“In a digital age, I love to be as hands on as possible
and create photographs rather than simply take them.”
Interview By Sandra Tyler, Editor-in-Chief
Jessica Maria Manley is a New York City–based photographer and art educator. She graduated The School Of Visual Arts, NYC in 2012 and attended post-graduate school at New Jersey City University. She creates photographs and paintings with the intent to provoke internal questioning. She experiments with alternative photographic processes, such as cyanotypes polaroid emulsion lifts and liquid light. She aims to capture a new decisive moment in present day through the use of historic photographic equipment and processes with hopes in gaining a deeper understanding of the human condition though tactile art making.
Tyler: The works included in this month’s issue are from your Melissa series. Thought provoking and often deeply provocative, Melissa evidently evolved from your seeking to answer whether there is a “definitive turning point in a person’s life transitioning them from childhood to adult.” How did you come to this question, and to this child, Melissa, as your subject?
Manley: Melissa is actually my younger sister. She and I have quite a large age gap. I began photographing her when she was in kindergarten, two years prior to me moving out of the house for my first year at art school. The question regarding a turning point came from the very heavily Photoshopped and/or sexualized images of younger teenagers making their way into more of our advertisements and daily visual imagery. This can play a large role in the developing psyche of children.
Tyler: One might say these are essentially staged images, and to wonderful effects, of an innocence masked—and quite literally with makeup—and perhaps lost to seduction. But the staging finally is minimal. The real power of these works lies in your actual photographing: the visual play on color, lighting, and focus. So how much preparation finally does actually go into these works, and how much of it might be intuitive?
Manley: I usually maintain a lot of control when it comes to setting up for a shoot. I was never the type of photographer who just grabs their camera and heads off for the day in hopes of capturing something magical. I really appreciate photographers who can do that; it’s just not my style. I usually start with rough sketches or detailed lists of possible ideas prior to setting up to shoot. To be honest, a lot of my work is a collaborative effort between myself, my mother (who is an artist herself), and my sister. It is very helpful to have artists in the family who understand the importance of the creative process and can really support you through that.
Tyler: Of note too are the powerful compositions—how these works are actually cropped, what you decide to leaven in or out, as in “Red Dress I”. The negative spaces here really do speak to the positives, with her shoulder set at the corner of the framed picture on the wall, the unlit candles suspended against the white…how much are these compositions premeditated or not?
Manley: My work has very minimal post editing. Which means I usually don’t crop anything or retouch much at all in any type of photo-editing software. I try to be as careful as possible when it comes to my compositions. I have spent years studying master photographers—some of my inspirations, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, and Francesca Woodman. Composition is very important to me. I tell my students to treat each photograph as if it were a blank canvas. You want to make sure you leave in what’s important and eliminate the rest.
Tyler: These are inkjet prints scanned from negatives. Can you explain this process? And why you chose evidently to work in film rather than digital for this series?
Manley: An inkjet print from a scanned negative starts with a traditional 35mm camera. I then develop the negatives using a traditional D-76 process (for black and white) or C-41 (for color). Once the negatives are dry I can choose to scan them as digital positives or print them in my darkroom. Even though this process may seem long winded, in a digital age, I love to be as hands-on as possible and create photographs rather than simply take them. I think going through this process helps me feel more connected to the artwork. It’s very different than simply taking a photograph on a cell phone and posting it online.
Tyler: Your earlier work also features a young girl, but interestingly, these you chose to shoot in black and white, and to accentuate the innocence of childhood. Was this a conscious choice, and how much do you see these works as a catalyst for the Melissa series?
Manley: My early work also mainly features Melissa. This was a series I created when I was still in high school. The images are much more raw and my presence as a photographer was not as visible. I did not stage a lot of my early black-and-white work. It was much more of an observation and documentation rather than my later work where it has a bit more staging.
Tyler: You have experimented with various photographic mediums, and alternative processes. Can you tell us a little bit about these forays?
Manley: As I mentioned, I am extremely hands-on when it comes to artmaking, whether or not that’s photography, printmaking, or painting. I think there is something magical to be so connected to what you are doing in a tactile way. The C-41 color process has been one of my favorites to dabble with. I develop a lot of my film in the sink in my kitchen. My husband is a chemist, and he helps out sometimes with my photographic chemistry. It can be a pretty sensitive process, where if something is off by a small margin you can have colors shift and not get the desired results out of your negatives. This can be really frustrating sometimes, and other times you can end up with something even better than you imagined.
Tyler: While your focus seems to be on photography, you also paint. How does one medium inform the other?
Manley: I love experimenting with new artistic mediums. Over the past three years I have become increasingly interested in Old Master Paintings. My favorite genre would be French Impressionism. I love the looseness and freedom of these artists breaking from the norm at the time, to really portray the world as how they saw fit. Sometimes I can start to become frustrated with my photographs or vice versa, and start becoming frustrated with my paintings. When this happens, I try to switch mediums, materials, or subject matter, just to loosen up and think more creatively.
Tyler: As a teacher now of photography, what primarily do you bring to your students from your own learning curve and experience as a photographer?
Manley: Some of the most profound and influential artists have drawn inspiration from their personal lives. I believe knowing your students to be a critical aspect of teaching. A major theme in my teaching is life experiences. I think each individual can bring something new to the art world. My students will always be encouraged to draw inspiration from personal beliefs and experiences. One of my favorite quotes by John Steinbeck is “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
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