Haunting, ethereal, pensive, mystical, disturbing – all of these words describe the photographic style of Joyce Tenneson. Her pictures command a complex and intense emotional response from the viewer, something which has made Tenneson one of the most respected photographers working today. Though she photographs other subjects (including men, children, and objects), her most famous images are of the female form, often partly shrouded in gauze, or fragmented within the frame, and frequently lit in an otherworldly glow. She has been described critically as ‘one of America’s most interesting portrayers of the human figure.’ Her work is a mysterious alchemy of sensuality and spirituality.
Tenneson’s work has been shown in over 100 exhibitions worldwide and is included in many museum and private collections. She is also a highly sought-after commercial photographer with clients in Europe, Japan and the United States. Her photographs have appeared in many major magazines including Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Life, Premiere, and Stern. She lectures and instructs workshops extensively. She is the author of four books of photographs In-Sights: Self-Portraits by Women, Joyce Tenneson Photographs , Deja Vu andTransformations. Her fifth book entitled Illuminations will be published in 1997 by Bulfinch/Little, Brown and Co. In 1989 she won the International Center for Photography’s Infinity Award for best applied photography, and in 1990 she was named “Photographer of the Year” by the international organization, Women in Photography.
John Paul Caponigro Why photography?
Joyce Tenneson I’ve been interested in all the art forms. I’m interested in people and photography allows me to work with people easily and quickly. Both you and your father don’t deal so much with the person and you love photography. But for me it’s the psyche. I am really interested in people; in bodies, in skin, all the abstractions of people too, shapes, gestures, etc.
JPC These seem to be deep preoccupations in your work. Interesting that in many ways the body is decontextualized, it is without a literal environment, and very often without fashion, or if it is has clothing it’s very stripped down.
JT It’s just cloth. I try to bring the figures outside of time. That’s why I get rid of their hair all the time, you never see any hair style that will put it in a particular period. Once again, it’s not so much a conscious choice, it’s that I’m not attracted to things that aren’t pared down in some way. My newer work is even more pared down because my new muse, my new main model, has no hair at all. That’s the ultimate for me now. Working with people when they are pared down like that.
JPC What do you think is driving that impulse?
JT To become more and more purely form; form with emotion, form with a kind of mythical …
JPC Bodies as containers of spirit?
JT Yes exactly. Where the picture evokes something from the viewer. What that is, I don’t try to know. It evokes something from me. That’s why I take it. But I never try to describe what that is.
JPC There is an ongoing sense of relationship on an intimate, sensitive, heartfelt level in your work. It seems natural for you. I think one does make that choice however. There are other photographers who can use the body as pure form.
JT That’s true but for me, I want the form to have another dimension as well.
JPC You have a family of models; people you’ve had relationships with for many years and continue to. You get involved in their lives in ways other than pointing the camera at them. I find myself wondering if that sensibility, that impetus is much more feminine than masculine. Not that a man couldn’t have it, but that it might seem more natural for a woman.
JT Probably. Although as I said, I think the men are moving in that direction. I think my son is in that group. He’s very masculine but he cares about relationships. He has a kind heart level that is indicative of a whole new wave of men. Like you.
This last week one of the nicest things was that we used that 11 year old model, Amelia, that you saw last night. We met up here about four years ago and every summer when I come to teach at the Maine Photographic Workshops we hire her. Her family is poor. Her mother has four kids by four different men. They’re living in a campground for the summer because the housing is too expensive. She looks forward to making a little extra money. She models in a leotard. And yet she became so loved by everybody in the group and they did such beautiful work with her. This year in particular, age 11, she’s at such a chrysalis state, almost breaking into a new dimension. She’s such a pure presence because she isn’t rich and spoiled. Everybody adored working with her so much and were so respectful to her. It was a nice complement. We invited her to the Friday night lobster dinner to be our guest and we’re putting together a little book for her of all the best images. We also invited her to the last critique and explained why certain pictures were better than others. It was really fun. She was like family. Everybody felt that way. It was for me one of the best parts of the week. She has a certain kind of beauty and we’re not just talking physical beauty, she is so unspoiled and old for her years, she has a kind of internal intensity. Her eyes were filled with sadness and depth, compounded with a kind of beauty of presence and she has a sculptural body because she’s part child, part woman, part androgynous figure. That made the whole week for me. Watching a kind of delicate beauty. Also poignant.
