Artist Erin O’Keefe uses elements of painting, sculpture and architecture to create studio-based photographs that confuse the senses, and reconfigure how we see photography as truth. Using multiple means of visual trickery, she leverages the digital manipulation we often take for granted by creating images that appear altered, but are shot straight on, without any form of retouching or “post processing.” In less than a decade, O’Keefe has created more than five distinct projects of studio based work that address these ideas in wavering forms. With a background in sculpture and architecture, she brings new and unexpected energy to the medium, encouraging viewers to rethink how they view photographs and interpret vision itself. We asked Erin about her practice and thoughts on photography's continuously shifting moment.
Humble: What's most exciting to you about photography right now?
Erin O'Keefe: I feel fortunate to be working at a time when the boundaries between painting, photography and sculpture seem to be up for reconsideration. Much of the work that is being made right now – work that challenges how photography operates – is inspiring for me. Things feel blown open, and that is really messy and really exciting.
H: Your projects, while distinct, link up pretty seamlessly as a whole without redundancy.
EOK: My formal concerns are primary in all of the work – and in each series, there is a question about the way in which those formal situations are translated by the camera. It is always about a very direct relationship between an object or space and the camera. The issue for me in all of the work is how our awareness of seeing becomes an opportunity for discovery and questioning.
H: What draws you to make exclusively studio-based work?
EOK: I literally never considered working in any other way. I was never asked why I was a studio-based sculptor. Working and making in a studio environment is not really a choice for me – it was about bringing the camera as a tool into the studio, like a table saw or an etching press. It opened up a whole range of new possibilities.
H: Has the increased attention to studio-based work impacted how you make or think about your own practice?
EOK: It has made me more conscious of the issues that characterize my work and my particular approach. I am also aware of the context within which my work will be seen.
H: How did you first get into photography?
EOK: I started taking pictures of my sculptures, and I began to see the images as having the possibility of operating as independent things beyond their documentary role. It was a thought that percolated in the back of my mind for some time, and when I was granted a sabbatical from my teaching job in 2011, I decided to try to work on developing that idea.
H: You have a Masters in architecture. Does this influence how you think about making photographs?
EOK: Absolutely. I would not be making the work I am making without that experience – It is integral to how I see the world and our relationship to spaces and objects. There is also this strange parallel between the way one works as an architect – always on the representation of the building, not on the building itself – so there is this inevitable distance between a drawing or a model and a building. Photography feels like it operates at a similar remove. I guess that gap is what I find really interesting.
H: How do you feel about "The New Formalism" as a so-called "moment" in photography?
EOK: I don’t think it’s a moment, so much as an opening up – uncovering new approaches to the medium.
H: Is your work a part of it? Does it really matter?
EOK: I feel as though there is a resonance for me with the range of concerns in much of the work that would be branded as ‘New Formalism’. I don’t know how much it matters – but I can look at work and feel very connected to the issues, which is both challenging and inspiring and comforting. No one works in a vacuum – it is the brew of contemporary culture that everyone is marinating in.
H: What interests you in making straightforward images that appear to be manipulated? Your series "Natural Disasters" addresses this specifically, but the idea seems to permeate throughout all of your work.
EOK: I feel that so much of the information that we are confronted with has been compromised in some way, and as a result, there is a kind of baseline cynicism that many of us operate from. In photography particularly, I am left wondering about whether the images I receive have been manipulated in some way to either obscure or reveal a particular story. I wanted to make images that push back at this – that seem to have been manipulated, but are not –so perhaps we become more conscious as viewers about this state of persistent uncertainty. The nature of seeing and perception are the central issues in my work. I am much more interested in the condition of not knowing than in knowing. I feel like confusion and awe are different aspects of the same condition – and that is fascinating to me.
H: Does this extend throughout your practice as a whole or do you feel it's more concentrated in this specific series?
EOK: I really have one idea, and I come at that same set of issues in different ways. It was the same idea that drove my work in sculpture and architecture.
H: So much of your work over the past few years is sculptural, but the end result is a photograph. Why is this important to you?
EOK: I guess that I am interested in photography’s ability to preserve uncertainty, particularly for me, spatial uncertainty. A sculpture in a space that I can touch and walk around can be deeply satisfying materially and spatially – but I am after something where that knowing is withheld.
H: Are you still making "sculpture for sculpture's sake" / independent of photography?
EOK: Not at the moment – but I do feel like I will include sculpture as part of my practice again at some point. The physical and space demands of sculpture make it a more difficult medium to deal with – particularly in an expensive city. My current studio is very small, so not really conducive to making that kind of work.
H: What has been the biggest challenge for you as an artist?
EOK: A huge turning point for me was when I decided to see my background in architecture as an asset, to accept that my particular voice as an artist was embedded in that experience. Having very little technical knowledge of photography has been a challenge – that being said, I have been really touched by the generosity of other photographers and artists to help me out. As far as consequences – feeling a sense of connection to a community of people out there involved in the same kind of endeavor has been a wonderful and unanticipated aspect of my practice. I began an Instagram account about a year ago, as diary of my studio practice. Each day I am there, I take a picture of what I am working on. It has become a way of sharing work and connecting with other artists that has been a real boost to what can be a pretty solitary situation.
Bio: Erin O'Keefe is a visual artist and architect based in New York City and New Brunswick, Canada. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornell University and a Master of Architecture from Columbia University. She was a 2015 recipient of the PDN30 award and will have an upcoming solo exhibition of her work at Platform Gallery in Seattle Washington in May, 2015.