Joyce Tenneson

Joyce Tenneson’s mythic images – often of the human figure, sometimes of sculpture or architecture – are striking and distinctive. Possessing an ethereal, mysterious air, they are timeless and even haunting. Working in photography for several decades, she has achieved worldwide recognition in both the fine art and commercial worlds. her fine art prints have been displayed at more than 100 exhibitions around the globe, and are included in many museum collections, and her distinctive style has garnered commissions for portrait, beauty and fashion work in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Both her fine art and commercial images have been widely published, appearing in Time, Life, Esquire, L.A. Style, The New York Times Magazine, and Premiere to name a few.

The photographer’s 1993 book, Transformations (Bullfinch Press, currently out of print) describes her work as follows: “Using a graceful, formal structure and sculpturesque subjects against painted backdrops, Tenneson creates enigmatic and sensuous images with a mythic quality. Whether a classically draped nude or a mysterious portrait of a young child and an aged man, her photographs speak to the fragility of life, it’s poignant beauty – and its pain. The images are deeply affecting, evoking forgotten memories.” Her fifth and most recent publication, Illuminations, published by Bullfinch in 1997, is widely available.

After our interview, Tenneson had arranged for a friend and a former student to show me her work for possible publication. Even if I hadn’t thought the work was wonderful – which it was – I was very impressed by this accomplished artist’s generosity and thoughtfulness toward a younger photographer. Furthermore, she then invited a group of young assistants and interns to a lecture that evening given by another photographer.

Recently, I stepped into Tenneson’s Manhattan studio and was graciously ushered into her working world. White walls and high ceilings were softened by a sparse decor including architectural elements sculpture, and hydrangeas. She proceeded to show me several trays of work much as she would show them in a lecture or workshop. Haunting Soprano voices wafted in the background from a CD.

Photo Insider (PhotoInsider): One if the hallmarks of both your fine art and commercial work is you very distinctive style. How did that develop?

Joyce Tenneson (Tenneson): I very strongly believe that if you go back to your roots, if you mine that inner territory, you can bring out something that is indelibly you and authentic – like your thumbprint. Its going to have your style because there is no one like you. (Tenneson shows family photos from her childhood. These include the photographer and her two sisters dressed as angels for a Christmas pageant, wearing shiny crowns and a bride in a white flowing dress floating among a dozen nuns in black habits.)

PhotoInsider: It’s not a far path from these images to your contemporary work with wings, caps, and a feeling of spirituality and suspension in time and space.

Tenneson: As a child, I lived on the grounds of a convent where my parents worked. We were enlisted to be in holiday pageants and processions. It was a mysterious environment – something out of Fellini – filled with symbolism, ritual, beauty, and also a disturbing kind of surreal imagery.

PhotoInsider: The great majority of your photographs are of women.

Tenneson: The fact that I was surrounded by a female culture has also marked me. Not only the convent, but my mother had nine sisters who lived nearby. I had two sisters and my mother was an identical twin and her sister lived with us. The sense of mystery, the unconscious, death, beauty, and pain were all inextricably interwoven for me.

PhotoInsider: What was the next major influence in your life?

Tenneson: Going to France as an exchange student at 16 introduced me to yet another element of feminine beauty and the French culture’s vision of women and their importance in the world – their attention to the spirituality of women. I was struck by the sculpture of nudes on churches and bridges.

PhotoInsider: Foreshadowing your linking of the sensual and the spiritual?

Tenneson: The next turning point was when I was in college. I was enlisted by Polaroid to be a model for them to test films. They gave me an opportunity to work with their photographers and to notice that there were no female photographers except for Maria Cosindas. I very much didn’t like the pictures that were being taken of me, so Polaroid gave me a camera and all the free film I could use and I embarked on my own photo journey.

Soon I married and had a beautiful son. I then moved to Washington D.C., to put my then husband through medical school, which is what women did back then. I gave a full scholarship to a Harvard Ph.D. program in literature.

Because I got married so young, I didn’t have a clue as to who I was. My first body of work that I showed and published were self-portraits. The result was my first book – Insights, published when I was 27, by David Godine.

PhotoInsider: If you had been studying literature, how did you come to a career in photography?

Tenneson: I got a full-time teaching job in Washington where I headed the photo club. I got Polaroid to give us materials. Then, I got my masters degree in fine arts with an emphasis on photography. After the degree I started teaching immediately at the college level where I stayed for 15 years.

PhotoInsider: What personal work were you doing during this period?

Tenneson: I felt that the self-portraits in the Insights book were an exterior view. I wanted to show emotional equivalents, to distill emotions and feelings, to somehow bring that sense of who I was on a deeper level than just the surface into my photographs.

I used my friends and their children as models, shooting in natural light, outdoors on a deck. I’m very glad that I looked through that window because it’s one that is no longer available to me.

PhotoInsider: Please comment on that union of spirituality and sensuality in your work.

Tenneson: These two elements are tied together for me physically, and I guess it’s part of what gives my style that “signature” people talk about. There’s also a fragility and an attention to the life cycle and the way skin metamorphoses over time and is beautiful from old age to very young. Skin is mezmerizingly fascinating for me – that’s why I am drawn to the nude. It’s completely new all the time. I think that people do show their soul when they are stripped down. There’s some psychological thing that happens, and I’m interested in that depth.

