cynthia greig photography interview
We got in touch with this Detroit native to find out more about her snap-happy ways.
We first noticed Cynthia Greig with her pretty darn special Representations series, which used white paint and charcoal to make household knickknacks look like sketches. Clever, huh? The Detroit native has a whole lot more photo goodness under her belt, though, so we got in touch to find out about her snap-happy ways.
What is your name and how old are you? Cynthia Greig. I'm part of the over-50 set.
Where were you born and where do you live now? I was born and raised in Detroit. I've lived elsewhere over the years - St. Louis, Iowa City, Boston, even Paris for a summer - but for the last 15 I've lived and worked in metro Detroit.
How does where you live affect your art? There's been a lot of photography in recent years that has focused on the urban ruins and neglect here. I love Detroit but my work isn't about it. For me it's more about people. My grandfather emigrated from the Ukraine, starting out as a lumberjack in Canada, and later found work on the assembly line in the auto industry here. He could fix or make almost anything, not to mention fit an entire week's worth of garbage into a milk carton. My grandmother came to America from Poland, and worked as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant. She also walked the picket lines with my grandfather and mother (in a stroller) to fight for the unions in the 1930s. I guess it's that kind of grit, perseverance and work ethic that you find here that really inspires me.
How did you get started with this medium? I was the first-born and thus my parents' first experiment together. My father was a dentist who had a flare for storytelling and jokes, my mother worked in fashion for awhile, and always made beautiful clothes for me when I was little. When I was a toddler they used to dress me up and make me different characters - a pin-up girl, a pipe-smoking cross-dresser, an orphaned waif - and photograph me, usually with a Polaroid instant camera. Looking back at that album years later, I had absolutely no memories of being part of these photo events, but there I was holding the proof in my hands in black and white and colour. This was definitely a formative experience for me. The invented characters, the photograph as both document and fiction, the beautifully complicated images that help shape our identities, knowledge and realities.
But it was actually a a photo history class I took while writing my art history thesis during graduate school that ended up changing my life's direction. I was inspired by the fact that, from the beginning, photography incited so many impassioned debates and questions about art vs. technology, truth and reality, and even who first invented it. I guess you could say I love a good argument.
Are there any downsides to this medium? While digital has opened up the possibilities for shooting and printing, it's no surprise that the equipment can be quite expensive to keep up with. I prefer to work fairly lo-tech rather than investing in the latest and greatest technology. Up until recently I only shot and printed analog, but a couple of years ago I started shooting out of the studio. I've been travelling for my recent work, and my smaller Nikon DSLR lets me be more spontaneous.
Is there a running theme to the work you create, or do you just make whatever comes to mind? I'm fascinated by how we perceive and experience reality. As part of my process I am interested in how photography intersects with and interprets reality, how we can use the camera to transform what's in front of us into something quite different than what we see with our eyes. For the most part, I work intuitively. I might start out with two or three experiments, they'll percolate, gestate, fail and then eventually something rises from the evolutionary mud of the creative process and just "clicks." Over the years I've also found that one body of work almost always opens onto another.
What kinds of ideas and things are you working on at the moment? My Gallery Horizons and Studio Skins transform the spaces of the contemporary art gallery and artist's studio into documents, abstractions. Looking at the white cube as landscape or the studio as embryonic organism, they raise questions about the relationship between creative production and commerce, uniqueness and conformity. American art critic Jerry Saltz recently observed that, 'there is no "the" art world anymore.' I agree, and like the way these two bodies of work play off that particular paradigm from different ends of the spectrum.
What do you wish you knew about being a photographer before you got started? I think artists make art because we have no other choice. And it's hard work to develop your vision and discipline, but at the same time not corner yourself into a box. Most people dream of making a living doing what we love. When I started as an undergrad there wasn't a focus on teaching students about art as a profession like in some programs now. I've had a lot of different life experiences and looking back they all have something to do with my creative process and discovering my own path. It's not always easy, but never give up.
Do you think people need to understand the artist's intention to appreciate the art? Not necessarily, in fact I think it can get in the way if relied on too much. I'm with Duchamp on seeing the spectator as an active participant in the creative act. There's always a gap between our intention and what we end up making. And as viewers we project ourselves onto everything, especially art..
Are there any other mediums that you'd like to experiment with? I've been working more with sculpture lately and exploring different approaches to printmaking. Even though I tend to work lo-tech, deep down I'd really love to get my hands on some scientific imaging devices and explore some new ideas. I'm working on it!
What would you be doing if you weren't taking photos? Either a fashion designer or, if I could go back in time and revisit my high school calculus class, maybe a quantum physicist?
Where can we see more of your work? This April some of my photographs will be shown at the Darmstadter Tage Photo der Fotografie festival in Germany, and Fred Torres Gallery in New York will be having a solo exhibition of my new work this summer. You can also visit my website at cynthiagreig.com any time. Thanks for asking!