AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDRA HEDISON
By Amanda Quinn Olivar
West Coast Editor
Alexandra Hedison is a Los Angeles based artist, actor and director who grew up in Malibu. Her latest exhibition, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, runs through January 8, 2017 at the Cascais Cultural Centre in Portugal.
As a photographer, Hedison is committed to the decisiveness and precision of working with large and medium format cameras. Each of her photographs is a direct encounter between the individual and the immensity of the landscape, both architectural and natural. She often focuses on synthetic veils in ordinary environments, identifying a conceptual space between places. A geometry emerges and creates an architectural composition irrespective of context, linking her work to a medium-specific modernity that bolsters the strength of her observations on contemporary life.
Hedison's work is represented internationally in public and private collections, and she has been featured in solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the US and Europe, including Los Angeles, New York, and London.
Amanda Quinn Olivar: So let’s start with when, where and why did you become interested in photography?
Alexandra Hedison: It’s funny, I don’t know why I feel resistant towards the traditional way of doing an interview! I feel like I want to turn it all upside down. I think it’s just my thinking in general right now... that I’m moving towards an authentic way of expressing myself. Authentic, meaning: what is correct in this moment and how do I start from right now versus an idea of something correct that I place myself into.
So that’s why I wanted to come here... because when you emailed me your questions, I found myself wanting to be a good girl and type up the right answers and I thought... no! No, no, no. Instead I’ve come here to your house, which is filled with art and plants and cups and life and music and... it’s so right. I just want to start here. So, how did I get into photography? Well, I didn’t do it the “right” way.
AQO: There is no right way, right?
AH: There’s no right way, although there is a more common way, which is: you go to art school, study with other artists and photographers, and kind of develop a language which you then put out into the world. That is not what happened for me. I knew nothing about photography. Although I was always an artist. I was someone who drew, or painted, or used my hands to make something. I was someone who saw art and recognized it. And when I was in high school I was interested in art, but I didn’t actually understand that it was a real job: which sounds crazy because...
AQO: Your parents?...
AQO: ...but she was in the business?
AH: Well, she did a few things. This was during a time when, you know, your mother was someone who took care of the kids, for the most part. And then, if there was something else going on, it was sort of a hobby. That was what I grew up with. My mother did some producing... We were in Hollywood; my mother had an opinion and read a ton, so she sort of got into producing, but it was not her passion. It wasn’t what she loved.
My mother, she went back to school when we were kids, and she studied astronomy, physics, psychology... I mean this was someone who was incredibly well-versed, an amazing thinker, understood international politics, science.... She spoke many languages. She was unusual. So for her, being in Hollywood, I think she was bored out of her mind, and she was trying to find some kind of an outlet. I think that’s what producing was about: trying to work on material that was interesting. Didn’t last long, and then she got into landscape design, which she loved. She absolutely loved it.
AQO: It’s a beautiful thing when you can create an environment that makes you happy.
AH: It’s an amazing thing to engage in a practice that brings you joy, and to do it on a regular basis, and then to have your career build from that practice.
AQO: ...and photography is that.
AH: Yeah... and that’s what photography became for me.
AQO: Did you take photography at Marymount [High School]?
AH: No, never, not one class. I took advanced art, but that was painting, drawing. And because my dad was an actor, I grew up in it... I thought that’s what I was also supposed to do, and for a while it was a way that I felt like I was able to communicate something. It was important. I did performance art, live theater...
AQO: Were you ever intimidated to be in front of a large group?
AH: No, I really liked it. I liked it because I felt I was able to communicate something. There was a kind of performance that I was interested in, which was inspired by people like Tim Miller, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck... artists in the '80s/early '90s who were speaking out, here in Los Angeles. And that was what interested me, but I think probably in my mid-20s I thought, Uhhh, I need a job... How am I going to support myself? What am I doing? I remember someone saying to me, It's not Show-Art; it’s Show-Business... and I thought, I’ve got to do something here, so I started auditioning and getting headshots and putting myself in a box and saying to myself, You need to wear this and look like that and act like this and get that job... and I started getting jobs, imitating other people. You know: What does a straight woman look like? How do I present myself in the world where I’m pretty and I’m doing it right, or look like I could play the pretty-but-smart girlfriend of the main actor guy? This is what acting was for me.
So I started doing a lot of not-so-great one hour drama TV and while I was doing that, I was given a camera, as a gift. It was just a little point and shoot Contax with a Zeiss lens. The physical design of the camera itself was really compelling: the way the lens closed, the way it felt in my hand, the weight of it... and it produced these pictures that were vivid and... all of a sudden it piqued my interest as an artist.
