When Christine Tomaszewski, a photographer I met when we worked at the same tech firm, excused herself from a lunch table of coworkers to climb a wobbly bar stool, lean way over the bar, and shoot a photo of the glasses lining the back wall, I knew we would get along. The pursuit of art and pretty shiny things continues to infuse our conversations and so I was more than pleased when she agreed to an email interview.
Her photographs have been displayed in galleries in New York and Connecticut. To view more of her work, check out her flickr stream here.
And now: Christine on photography.
Cyn: Why photography? What was your initial draw and what continues to pull you in?
Christine Tomaszewski: It’s never been one thing. I would take pictures on vacations when I was young, but it wasn’t anything that I put time into apart from that. I taught a photography and darkroom class in summer camp one year, but I was too busy flirting with the boy teaching it with me to focus on whether or not I really liked photography. It wasn’t until I graduated from college and moved to New York City that I felt an urge to get back into it. I got my first film SLR for my birthday in 1999, less than 2 weeks before I went to London to visit a friend. That any of the pictures turned out was nothing short of a miracle, and I continued to shoot off and on around the city for about a year afterwards. I was doing a lot of writing at the time, and I still considered that to be my primary creative outlet (you’d never be able to guess from the way I ramble now), so the photography eventually dropped off, the lovely SLR languishing in a box that moved from apartment to apartment but rarely saw the light of day.
Years later, I moved to DC and its soul-numbing suburbs. I stopped writing, but didn’t have anything else to take its place. For 2 years, I struggled to find something I loved. I tried my hand at painting, thought about taking up drawing again, but nothing really inspired me. Then I met a friend of a friend through work. She had amazing self-portraits posted on flickr, which was still the wild west back then, and I spent hours going through her stream. She always had a camera with her in her purse. She was amused by bits of rusty pipe and the clouds in the sky and the way someone squinched their face when annoyed. This time, when I picked up that film SLR again, I found I couldn’t put it down. I have since acquired several other cameras, and photography has become something that isn’t just what I do on nice days or vacations, but something that defines who I am.
I suppose that still doesn’t answer the why and continued interest, but I think I touch on that enough in other questions to leave it unanswered here.
C: Who are some of your favorite photographers? What captures you in their work?
CT: I suppose everyone expects me to say Richard Avedon or David LaChapelle or the name that floats around our collective consciousness: Ansel Adams. In truth, it’s not like that at all. I’m most inspired and impressed by the work of fellow photographers who, like me, often have day jobs and lives that revolve around a thousand other things, but always make time for their passion. So at best, I can give you a small sampling of those wonderful people:
Don Blankenship: He works in land surveying in the wild mountains of North Carolina, and his photography reflects this. Old pieces of Americana, long forgotten, and sometimes still well-loved. It’s a world I’m heartened to know still exists.
Therese Brown: I’m still petrified of my Holga, and every time I look at her stream, I think of all the things I’m missing by leaving it at home. Her view of the world is soft, without edges, without harshness… and strongly reflects her Buddhist leanings and northern California landscape.
Markus Busch: He’s a genius with film. Possibly just a genius all around. Seriously, jaw-droppingly amazing landscapes.
Ann Marie Simard: The goddess of light. She makes the cold Canadian winters look like paradise. There is a constant sense that just off camera, hiding perhaps behind that stalk of bokeh’ed grass, is a sprite, laughing and causing mischief. What magic DeLint captures in his stories, she tells with photographs.
C: What are the commonalities in photographs you love (yours or others)?
CT: There should always be elements of emotion and depth. Just as we look for something more than just a pretty face when seeking a relationship (well, most of us anyhow), the same holds true for photography. I’ve seen thousands of technically flawless images that were about as inspiring or interesting as a page from the Financial Times… and blurred images that broke all the rules, yet stirred something so deep and powerful that I watched as comment after comment tried and failed to explain what, how & why.
C: Have to ask it: digital v. film. Advantages, disadvantages, snob factor?
CT: Oh, there is definitely a rogue, snob factor to film, which is kind of unfortunate, since it has a life to it that digital hasn’t been able to capture. Digital is too crisp, too buttoned up. Film is the rougher, less polished cousin. The one that inexplicably still gets all the girls even though he’s well past his prime. I use both, but I admit that much of my heart still belongs to film.
C: Does equipment matter? Why or why not? Any favorite cameras, films, software, printing papers, lenses, filters?
CT: Of course it does! Anyone who says differently is lying. ;-) Honestly though, it does matter, but not nearly as much as the person behind it though. $16k worth of professional equipment won’t save you if you don’t have some piece of inherent talent that you can develop. I’ve seen amazing photographs from point & shoot pocket cameras, $2.00 Holgas… and at best middling work from people with state of the art Hasselblads.
