a creative conversation with emily white

In Conversation, Fine Art Photography, Guest, Inspiration, Interview, Landscapes
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I have a long list of favorite photographers who teach me even though we’ve never met. People I’d love to sit down next to and have a conversation over a cup of coffee. I’m one of those people who lands in the middle of the road between introvert and extrovert, and the whole idea of anything as formal as an “interview” stretches the limits of what’s comfortable for me. And yet, I also thrive on collaboration and connection so I listen to the fear and choose to play anyway.

I’ve long admired the photographs of Emily White. I discovered Em by way of the Visual Arts Center in Richmond, Virginia where I was taking photography classes and she was an instructor.  I wasn’t in Em’s class, but I made note of her name and started following her work. I was immediately drawn to the aesthetics of her work and her clear attachment to Southern landscapes. Em recently had her first solo exhibition, High Water, at Candela Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, March 5 – April 24, 2021.

“Weaving together several distinct bodies, High Water’s textural studies of thick water, overgrown greenery, and enveloping canopies of elongated trees thread a universal narrative that reminds us again, despite all of our protests, that nature is going to have the last word.”

I wasn’t able to attend the High Water exhibition, but I am the proud owner of a signed, limited edition copy of the catalog.

Here’s the basic bio for Em, straight from her website.

Emily White (b. 1990, Bremo Bluff, VA) is an artist known for utilizing historic photographic processes to reframe the contemporary landscape, addressing cultural narratives relating to nature, connection and identity. Taking her mobile darkroom along backroads, highways and alleys, she frames urban edens, rural sprawl and the blur in between. She is building an archive of perception— attempting to fix emotional responses to the modern natural world. Documenting physical, spiritual and environmental shapes, her practice is not confined by the processes she utilizes, but rather they serve as a means of accessing the space between truth and fiction. Her works vary from original tintypes to large-scale darkroom prints, seeking to make a living image by any means necessary.


I wanted to get to know Em in a more personal way. I sat down with her for a two-hour conversation in her studio in downtown Richmond. She and I both love to talk and the back-and-forth of simple questions and answers set the stage for a lively and creative exchange.

Donna: How has living in the South influenced your work?

Em: I would say that I identify as rural more than as Southern. I feel most at home in outdoor spaces that offer solitude, places that are not highly populated, where I can be intensely present and engaged in my surroundings. Much of my work is a direct response to these environments in which I was raised, a visceral need to document them, to preserve the intangible responses they evoke and inspire. Perhaps unconsciously, my work is very biased towards southern lighting—I look for soft light, thick air that diffuses sunlight and shadow. I frequently work after sunset, before dark, and in high humidity to find the light that speaks to me. On a lucky winter day, I’ll find the same light filtered through smoke ascending from the wood stove.

Tell me about that awesome Dolly Parton quote on the Candela Press Release for your exhibit.

“But I longed to always stay attached to my home, to my family. That’s the golden thread that keeps me tied to eternity.”

—Dolly Parton

Em: When Candela invited me to do a solo show, I began by considering what ‘theme’ was already present in my work that I could highlight in an exhibition. Much of my work speaks to intimate spaces that have significance to me, and I wanted to unpack from where this attachment to place comes, as well as consider something that could potentially speak to a wider audience. This quote by Dolly came to mind as speaking to that feeling. Funnily enough, I had misremembered it, and in that misremembering found the theme. As I recalled the last line was, “…That’s the golden thread that keeps us tied to humanity.” I remembered it as speaking to the collective experience of being attached to place, and as that shared sentimentality being what links us to one another. Even though slightly different than I remembered, the quote held the same sentiment to me and I decided to include it.

Donna: Yes. Ultimately, it’s our connection to others that ties us to eternity.

What was it like to see your work hanging on the walls of Candela? How important is it to you to share your work?

