s great to uncover a new city and it invigorates creativity. Many of the new photographs were taken in France (and around Europe). Photographing the Roman ruins in Nice and in German bunkers on the Franco-Belgian border has added a historical emphasis to my search, and brings new meaning to my grandfather’s accounts of World War II. As a foreigner, I look at things a bit differently than a native French person. The commonplace can be new and mysterious to me. This makes me think of the Swiss photographer Robert Frank and his series “The Americans”, which presented an outside perspective on American society in the 1950s.

Walls, Berlin, 2010, Disconnected

I enjoy being an outsider again. It’s great to be curious and amazed about simple, foreign things. This is very inspiring for me as a photographer and a person, and forces me to slow down a little. I welcome future discoveries that await me in my travels around France.

Les Dunes, Dunkerque, 2010,Disconnected

Interview by LG

Link to Rachael Woodson’s website