Problem Solve Like An Artist: Jordanna Kalman on internet image thieves, starting a photography collective, and her ongoing project Little Romances
Sometimes the work of an artist is at odds with who they present as in public: the work can be loud and confrontational, but the artist soft-spoken and introverted. Conversely, work can be received by another as nuanced and quietly thoughtful, but the artist is larger-than-life, overfilling a room with their presence (notwithstanding their ego). In contrast, Jordanna Kalman’s mien as a person is inseparable from the work that she makes, and the effect of listening to her speak about her process and projects is very much akin to the spirit of the phrase “iron-fist-in-a-velvet glove,” originating from the Latin Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re, which translates as: “Gentle in manner, resolute in deed.”
On a cold weekend in early November 2017, in Brattleboro Vermont, Kalman presented a version of the following talk at the SPE NE chapter conference. In it she outlined challenges she has faced as a photographer gaining notoriety for strong and original work, and with her characteristic resoluteness, how she has risen to the occasion — on numerous occasions — of turning setbacks into opportunities, her enemies into her teachers, brick walls into sweeping vistas. Below is an abridged version of her talk, the wisdom from which all image makers can take something from for further consideration.
My name is Jordanna Kalman and I’m a fine art photographer from Poughkeepsie, NY.
Not to sound like an asshole right off the bat, but my life and my work are pretty much one and the same. The work I make is a direct representation of my current state. I have a hard time expressing my emotions like a normal human person. Happiness, sadness, anger, love: I cram all these feelings into a room and close the door and I don’t deal with them. But when I’m working, when I’m shooting, I open the door and go inside that room — and that’s where I’m working from, this place of repressed emotions. I work with models. I like to use the same models over and over because it builds a level of trust and comfort. The models are meant to represent myself in the images. When I work with my daughters or a man, that’s more about the space between us, but if it’s a woman in the photo, she is me.
I consider my work to be very personal and a direct expression of my emotional state; so where is the best place to share this? The internet of course.
I joined tumblr in 2012. Before that I had been on Myspace and flickr but that was back in 2005–2006, and the internet still felt a bit new then. I consider tumblr my first experience with the internet as it is now. I started posting my pictures, and after awhile I was getting likes and reblogs — and that felt really good, to feel like my work was being recognized and appreciated.
However I started looking into where my pictures were being reblogged to and it was quite a shock. I found my work alongside hardcore pornography, really disgusting stuff that was in no way related to my work. I sent messages to these porn blogs asking to have my work removed and was usually met with hostility if they bothered to respond at all.
Other places I noticed my work was getting reblogged to were blogs with similar visual cues: a young woman, nude, black & white, natural light… and this was worrisome to me seeing my work alongside these other images as my work comes from a different place than a 60 year old man testing out his fancy photo equipment on the weekends.
I’m a good photographer. But according to the internet — because of the internet — everyone is a good photographer. And I realized if I have something to say, if I want my work to be be heard above the noise, just making good pictures would not be enough anymore.
Towards the end of 2014 I went back to the work I made while in graduate school in 2008. I was missing London (where I went to school) and I wanted to be with the work again but I didn’t just want to re-edit it. So I began removing the figures from the images as a way to represent my memories of that time fading and how that work was not relevant to me anymore.
By doing this, it once again became a reflection of my current state of mind. I was involved with that series when, in early 2015, my mother died very suddenly. I found myself shifting gears and removing the figures from my more current photographs, representing my grief and inability to be emotionally present in the world. It also represented all the work I’d done my mother would never see. Once again, I was making very personal work.
However, once you have work on the internet it’s not yours anymore: it belongs to the internet. This was made more than apparent to me as I started doing reverse image searches and found my work being used over and over on the internet without my consent or credit. I found my work used as album art, treated as stock photography, clip art, people put text over my images- mostly bible quotes, sometimes song lyrics. I contacted many of the blogs that had stolen my images asking them to remove my work and once again was met with hostility and in one case, a cease and desist letter.
Even when I find my images pop up on respected tumblrs/instagram accounts that provide good exposure, it still stings a bit because I was not asked permission, they don’t say anything about the images, my work is treated as content and it feels like these days anyone can call themselves a curator.
That being said, at the end of 2014, I was fed up with both the internet and real life galleries, so I started the online photography gallery Streit House Space. I found that I had been applying to a lot of exhibits, paying loads of entry fees and not being accepted anywhere. I saw the work that was getting into the shows and I knew I just didn’t fit in and I most likely never would. It was at this time that I was also upset over what had been happening to my work on tumblr. Honestly: I was tired of feeling helpless and grouchy and wanted to do something positive, meet other photographers, and treat them the way I wanted to be treated.
Streit House Space is a bit different than other online galleries in that the selected photographers email me their images, I select some, print them out on my black & white laser printer, tape them to the wall, photograph them and then post that image to the site.
I wanted to do it this way because I had been editing my own work like that and I really enjoy the physicality of prints, but in a informal way. It takes the pressure off making IMPORTANT IMAGES, and when editing, it allows the stronger images to step forward.
I’d also been interested in the concept of ‘photographs of photographs’ for quite some time and I had been exploring it here and there in my own work for years. I liked to see my images in a different context, what else they were capable of and a lot of times I was making images just to amuse myself.
Part of being selected for Streit House is the opportunity to guest post on its instagram account. There is a theme to posting: “photographs of photographs,” and I try to encourage people to be creative and experiment with this theme. I do posts in this vein to promote call for submissions or if there’s no one slated to guest post then I’ll hop on and post to fill the void. Over the years, a few people had done some really interesting things with their posts and I wanted to explore the potential of instagram so I started an experimental account called Streit Lab which is a three week residency program where artists unveil a project day by day over that three weeks. And then their project would ultimately be collected into a zine, serving as a catalog of the work.
I was doing promotional posts for Streit Lab right around the time I had started seeds for my garden. I had set up a table by a window for them and found myself making pictures over there. I loved watching the light change, the shadows, and the seeds sprouting and I found myself at this table at the window constantly.
After awhile I was no longer shooting promos for Streit Lab but I still was taking pictures, exploring and experimenting every day. I equate it with being friends with someone for awhile and one day waking up and realizing you’re in love. Something deeper was happening and I needed to figure out why I was compelled to make these pictures.
I mentioned earlier how personal my work is, and the last two years for me have been incredible emotionally stressful — which has been reflected in the pictures I’ve been making. Maybe it’s not apparent to anyone else, but to me they feel raw. I’ve found that I don’t want to show my work, I’ve lost trust that it won’t be treated as just content or clip art or pornography or just outright stolen. I don’t feel safe.
But I found that when my work is presented as a print, as an object, I feel less vulnerable.
Generally there has been a lot of work revolving around “photo as object” in the last few years. A lot of sculpture, collage, investigations in the photographic materials themselves. But how I consider it in my work is if there is an object, it has an owner: this is my camera, this is my film, this is my photograph. As the internet provides such little respect for image use I feel I have to assert my ownership in this way.
Adding elements from my garden deepens my physical connection to the image and helps to obscure the original photograph while also creating a new narrative.
There is a lot going on in Little Romances, and it is an ongoing project. Because I’m in the middle of working on it I find it hard to talk about, but very generally it is about control. A quote from Louise Bourgeois helps to explain:
“I indicate my space and inside I put my fears. What is inside is under my control.”
Jordanna Kalman lives in NY with her family. In addition to her practice she runs the online photography gallery Streit House Space. She does not remember what sleep feels like.
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The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.
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