Street chat with Elizabeth Huey
Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from, where do you live now? Your background with photography, how and when were you drawn to the street genre?
I grew up in Virginia Beach, a suburban haven as well as a vacation spot. As a kid I was accustomed to transience, watching things come and go: waves, weather, ships and tourists. I pursued interests in Psychology and Art as an undergrad in Washington, D.C. and then moved to New York to be a painter. Following grad work at Yale I spent 15 years in Brooklyn. I’m now living in Los Angeles where I spend most of my time in the studio painting.
Long before I had my own camera, I collected photographs from estate sales and flea markets. These prints are a flashback, someone else’s memory that in turn becomes my own. The found images that attract me depict situations that serendipitously seem to reoccur…like a déjà-vu. For example, a print from the early 1900s of a couple staring into an elaborate water fountain floated around my studio for some time. During a residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, I stumbled across a park with the exact same fountain, a couple standing together peering into it. Like an echo, it was a mirror image of the original print. A sublime thing transpires when the tangible offers a glimpse into the ethereal.
I started taking my own photos as a way to gather source images for paintings. In 2007, while working on a series informed by the history of psychiatry, I drew from many events steeped in 19th century iconography. My art studio was in the middle of a Hasidic neighborhood, a seemingly unchanged community that appears timeless. When I needed silhouettes of figures, I would step outside and photograph the men dressed in black with their formidable hats. When I needed to represent foliage for landscapes, I would take shots of bushes and trees. Naturally, I searched for colors and compositions as I do when making a painting, so over time; the photos began to share a similar resonance.
How do you define “street photography” for yourself?
I’ve spent a lot of time people watching, looking at the world and questioning life. The camera not only seems to make that permissible, it also magnifies moments I might ordinarily miss. “Street photography” is allowing life to happen without interjecting additional content or forms. There is an element of surprise and an unexpected intimacy to shooting what naturally occurs. I’m attracted to an inexplicable symphony of forms, a sort of idiosyncrasy which highlights the fleeting nature of life.
Does your local situation affect your work?
I’ve been living in LA for almost two years. This city has been shot over and over again. Everywhere I look, the land seems to have been thoroughly mined. I’m still in the process of discovering and navigating it’s terrain and finding my own perspective.
When I visited Puerto Vallarta, Mexico last year I stayed in it’s predominantly Spanish-speaking old village. Unable to decipher conversations, an auditory silence occurred that enhanced my visual awareness. I had so much fun. The feeling of being a stranger amplifies a sense of discovery. I’m hoping to visit more foreign cities in the next few years.
In what ways do you think being a woman has affected your work?
Growing up near a beach filled with tourists and sailors there was an atmosphere of men checking out women, sizing up their bodies. I was aware of the male gaze from an early age. It was easy to feel “hunted”. Photography is an art that requires hunting, searching and chasing a visual moment. Culturally, this has been an action reserved for men. When a woman has a camera, it inverts the paradigm. I find men to be surprised when they catch me looking at them. As a woman, it demands a certain level of courage to photograph in public.
Color or black and white, digital or film?
I prefer color because it’s a constant exploration in the studio. Digital for me takes the pressure off. I’m able to shoot freely. I have an old Pentax loaded with black and white film but I never seem to remember to bring it with me.
What photographers can you name who are the most inspirational to you?
Artists who are both painters and photographers, such as Bonnard and Polke, inspire me. I’m usually drawn to pictures that maintain a cinematic presence with an emphasis on the figure’s relationship to its environment. Larry Sultan, Taryn Simon, Robert Frank, Alec Soth, Luigi Gherri, Winogrand and always Bresson. Stanley Kubrick’s photos, I love. I saw a Joel Meyerowitz retrospective in Paris a few years ago and I was awestruck by the color and movement in his early street shots. The Helen Levitt retrospective at the MFA in Houston last year showcased her black and white film “In the Street.” Mesmerized, I watched it three times. Levitt had an undeniable capacity to capture bizarre and theatrical candid interactions. Another show that has stayed with me revealed Walker Evans’ postcard collection and its similarities in structure and tone to his photos. The Met in New York did a terrific job of highlighting their symbiotic relationship.
Is there a special project you are working on? Or recurring themes you are often drawn to?
I’m finishing new wall sculptures that delve into Masonry and the picturesque narratives of Maypoles for a solo project at Eastern Star Gallery in LA this Fall. I’m also working on large paintings that depict the intersection of trauma and invention through pioneering figures such as Edgar Cayce, Marie Curie and Alexander Graham Bell. Concurrently, I will be expanding my own photo archive and exploring some new pieces that more directly coalesce painting with photography. The morphing of time is an ongoing quandary. A painting can meld thousands of years into a moment while the camera can stretch a split second into a century.