June 3, 2015

Spotlight: Caroline Tompkins

Caroline Tompkins photographs it all – from her catcallers to family members and dogs.

After purchasing Caroline Tompkins’ The Girls Bathroom zine at the NYC Feminist Zinefest, I immediately wanted to see more of her work. Although I was originally drawn to her illustrations in The Girls Bathroom, the photographs I found on her website are just as satisfying. Caroline is now based in New York but she grew up in Ohio which is often shown in her work. Her photographs contrast vast wilderness withcommercialized areas. Throughout Caroline’s work I am drawn to her use of colour and the way she frames her images. Her technique is consistent and remains interesting throughout the wide variety of subjects – from her catcallers to family members and dogs. I talked to Caroline about Ohio, the internet, and her influences.

THE LE SIGH: I feel like most of your photos are in a suburban or natural environment but you live in New York City. Is there something that inspires you more about sprawl rather than urban spaces?

Caroline Tompkins: I grew up in Ohio so it’s more of a natural environment to me. I feel like New York, for me and for a lot of people including a lot of my friends, is a place to think and to be inspired and to live because of the environment here and because there’s a lot of creative people here, if that’s how you want to put it. But in terms of making work I don’t find it very inspiring. It’s not super photographic to me. Obviously it’s an incredibly photographed city, but it’s not very attractive to me in general. It just makes sense to make the work elsewhere and bring it back here to mull it over.

TLS: Your photos vary between shots of people and shots of landscapes. Do you prefer one or the other?

CT: No. I think that they’re equally important, that’s why I have them both. Photography is its own language and should be treated as such. By that I mean, if you're trying to tell a story or have the viewer get a sense of something, be it a town or an idea or a history, I think it's important to use every available resource to tell that story. Plus, what's the fun in sticking to one thing?

TLS: Which artists influence your style? (in terms of both photography and zines)

CT: That’s a hard question. I think there are photographic influences that are pretty clear in terms of 70’s color photographers like Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Jo Ann Callis, as well as Robert Adams and Harry Callahan. Contemporary artists like Alec Soth, Rineke Dijkstra, Elad Lassry, and Roe Ethridge. A lot of it comes from my friends, like Molly Matalon, Corey Olsen, Tim Schutsky, and Zak Krevitt – I feel like we’re all working together on this ongoing photographic conversation. I think we all come from a place of these 70s color photographers I mentioned above, kind of the main dudes. I get a lot of inspiration from Sheila Hicks, who’s a really amazing fiber artist, and Jenny Holzer, who’s obviously a really amazing installation and word-based artist. It’s hard to pin point but I’d say those are people that have made a larger impact than others.

TLS: Two of your zines (X-Files and Practice Kissing) are collaborations but The Girl’s Bathroom is a solo work. Do you think your process differs when you are working with others on a zine?

CT: Yeah, I have another zine that’s just me, too, it’s a personal writing zine. The next zine that I have coming out will be a collaboration zine, it feels like I go back and forth. Making a zine by myself takes a lot longer. It seems like they serve different purposes. The Girl’s Bathroom zine was sort of a collaboration in the sense that I was using images I found from an archive of pornographic images of women. Thinking of these images as a woman looking at other women and feeling encouraged by them, in terms of personal sexuality. Even if these images initial intention were made by a man for men, I thought it was interesting to redraw the images to reassess the authorship of the material. It felt like a collaboration between these women and me, even if that’s a stretch. I think collaborating is incredibly important. You can be more confident if there’s somebody else in it too. You know that there’s at least two people that like it.

TLS: At art school you majored in photography but you also create zines with illustrations. Do you feel like your work in each medium affects each other? Do you feel that your work in each medium touches on similar themes?

CT: I’ve always been multidisciplinary. I'm a gemini so maybe that's part of it. I did a lot of illustrations and personal writing while in school, and I’ve started to get into ceramics and weaving lately. I’m just too interested in other things, but I’ve settled on photography somehow. I think they definitely affect and have affected one another. I have a lot of ideas all the time, so it seems appropriate to categorize them as such. Like "okay this makes more sense as an essay than a photo project" or "this photograph is acting more like an illustration, so maybe it should be changed as such". Unfortunately, I can't escape myself, so I think all the work will inevitably touch on similar things. I mean, it should right? It's always a bit sketchy to me when people are making work that doesn't really relate to them.

TLS: Although you shoot your photos in film, do you feel that your work is impacted by the internet?

CT: For sure, I don’t think my pictures would look the way they do without the internet. For me, I’m really anti the whole digital vs film argument. I think everything’s valid. If you make pictures with your iPhone or scanner or whatever, it’s just as legitimate as an 8x10 piece of film. I’m definitely not under the film or die camp. The slow-moving process of film is important to my practice. I think it’s important for me to make the pictures without seeing them for weeks or even months. I really like the idea of making photographs or work in general that doesn't become relevant to you until long after it's made, as though there is another conscience in charge of the image-making. I don't know, maybe that's some hippy shit, but I believe it. Anyways, I think the internet is just a community that can be accessed from anywhere, and I believe your community impacts your work as an artist.

TLS: What’s next for you?

CT: I have a body of work that I made while I was living on a big rig truck last summer. I've been sitting on the work for some reason, but I think I'm ready to put it out into the world. I’m also about to put out a zine with two other artists, Molly Matalon and Lauren Cook. It's called Ladies Night In and it’ll be coming out in a couple weeks. I’m excited about it because we’re all visual artists, but it’s a purely writing zine. I have some photo projects in the works about Ohio and swimming. I was a swimmer for fifteen years and I’ve thinking a lot about swimmers and Ohio. Well, I always think about Ohio. I’m also doing some ceramics stuff and some weaving stuff, but that’s more of a personal thing, for right now at least.

Check out more of Caroline's work on her website.

Rachel Davies is a Canadian teenager and the founder of a zine called Pop Culture Puke. In her spare time, Rachel likes to tweet about Kanye West and Greta Gerwig here.