Artspan sits down with photographer Karen Callan.
Frost and Fan
I once described your photographs as "painterly," because they're so remarkably layered and textured. Do you have any background in painting? How do you achieve this effect? Is it something you consciously pursue?
I do have a background in painting—mostly with pastels, and I also do a lot of drawing. In both cases, I’m attracted to subjects with lots of texture and detail that give my work a layered feeling. The same holds true for my photographs, but in a more abstract manner. I enjoy looking for the “small stuff” when I’m using my camera, and I especially like capturing the details that once removed from their source take on that sense of layering and texture that you describe. For me, being asked “What is that?” by someone looking at my photos is a great compliment. It means I’ve achieved what I set out to do. Whether the “painterly” look of my photos is conscious or not is hard to answer. I just shoot what attracts me.
How do you find your subjects? Do you carry a camera with you at all times and photograph anything that captures you? Do you go on missions to certain places at certain times of day? What is your favorite time of day to shoot? What is your favorite part of the photographic process?
I almost always have a camera with me, either my Nikon D7000 or my Nikon point and shoot. What inspires me to capture an image changes from day to day, but I tend to be “series driven.” When I’m in that mode, I seek out subjects that fit the parameters of the particular series I’m focusing on, and rarely venture beyond. But, at other times, I just stumble across something I find interesting and end up with some great shots that I hadn’t planned or expected—and sometimes, some real duds. Like most photographers, I enjoy shooting at dawn and dusk, but I’m experimenting more and more with night photography and artificial lighting. My favorite part of the photographic process is the “aha” moment when I’ve found something that I just have to capture. You didn’t ask, but my least favorite part of the process is post-production. I work on a computer full time as a graphic designer, so the less time I’m on a computer editing photos during my non-work hours, the happier I am, and as a result, I spend as little time as possible in Photoshop. If the image needs more than a few minutes of minor editing (a little contrast, sharpening, etc.) then, to me, it’s a failure as a photo, and it’s time to move on.
I love your photographs of windows. They remind me almost of the work of Eugene Atget, one of my favorite artists, who captured windows and doorways of Paris in the early twentieth century. Like you, he seems to provide a beautifully glancing portrait of inhabited spaces. Are you familiar with his work? Is he an inspiration to you? What artists do you admire and find inspiring? (Or authors, musicians, filmmakers...)
Thank you for your compliments on my window photos. Time and again, I’m drawn to windows—and to doors. No matter how many times I tell myself to move on to other subjects, there I am angling my camera to get a great window shot without my reflection in the image. I’m intrigued by the passages and individual lives these portals suggest, and the mysterious juxtapositions often captured in reflections. Often I think I’m capturing one thing, and when I download the shots, I see something totally different on my screen. I greatly admire Eugene Atget’s work, among a long list of other photographers, including Brassai, Berenice Abbott, Edward Steichen, Saul Leiter, Paul Caponigro, Harry Callahan, Juan Rulfo, Sylvia Plachy, and Abelardo Morell. I enjoy the intrigue and mystery of the works of many painters, ranging from all three generations of Wyeths, to Marc Chagall to Odilon Redon; the rich collages of Romare Bearden; and the always amazing masterpieces of Sargent, to name a few.
I've decided that everyone will get one question from the Proust Questionnaire. Here's yours, "For what fault do you have the most tolerance?"
Rudeness. I assume that rudeness stems from difficulties a person is dealing with, and that the individual may be unaware of his or her behavior.
You've published a photo essay called “Anonymous Among Us: Images from a New England Potter’s Field." Much of your work gives life and dignity to decayed and overlooked objects and places, and this seems the most poignant example of this process. Can you tell us more about the Potter's Field and your work there?
My husband drove by the potter’s field (in Taunton, Massachusetts), and suggested that I might be interested in taking some photos there. Little did he know I’d revisit it countless times over the next couple of years at all hours of the day and in all sorts of weather. At the cemetery, which was active from 1862-1962, are 1015 numbered, nameless grave markers. Far more individuals than that number are buried beneath them as many plots hold more than one person. Many of the deceased were patients from Taunton State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital known at one time as the State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton. Also buried there are immigrants, stillborn and newborn babies, indigent individuals, transients, and even one of Massachusetts’ most notorious serial killers who had been committed to the state hospital. I had the chance to review the city’s remarkably well-preserved logbooks from the cemetery, and as I read the names, ages, and causes of death of those buried there, what began as an art project for me evolved into a mission to share with the community a sad part of local history and to commemorate, in some small way, the lives of these nameless souls. I was fortunate to get a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, and I used the funding to produce three books, two of which I presented to local libraries and the third to the city’s historical society. The grant also helped with costs associated with exhibiting the photos in several area venues. I continue to visit the site and take photos.