Casey Orr in conversation with Tony Cearns
Originally from Delaware, USA, Dr Casey Orr now lives in England where she works as a photographer, researcher and Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. She holds a Ph.D in photography. Her work is supported by Arts Council England and has been shown most recently in The Observer Magazine, The Royal Photographic Society’s Contemporary Photography Magazine, as part of the Tour De France cultural program as well as The Yorkshire Sculpture Park and (the first time the walls of a prison have been used as a space for art) at HM Prison Leeds.
Tony Cearns caught up with Casey ahead of her visit to Liverpool this Saturday (9th May) as part of LOOK/15 Liverpool International Festival of Photography.
Casey, I find your “Saturday Girls” work so immediate, playful and refreshingly uncomplicated, but I suspect this apparent simplicity belies a depth in which your choice of subject tells us something about yourself and the nature of photography. Could you tell us a little about this and how photography shapes you as a person?
My work starts with the autobiographical for sure. My current subject stems from the experience of being a woman and wondering about the lives of women and their specific relationship to power and visibility. My daughter just turned 13, so I think a lot about what it means to be a teenage girl and the ways we all navigated those years of change.
Hair is a performance, and cities on Saturdays are performance spaces where leisure, promenading and playful self-expression come together. The series is about the ways in which women communicate identity non-verbally. I love how there are hairstyles that keep returning and being reworked for new generations. It’s a passing down of culture through generations of women, playing with different versions of becoming visible. These expressions of self aren’t something new but a re-contextualising of forms that have been inherited from mothers and grandmothers and back into our shared past. What seems so simple, so normal, is actually a really sophisticated form of communication.
Saturday Girl is about young women but also about how photography is woven into our lives. The portraits join the debates surrounding images of young women and the ubiquitous selfie culture; the continual sophisticated editing of self that is played out in social media.
So with Saturday Girl I’m using the language of photography to question the language of photography. And the Saturday Girl portraits are trying to do this, to show an alternative version of what it is to be female.
I am interested in something you said in your blog …“The act of picture taking is one of being utterly aware and present, watching, looking, immersion in now”.
I think it was Ansel Adams who said “To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’ I respond, ‘there are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.”
Your portfolio is varied in subject matter and style, as equally comfortable in portraiture as it is in documentary. Which style of photography best allows you to explore your relationship to things and people and why?
I think of my work as storytelling, through portraiture. For me, landscape is important punctuation in the story but the people are my main interest. Saturday Girl is a social documentary project. It has more in common conceptually with street photography than anything else but consciously borrows from the language of fashion photography; this interests me. There are so many great examples of these approaches clashing – the studio environment used in documentary work – from Richard Avedon’s ‘In The American West’, Irving Penn’s ‘Small Trades’, to Terry Jones’ ID Magazine ‘Straight Up’ street style portraits and their legacy in the cultural mix of art and fashion photography.
In reference to the first quote; yes, I often have this conversation with my yoga teacher sister. There’s a lot of similarity in our work in the way in which taking photographs, like yoga, is a surrendering to the present. You heighten your awareness and just notice what’s happening right now and respond to that. I love the relationship to the world and to people that photography allows, demands even. There’s an awareness of the whole swirling, moving wonder of this life and my connection to it all.
Photographing is a time of intuitive decision making, a time of not thinking, planning or worrying but of being, and there’s a great joy in that. And then the practice becomes a way of stopping time, of preserving and collecting, a type of taxidermy even! And there’s a friction in these modes of photography that has engaged me for most of my life.
Second quote; yes, there’s no such thing as objectivity. My photographs are a response to my own wondering about this life. I think of my portraits as collaborations in the way that, when they work, they reveal as much about me as they do about the subject. I am always there in the images yet photography hides this. Its ability to describe still dazzles us, even though we’re such sophisticated consumers of images, we mistake the photograph as single truth.
Despite a recent revival in film, many photographers have left it behind for good. Estranged from your twin lens Mamiya you yourself have lamented, “I don’t want to go back to those ways of working, but I’ve lost something beautiful and I can hardly bear to face that loss.” What is it that you have lost? Do you think this has changed your photography?
