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Interview with photographer Charlotte Woolf

Cells

Cells

Sarah Hadley: How did you first become involved in photography and what led to you working in this medium as an artist?

Charlotte Woolf: I have always taken pictures. My mom was my first influence, documenting our family and scrapbooking avidly. I would borrow my mom’s cameras and eventually she started giving me my own.

In middle school I brought disposable cameras with me everywhere to document my friends and our most awkward years. Even though my friends did not appreciate the constant documentation at the time, they do now. I took my first photography class when I was in tenth grade and turned out to have a knack for developing in the darkroom. Outside of class, I spent hours uploading photos of my friends on Facebook, thrilled to have the chance to share my images with everyone online.

When I got to college, I continued taking photo classes and worked as a darkroom monitor at Kenyon College. When I studied abroad in Stockholm, Sweden, I would carry my point-and-shoot with me, spending hours exploring the city solo, especially in the low light months of the winter.The most influential class I took there was Documentary Photography with Gregory Spaid. Being in rural Ohio inspired me get out there, beginning my long term project Women in Agriculture. It wasn’t until after that I began to call myself a photographer – finally realizing that I had always been a photographer and that is what I wanted to pursue learning.

Sarah Hadley: The current issue of F-Stop Magazine includes images from your project “Second Skin”. Can you tell us about this project? What led to this work?

Charlotte Woolf: The project was my senior thesis culminating my four years in rural Ohio at Kenyon College. I worked on it for all of undergrad, starting with an Intro. Photography assignment called “The Body.” This is when I became comfortable photographing nude subjects. As I continued my studies, I had an interdisciplinary focus on Women’s & Gender Studies and Dance. The combination of gender, dance, and photography led me to thinking about how the visual wisdom of the body can replace spoken dialogue.

Sarah Hadley: Can you discuss your process for making these images?

Charlotte Woolf: I was taking a contact improvisational dance class and performing in the dance company at Kenyon College. I was able to gather volunteers that were my colleagues to pose in the studio. The premise was that they would be posing nude and I would project a drawing of mine onto their bodies that was inspired by anatomy textbooks.

We went into the studio with music and we would flow similar to dance class. I searched for poses that aligned the dancer’s bodies to the projected drawings. The biggest breakthrough was when I discovered that it was best to use a slide projector rather than a high-resolution digital projector because I preferred the quality of the grain of the slides rather than the digital pixelation.

Throat

Throat

Sarah Hadley: Do you have a favorite image in this series? If so, which one and why is it the image that speaks to you most?

Charlotte Woolf: My favorite image in the series is “Throat”. It features a striking red tone that was a good self-portrait at the time of the series. Red is my favorite color and it also represents feeling grounded. The way the lines centrifugally radiate give the image a pulsing sensation.

Sarah Hadley: How do you feel this work relates to the theme of the Human Body?

Charlotte Woolf: The projection of anatomical drawings onto the outer skin of the subjects is a juxtaposition of the abstract wisdom of both the inside and outside of our bodies. Your body is your instrument and vessel to navigate life. Everyone’s experience is unique and depends on intersections of gender, class, etc. Second Skin portrays the complicated relationship between the form of the human body and the implicit wisdom it reveals.

Sarah Hadley: I know this work is a few years old, so what are you working on currently?

Charlotte Woolf: The past few years I have been working on a project called “Water Under the Bridge” featuring photography in different formats like digital, instant film and found postcards. The project was inspired by the death of my father, which in-turn inspired me to seek comfort and solace from the wilderness and urban areas of our country.

I recently began my MFA in Visual Arts at SUNY Purchase College to further my photographic and educational studies. I am working closely with Joshua Lutz and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. Josh is a master sequencer and pushes me see interesting connections and narratives. I am learning effective and efficient photoshop workflows and how to print high quality images from Stanley.

Currently my work is returning to gender and sexuality in a surreal sense – trying to figure out what I want to say about my world as a queer person. I am casting a wide net since I have the time to explore in my first semester of grad school. I am trying to take risks and experiment with my work by keeping an open mind, saying “Yes!” to any idea that goes through my brain.

