Catharine Maloney's photographs are not technically beautiful. They're not pictures (most) people immediately think to hang over their couch, nor are they the types of images camera-vest wearing Facebook forum commenters might use as flexing examples of their immaculate Photoshop wizardry. Most of those folks would probably take issue with the spontaneous sloppiness her work. Maloney's photographs are a refreshing exercise - a playful, collaborative process that's stripped of academic theory and pretensions in exchange for the simple joys of making art. Sure, there's an unspoken dialog on photographic process, collecting moments and analyzing interpersonal interactions, and her work touches on gender and gaze, but at the crux of it all is the desire to experiment and have fun. Just in time for the release of her new book, Teleplay Pt 1, published by Skinnerboox Books, we caught up with Ms. Maloney to hear more about the process and ideas behind the work.
How did Teleplay, Part 1 get started?
I was inspired by looking at old Star Trek episodes and photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard. There is a Teleplay, Part 2, I am still working on it.
Where does the title come from?
It's a play on words, mixing television and play together. I added the “Part, 1” because I want the series of photographs to have a narrative arc.
As low-fi as these are, the process seems to have many layers. Can you tell me a bit more about your process in making these pictures.... from start to finish?
First I find the turtle necks, usually at Goodwill, then I sew gold details onto them from a women's extra large blouse I found. The models are friends that are hanging out at social gatherings or concerts. They put on the turtle neck and I place them in front of a backdrop or we find a place. I photograph them for fifteen minutes. I like to wait until they get a little bit distracted or are laughing. Sometimes I ask them to do physical actions...the picture is often more interesting when there are multiple people in it. Afterwards I get the film processed and scan it in at home. I add different things to in in Photoshop or by sending it out for cheap prints to monkey with.
Why the Star Trek costumes?
a. There are a lot of possibilities with having adventures, fighting, and exploring in space.
b. It was a great way to get men to pose for me.
c. I like the color palette.
You mentioned being interested in how process, digital alteration, etc impacts perception. How does this relate to Teleplay Pt. 1 specifically?
Yes, something I really enjoy about photography is the ability to take a picture and then alter it in a bunch of different ways. It is sometimes easier to illustrate space travel after I take the picture.
How extreme are the digital alterations in these images?
It depends on the image but I almost always do something, often it is taking out background information or changing the scale of the human figures in relation to the background or combining several photographs. This does not always occur digitally, I like to print out and cut and mix photographs by hand as well.
So much of this work seems to rely on making many images up front, then figuring things out later/ having a wealth of material to work with. To that point, why film over digital?
I prefer film because it looks more mysterious -- there is less information in the highlights and shadows when I scan it. I also like it because it's harder to loose the original image. With digital, if my hard drive breaks, those images are gone. With film, I have a better shot at holding on to the photos. I take between one and eight photographs per man.
This work marks a noticeable break from your earlier aerial photographs of synchronized swimmers. It's jagged and less concerned with making technically "beautiful" images, in exchange for something more fun and perforative. What was the biggest influence in this shift?
Those photographs come from a time when I was doing a lot of different things in different areas, I was trying to figure out what I like making. Maybe one day I will go back to them. I started Teleplay, Part 1 because I wanted to love the processes of taking the photographs.
How do you respond to individuals in the photography community who are dismissive towards this kind of work?
I don't think about them much, though I am sorry they don't like that sort of thing. I live in Delaware and work with six year olds. Thankfully my day to day life is pretty far from photographic theory and criticism.
How has your experience working with children influenced the kind of free experimentation in your work?
Two years after I finished photography graduate school I went back to school again for an elementary art education. It was a cathartic experience to learn again that making what you are interested in and experimenting in art processes and structures was just fine. Now I work with kids all day long and they make some of the most inventive stuff I have ever seen! They are not encumbered by the artists that came before them or striving for fame but just have the thrill of making things. I try to follow that same model.
Do you see a relationship to artists like Lucas Blalock and Talia Chetrit in your approach?
Yes! I am a big fan of Lucas Blalock, we were in a short-lived critique group in New York about five years back. He is a great photographer and great human, and he let me photograph him eating cherries. I feel a kinship to both of those artists because I don't think any of us feel confined by the studious rules of art photography and there is humor in our work. I really love what is happening in contemporary photography right now with breaking the rules and mixing construction and reality!
When we were initially talking about this project, you mentioned a "curiosity abut the opposite sex" at play. Can you talk more about this?
I have spent a lot of time around boys and men, my brother is close in age to me and many friends in school were boys. Now I play in a band were I am the lone girl and I also spend a lot of time around my husband Nick. Often males are not as self-aware of the camera and what it does or how they can make themselves look more attractive.
Do you see Teleplay Pt 1 as having a kind of gendered gaze?
Yes, I think so. And I like the experience of photographing males. The men I ask to photograph are often connected to a child-like playful way of being because they have been allowed to keep that. Women can be playful too, but I think they are over-photographed.
This isn't anything revolutionary to state, but we live in a hyper visual culture with social media and reality TV showing us how we look. I think women better understand the power the camera has (or may have more invested In the way they look) and put up a guard towards it in the form of sexy pouts and slightly cocked heads. That might be one of the most beautiful things in the world, but it's like shooting fish in a barrel when you put a young girl in pretty light and I don't care for the outcome.
Catharine Maloney (b. 1982, Austin, Texas) is an art photographer, elementary school teacher, and band member of the band Teen Men. She has a BA from Bennington College and a MFA from Yale School of Art. She has exhibited within the USA and Europe. She was included in Humble Arts Foundation's 2008 exhibition 31 Women in Art Photography, and in 2014, was chosen for Foam Magazine's Talent Issue. Her lesson on creating chaos in the photographic printing processes appears in The Photographers Playbook (Aperture, 2014). Teen Men will be on a North American tour this summer.