March 29, 2013

Spotlight: Alex Westfall

A peep through the lens of Alex Westfall.

The closing lines of Alex Westfall's artist's statement are what startle me the most: "Full of enigma, my photos are untitled, in my hopes that each person creates and deciphers their own story." All too often, artists (of past and present days) create images with ulterior motives: critiquing society, exposition, attempts to influence thought processes. But it's refreshing, almost relieving, to find an artist that values the viewer's opinions as much as their own. Alex captures an image and presents it to her audience with such subtlety that it's as if you too have looked through the lens of her camera.

Alex Westfall is from the Philippines, has lived in Germany for a large chunk of time and now studies in the United States, where she continues taking pictures with her beloved 35mm Nikon f3. In the U.S. she attends a boarding school where, inspired by Humans of New York, she has started a project of the same nature. And if you happen to be at Governor's Ball this summer, keep your eyes peeled for Alex, who will inevitably have her eyes glued to her camera, where she'll be taking pictures for a music blog. Photographers tend to baffle me (in the most awesome of ways) and so I asked Alex a few questions about her inspiration, process and darkroom experiences. Here's how the story goes:

THE LE SIGH: What is your favorite time of the day to take pictures?

ALEX WESTFALL: Definitely in the morning! I take a lot of pictures when I'm traveling, so usually mornings are when I'm happiest and the inspiration and motivation to take photos is still fresh in my mind. Also, you're a bit more limited when you're taking pictures when it's darker, and since I almost never use flash, my photos look the best with as much natural light as possible.

TLS: You've lived in a really diverse set of places; have you found any of the places you've been to or lived in to be more inspiring than the others?

AW: Like most people, I don't find places I visit a lot more interesting than where I live, but I do believe I think every place I've lived in has been pretty inspiring in different ways. The Philippines is absolutely awesome because every type of environment is present: metropolitan cities, white-sand beaches, rugged mountains, old Spanish-inspired towns, you name it. There are also a lot of social issues occurring in the country, so that makes it really intriguing to go out and take photos of all the people there. 

With Germany, it's great being in such close proximity to a plethora of different cultures; France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, among other countries, are next door and within driving distance of my house. This makes it a lot easier to travel from one place to the next. Living in the U.S. is really inspiring, not necessarily the town I go to school in, but the school itself and the really talented people I'm with every day. There are so many artists at my school – dancers, musicians, writers, other photographers, and it makes me really happy to be around them all the time.

TLS: When you pick up your camera and look through the lens, what do you look for?

AW: I guess this process of finding a photo to take begins before I bring the camera to my face. I don't really plan my shots, I kind of just take them as I see them. I always want to find a way to play with perspective and depth of field, and I really like getting shots of people kind of behind the scenes, doing their everyday things. A lot of my pictures will feature the backs, hands and feet of people, and I think this shows unique perspectives of everyday life.

TLS: Your online portfolio consists of a pretty healthy balance of nature and urban settings. Do you prefer one setting over the other, or do you admire them equally but for different reasons?

AW: Taking photos in urban settings is great because there's always so much going on around you that if you lose one opportunity to take a photo, there will always be a million more. In places like cities and schools and whatever, you never stop being inspired. But then again, nature is just so cool. I love being surrounded by the sky, the mountains, the trees and everything. That's why I think landscape photography has never really gotten old - because it's always so refreshing to see a photo of a river or mountain range to remind you that there's still an entire world outside of your computer desk and bedrooms. Put me anywhere - in a city or in nature and I'll be happy shooting!

TLS: What draws you to another artist's work?

AW: With fine art, I'm really drawn to photos that have an ethereal quality to them. Sally Mann does fantastic black and white work that almost makes her subjects look like ghosts. Olivia Bee uses a magnificent palette of colors in her photos that make you just want to explore the world. Sid Black can subtly create delicate moments that everyone can relate to simply by photographing his life. Juergen Teller, basically the Wes Anderson of portraiture, has a lo-fi style that also has a dreamlike quality to it. But I absolutely love photo journalists and documentary photographers as well; Diane Arbus's photos inject life into the most ordinary person. Brandon Stanton, who runs "Humans of New York," has an innate ability to filter out the most unique from the hundreds of thousands of people he passes each day. If you look at the work of all the photographers I've just mentioned, you'll notice there's something in each of their collections that creates a distinct style that unify the photos. I don't think I've found that one thing in my photos yet, but I'm in high school and still have so much to learn. Oh man, there are just so many great photographers out there.

TLS: Do you have a favorite image of yours?

AW: It changes from time to time, but I guess right now it's this one (above). This was taken while I was skiing in the Austrian Alps. I like the contrast of the neon colored skiers and the white mountains. The finger (also coincidental) gives the picture some character.

TLS: How would you describe your average experience in the darkroom? Do you go through a particular range of emotions or thought process?

AW: For me, the darkroom process can be very tedious, both in waiting for the negative to develop in the chemicals and getting the perfect print. I always put on the same playlist for when I'm inside – a fifty song compilation of songs from soundtracks and scores of movies made in the eighties. Then for the next couple of hours, my brain switches into darkroom mode and it's all focus and concentration from there. I don't think there's a specific thought process I go through. I'm pretty impulsive when it comes to making decisions in the darkroom because as bad as it sounds, I get bored easily. Still, the darkroom is one of my favorite places to be, and finally getting the perfect print--not too dark or light, no chemical stains, just the right amount of contrast – is probably one of the best feelings ever. Watching the picture appear in the developer liquid is almost magical.

Check out Alex Westfall's portfolio here

Written by Molly Morris