Vertebrae

Vertebrae

Sarah Hadley: How do you feel “Second Skin” relates to other work or projects you have done or are working on?

Charlotte Woolf: Second Skin relates to my other work because I see the world through a lens of gender and sexuality. I also think it speaks to my interest in abstraction. While I often use digital cameras, I also have developed an interest in using instant film for the way it abstracts light and form.

Sarah Hadley: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?

Charlotte Woolf: My father once told me that he lived his life to have memories and that he wished that everyone could have a memory bank so that they could hold onto those happy memories. I feel in some ways that I have genetically inherited this sentiment. Photography is also the way that I find I best communicate narrative and emotion.

Sarah Hadley: How do you choose what or who to photograph, what are you looking to capture?

Charlotte Woolf: I have an interest in markings on the body be they temporary, like paint, or permanent, like tattoos and scars. How do these markings represent signs of aging? What are the stories behind them? I pick subjects that will collaborate with me, so we can bring stories out in each other. I am constantly asking myself, what is the story I am meant to tell?

Sarah Hadley: What do you hope people experience or feel when they look at these or any of your photographs?

Charlotte Woolf: I want people to feel a sense of bodily empowerment. A lot of my documentary work is about strong women. I want people to get a feeling of questioning what is real about their memories of loss and love.

Sarah Hadley: What photographers or other artists inspire you?

Charlotte Woolf: The female photographer I am most inspired by right now is Frances F. Denny. I am fortunate to work closely with her and have been her assistant for the past year. We both have an interest in photographing empowered women so being able to see how she works is amazing for me.

Sarah Hadley: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?

Charlotte Woolf: “Second Skin” begins as disorienting and then it becomes clearer, almost like an ISpy or MagicEye. My more recent work reads almost like a scrapbook. Overall, there is a lot of visual information to analyze when looking at my work.

Sarah Hadley: Do you prefer working in the studio or outside?

Charlotte Woolf: I prefer working outside because it is a much more organic way of taking photos. “Second Skin” required me to step out of my comfort zone because they are shots I came to in a prior shoot through dance improvisation and then developed the idea, coming into the final shoot with one or two positions I knew I wanted to get of my models.

Sarah Hadley: What defines a good photograph for you?

Charlotte Woolf: A good photograph makes me want to know more about the story and also leaves a sense of mystery to the viewer.

Sarah Hadley: What is your process for working on a project? Do you preconceive of your images in your head before you shoot or have an idea and shoot until you feel it has been realized?

Charlotte Woolf: I work in both modes. I go into my projects with an open-minded outlook. Frances Denny once passed down the wisdom that “pictures make pictures.” Sometimes you just have to get out there, get in the rhythm and find something unexpected – that is the beauty of it.

Sarah Hadley: Has living in NYC affected your work?

Charlotte Woolf: Absolutely. NYC raised my standards. Working alongside high profile photographers requires competitive technical skills and flawless outcomes. The people that I have met and the desire to learn more about the craft challenge me to push my limits. You truly have to hustle in NYC but it will pay off, even if you have to wait for it sometimes.

Sarah Hadley: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your work or life that would inform us about your work?

Charlotte Woolf: Sometimes photographers are encouraged to pick an expertise and stick with it. I have always rejected that notion, keeping my interest and style wide open. This is why I make work challenging the assumption that opposite ends of an artistic tradition must exists separately – work that is both abstract and documentary, analog and digital. In the grand scheme of my art-making life, I am still young and it’s too early to limit myself and reject exploring new facets of myself just because of other people’s expectations. I’m excited for my future work and that’s an amazing feeling.

For more of Charlotte Woolf’s work see the current issue of F-Stop: www.fstopmagazine.com or visit her website: www.charlottewoolf.com


About Sarah Hadley

Sarah Hadley is a photographer based in LA. You can see her work at www.sarahhadley.com. She is also the Founder and Executive Director of the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago.

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