AQO: You knew the difference between what this camera was able to do and what a normal...
AH: It was kind of a random combination: I had this great camera in my hand, and I also found a lab in Los Angeles that developed things in an different way from what I had seen before. Simple things that were new to me at the time... machine prints that had a border, they could be glossy or matte... All of a sudden, I was interested in the visual result of what was happening with the photographs I took. That was not something that had ever occurred to me. You know, in the '80s and early '90s not everyone was walking around with a camera. To take a picture with a camera was kind of an unusual thing, to actually take a picture and then develop the film.
AQO: With the camera it’s a moment in time that is forever captured. This moment that you saw and you were part of... I love that concept.
AH: The pictures I was taking could almost have been taken at any time, because they were of objects and things... They were of a doorway, or a window. For some reason I was drawn to inanimate objects. I wasn’t drawn to people. That was the first thing I was interested in... in a kind of composition that was about shape and form.
AH: It was architectural, and it was sculptural. It wasn’t about people. It wasn’t about capturing an age, or a time, or a mood... and it wasn’t conscious. It was just... I was photographing objects.
AQO: I can see that even up to today... This is your focus.
AH: It is my focus. And, going back, as I started understanding more about cameras--because I knew nothing- I thought... What is an F stop? What is shutter speed? So I started learning these things, and I was pretty much self-taught. I started taking pictures of people on the side and it was a great way to learn. Like, I’m looking at you right now under this beautiful painting with all these colors... I have to come back and take your picture!
AH: But generally speaking, photographing people is not the work for me, it's not the story I’m trying to tell. Those stories I find on construction sites for example, or in a forest of tangled woods and thick brush. For some reason that can encapsulate something for me.
AQO: The trees that you photographed are beautiful. Where was that?
AH: That was in the temperate rainforest in the Pacific Northwest.... in Washington State.
AQO: So do you plan most of your projects, or are they spontaneous?
AH: It starts with me taking pictures of something in particular, more than a few times. Initially, I don't notice I’m doing it until I’ve accumulated enough photographs with the same theme and realize I need to pay attention. That’s the first step. The second step is: I question why I’m drawn to it. I usually don’t have the answer, and I continue shooting anyway. The third step is: I resist what it is that I’m shooting. Generally, I find I've chosen something that’s not particularly convenient. When I was on a mission to photograph trees, I thought: Why on earth am I shooting trees? Rows of them...deep, dense landscapes...what for...? I’m not a landscape photographer. I actually don’t want to go somewhere in South America or Thailand and shoot a bamboo forest... and yet here I am, doing just that... What am I doing? I remember having an interview and someone asking: “What are you working on now?” And I was horrified to say, Well I’m shooting trees and I don’t know why, but I’m doing it.
The final step is: giving in to it. Going, You know what... I’m shooting trees and there's this area in Washington State and the landscape looks unlike anywhere else, and I’m going to go there and I’m going to shoot it. I still don’t know why, but now I’ve committed to it. And while I’m there, fully immersed in it, I kind of figure out what it is. For me, that forest work was about being lost. It was about the in-between states, these states of suspension, and it’s the same theme that I’ve addressed over and over again in my work in different ways. It’s not here or there; it’s something in between. It’s about right now. And right now I’m just talking, talking...
AQO: That’s a good thing.
AQO: What are you working on right now?
AH: I’m working on a new series of photographs and I’m also doing other things... I’m really interested in the idea of film. What’s happening? What am I doing? Film in what way...? I don’t know. I’m going to figure it out. I’m not going to try to make something to fit into a box. I don’t know. Maybe there are words; maybe there aren’t words... Maybe it’s just visual; maybe it isn’t... I don’t know. I’ve just been thinking about it. I actually made a film for the show I had in Portugal [at the Cascais Cultural Centre]. The show is called Everybody Knows this is Nowhere: much of the work is from an exhibit I had here [Diane Rosenstein Gallery, Los Angeles] in 2012. The show in Portugal is some new work and it’s some of the older work reconsidered and presented in a different way. The film was completely new. It was shot underneath the beach houses [in Malibu], looking out to the water. No one’s seen it. It’s only... well, if you’re in Portugal at this exhibition you’ve seen it, but other than that I haven’t shown it in the States. The first film in the installation I shot in real time while the other is the same footage, but in reverse. They’re both playing the same scene, side by side. It’s this whole idea of Nowhere, the memory of it, the projection of it... the backwards, the forwards... the something in between.
