Portraiture, specifically the act of photographing a community outside one’s own, has a difficult history. It can be loaded with the photographer’s projections of their own experiences, and in the worst case scenario, put forth a flawed, voyeuristic gaze directing viewers to stop and stare at people as specimens. Typological, serialized portraiture can drive this even further with less environmental context exaggerating an under-the-microscope kind of looking. But when it works, there’s a balance of collaboration between the photographer and the photographed - an empathy-steered journey.
Enter Los Angeles-based Tracy L. Chandler. We met at the Photolucida portfolio reviews last month and I was drawn to her work for the questions it sparked in me. Her series, Edge Dwellers, is a collection of portraits of a community of socially marginalized people living on the literal and metaphoric edge of the Southern California coast. Photographing them against the sky at a consistent distance, these typological images bring to mind traditions ranging from August Sander through Rineke Dijkstra's Beach Portraits, and more recently and directly, Katy Grannan's 99 series.
Shooting with a 4x5 large format camera, the experience is slowed down. We often look deeply into the eyes of those being photographed while paying attention to every detail of how they look, as a signal of their marginalization. On one level, her portraits feel "outsider" in their approach. Who are we to “look in” on them, to aestheticize their experience, and what right does Chandler have to photograph them? But for the photographer, these portraits are more about collaboration, about a mutual sharing of experience that ultimately ends in a photograph as a memento for a greater bond.
Still curious, I emailed Chandler to learn more.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Tracy L. Chandler
Jon Feinstein: What drew you to photograph the Edge Dwellers?
Tracy L. Chandler: A few years ago, I rode my bike from Portland to Los Angeles. Traveling by bike is different than traveling by car or plane... Not only is the pace slower, you are exposed. There is no window to frame things, no barrier to shield you from the elements. You are out there. As I made my way down the Pacific Coast Highway, I noticed other bands of travelers and communities gathered along this coast. Whether by choice or circumstance these people had made a life living along this edge.
Back in Los Angeles later that year I broke my pelvis. As part of my rehabilitation, I would walk along the beaches and bluffs. I found similar communities right here near my home.
I know this may sound cliche, but I was at a phase in my life where I was learning to slow down and lean in to the present moment. This translated to being present with others, to bearing witness. The more I looked, the more I felt seen. I realized we all want to be seen. To be recognized as existing. As we are. No caveats. No judgements.
So I got curious. I engaged those around me. And people responded. I found there was a mutual open-ness and curiosity about life. What started as walking and talking, listening and sharing, turned into making pictures.. We would use the camera as means for creative collaboration and a form of play. I have often used photography as preservation of experience, but in this case, by being fully present, the experience itself was the reward. The resulting photograph is a souvenir.
Feinstein: One idea that’s come up in a lot of conversations I’ve had with photographers and curators recently, especially at Photolucida where we met, is that “typological portraiture” is either “problematic” or overdone. I’m on the fence and think the world is a bit grayer than that, but I’m wrestling with it. Where does that sit with you?
Chandler: There is a long standing lineage of typological work in photography, art, and culture in general. Whether it is objectively good or bad, I can't say, but i know I like it. It serves a primal need within me to to create order out of the chaos of life. Maybe I am OCD, but as a viewer and as a maker it is deeply satisfying for me.
With Edge Dwellers, I used typology to celebrate each individual and at the same time convey a sense of the community when the series is viewed as a whole. Maybe by making this work I am exploring my own needs to belong and stand out all at the same time.
Either way, I have acted on my impulse to gather and preserve these experiences in an organized way. If typology is passé, so be it.
Feinstein: Building on that, every time I see a new portraiture project, regardless of whether I like it or not, I keep coming back to the essay “Every Portrait Tells A Lie” - which - for our readers who haven’t read it yet - argues the age old idea that the photographic gaze is on of deception, and fabricates a story for viewers about the person in front of the lens. What’s your take on this?
Chandler: I am very aware of my desire to preserve my experiences through a systematic collection. The wish is to ward off loss. The idea that maybe if I have this physical record, the ethereal feeling of human connection will solidify. But memory is a slippery fish and the more you try and grasp it, the more it gets away. How does photography change that for us? Is a flat one-dimensional image enough to capture the fullness of everything shared in that moment? I don’t think so, but I still keep trying.
The main question this article asks is about truth. Although my series is of real people in real places, it is not objective. These photographs are very much crafted. The subject and I are together creating our own reality. Is that an outright lie? I don't think so. The experience of making feels more true than anything.
Feinstein: There’s very little environment or context in these photos. Why was that important to you in making these pictures?
Chandler: One commonality in all these photographs is the environment... this edge. I want to hint at a sense of place without telling a literal story of any specific geography or circumstance. I don't want to distract from the heart of the series –the person with all of their individuality and presence.
I came upon this look by accident, during one session with Starla a huge cloud bank rolled in and she brought out her poncho to shield herself as we worked in the rain. She sang as I set up my camera. I was so captivated by her voice that I never noticed the entire background had gone into a haze of white. Later when I got the film back, she was so forefront in the image, enveloped in her yellow cape. I knew that was it. "Bad” weather became the foundation for my shooting approach.
Feinstein: You talk about this work as being a “collaboration” with the people you’re photographing. Can you elaborate on this?
Chandler: From a practical perspective, I am shooting with a view camera. The whole process slows down. This is intentional. It is impossible to "take" a picture.. I not only need permission but engagement. Just the fact that I have a tripod means serious business but we were at play. Sometimes there was even a fashion shoot vibe with great care put in to wardrobe and styling. For instance, Tawn is wearing a pair of jeans on her arms and underwear on her head. That was all her. The soda can in her sock was her last minute addition... genius.
Feinstein: So a lot of the direction is also about the people you’re photographing performing how they want to be perceived. Where are you in these portraits?
Chandler: I want to be seen too. I practice this for myself by showing up for the other, by looking toward and not away.
Feinstein: Why was this work important for you to make?
Chandler: We are all little mirrors, reflecting and projecting. I wonder if that explains why we are afraid to look. Are we afraid to see something in others that reminds us of those unwanted parts of ourselves? Or are we afraid to be seen in the act of looking itself? “Stop staring!”, our mother scolds. It seems our society has put a price on that. I think of these questions and how they affect connection in our world today. If we are afraid to see things on a local human level, how can we claim to understand the broader world?
Feinstein: What do you hope viewers glean from this work?
Chandler: My hope is the same for viewers, the subjects, and myself... to smile at our shared humanity in all its glorious vulnerability.
Feinstein: You met with all kinds of reviewers at the Photolucida portfolio reviews last month. Did this change how you think about this work?
Chandler: What an experience. I had never done a portfolio review before. I met with over 20 different people... a great mix of gallerists, curators, publishers, and editors.
I found the rapid succession of presenting very helpful. In the process of sharing the work over and over again, I was also able to feel out what was my authentic voice and what was my own bullshit. I went in with a lot of ideas about how I could make the work relevant and that all fell away. I noticed the more I stayed true to my own experience, the more the work resonated.
In terms of response, it was good practice to weed through contradicting feedback and really feel out what feels right to me. I would get completely opposite reactions from one meeting to the next. This happened with everything from general sentiments about the subject matter to specific notes about the horizon line. You can’t make everybody happy. I was reminded that at the end of the day, it is art, and there is no one right answer. There is only the one i choose, and I have to live with that.