JPC Interesting that these are the kinds of qualities that you seem to be most focused on, most excited by, and that it comes so naturally. You let what is there unfold and yet everywhere there is an effort to control the environment, strip it down. It’s a curious two way street, to let something reveal itself and yet to control. There are so many two way streets with a lens.
JT I make a lot of slides before my workshops. I had found in Europe a book of award winning portraits. I think mostly culled from Graphis. There were a lot of celebrities, because they were from magazines and that’s where a lot of our portraits are showcased. A lot of them were so shallow. We projected them as a class, and even though they had won awards, we were looking not to find fault but to analyze what made them good and in doing that we found a lot of them really weren’t very good, from our criteria which were that they really were just about the facade not about anything deep about the celebrity. It was Madonna holding her crotch; something predictable. Our golden rule about our workshops is that you can’t do anything that is really a cliché or predictable, we try to move into finding a strange gesture, a different angle, something that has a little more depth to it, a little more probing, a more intimate portrayal of who it is we’re shooting.
JPC And those celebrities are very often the ones who are supposed to be so professional at revealing something from the interior, thought it’s not always their interior.
JT A portrait book of unknown people and a celebrity book; one of them is going to sell five thousand copies and the other one is going to sell two hundred thousand copies. That’s a sad commentary on our culture I’m afraid.
JPC I’m tempted to ask the question when you think portraits are more successful when they portray a person stripped down to the bare essence, a single countenance, or if you’re more attracted to portraits that are more complicated, that have a range of expression, as in a weather pattern, all contained in one instant.
JT Either one of them could be fascinating if they were really done well. The portraits that hold my interest after the first viewing are the ones that are more complicated. You keep seeing new things about them.
JPC So you want to strip things down to very simple elements and yet you want a level of complexity to contain mystery that keeps asking questions.
JT On one level it seems almost sculptural in its sparseness, it’s so pared down, but there is some loaded quality about the image in terms of giving you some other kind of experience as well. Whether it’s ethereal, or whether it’s strange, or whether it’s a journey to a darkness … I guess that’s also back to your original question about people. Just think about all the complexities that we can see. We use the word person; it’s almost a misnomer. It’s a word that somehow isn’t complex enough.
JPC People is a more general description of many. Person is singular. We’re talking about many within one.
JT When I say I’m attracted to people it’s a very facile thing. It’s true that I’m attracted to people and I like people, but in my work it goes beyond that. It’s really that I’m attracted to a certain unlayering, like peeling back an artichoke and getting to the center of it. I’m very attracted to discovering, to taking off veils or looking into the looking glass; all the devices that allow us to get to whatever that mysterious kernel is. Sometimes that mysterious kernel, as in an oyster, is a pearl. But sometimes, as in an artichoke, right before you get to the heart there are spikes. You can assault yourself if you don’t know how to get around them and navigate. I guess that’s the excitement about it. When you’re working with (I don’t want to use the word again) people, when you’re really connecting with these … jewels.
I would see Amelia as a jewel; a life jewel that is fascinating because the complexity is so rich. You’re going inside both a physical and an emotional puzzle. To use Amelia as an example, to remember when you were at eleven and what it means to be in that transition between childhood and some kind of adulthood, when your body changes, that physical part, psychological part, sexual part, spiritual part and yet being aware of the fragility – I felt such poignancy. All the things that she is already and that will govern her for the rest of her life. And also for all the things that might befall her. Our group felt protective of her. All of us wanted an assurance that nothing bad would ever befall her.