AQO: With that in mind... location, repetition, memory are important elements in your work. What draws you to these themes?
AH: Well, for the Nowhere work, it was specific. And that’s an example of me consciously deciding to shoot something. I didn’t just find myself in Malibu taking pictures. I was actively looking at the ways in which I express myself as an artist. How do I use photographs to tell a story? What is my point of view, and where did this come from? What are my first memories?
For me, my first memories are Malibu in the '70s, where I grew up. So I felt like I had to go back to that place and kind of track that story. It’s an example of a series of work where I specifically had something in mind. What became of that work was completely different from what I had set out to do. My initial plan was to go and take some pictures in winter, in Malibu, 2008.
And I did that, and then I went back, and I went back again, and I went back... Then winter was over, and I felt like I still needed to shoot. So I went back in the summer and took pictures, and I returned the next season after that... and I continued shooting and trying different cameras because I wasn’t sure how to tell the story... I had to ask myself, Am I using medium format film? Am I using digital? Am I using the old 35 millimeter Nikon from the 1960s that my Dad had, that he used in Malibu when we lived there? What is the medium? How am I constructing this narrative?
...and I used all of it. I shot over four years in different seasons, from the same locations on the beach. And then I took those images, sifted through them, and made composites. I would take anywhere from ten to fifty images and layer them together digitally. And so what you can see in these photographs are the shifting of the tides, the sand, the level that the houses are on... It changes from year to year. The beach looks different all the time. So the color work, especially: you can see the shifting of the landscape in the photograph because there are many, many photographs in one image.
AQO: How did you do that kind of layering?
AH: This was the first time actually, with my work, that so much of it was done in front of a computer. I mean obviously, I shot over four years; a lot of time was spent shooting, but there was an awful lot of time, editing. Sitting in front of a computer and working with my assistant who is technically inclined [laughing] and able. And he would help me: we would sit in Photoshop and we would make these images... and I’d say, Well, that’s too much... That’s too little. So I was literally telling the story... I remember this... I don’t remember that. Let’s add this... Let’s take away that. Let’s bring this in more... Let’s bring that in less. Let’s take that and do this to it.... You know, so you’re adjusting the narrative, every time you tell it. So there’s a piece of something recalled from one year, there’s a piece of something from another... It’s all of it together.
AQO: How many images in one presentation image...?
AH: There could be up to thirty, forty, fifty sometimes, in one image.
AQO: I think I need to look at that...
AH: When you look at the color work, you’ll see. Why is it looking like... the level of the sand is here, and then it’s there? Why is it looking like there’s a house there, but then there’s the ghost of the house next to it...? When you see it, it’s shifting in front of you. And there’s an image of a curtain also that you can see... That curtain, when you see the image in person: it kind of glows. It feels like it’s moving because it’s many, many images over time. That curtain is from the room where I would stay when I was shooting in Malibu during different years, different times.
AH: This image here, this one you’d be able to see...
AQO: Ah, that's haunting...
AH: This kind of a haunting... the outline of houses.
AQO: This is like a painting.
AH: It really looks like a painting.
AH: The photograph with the digger in it... when I first went to that site it wasn’t there, obviously, and another time I went it was. So that was really interesting to me: this idea of digging into the ground. I felt very lucky to have it, because it’s unusual that you see a digger right on the sand.
The diptych is a close-up of the pylons, the wood structures that hold up the beach houses, and they are covered with tar. Traditionally, they use tar to keep the water out, but they’d use lots of different things. Sometimes it’s metal... sometimes it’s tar. Sometimes it’s plastic and rubber, and things are just nailed on.
AQO: Are these layered?
AH: Well, these aren’t layered images... For me, they’re not layered because the layers are in them. The tar and the sand that’s gone on them, that took years and years and years to create. So I didn’t need to... The story was already there.
AQO: These are so beautiful.
AH: Thank you. Thank you. Those are the stairs underneath the houses, which often with the tides can just be washed away. So, different levels, different motions... [both looking on computer and AH points out] and for me, if you back that up a little bit, it looks like a sheet of music. So, you have the movements, the water.
AQO: How did your exhibit in Portugal at the Cascais Cultural Centre come about?