I found it very exhilarating to share my art with others in a physical form. Up until this point, the majority of interaction with my work by the public has been online, with a screen as an intermediary. As an artist who intentionally makes physical prints and tangible objects, it felt powerful to have those be the work with which people were engaging. A lot of my work doesn’t translate properly on a screen, for example tintypes are reflective and simply zooming in on a digital image can’t capture their depth or detail. I presented illuminated ambrotypes that were interactive and motion-sensored, layered glass negatives were projected onto a wall…all of these things invite the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the viewing experience and engage with the work. I really relished the opportunity to present work in the scale that I wanted, to show images I had printed by hand that contained the tonal nuances I so valued, to invite people to look closely. It was nice to be able to eliminate some of the variables that digital technology presents (you never know what someone’s screen is presenting, be it scale, tone, brightness etc…). It was empowering to present my work to be seen in the way that I see it.

Donna: In the exhibition catalog, you share another quote.

“The landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.”

—Paul Nash

Donna: This quote is so beautiful. Could you share one memory of making a picture where you were deeply sensing and connected?

Em: Mmmm, I’d say for most images I make, they begin from a place of high perception and being intensely present. If I had to choose one though, I’d say Moonrise over the James, as it was an image that took me much longer to make and presented ample opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. The tintype was made at night, late in August, just after rainfall, it was muggy as hell. It depicts a full moon rising over the James River. I made the image three times, working towards a previsualized concept I had of what I hoped to create—the exposures were 10 minutes, 30 minutes and 45 minutes respectively. I was visiting my family at the time, so was photographing at the river spot where we all frequently swim down the street. My mom joined, a little nervous about me being at the river at night alone and we had the best time, drinking a bottle of wine together, looking out over the river as the images exposed. The image in the show, funnily enough, is the first image I made, the one I initially thought was a mess up because it didn’t show the surroundings as much as I had hoped. I got brighter images, but this one stuck with me, it’s an image I keep coming back to, one I want to make again, bigger, on glass so that I can print it.  

Donna: How did you edit/curate the images for High Water? What does your process look like?

Em: Many different culls! I start with images I like and then move to ones I really like. I ask how the photographs relate, I consider scale, I consider medium. I send them off to a trusted friend for a second opinion. I listen to their opinion maybe…maybe not. They tell me to get rid of an image, I then realize I love it and can’t leave it out…over and over

Donna: How about the sequencing of the photographs? Is that an intuitive process?

Em: The curators at Candela arranged the photographs in the space initially, with my input. Fairly intuitive, scale perhaps posed the greatest determining variable, trying to avoid placing images side-by-side that didn’t compliment one another or ones that spoke too closely to each other…

Donna: That sounds a lot like the process of creating a photo book? Have you considered making a photo book?

Em: Yes!

Donna: Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on? What’s next?

I’d like to continue making tangible work— perhaps in a more casual format, something accessible to larger audiences, work that isn’t financially restrictive. Thinking that might be a photo book—although perhaps not a book in the absolute sense of connected pages with a cover and spine. I’ve been vibing with loose prints a lot recently, but that leaves out the opportunity for lyrical sequencing, which I love…so still figuring that part out. I’m learning the logistics of book making presently, currently playing with collaborative small volume zines. Just having fun!

I often struggle with the fine art context. It’s one way of making a living off of art, but I’m interested in exploring other avenues that are more accessible, less privileged, and not reliant upon institutional support. I want my art to live in the homes of more than just the financially elite, I want it in my family’s homes, on the walls of the young punks and the aspiring artists.

Donna: What/Who are your influences?

Em: I love the work of Chris McCaw, Rachelle Bussieres, Sugimoto, Susan Worsham, Cole Caswell, Lisa Elmaleh. I’m honestly inspired most by ‘amateur’ artists, the ones whose names don’t make it on museum walls, self taught, outsider artists disinterested in mass appeal.

