I feel like i'm always banging on about how important books are to me when i come to this space, but it's because it is true – i read a lot and i buy a lot, and i have a special shelf filled with the ones that mean the most to me. Documentary photographer KayLynn Deveney's book, The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, is one of them, so it's a great honour for me to bring you all this next interview in my Creative Life series. I wanted to know more about the story of her work with Albert, and to dig deeper into her creative life behind the camera. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Ms KayLynn Deveney…
SC: Could you tell us a bit about your path into photography – what drew you to documentary photography in particular?
KD: In college I studied journalism and photojournalism and I was initially most interested in photography that addressed social trends, issues and problems. Photography seemed a potentially powerful tool for attracting attention to issues of real gravity. I didn’t expect that my photographs would change the world – or even one person’s life – but I did feel that disseminating information to readers and initiating conversation was quite important if we strove to evoke positive change. I still feel this way, but my ideas about the types of conversations I want to evoke have expanded, deepened and mellowed over time. I see value in all types of stories, and I also appreciate the fact that objectivity in documentary photography is an illusory goal. The type of documentary photography I produce now might more accurately be explained as a type of subjective documentary, one that includes and factors in the bias, incompleteness and emotional telling that are characteristics of every story told.
You came to the UK to study for your master’s degree and PhD – why the UK and not America? Did you and your husband enjoy your time here?
In 1997 I took a year leave of absence from the newspaper where I had been working to live and photograph in Belfast, Northern Ireland. During my year in Belfast I learned about the master’s in documentary photography offered at the University of Wales, Newport. The program had a strong reputation in Europe. This, coupled with its design – a practice-based curriculum that combined equal parts theoretical and practical study – led me to visit the university and meet with the course leaders.
In the United States graduate programs typically follow the path of either an MFA studio degree – built around the artist’s practice – or a completely academically driven Ph.D. based in the history or theory of photographic practice. I preferred the practice-based PhD offered in Britain because it enabled me to critically research and write about ideas that grounded both my own work and the genre in which my work exists. Because my experience on the master’s program in Newport was very good, and because I felt I would need a PhD to teach in the United States, I chose to also undertake a PhD in Newport. My final thesis submission for the PhD included The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, in both book and exhibition format, and a theoretical dissertation that examined the ways photographic diaries, both historical and contemporary, reflect on our experiences at home.
I loved the time I spent in the UK, both in Northern Ireland and Wales. Altogether I suppose I spent about three and a half years there. Some of the most important relationships of the last few years of my life were forged in Wales. There is Bert, of course, and also Edith and Len Crawshaw whom I photographed for my master’s work. But most importantly, it was after the experience of living together in one room in Wales for months that my husband and I decided to get married. We believed that if we could love each other with that little elbowroom we were good to go.
I feel very privileged to have known and spent so much time with Bert. He was a complex person with a rare and fantastic personality, and I miss him. He always made me feel very welcome in his home, and I think the comfort that I felt with Bert is recognizable in the photographs. There are probably few people who could have dealt with a photographer infringing on so much of their time and personal space as gracefully as Bert did. The welcome that he extended to me was a real gift, and I am very thankful.
In terms of our different nationalities – I think photographing someone who has been raised in another country, with different ideas and customs, is always interesting. Comparing experiences and points where your expectations differ can be very funny, and it’s great to learn a different way to see something that you otherwise might see only in the way you are accustomed to. The ways that Bert and I saw things differently were intriguing to me from the beginning of the project. To begin with, as a fine-art photographer I clearly saw my images in ways far different from Bert’s perspective. In addition, the difference in our ages varied our perspective and then the disparity between a Yankee perspective and a British one added another level of difference. Talking with Bert about the images was always a fun and interesting process for me. And, as a bonus, I learned words like “char” and “elevensies*.”
In the introduction to the book you say ‘I believe photographs of our possessions and domestic patterns can be portraits, just like photographs of our faces.’ How do your possessions and living space portray you?
One of the most defining aspects of the house I share with my husband is the color of the walls. The living room is red. The office is orange. The bedroom is olive. The floors, ceiling and furniture are wood. There is little overhead light and, instead, lots of lamps. There is a card catalog in our living room that contains tchotchkes I have picked up in various places along the way. Each one is a little memory of a time and place. Like Bert, things are pretty tidy at home while also being functional. In my office, the space that is completely my own, books dominate the room. Second to books are cameras, computer, scanner and printing equipment. Things are packed pretty tight and a lot of things always seem to be happening at once. Here and there odd toys pop up. I think that
is somewhat reflective of my mind.