AH: It was so weird how it happened. The head of this foundation was in touch with a friend of his in New York, and this was at the time I had an exhibition in New York, part of Passport for the Arts, the New Yorker festival, I think in 2008. She told him about my work, and he looked me up and saw the work, and invited me to come, to possibly show there. So I went there and saw the space, which is enormous, and said yes. They must have booked the show in 2013 or something like that: years in advance.
AQO: What currently inspires you and your work--both within the art world and outside of it? Films, artists, writers, art movements, music, theater...
AH: There’s so much to be inspired by. I went to a wedding in Sweden and I sat next to a women named Neri Oxman who’s brilliant... she works at MIT. The subject of her research work is called Mediated Matter. In terms of art, architecture, biology and engineering it’s just fascinating. So that put me on a whole other trip that led to one thing, and then to another, in terms of what it is I’m thinking about. I just follow the thread: what idea brings me to the next step and to the next...
Something I’m thinking about now in terms of inspiration is: reflection versus consumption. Having an interesting conversation with someone, seeing a great film, going to an exhibit, I’m consuming, consuming... I’m taking it all in. But to be able to stop and reflect on what it is I’ve experienced, that practice for me is what yields interesting work. If I take a moment to reflect and digest then the inspiration becomes cumulative. Otherwise it’s just like being on the freeway and passing things. I want to take in and process the work I’m seeing on a deeper level, rather than just being stimulated all the time. It’s important to stop and take it in.
AQO: There’s so much to take in, so many things that are inspiring in life. We really need to take a step back, and choose what we want to digest.
AH: The things we’re talking about that are inspiring... sometimes there are a number of things that work together and create a kind of synchronicity. That confluence creates a dialogue where things influence each other. I just finished a book by Mary Karr called The Liars’ Club... which I’ve been wanting to read for years. I love the way she writes... It’s just so authentic. It’s poetic, and yet it’s grounded. It’s beautiful and ugly and it’s fantastic. There are so many things, contrasting elements, that come together and create the most beautiful picture. She’s inspiring.
And then the election’s going on and people are expressing themselves in a way that feels remarkable. The results of the election and people's fierce opposition and big feelings around it has created a kind of dialogue that’s revolutionary. Lately I’ve been inspired by the work that Jill Soloway is doing and how she’s expressing herself... it’s just so brave and true. So there are all these things that connect: you see an amazing art exhibition, read a great book, watch some meaningful storytelling, have a meal with a researcher, and you go to someone’s house where there’s art everywhere and it’s just like Ohhhhhh, I am tilling the soil! Whatever is going to be planted here in this soil is going to be good.
So the next question to ask is what I’m going to be putting into that soil? Do I click on Kim Kardashian? Or do I click on something that makes me want to be part of the world and participate in it? What is it that’s sustaining me? I think that what we’re seeing right now is the result of a reality TV-obsessed culture--and that someone who just got a lot of airtime was able to rise to the highest office in our country.
AQO: When you talk about what’s sustaining you, or what’s going to take you to the next place... maybe you don’t know until it’s done and you’re way past it. And then you look back...
AH: Yes, I don't know! I don’t know. It would be interesting to go back and chart it all.
AQO: We’re going to narrow this down now... Were your parents supportive of you going into the arts?
AH: Well it’s interesting, my parents wanted me to go to art school. But there was something about my own judgment about it, my own fear that it wasn’t enough. I’m not sure where that came from, that I had to do something different... that me being an artist was one of the many descriptions about me, but it wasn’t actually at the core of who I was. That notion, as I got older, completely changed. Being an artist is the most essential thing about me.
AQO: It is you.
AH: It is me. It is the first description I would use for myself. It’s the way I think, the way I express myself, the point at which everything begins. However, if someone actually says to me What do you do?... I feel sorry for them because they’re going to get a real and full answer from me. I probably wouldn’t just say I’m an artist. It seems too reductive. I do a lot of things. How about asking: What do you think about this?
AQO: I think it’s programmed....
AH: It is a programmed thing, but it’s really the wrong question. What do you do? is the wrong question. It might be better to ask: What do you believe in? What do you struggle with? What do you celebrate? What do you enjoy? Who are you? I know that when you’re sitting with someone and it's an easy thing to ask --What do you do?--but it’s not really a question I ask people. I might say, What did you do today?
AQO: Let’s go back to what you just said... What do you celebrate?
AH: What do I celebrate?
AQO: Just one word...