But who knows?
It’s like with all of the collections that you have. You’re fascinated with these objects. I love collecting. I guess what I do with my work is collect these fascinating … specimens is a demeaning word because it objectifies these people, so I would say jewels comes closer because at least it means I see them as valuable.
JPC That’s one of the wonderful things about photography, it will capture fleeting moments and let us collect them.
JT It’s that family thing again. We all have such small families; you’re an only child, I have an only child. Because I have an only child I’m very connected to other people in my life who could be like children, sisters, relatives. I think we make bigger families through our friends.
JPC Twins. There’s an interesting sense of duplication, doubles, reflections. Would you call it a twin theme or a double theme?
JT I haven’t probed it too deeply. I am aware that that twinship factor does fascinate me. Once again it’s an attraction. I do think it probably comes from the fact that my mother was an identical twin and they spoke to each other every day of their life. I think identical twins have an incredibly unique relationship compared to anything else in the world. They usually do love each other very much. They usually are very protective one to the other. It is a fascinating thing to think that people could be really identical like that. I can’t imagine someone really identical to me.
JPC One idea behind photography is that we’re duplicating something. That’s a strange idea. We let the world render itself for us yet still impose our unique style upon it. We make multiple prints of a single experience, supposedly capturing that moment in time and duplicating it. Still in your work there is a sense not just of twinning but of doubling, that the second one is different, has a different dimension, a different character. But in both there is an intimate relationship between the two, a sense of relating on a deeper level.
JT I’ve always had a very deep yearning my entire life for some kind of a soul mate. I think that must have been for some kind of a twinship. I think you partially create it yourself because I believed in it so strongly. In my first marriage which wasn’t any kind of spiritual connection I always knew that someday out there there was this other kind of thing; that it existed. This was long before all the self help books on finding your soul mate that exist now. It wasn’t a new age thing for me. It was long before I read about it. It was something within myself. That was very much in my work and will always be in my work. People say that a lot of my models look like me. I don’t see it. Other people see it more strongly. I guess it’s that connection …
JPC Identifying with another person. Finding out who you are by exploring similarities with another but also noticing the differences.
This is an interesting one here. Suzanne holding a mirror; one countenance contemplative another looking at you through the mirror quite different – the same instant. We have exteriors and interiors and many personalities.
JT Those mirror pictures are really interesting. I was shocked when I looked at the film. When somebody is looking down in a mirror underneath them, it’s the same moment, the same persons, and yet the expression is like two different people. One of them is really the darker side of the person. How does that happen?
JPC The double seen through the looking glass.
JT And it’s no trick. It’s almost like you’ve put another face onto that mirror in Photoshop but it’s not. I don’t know how that happens. I really don’t know. I remember when I first looked at that picture, I’ve done several since then with mirrors, each time it is like an alter ego, the dark side of the person, or something usually darker comes out through the mirror.
JPC Isn’t that interesting? We work so hard on projecting the acceptable or the positive and yet the other is with us always.
JT It’s a magical thing. I’ve never thought about how or why that happens. But it does happen. I’ve never done a test, a controlled group. But with the people I select it seems to happen. It’s fascinating.
JPC Your work is a kind of portraiture, but it’s not direct portraiture. There is, if not a fictional element, a poetic element; it goes beyond a document of the surface of a person.
JT It’s a metaphor. There’s a psychological dimension to the better work. That one of the young child, the bat wing and the old man has a mythic feeling to it. You don’t really know what’s going on but … They either hit somebody or they don’t. I’m constantly surprised by how many people are moved by them. I think of my work as very polarizing; either people really do like it and are touched by it or they really don’t get it at all. It’s not accessible to all people at the same level.
JPC It appears that you’re tapping an internal root – a mysterious, subconscious root. It’s not easy to make that literal. And something happens to that if you make it literal. It’s a real task to be descriptive about that realm and yet allow it to maintain it’s mystery, which is one of the reasons why it was compelling in the first place.
