Christine Shank has a BFA in photography from Miami University of Ohio and a MFA from Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. She currently lives in Rochester, New York where she is an Assistant Professor and the Director of the MFA program in Imaging Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology.
Ashley Kauschinger: Your series, our first year together, has a great variety of imagery. What is your thought process behind this decision and how do you still create a cohesive series?
Christine Shank: Yes there are a variety of different types of images within the series. My ongoing project, our first year together, consists of images that seem unrelated but are bound together by their treatment and tone. There are images that hint at and reference one another while intentionally remaining enigmatic. There are images containing a trace of reference to other images within the series, like an icicle appears in one image and just the watermark from the icicle is in another one; the outline of scissors sun bleached into butcher paper that makes up a different image, nail holes in a wallpaper, blood stained tissues, all these images reference one another and contain a very ordinary type of everyday violence. I am interested in the way that images work together and against one another and how they suggest a very benign sort of disturbance. The sequencing pushes at the differences between the singular images to avoid the implication of any one specific narrative while the wide variety hopefully works to move the viewer through the whole body of work.
Within this series I have been really interested in pushing at what is thought of as a series of photographs. There are images that are highly constructed, to photographs where the only intervention is that I made a picture. Typically the subject matter, the locations, materials, photographic techniques, or methodology will be what binds together a series but with these images what holds them in relationship to on another is the quiet and often very subtle connection between them. This is what creates the tone I believe holds the images in conversation with one another. These images construct the moments in between points of significance, the way much of life is experienced in the middle of contemplation, conflict, and wonderment.
AK: What role does narrative play in your work?
CS: The way I think about and engage narrative in my artwork has greatly changed over the years. When I was working on the Interiors Series (2004-2009) I was very interested in constructing a story to be contained within the frame of one image. That story was told through the scenes I built and the image’s title.
In my current body of work I am most interested in creating a sequences of images that a narrative cannot be easily drawn out of, so it’s the opposite of how I was once working. With this work I am most excited by the restraint needed to make suggestions without pointing to a direct narrative structure or creating a narrative arc. I am not interested in creating a singular narrative or even an explicit narrative. I hope for a feeling to emerge and a relationship between the images to be recognized and that the person viewing the work finds something in the combinations they can relate to. I know this is a tall order considering the speed at which most people consume images these days, especially online with Tumblrs, for instance, or in overwhelming hyper experiences like art fairs.
The title of the series, our first year together, is intentionally vague and creates more questions than answers. In fact I have been developing the series over many years—from 2009 – 2014. But I think the title matches the softness and suggestive moments within the photograph while creating a time period in which to consider the images. A few years ago I had a review with curator Roy Fulkerson and he said, “don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” which is a quote from Miles Davis and it fits how I am thinking about what emerges from our first year together.
AK: What influence does literature and poetry bring to your photographic work?
CS: I feel connections between photography and literature. What I draw the most inspiration from is what I read and what I experience in my day-to-day life. I recently read Rage of Poseidon by Anders Nilsen, Mumbai, New York, Scranton by Tamara Shopsin, Path by Rebecca Solnit & Elin Hansdottir and Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis. For different, and some overlapping, reasons these books are really inspirational to me right now. Jeffery McDaniel is my favorite poet and has been for a number of years. I always go back to his poems and always feel something stir in me when I read them. Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, Malcolm Gladwell are also writers that I am inspired by and always enjoy reading. The way they can create a story about the fragility of being human while also examining nature, society, economy, and exploring their own curiosity through stories is wondrous to me.
My husband has recently been reading books on the origins of the essay and the conversations we’ve had as a result have caused me to think about sequencing images in a very different way and inspiring me to sketch new images to create in the studio.
AK: Take us through what a day of creating art is like for you. What environment do you create for yourself?
CS: I really prefer being alone when I’m working. I figured out pretty early on that socializing and making art don’t fit together for me; even when I’m just scanning negatives I prefer isolation. Over the years I have had really wonderful studio assistants but I have never been able to really make my work with anyone else around. I like it to be quiet, no phone, no internet, sometimes no music. My studio is a very private place where I can play, make messes, make mistakes, consider things and walk away from something leaving it right where it is knowing that it will be there when I return. I have a phrase taped to the back of my studio door – expect nothing– which is what I strive for when working. Holding that in mind keeps me open to surprises. I am a very organized person when I teach and I try to be tidy in my home and office space at work, but in the studio I am none of those things. In the last decade I have had 5 different studio spaces and the ones that worked best for me were those where I left home to go to the studio. Even just a mile away is enough for me to separate myself from the other responsibilities of my life and to enter the working space of the studio. In recent years I have started to do residencies and in those months or weeks away I am the incredible productive. There is something really uncomfortable and helpful to me in the window of time where everything is new, uneasy and unsettling, I feel a heightened sense of awareness and am very sensitive and productive in that time.
AK: You graduated with an MFA from Texas Woman's University 10 years ago. What advice do you have for photographers navigating the world after graduate school?
CS: I think post-graduate school you have to really be honest with yourself about what your priorities are and what is most important to you. I believe you have to figure out what you enjoy doing and how you want to spend your time. During graduate school, time is really devoted to your growth and experimentation as an artist and students have to work within the requirements of a specific program. Other than the program’s guidelines it’s really about you and your work. When you are done with school you have to get really clear with yourself about what you want and what you are willing to do to have what you want in your life because no one is holding you accountable for anything anymore.
I chose the path of teaching as a way to make a living and support my art. I’ve been really fortunate and I started teaching full-time directly after grad school. This has worked out well for me and I have been fortunate to work in supportive universities with colleagues who have helped me grow as an educator and artist. I have friends who have chosen other avenues and I talk to my students about the variety of jobs and careers that may be a good fit for their lives post grad school. I think it’s important to remember no path is easy and no choice is wrong, you have to figure out what works for you.
Also I think the quote in my studio I mentioned earlier is good advice in it’s many interpretations: expect nothing.