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Artist Spotlight Alix Smith


Artist Spotlight: Alix Smith

Why are you a photographer?
What I find most satisfying about photography is the way in which it allows me to document "reality" while at the same time creating my own version thereof; in other words, the reality I present is a reality based upon what I choose to include in the frame and what I choose to leave out. There is something powerful about dictating the terms according to which people can enter into your reality.

What catches your eye?
Drama. Theatrics. Color. Lighting.

How do you describe your work?
I refer to what I do as "conceptual portraits," meaning that I come up with an idea or concept that I would like to explore and then I find people that fit that idea. So it becomes less about the people themselves but rather what they represent. For instance, for my current project, "States of Union," I am photographing gay and lesbian couples and families. By playing off of classical paintings, I am offering a legacy of depiction to a group of people that, historically, have no visual legacy. In this way, while the portraits are about the subjects, they also go beyond the individuality of the people and speak to a greater issue.

How do you choose your subjects?
First and foremost, they have to fall into the project theme. After that, it varies. For "States of Union," I sent out a request to friends who passed it on to their friends and so on. I also contacted various LGBT organizations, which were kind enough to send out my request in their newsletters. Once I started photographing, one set of subjects would get me in contact with another, who got me in touch with another, etc. ... I don't really have a formula it all seems to happen rather organically.

What makes a good photograph to you?
For me, art has to have two things to really blow me away, a strong concept and drama. Be it a landscape or a portrait, drama is what turns me on. For me, the world is a stage and we are all playing the character we have chosen to play on that stage. It is the job of the photographer to capture the drama of the performance.

Who are your favorite artists? And why?
Jeff Wall has made a big impact on how I create my images. In studying his work I discovered how every detail in the image was considered, and crucial to the communication of his concept. I began to think about how one could use space and objects in order to enhance the viewers' understanding of a subject. I find his unique visual language inspiring. He draws from art history, sociology, psychology, historical memory, media, and contemporary society in order to generate meaning, making his images both conceptually complex and aesthetically appealing.

I also love Tina Barney's work. She creates scenes with her subjects that reproduce actual events, and this theatrical role-playing creates images that dramatize ordinary experiences. Her use of gestures and enigmatic details within the frame creates a heightened sense of the moment. She utilizes certain angles and visual devices, such as the manipulation of objects within the space, in order to create a sense of depth.

Cindy Sherman's exploration of the concept of identity is brilliant. In her "Untitled Film Stills" series, she mimics the depiction of women in the postwar films of the 1960s in order to comment on how identity is a product of cultural manipulation. Playing with framing, lighting, camera angle, depth of field, and size, Sherman uses the specificity of the medium in order to create meaning.

And of course Annie Leibovitz. I love the way she emphasizes her subjects' public persona in her portraits, using her own subjective interpretation of the person. It's her imaginative portrayal of her subjects and the backgrounds that made her portraits so successful.

"States of Union" Statement
When I was a child, households consisting of a mother and a father surrounded me. As I entered into adolescence I watched as my peers swooned over boys at dances, lusted after Bon Jovi, and imagined life with Johnny Depp. I, on the other hand, had a crush on a 10th-grade girl, worshipped Madonna, and pined for Jodie Foster. As I started to question my sexuality, I began to look for representations of queer culture that felt familiar -- akin to the parts of myself with which I was already comfortable and familiar. I found very few: The photographs I saw were limited to parades and protests; there were neither paintings nor sculptures to which I could make reference; the gay and lesbian protagonists in films and on television either turned out to be "straight," died a drug-induced death, or were victims of a hate crime. Not only did this lack of representation make me feel isolated and alone, but it also reinforced stereotypes and perpetuated homophobic attitudes and my own internal struggle. I asked myself time and again: "Where are the people like me?"

It is out of this experience from which the idea for "States of Union" emerged. "States of Union" is a series of color portrait photographs of gay and lesbian couples and families. The aim of this project is twofold. First, to present images that defy heteronormative awareness by showing gay and lesbian couples and families in familiar and so-called normative settings. Second, by presenting a collection of images that call into question preconceived notions of family, the project both challenges those who continue to malign the notion of gay and lesbian families, and offers alternative -- and perhaps more realistic -- models to the gay and lesbian community.

The photographs that make up "States of Union" are loosely based upon classical paintings; this history is invoked through gesture, color scheme, background, and lighting. By drawing upon classical images, the tropes used to promote heterosexual family units are be reappropriated and reinvented to serve a more expanded view of family. In so doing, the viewer recognizes something familiar about the image, feeling a kinship with families that might otherwise look and feel unrecognizable.

The opportunity to see oneself -- to have a visual representation of the possibility of what one might become -- is a privilege long denied to gays and lesbians; this is a lack that my project seeks to remedy. By photographing gay and lesbian couples and families from across America, I hope to create images that are deeply resonant with straight and gay alike. Moreover, by familiarizing all Americans with an expanded visual repertoire of images that suggest "family," gay and lesbian Americans have a greater chance of finally being granted access to equal rights as citizens.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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