JT It’s like trying to describe what a poem means. It’s no longer a poem when you’ve made the description.
JPC Or trying to talk about pictures with words. We would have written books if we could have done with words what we could with pictures.
It’s a difficult process, but it’s inevitable in the world of art today.
Your early work contains a lot of self-portraiture. I don’t know if you feel a similar way but I feel that a body of work is a self-portrait even if you’re not turning the camera on yourself. In looking out with the camera, turning it on the outside world, we’re also looking inward.
JT I agree. I’ve heard many times that with all good artists it’s ultimately a self-portrait even if it’s an abstraction. I feel my work is very much who I am. I didn’t try to make it that way; it just is. It reflects who I am and also my interests. I have always had an interest in the spiritual or the metaphysical realms. Not an intellectual interest but it is something so natural to me it’s almost like breathing. Where that comes from I really don’t know.
JPC You were raised in a nunnery.
JT I was but they weren’t so spiritual. There were more rules and regulations. It’s not as if they were meditating. It wasn’t like a Buddhist training that someone would have now where they really do have a spiritual training and quiet. These early memories were where I get my psychology. That was a world that was filled with secrets and rituals. But they weren’t meditative. In retrospect I think that there was a lot of perversion in that world. There was a lot of pretending to be – holier than thou and yet having a political agenda. It wasn’t a pure thing the way I think a lot of spiritual movements in the last twenty years have been, with people who are really interested in developing their abilities to be alone, in nature, to transcend their body. You would think that my interest in spirituality goes back to my childhood yet I think it’s mysterious how I’m the only one in my family that has that really deep interest.
JPC There’s tradition and then there’s participation. Tradition can be a vessel for that activity but not a substitute. Unless there is the activity nothing’s happening. I think there are many interested in participating not just in one tradition but in finding one’s own path. But it seems to be quite an important dimension for so many people’s work. I know it’s very important in my father’s work, very important for mine. That doesn’t mean we make religious art. But we are spiritual beings and we can’t help but have those issues inform our work.
JT I always get irritated when people say my work is religious. I don’t think it’s religious. I think it has spiritual elements but I don’t create that at all from any official religion. I guess people who feel threatened can put it aside by saying that.
JPC It’s hard to describe verbally what’s going on visually to our conscious minds. A great deal of experience is subconscious and visceral. We do anything we can to hang a name tag on it in order to understand it intellectually. That can very often get in the way of truly understanding things.
JT What’s been interesting over the years is to watch my audience build in number. I think that goes along with our society reaching a more critical mass of people who are interested in these subjects. Look at the New York Times bestseller list now. You see all these books, The Celestine Prophecy, that show a critical mass of people who have a yearning for something that goes deeper.
JT Twenty years ago people were not open to the metaphysical in photography. When Minor White was teaching, Jerry Uelsmann was doing his work, your father, Meatyard, Clarence John Laughlin people just laughed at them. Now I think there is more openness. That area that they were delving into, the symbolic or the metaphysical, was an area that was worthwhile. And it is now being given more critical attention.
JPC I think people quickly passed it off as passé because it had such strong links to Romantic sensibilities; we’d been there before. I’m sorry but I think we’ve always been there.
JT It’s a constant theme just like formalism.
JPC We can’t escape being corporeal beings so of course we’re going to deal with form. But we can’t escape being spiritual beings either.
JT Right. So we’re going to deal with that level of contact.
I never chased after any particular school, never really had mentors; I really just did the work that was true to me. I think I’ve been really lucky with that because I think it has stood up and grown in interest to other people as time has gone on. Whereas if I had tried to run down the path that was easier, in terms of being recognized …
JPC Interesting. Cartier-Bresson remarked on how much he valued Capa’s advice, ally yourself with documentary photography, when he wanted to be a surrealist. It’s so funny how we can easily dismiss something when we slap a label on it.
JT Why did he say that? Oh. Because you don’t want to be labeled or pigeon holed into something that’s small.