I still feel very conflicted by this change to digital. For me the problem doesn’t lie with the production values or quality of the final images which are exciting and staggering, but I worked well with the rough and tumble of a reliable, simple and mechanical tool; glass, metal and wood – often tossed in my backpack, wrapped in a tea towel. My 5×4 wooden Wista was essential to many of my projects – this cumbersome, heavy and labour-intensive way of working became a prop, a focus and ice-breaker between me and whoever I was photographing. I never like 35 mm cameras – I don’t want to work that fast anyway – I’m much better when I’m slowed down by equipment.
Photography has multiple functions, one being art, other usages are as a tool that has been universally used and misused in support of power systems – recording, taxonomy, advertising, science and police work and I feel, with the digital cameras, very uncomfortable being misinterpreted as one of these photographers.
My cameras now work like computers, wondrous, complicated things with battery-fuelled excellence. I’m still conflicted but I’m not going back.
I am very taken with your Mason-Dixon work. It has the feel of the “American Road Trip” genre reminiscent of Robert Frank, Inge Morat, Eggleston and others. What was the background to this work? I always think it refreshing to get a non-British take on the UK. Are you tempted to do something similar in the UK?
I grew up along the Mason-Dixon Line and was interested in the powerful differentiation of cultures that exist on either sides of this line. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring invisibility and the way in which we embody culture and belonging. This internalised border is another version of the invisible power systems that exist – this is the stuff I’m trying to photograph.
I did an English journey a few years ago, By Water, which involved me riding my bike along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal to Liverpool where I boarded a container-ship to America. This way of exploring is thrilling and joyful. I can think of no better way to spend days than moving through landscape and culture with the only aim being to look, question, meet new people and make photographs.
Whose work do you currently admire and why? Aside from the influences in your formative years, which photographers most influence you now? What is it about their work that you find so powerful?
I love the resurgence in photography books. Photography feels like an exceptionally healthy and vibrant world at the moment full of quiet stories told with graphic and poetic integrity. I’m also really drawn to the way in which people are collaborating. Photography that functions as political activism and community engagement, while still having creative integrity, is really exciting. Just a few examples are Alec Soth and Little Brown Mushroom Press; Hoxton Mini Press, Emily Schiffer’s public art and community engagement project See Potential.
As a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, what do you think you have gained by straddling two occupations: that of photographer and that of teacher and researcher? Has it influenced your photography? If so, how?
I work on the Graphic Art and Design course at Leeds Beckett so my colleagues and students are of those disciplines – graphic design, illustration, animation, typography, theory and performance as well as photography – I love thinking about documentary photography in that context – in relation to other disciplines. I think it’s vital for students to think about the context of their work, the graphic context but also the political context. My colleagues and I collaborate with students on events, performances and celebrations of feminism. We work within the city, having exhibitions and infiltrate the city in different ways. I love the atmosphere. I strongly believe in the relevance of art school and the importance of play, creativity and spontaneity.
What advice do you give to your students who are serious about making a mark as photographers?
I tell them to follow their hearts; to trust themselves and be sure they’re making decisions that come from following their dreams, not their fears. My advice is “be hungry, be brave, be nice and ask lots of questions”.
How has your approach developed in recent years and how do you see it developing in the future? What’s next?
Saturday Girl is heading to other cities. And I’m also working on a new series, “Animality: Women, Animals and Intuition”, which is about the different ways women engage with animals and our animal selves.
There are so many projects I want to do, so many pictures to take. Along with these larger, longer projects I have on-going commissions for different clients and a few exciting collaborations in the pipeline. All of this somehow fits around my kids and family and friends and my lifelong obsession with swimming at every opportunity.
Casey Orr’s Publications:
For a list of Casey’s publications visit her web-site http://www.caseyorr.com/publications.php
Social Media Links
Casey’s updates and blog can be seen at:
- twitter @caseyannorr
- facebook https://www.facebook.com/casey.orr.315
- Blog “I am a Photographer” http://caseyorr.tumblr.com/
Tony Cearns is a writer and photographer based in Liverpool. The views contained in this interview are his and not necessarily those of LOOK/15.
Tony’s social media channels are:
All images are courtesy of Casey Orr. Tony Cearns thanks Casey Orr for generously giving her time and insights.