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DISCLAIMER: The following images contain nudity and may not be safe for work or suitable for some people.
Photographer and UCCS Instructor Carol Dass‘s exhibit Mother at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is yet another great example of the ways that our local arts organizations are digging into the rich soil of the local arts community to find world class exhibition material right in our backyard. We’ve long been fans of Dass’s work and recently chatted with her on Facebook about the exhibition, her collecting proclivities and her photographic obsessions.
The Big Something: Your new show at the Fine Arts Center is beautiful, but it’s a departure for you in some ways. It’s all color and it’s digital. Why’d you choose to leave the darkroom?
Carol Dass: I haven’t “left” the darkroom! What a horrid thought. Yes, it is color work shot with various formats: Digital, Hasselblad, and Rolleiflex. The last two being film cameras. Thank you for the lovely compliment by the way! After seeing a few of the images in color, for instance the “Peaches” image, I could not imagine it in B+W!
TBS: Ah, I see! I thought it was all digital. Apologies.
CD: No problem, it’s hard to discern these days! I’m not set up to process color so I send it out for processing.
TBS: Your work often addresses the body, and you’ve done some incredibly (sometimes painfully!) intimate shots of your father’s struggle with diabetes and his death, and of your own body (the image of your uterus after your hysterectomy comes to mind). But your photographic relationship with your mother has an almost campy quality to it. I imagine her in a British sitcom. She’s in many ways your lightest subject.
CD: Funny you should bring up British sitcoms as she loves those! I see my mother (off camera) as a really strong, amazing, and intelligent woman. She has been so wonderful in putting up with my camera over the last few years. Sometimes I push things a little too far. If the tables were turned I would feel the same irritation! There are definitely a few undertones in some of the work but those are for me alone to understand. A few people that know her might view those in the work.
TBS: Beyond the fact of your biographical mother, a lot of your work stares head on into things I think we’re all afraid of as a culture, including age and women’s bodies. Where do you think you came by this fearlessness?
CD: Noel, I have been wondering that same thing since I started the journey into self-portraiture! I have had a love/hate, mostly hate relationship with my body image my entire life. Maybe we need to bring a therapist into the conversation…? I guess one of the reasons was fairly straightforward in that when I needed a model I was there for myself. The other being I thought other women/men might relate to the image on some level? I have really put myself out there and have gotten a lot of positive and negative response for doing so. Now that I’m in the midst of menopause/aging (well aging is taking place every second!) I feel new work on the horizon.
TBS: I think it’s much easier to relate to images of your body and many of your models’ bodies as human because they don’t look like the magazines. Do you ever think of your body and those of your models AS critique of the ubiquitous model body we’re bombarded with every day? In other words, has the camera been a positive mirror for you also?
CD: Totally! That was actually a goal, long before, say, the “Dove” ad campaigns. I feel so strongly that our culture via advertising inflicts so much self-hatred and self-doubt in young women/men. I was always striving to be democratic in my representations. No, the camera has not always been a positive mirror. I look back at a lot of work from a few years ago and wish I had approached it differently, whether that be through my gaze or technically. But, that is the evolution/exploration that takes place in one’s work, right?
TBS: I always admire artists who take risks, so yeah. I think it’s worth it! Let’s talk more shop. You’ve been a huge fan of toy cameras for many years and have taught toy camera classes. How do you feel about the Instagram digital era that’s upon us as it performs this kind of toy camera simulacra in a way that feels, maybe, all too easy?
CD: I now have a smarty pants phone with Instagram! For myself, it will never totally replace the magic of in camera image making. Think about the air waves… all those billions of images floating around up there and landing on Facebook or wherever they go. Then there is that moment when your are holding that funky piece of colored plastic with a roll of film in your hands making that decision, that exciting, beautiful moment. Then the anticipation (and sometimes disappointment) that takes place in processing. Then there is the editing, the printing. Hell, people can buy a Holga lens to put on their iPhone or their $2,000.00 dollar digital SLR. How ironic is that? But, on the other hand…the fact that folks are having fun making/taking pictures is what it all boils down to right? Being passionate and inspired?
TBS: As a photographer, you have an amazing collection of photography that ranges from Imogen Cunningham to Andrea Modica to collections of postcard photos of tatooed women and other “freaks”. How do your collecting impulses (and you collect rocks, too!) play into, or relate to your photography?
CD: Andrea [Modica] used to come over on Sundays with something interesting in a bag from the slaughter house where she had been shooting and her 8×10 or 11×14 camera and I would hop up on the dining room table and pose with some strange animal part. She was generous in giving me a print in exchange. I started collecting images in college and couldn’t afford big names of course so I was happy with a postcard from a show or museum. Then I started collecting old photo postcards, these beautiful little gems. Real silver prints printed to be shared via the mail. Circus images (I have a lot of women with big snakes), animals, grandma with the dog or a birthday cake. I would get on obsessive jags. When my father had his legs amputated I started looking for images of amputees. I have a few beautiful ones from the turn of the last century. I guess I have such a strong passion for all things photographic. I encourage my students to trade work with each other and start their original art collection. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason…I don’t feel like my collecting impulses really play into my own work with the exception of possibly taking away from it? I spend a lot of time looking at images in books (I love photography books, yet another obsession), on the internet, in galleries and museums. Time I could be thinking about and making my own work!
TBS: When I think about your work I think about it the context of the great regional photography legacy of John Suhay and Myron Wood and Robert Adams and Andrea Modica when she was here. How do you think about our region as a locus for photography? And do you hope to push outward and beyond?
CD: I could never put myself in that category. All four of those photographers have something in common, an unbridled passion and what I would consider to be an unnameable driving force that comes from somewhere deep within to make work, to photograph. I’m not saying I don’t feel that way about my own work, but these folks (and I don’t know Robert Adams personally, and met Suhay once or twice) live and breathe it. I think about them a lot and wish I had more of their drive and energy. On the other hand I think sometimes other things suffer or fall to the wayside if it becomes too all-consuming. I think the Pikes Peak region is just where these photographers ended up in their careers…aren’t we lucky! I had been in San Francisco and seen Andrea’s work at the SFOMA, it moved me to tears. I came home and there was her name in the Independent saying she lived in Manitou Springs. I think folks with like interests find each other. Outward and beyond? I’m going with the flow, which might be a trickle or a crashing wave!
TBS: So what do you think the new direction of your work will be?
CD: Stay tuned…I have ideas!… and how do I want to realize them?
TBS: Oh come on! Give us a hint.
CD: I’m excited about making images using wet plate collodion. I’m teaching Alternative Process this semester, so I have to say when I start talking about process to the students I start getting ideas. Look for Cyan-o-Panties hanging on a clothesline soon. I have many things/ideas circulating up there in the gray matter…. There are not enough minutes in the day!