For New York-based photographer Jeanette Spicer, photography is a tool of connection. Whether shooting for a personal project or an editorial commission, her approach to portraiture seeks to create a space of comfort and intimacy for whoever is in front of her lens.
Spicer’s images imagine a world where bodies can free themselves of the restraints placed upon them to explore the space around them and the others sharing it. Often riffing on her existing relationships, she has worked extensively with her mother and her partner, and more recently has begun seeking people out from the lesbian, LGBTQ+ community to build long-lasting photographic collaborations.
In this interview for LensCulture, Magali Duzant talks to Spicer about the draw of portraiture, creating alternative visions of intimacy and the difference between her personal and editorial practice.
Magali Duzant: As an introduction can you tell me about the themes of your work and the place of portraiture within it?
Jeanette Spicer: My work is based around intimacy. In my personal work, I collaborate with friends and family—people that I have some kind of rapport with. I don’t really work with people that I don’t know, which is interesting in contrast to editorial work, because that’s all that is. I like to have an established relationship with the people I’m photographing because what I’m really interested in is seeing people in alternatively intimate ways. I’m constantly trying to relate the body to the space that it’s in, whether it’s through patterning, shapes, inanimate objects, or organic, living ones. I’m pretty formal with my work so light and color are very important factors.
Most recently, something that’s become increasingly important is the lesbian gaze and questioning and countering the lack of lesbian representation. I’m exploring that in both overt and sometimes more subtle ways; it’s definitely a through line. I think it shows up in the work with my mom, which has been ongoing for a number of years. It’s still something that I’ve only really just started to embrace, which I think comes with becoming more comfortable with myself as a person, and as a lesbian, and how that spills over into my work. A lot of it is about recreating relationships that I do have. It can be about those people but also sometimes it’s more about the way that their body represents a woman, a queer woman, a lesbian, a mother. To an extent I am photographing what I wish the world was like and how I wish women were represented and seen. It’s like I’m living this alternate life that I prefer. It’s escaping reality, in a healthy way, I guess.
MD: Can you briefly expand on this interest in intimacy?
JS: I’m fascinated by intimacy because it’s the main way that I relate with people. And I think connecting to people is such a big deal for me. It’s my lifeline. It’s the way that I can personally move through the world. I have it very deeply in my photographic, artistic, and personal life. It literally is just the person that I am in every capacity. With my editorial work I still try to find it, asking how I can make someone comfortable based on who they are as a person, their interests. Even my tools can be part of it. I’m not a tech or gear person but I do think about how certain cameras and lenses can help me create a mood or a feeling, get in close, put someone at ease.
MD: You’ve been photographing your mother for a number of years, how did that collaboration begin? Would you say that your two projects, mother and what it means to be here, inform each other?
JS: I’ve always been drawn to portraits and my mom has always been a recurring subject. It started because I was, and am, interested in her. I was interested in looking at tensions and boundaries in relationships and spaces. The mother work has taken on many iterations from photo to video and back to photography again.
I see the projects as separate, not like day and night, but I think the reason why they’re starting to feel like they have similarities is because I’m also working with my partner Sarah (she is in some of the work with my mom now) and that adds another dynamic and dimension. I’ve been thinking a lot about what people are—or aren’t—physically and psychologically comfortable with. I think that’s a little more obvious in the work with my mom, because we’ve been raised to think that our relationship with our mothers needs to be a certain way, and that you don’t do certain things.
MD: In your personal projects, such as what it means to be here, who are your subjects and where do those relationships begin?
JS: What it means to be here is the first project where I was not strict about who I worked with, I am still working within the confines of people I know, but I am much more open to people that I’ve maybe met only two or three times. I have to feel a connection of some sort. But it doesn’t have to be my partner or my mother or a best friend of five years as it has been in other projects. I think being more comfortable and open with myself and consciously trying to build out a lesbian, LGBTQ+ community, I’ve found more connections than I have in the past. Once I explain the gist of the work, because the work is so much more than just the lesbian gaze, in terms of concept and history of photography, I find people are interested. And often they want to support me, because they want to have their bodies represented in a way that’s unique. My preference is to have these people in my images present for years, because then you start to see them evolve, you gain fluency, people’s bodies change, they look different, and you know them in a deeper way.
MD: How do you direct your photographs? How much of the process would you say is collaborative, how much is spontaneous?