JPC Not only small, but old. If it’s been done before somehow it’s no longer as valid. It’s nice, but it’s passé. I’m sorry but Egyptian or Assyrian reliefs, the rudimentary carvings of bushmen in Africa or Australia, they’re not passé to me.
JT No. They’re not passé to me either.
JPC I often find modern life sterile in comparison.
JT I do too.
JPC The majority of your photographs are of women, women’s bodies. Not all of them, of course, there are men too. Obviously you bring a vast realm of experience, that a man could never bring, to that subject. Do you think that heightens a certain sense of depth?
JT It’s something that I’ve struggled with for a long time. I have consciously tried to photograph males and females in equal number. But when it comes down to editing, the ones that seem to not hit the cutting room floor are largely women, the males that I’ve photographed don’t seem to stand up to the editing. I simply seem to be better at working with women for some reason. It’s a fact I have to live with. For the moment, I don’t know if this will always be the case.
Maybe it goes along with that autobiographical, self portrait, aspect. A lot of the work really is a kind of a self portrait, in a large sense of the word.
JPC Interesting that the one male image I’ve heard you speak most powerfully of is one of your son.
JT I’ve probably been most successful with him.
JPC In your slide show you spoke of a picture of you, just your face, it had minimized the hair, and you were struck by the similarities between you and your son.
JT I do feel also a twinship with him.
JPC It’s quite apparent that the work is most successful when they are of the things that are not just beautiful formally but also make a powerful connection with a human spirit.
JT Both those things have to be there.
JPC Do you ever leave one in because the connection is so strong but the form isn’t hanging together as well.
JT I’m sure I do. That’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years, not to leave something in just because you’re attached to it personally. Sometimes you’re so close to it you remember the experience. You see the experience infused in the image, what a great moment, but the picture doesn’t capture that. Over time you realize things. Many times for exhibition announcements I’d choose the image I had just done because I wanted it to be current and six months later I’d realize it wasn’t really that strong an image; it should have hit the editing floor. I purposefully have trained myself to sit on images for as long as I can, a year or so, so that I could get rid of that personal level. Then I can see if it does stand on its own. Because it is hard when you have been connected to that moment.
But it’s very important to get them out there. It does liberate you. It does put closure on it. I don’t think you have to continue doing those pictures any more. It’s also scary because you can’t do those pictures any more. Sure there’s always a thread of a similar quality but you’ve got to find something new.
JPC I was going to ask about a particular word, growth; particularly because you’re interested in young figures and old figures, in nurture, in fruition, in maturation, in the process of passing time. Growth and evolution seem very important to your work.
JT That will always be there. I have the same themes over and over again. How I’m saying it keeps changing or growing.
JT Not every piece that we do, myself included, is a masterpiece.
JPC My parents relate a dialog between Ansel Adams and Imogene Cunningham. How many great images do you get in a lifetime? Ansel would hazard maybe one or two a year. Imogene would reply one in a lifetime. But that again is measured by degrees.
JT When you look at a book, how many of them are truly great images. In my book, how many real “yeses” did I have? This comes from six years work.
JPC Right and it’s all good solid professional work. How much of it was radiantly inspired?
JT Yeah. You can’t have them all. Maybe in a very tight retrospective of somebody whose had a long career.
JPC Isn’t it funny? We’re talking about the hot shots of the field.
JPC Do you find that those moments come as surprises for you? I know that so many of the great photographs by so many great photographers have taken them by surprise.
JT Always. I guess that’s what’s most rewarding. Those moments, you can’t order them up. You can’t just say today I’m going to go out and have this incredible magical experience. Every single yes was a completely magical experience.
The most magical experience was the first time I worked with Suzanne. things just happened – it was a complete gift. I knew the minute I took that photograph it had power. I knew it would be a cover. I couldn’t sleep at night, I was haunted. I knew there was something between us. Our best pictures happen by grace. It sounds like a cliché. But it’s true.