AH: I celebrate honesty. I breathe a sigh of relief when someone’s insides match their outsides. When someone’s emotions match the words they use, when someone can look at me and say, Wow, I don’t know... I don’t know! Or, I feel really dumb right now, or I’m not sure how to do this, or I need help. These kind of questions are what I celebrate. Because by asking them I’ve now been given permission to breathe. So I don’t have to try and scramble or feel like an outsider. We all want to connect.
AQO: Wow, I feel the same way... and for some reason it seems so tough for people to do that, but it’s such a relief when they do. It’s wonderful when there is no wall.
AH: It actually is harder to be inauthentic. It is so much work to maintain someone else’s idea of who you think they want you to be. They being “the big they”, they being one's family, partner, friends, whatever... strangers. We project these stories onto strangers. I think they would like me to do this so I’m going to... It is so much more work to construct an image; it is actually easier to just start from what’s real, in the moment. I think it always works.
AQO: I love that that’s who you are. When’s your next show? Will it be in LA?
AH: I am going to have a show here. I’m figuring that out right now, and meeting with a gallery tonight, and I’m getting closer to making a decision about it.
AQO: What is your favorite art accident?
AH: That’s a really good question. This is a good answer...
My favorite art accident happened with the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere series. I told you I was shooting over the course of four years; I started in 2008. So in 2008, the first images I took were the stair images, that I said looked like a sheet of music. I photographed a ton of these images... many, many, many images under these stairs at different times, in 2008-2009.
In 2009-2010, I was living in London and these images were stored on my computer. I also had them on an iPad... My house was broken into in London, and my computer was stolen with all of the images I had shot. They were digital images, so there wasn’t a backup in terms of a negative. But I also had the images on my iPad, so I was able to download them back onto a computer.
2012: I go to print the show. Now, I’ve taken so many other pictures at this point, but I remembered those original stair images which were really important to me. When I went to print them, the file size for each was something like 300kb. I mean, they were tiny. There was nothing there. Because I was technically challenged, I didn’t realize when images are backed up on an iPad, the file size automatically becomes smaller. You can’t put a full forty megabyte file on an iPad. The iPad just translates it to a 300kb file. So all of those photographs in their original form were gone.
The whole show is about memory... right? Digital work is recorded on a memory card. The file size of these images, the memory, had literally been compromised over time. What remained were tiny snapshots of the original files. It occurred to me that the loss of this “memory” was similar to the way in which experiences in my life over time had faded. I’ve lost so many of the pictures that were once “large files” in my mind. The ones I have left are reminders of the full story, but they are only a part of the entire picture. So the way I presented the work was from those tiny files. The stair images are only printed about 8x10 inches. Not even, they’re smaller. I lined a number of these small images side by side, creating a grid. The images lined up in this way became like a sheet of music. A song that I sang in memory of a larger theme. So that was the accident.
AQO: These are so great...
AH: Yes, those are all from underneath the beach house. They’re black and whites, looking out onto the ocean. When you back up and see them hung together the experience is very architectural.
AQO: Very... These black and white compositions are geometric and abstract. Are there any references to Abstract Expressionism in this body of work?
AH: Yes: those, for me, felt a little bit like Richard Serra etchings. They were kind of like grids, these black swathes of contrast-y black and white strips.
AQO: Did you see that, as you took the photographs?
AH: I have to tell you something. Those photos... those are the only ones in the show that I took once, and they were exactly the way I wanted them to be. Exactly. There’s a picture of me drawing it out in the sand... this idea of these repeated geometric images... drawing it out in the sand... designing the architecture of memory as I see it... It felt like the right way to tell this story of how we remember some things and how we edit out others. I remember that and I don’t remember this. The obstacles, too, influence the story.
AQO: I can’t remember if I asked you this… How old were you when you picked up your first camera, and when did you realize you were good at it?
AH: Well, my first camera was the Contax. I mean, I had picked up a camera before that, but I didn’t have a relationship to it. My first conscious connection to the process of shooting was when I was 23. Then in 2001, when my work was at Rose Gallery, I looked at it and thought: Oh...OK. I guess I can do this. My work was in a group show with photographers who I really admired... that was amazing. It was really amazing.
The age I realized I was good at it was probably ten years later. And I wouldn’t even put it in those terms: I just realized that it meant something to other people. I still don’t know if I’m good at it. This is just what I’m doing, and other people seem to respond. And there are times that I look at my work and I’m more certain of it’s value than other times... Those black and whites I really loved. Most people who saw the show were like, Ah, I don’t know about the black and whites; for me it doesn’t matter. For me they’re everything.