Donna: You are one of my influences. Your photo Twisted Trunk inspired me to take a similar photo of a tree in the Spotsylvania Battlefield where I walk almost every day. I love to study the work of photographers and bring aspects of their work into mine. In the book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon says that all creative work builds on what came before. He suggests that we embrace the influence of others instead of running away from it. I find this advice freeing and it fills me with hope.

Em: Yes! I think the worst thing an artist can do is to be obsessed with novelty. It’s kind of presumptuous to assume we can create anything purely new, to assume that someone hasn’t been moved by the same thing, in the same way before. And then to attach value to something purely for novetly…that doesn’t speak to me.

Donna’s photo of tree in Spotsylvania Battlefield inspired by Emily’s Twisted Tree

Donna: I agree! I value sincerity over originality.

Donna: You and I are both lovers of back roads, things overlooked and unseen, beauty and brokenness. Things and places found. I really enjoyed the video on your website, Tintypes in the field, made by your friend Sharon Cantor. I want to send readers to travel with you! For me, it’s the appeal of things made by hand.

Em: Yes, that video was made by Sharon, one of my best friends! Thank you! That video was made a few years ago, and I’m excited to share that later this fall there will be longer form video, as part of a documentary series that follows a photographer for a day…can’t say much more than that, but, stay tuned!

Donna: I’d like to share a quote with you that’s been occupying my thoughts.

In a post entitled Tips for Road Trip Photography, Dan Milnor photographer-at-large for Blurb books, responds to the question, Should I edit and share as I go?

“In my personal opinion, No. My philosophy on this matter is definitely in the minority, but I believe you can’t do two things at once and expect to do both of them to the best of your ability. This comes back to the personal aspect of the road trip, and how important it is. If you are shooting and sharing as you go, you are shooting for the audience and not for yourself. To do truly great photography you must be connected at a deep level, beyond the obvious, beyond the cliché, beyond the popular. I think personal photography needs to be marinated. Slow cooked, if you will.”

—Dan Milnor

Donna: Do you feel the same? What parts of this quote ring true for you?

Em: What really resonates with me is the part about producing work for yourself versus producing content for an audience. There is this push I feel, especially on social media, to produce constant content, to show new work at a daily rate. It’s just unrealistic and undermines that assertion that sometimes good work takes time to make. It should be about quality over quantity. I might shoot negatives and not look at them for months….perhaps it might be just because I’m busy with other projects , or it might be that I am intentionally rejecting immediacy. I enjoy the slow burn, looking at something with fresh eyes. Getting to everything right away just isn’t desirable for me—and that includes answering email!

Donna: Haha. I get that! I read on another photographer’s site recently . . . she had an explanation of how she handles email. And she wanted to let her clients know up front that she answers email for exactly one hour each day between 4 and 5pm. So, if your email missed that window or if she had a high volume of mail, it might be days before she replied. I love it when people set boundaries to be kind to everyone, including themselves.

That’s it for the structured questions and answers, but that certainly wasn’t all there was to our conversation!

Off Topic. Fun facts about Em.

Em is intelligent and funny. Honest, thoughtful, articulate. She’s the kind of person who wants to reclaim and restore words like “sentimental” as something to be unashamed of and to abolish the tyranny of a sharp image.

Em has four brothers and one of them is her twin.

She’s deeply devoted to her canine companions, Gus and Sadie. They come to work with her every day and have been known to photo bomb a shot or two.

She has a collection of vintage scrapbooks and what she loves most about them are the solarized photographs. Old pictures altered by virtue of their chemical nature and continued exposure to the sun over time.

On Instagram, she’s @_slowmedown
Her website is www.emwhitephoto.com

I can’t wait to see what’s down the road for Emily White. I’m sure it will have something to do with the darkroom and shot film, not yet developed.

Donna

5 Comments

  1. This is an incredible interview.
    These tintypes are so visceral. I can almost feel them.
    Thank you so much to both of you!

  2. Donna, what a great conversation! And thank you for sharing with us. So much inspiration.

  3. Loved this, Donna! Thanks for introducing me to this artist. I love her work! Great interview.

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