JS: I don’t really shoot in the moment or on the fly. I usually instruct people. As far as it’s acting or imagining how to recreate intimacy, it’s as if I’m opening up a portal to a new form of intimacy. One good thing about working with people that I know is I know their space, I observe their homes, I make notes for possible shoots, I follow up. Initially, I definitely start from a planned, posed space. I am pretty specific about why I’m shooting where. But then in the moment I do usually let spontaneity kind of guide us. I feel often it’s those in-between moments where I’ve asked a subject to move her head or arm, I shoot, and then as I’m reviewing the image, maybe she shifts a certain way to pick up a glass or adjust something and that’s the image. That’s often what I end up photographing.
MD: Where did your interest in pursuing editorial work come from?
JS: I think it came from growing up during the 90s. And in all seriousness, being in the car a lot and hearing music, and wondering what the CD covers looked like. My parents, for some reason, didn’t have a lot of records around but I love album art. It’s so good and hilarious. When I could, I would sit with CDs and look at the way the photographer would set the band up. On the other hand, I also love poetry because it’s a visual language. I have to do the work, I have to imagine. And that always stuck with me.
MD: What is your approach in making portraits for editorial commissions? Is there a difference in the direction you give, the sense of collaboration, how you’re working with a subject, in comparison to your personal work?
JS: The editorial work is quite new for me. It’s important to highlight that because I still feel as if it’s my first day of school every time. And so I’m still learning myself. I try to keep in mind that I was clearly chosen for my style. The main thing is being true to myself. I really do my research, I try to figure out how these people look when they’re being photographed. Do they look comfortable? Do they look natural? What’s already been done? How do I make a different photograph? I want to find an alternate side to somebody and an alternate idea of intimacy within the particular situation. So when I photographed Alison Bechdel, for example, I thought: how do I find a new way to depict someone who is in their 60s, who is a very well-known lesbian artist? She has been documented for decades. It’s my job to have the world be able to look at these people in a different way.
Most of the time, I haven’t read the article beforehand—you might get a snippet or a title. That may give me an idea or an angle. And I find that even more interesting, than reading an article to start. When I photographed Julia Ducournau and Agathe Rouselle, a director and actress from the film Titane, for the New York Times, I looked at the way that they had been shot in the past. I started thinking about the relationship between a new actor and a director. I watched them on red carpet events and the way that they were physically with each other, which was very intimate, very close. I was thinking about how I was not just composing the image, but also who was in focus and who was in the background, that’s why I used the mirror to reflect back to Julia, for example. So in a sense Agathe is sort of holding her. I didn’t want to do anything traditional or straightforward. I wanted it to be more realistic and intimate, because these are two people who are artists in their own rights and have worked together.
MD: What led to your interest in working with mirrors and shadows? What do they represent for you? I see them throughout your photographs in surprising and sometimes confounding ways.
JS: Jack Halberstram speaks about the way a mirror opens up space for opportunity in the book The Queer Art of Failure and that really stuck with me. The mirror makes new spaces, in certain set ups it creates relationships that exist in the photograph but not in real life. The mirror can fragment the body and maybe even help the viewer to think about LGBTQ+ representation and intimacy differently. I guess the whole point is to try to depict and imagine a different way of seeing in a society that often doesn’t fully recognize enough possibility. There is an image of Sarah where we see her androgynous form in shadow. I wanted there to be a repetition of her breast. It’s hard to tell if there are two people there or one with her own shadow. I’m trying to learn and unlearn how to see, to question how we’ve been taught to see.
MD: In your mind, what makes a great portrait?
JS: A great portrait is one that makes me think about what I’m seeing, not in an overly complicated way but with a bit of mysterious intention. Something unusual, nothing straightforward. I think great use of light is always key, it can make something so much more evocative. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about motion. How can you either create it or allude to it, what can it add?
MD: Are there other projects that you’re working on that feed your creativity? Are there other artists you are inspired by?
JS: I am one of the co-founders of WMN zine alongside Florencia Alvarado and Sara Duell. It is a publication of art and poetry by those who identify as lesbians. Each issue varies in theme and we’ve worked with older generation dykes, lesbians who identify as disabled and/or are living with a physical, sensory, cognitive, or chronic illness and we are currently working on a call for those who have had experience with migration, immigration and displacement. So that influences my work, because it keeps me looking at art and reading poetry and it allows me to help create a platform to uplift other lesbian artists and writers.
In terms of other artists, Francesca Woodman is a huge inspiration. She left such a mark on the world and there’s so much you can continue to learn and pull from. I love Elliott Jerome Brown Jr’s work. I think the way they work with the medium is incredibly unique. I love Keisha Scarville’s photographs and the paintings of Jenna Gribbon. There are so many—too many to name.