I appreciate my new Canon 5d Mark II… but my favorite camera is far and away the cheapie Pentax ZX-7 I bought used, the beat up 24-200 Tamron lens (that gets stuck around 70mm) and especially my compact little 50mm prime to go with it. I have a few other film and digital cameras, and my Pentax is the one I reach for time and again.
Of course, I also love using really cheap (sometimes expired) drugstore film, so maybe I’m not the best one to ask.
C: I know in your work, you play around with editing in Photoshop a fair amount. What is your relationship with the editing process? Do you view it as corrective, exploratory, both or otherwise?
CT: It’s a little bit of all of those. I know quite a few folks who make it a point to say they don’t do even the smallest bit of editing… and that works for them. I have some photographs that are perfect the way they are, and others that need some corrective work, and others still that end up far removed from reality. I go for emotion, which means I have no problem manipulating the image to make it suit the mood I’m trying to convey. I’ve had the conversation (and sometimes, argument) with those who would say it’s cheating, and we’ll have to agree to disagree.
C: What are some obsessions in your work? I’ve noticed many close-ups of leaves, long angles in buildings, and self-portraits. Do you look for particular content, scenes, shapes, colors, or wander into whatever captures your imagination?
CT: In some ways, you’re better equipped to notice the obsessions than I am. I tend not to notice them because I don’t often think about it. I go out, I point my camera at things, I go home and edit… and then people point out themes. I’m often more surprised than anyone that they exist.
C: Shooting people – what are the challenges and rewards?
CT: Challenges: people move. They’re fussy. And no matter how good the lighting, how beautiful your skin… everyone needs retouching. So before you ask me to shoot you, know that I will become intimately familiar with every pore on your face. It’s like being a dentist.
Rewards: capturing a moment that speaks to their personality. That look in their eye, the twinge of smile in the corners of their lips, the way their head tilts slightly that they don’t always realize they do. Getting that relaxed state where they’re just being completely themselves often makes up for all the challenges.
C: How do you feel photography fits into the larger world of visual arts?
CT: A while ago, I read a book by Steven Brust called The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars that was all about the creative process, and in it, the main character talks about his struggles with considering photography as a real art form. Eventually, he realizes that while as a painter, he can create his reality in any way that suits him, photographers always have to start with this reality. We can’t make it up. We have to take something that many people ostensibly see every day, and show it to them in a way that makes them stop. So does that make it harder? Not necessarily… but it’s certainly just as legitimate as painting or sculpture.
C: The rule of thirds – do you follow it religiously? Do you have photos you love that break this or other rules of photography?
CT: What was it that Mark Twain said? Something about how you have to know the rules first, then you can break them all you want. It’s kind of that way with the rule of thirds… once it becomes ingrained, you can go about breaking it for specific cases.
C: When you are in photo-mode, how does your view on the world change? For instance, when I’m out taking snapshots, I find I pay a great more attention to my surroundings, but that I also tend to chop it up more, considering what fits in a viewfinder, so I experience the world more as detailed parts, rather than holistically.
CT: I try to be as engaged in the world as possible when I’m out photowalking. No headphones or thinking about work or daydreaming. Anything less than complete attention to my environment and I’m likely to miss something really neat. So when I’m out, I notice not just the elements that go into the photograph (light, color, texture, pattern), but all the things that make up the moment: the smell of the ocean, the music coming from the bar, the laughter of friends as they walk past, the crunch of the gravel underfoot… I may take a picture of something that doesn’t include any of those, but I’d like to think all those things make their way in anyhow.
C: How does art and photography impact other aspects of your life?
CT: Art is insidious in the way it invades so many other aspects of life. I see a break of light through the clouds, or a crumbling house along the highway, and part of me wants to stop the car right now and capture it. The thing is, not everything needs to be captured, which I guess goes back to the question above: sometimes the experience is the thing. My memory will fade, there’s no doubt about that… but having a photograph may not change that. Principally: enjoy life, if you get too greedy about capturing it, you’ll miss out on so much more.
C: [Create your own question and tell me what you want to say about photography] Why do you say you hate having your picture taken, but you have so many self-portraits?
CT: I’ve actually gotten much better about this over the years that I’ve been taking for self-portraits, and the two are very much linked. I originally started taking self-portraits for two reasons: my friend Jodi (who is the friend & coworker mentioned in question 1) took amazing self-portraits, and she inspired me to give it a whirl… and secondly, I figured I had to give it a whirl because the vast majority of pictures of me made me look like I ate too much paste as a child. Through years of turning the camera on myself, going through the sometimes hundreds of takes, and seeing what works, I’ve figured out how to help myself look less disabled in pictures.
Not only do we identify most with pictures of people, but the viewer likes to see what the photographer looks like. It’s another layer of getting to know the person behind the lens. To see that person turn the camera on themselves, it gives the audience a way of seeing how the photographer sees him or herself… and it’s sometimes completely different from the impression they give through the rest of their work. Doing only self-portraits has always struck me as somewhat narcissist or self-indulgent, but it can also make us more self-aware.