Today I’ve chosen to write about the photographer Willa Nasatir and to use her work as a way to begin a discussion about artistic process. Many of you reading this blog are students or beginning artists just learning how to master your craft. As you become more confident and experienced you’ll learn to balance control with intuition, with allowing the work itself to be in charge.
When I think about Nasatir’s process, the highly abstracted and mysterious photographs make total sense. I can use my own experiences in the studio to unravel the images. My work has always been conceptual and highly rational, and yet, once I’m actually making things the irrational takes hold. I find connections that lead to new connections. I let the materials and process carry me to unknown places, to solutions for problems I was unaware of. It’s as if I’m not there, as if the work is creating itself. It is this experience that I use when viewing Nasatir’s work.
The first thing to know about Nasatir’s photographs is that they are totally analog. There is no digital manipulation, no use of an image-processing program like Photoshop. Rather, Nasatir still works in a darkroom where she develops her prints. To begin she brings together objects and scraps, many found on the streets, which she assembles into temporary sculptures and then photographs. The sculptures are surrounded by mirrors and other reflective surfaces that bounce light and create shadows, resulting in ghostly effects. In her earlier work she subjected the prints to physical actions – sanding them, setting them on fire, pouring acids on them – and then rephotographing the mangled prints (often more than once) to create the final image. More recently, she has eliminated the physical destruction of the photographic surfaces and instead photographs the works just twice, the second time through scrims or plexiglass that distort the image. (I should note that although Nasatir uses a traditional photographic darkroom she does not employ long used effects such as double exposures.)
In discussing her work Nasatir makes clear that the work is about more than process. Even with a firm conceptual framework underlying the work she still allows the finished photos to emerge from the unpredictable give and take that occurs in the studio.
Nasatir views many of her photographs as abstract portraits. In an interview with Lauren Cornell in Mousse Magazine Cornell asks Nasatir about the nature of the body in her photographs: “Often the body feels like an ‘unknown space’ in your photographs. You’ve said that you prefer to depict the ‘experience of the body’ or a ‘trace of it.’ Does this more transitory, latent form of portraiture feel more true to you?” Nasatir replies that “… I like the idea of creating a contained world in my studio where the subject doesn’t exist outside of the pictures. By looking at the photographic gestures and filmic tropes we use to imbue a subject with violence, nostalgia, or sex appeal, and then applying those to a composition of objects, I feel closer to a world of fantasy.”
In other interviews Nasatir has talked about her interest in “depict(ing) the felt experience of the body without showing the form of the figure itself.” The objects used in the sculptures become stand-ins for the human form, part of an abstract narrative that references human emotions. As viewers we naturally try to make sense of the objects and their relationship to each other, forming our own unique storylines.
Photography can be many things. Nasatir is well aware of its use in documenting the world and as part of an economic system that sells things. She intentionally removes her work from these realms. The other-worldly images send the viewer into the subconscious where memories may be either true or false and where we are never sure of the substance of what we see. The processes used in Nasatir’s studio reinforce the content of her work.