What’s your process when developing new ideas for projects?
First I think about the bigger themes I am interested in and I consider how those themes might be reflected in society’s trends or individuals’ experiences. I read news and I try hard to look around myself and listen to people and their stories. After an idea begins to gel a little, I read more specifically about the topic I have chosen. Then I usually need to spend some time investigating the particulars of an idea, and maybe making photographs, to know whether it might be the right topic or person for me to try to understand more deeply. Eventually I dive in, and when I begin to actually meet people it usually gains momentum quickly.
Where do you stand on analogue vs. digital? And what cameras do you predominantly shoot with?
I stand with the other poor fine art photographers. Unfortunately, a lot of these decisions are made for us by our budgets. When I was teaching at a community college in Cleveland, Ohio I was able to buy a Hasselblad at a greatly discounted price through Hasselblad’s Hero program. I have a 501cm with one standard lens and I shoot everything with it. I also have a lightweight Gitzo tripod and an old Minolta light meter and those three things get the job done for me. I shoot Fuji film and I scan my negatives on an Epson V700 and print on an Epson R2880. For budgetary reasons, and maybe some reasons that have to do with making images at high ISO ratings, I think film is preferable for me, but I expect that to change at some point in the not too distant future.
Are there any photographers who have had a major impact on your work?
Eugene Richards, Gilles Peress, William Eggleston, Martin Parr, Larry Sultan, Nan Goldin, Anna Fox, Ana Casas Broda, Richard Billingham and more.
What books/music/artists etc do you love – could you share some recommendations?
This list is pretty random. I’m leaving out the Frida Kahlos and James Joyces because we all know about them.
Mary Robinson – Gilead
Jamie O’Neill – At Swim, Two Boys
Peter Sheridan – 44
Jonathan Safran Foer – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Jeanette Winterson – Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry
Witold Rybczinski – Home: A Short History of an Idea
Sophie Calle – French conceptual artist
Teun Hocks – Dutch photographic artist
Joan Fontcuberta – Spanish photographic artist
Wilco – all their CDs
Kelly Hogan and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts – Beneath the Country Underdog
Eddie Vedder – Into the Wild soundtrack
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
The Arcade Fire – Funeral
Horse Opera – Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades
I am photographing “Cinderella” houses that were built in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico – and also in other American cities – in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Cinderella houses are defined by an architecture and ornamentation that recall – in a sort of caricatured style – the qualities of Swiss chalets. Despite the fact that these chalet style houses are particularly incongruous in the desert cities of the southwestern United States, they were very popular at the time they were built, and they persevere. Apart from being really interesting visually, I think these storybook style Cinderella houses provoke some of the same questions that have been germane to my previous work. What images of home appeal to us and why? What dreams, fantasies or realities do Cinderella houses reinforce or break down?
Where do you see yourself in five years time (personally and professionally)?
Personally – Married to my excellent husband. Helping my mom and dad if they need me. Spending a good chunk of time with my brother and sister-in-law and my other good friends. Continuing to make work. Traveling. Reading.
Professionally – I would like to have two more books under my belt five years from now and I would hope that those books would have good visibility. Beyond that I would hope to be working on photographically based projects that are manifested in limited edition artist’s books and trade editions. I would like to be doing some teaching, and I would love to curate an exhibition in the next five years of other artists’ work that centers around photography and the diary.
If you weren't a photographer, what would you be?
Tough question. I have a very hard time thinking about myself as anything other than a photographer. Maybe an ethnographer? Maybe a fiction writer? Maybe a filmmaker?
You're having a dinner party and can invite six famous people from the past or present – who would you choose and why?
This answer is going to betray my incredible geekdom. I can see it coming.
1. Jesus – He’s the go-to guy for these kinds of dinner parties.
2. My grandma. I miss her too much not to take advantage of the chance to see her again.
After the big guy and grandma it becomes much more about stories for me – the telling of stories, the choosing of stories, what they mean to us, etc.
3. Freud – Discussion of “the uncanny” and stories of home.
4. Roland Barthes – Discussion of the notion of “punctum” and this element of a viewer’s experience.
5. J.D. Salinger and or Raymond Carver – Discussion about how we tell very intimate stories and the ways stories based in the real compare with fiction.
6. James Joyce – Lots of questions about symbolism and the efficacy of complex, almost opaque, storytelling.
7. Dessert with Billy Connolly?
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Thank you so much, KayLynn! Oh, and char means tea and elevensies is traditionally a cup of tea and a slice of cake enjoyed around 11am :)
[all photographs: KayLynn Deveney]