PhotoInsider: Why did you leave Washington and move to New York City?

Tenneson: My inner desire to dance to my own drummer. It’s always been important to me to feel that I’m growing and seeing new things, so I decided to move and re-create my life. I gave up everything – a tenured teaching job, a doctor husband, a five-story house, my retirement, my security. I never wanted to be like the other mothers – the cocktail parties and the husbands status weren’t important to me. I wanted my own internal sense of who I was and who I could be. I yearned to jump into the abyss of my own destiny. It was scary, but less scary than the
status quo.

PhotoInsider: When you abandoned all this, what were you planning to do in New York?

Tenneson: I planned to move here and get assignment work and continue to do my personal work.

PhotoInsider: had you been doing assignments in Washington in addition to teaching?

Tenneson: Oh, no. I was an artist and educator.

PhotoInsider: So what happened when you arrived in the mid-1980’s?

Tenneson: I got rejected for a long time. I started doing commissioned portraits, but I soon found that this was not to be my thing because when someone pays you a lot of money, they want to look good. They don’t want my insights into the intricacies of the human condition. So now I’d rather work for magazines doing portraits – it’s a lot more challenging. I love photographing people when I am free to use my higher powers.

PhotoInsider: How did you get the first portrait jobs?Tenneson: Word of mouth – from people in my building, friends and so on.

PhotoInsider: How did you make the transition to magazine assignments?

Tenneson: My first break came when I was in Italy teaching. I had the track record of teaching for 15 years, and I had books published, so I met the head of Conde Nast Italy. He gave me a 12-page assignment. I was like a little racehorse at the gate, – ready to run. Those Catholic girls are well trained, disciplined. Once I’m given a break, I move with it. Today, I do a combination – some assignments to pay my bills, but I spend most of my time on my own work, my own projects and books.

PhotoInsider: How do you start a series? Do you have a theme in mind?

Tenneson: This is pivotal For every series, I try to find what I haven’t completely explored. My recent work examines the idea of the spiritual warrior. It’s a continuation of my autobiographical quest. My whole life has been devoted to battling myself and my own ability to externalize who I am at a deep level. In the new work I have become more direct, perhaps reflecting the fact that for the first time in my life, I feel free.

PhotoInsider: Tell me about your female models.

Tenneson: I am interested in the mysteries and the complexity of the
of the female psyche, not as a feminist, but as an autobiographical journey. I am interested in all the things I missed out on, that I wasn’t aware of. For example, when I was pregnant with my son, I was in my twenties, and I wasn’t really in a position to reflect on it. Yet, birth is an incredible mystery – new life and bringing it into the world. So now I am able to rediscover through the people I photograph and get close to.

PhotoInsider: This latest series includes a variety of ethnic groups.

Tenneson: I’m fascinated by people from many different countries and how we all share similar life experiences.

PhotoInsider: How do you find your models?

Tenneson: I find people in the subway, the art store, in the elevator. Often, after I give a lecture, people press their names in my palm, or call me.

PhotoInsider: How do you approach potential models in the street?

Tenneson: I give them a card with a photograph and say that I am doing a series and that I’m not a pervert!

All the people I photograph either are friends or become friends. If I’m interested enough to photograph them for my personal work, then there’s something that connects us.

My current photographs have a more open feeling. I’m able to show more facets of my own personality through these people. I’m more expressed than I’ve ever been – and this shows in the work.

For example, one woman from my last series had spent time in India and learned how to balance a sword on her head and belly dance. I though it was so liberating watching her. I’m taking lessons now.

PhotoInsider: You work primarily in the studio.

Tenneson: Yes. I do all my own styling and paint all my own backdrops and props. All the art school training – you can recycle anything, you can make anything.

PhotoInsider: We haven’t talked about your studio or your shooting techniques.

Tenneson: I don’t’ like to talk about my techniques. It’s like a magician revealing her secrets. I work in all formats, but no matter which format I use, the work always ends up looking like me.

PhotoInsider: Are you working digitally?

Tenneson: I only use digital for book design, studio business and promotion, invoicing, and storage of my inventory. I have smart assistants who help with these tasks.

PhotoInsider: So all the effects you are getting are done in camera?

Tenneson: Yes. I don’t shoot anything until it is perfect. I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

PhotoInsider: What teaching are you doing now?

Tenneson: I still teach a few workshops a year in Santa Fe, Maine, and Europe. But my first concern, the primary use of my time, has always been my personal work. Doing five books has been a major commitment.

PhotoInsider: One of the elements that recurs in your work is wings.

Tenneson: I’ve been fascinated with wings all my life. I’ve had an obsession with transcendence, the need to push forward and to metaphorically “fly.”

PhotoInsider: The mirror is another prop that you use to add a further dimension to your images.

Tenneson: I think it was Michelangelo who said the mirror is our greatest teacher. For me, it involves looking at ourselves psychically -who we are, who we’ve been, our friends and how they mirror us.

Often, the face is distorted in the mirror, or it changes since you get it at a different angle, so it’s often more than a reflection. Sometimes it’s a surprise, something emerges – some darkness, some secret emerges without you knowing it or giving permission.

PhotoInsider: Why do your subjects wear caps or head coverings, or even have their heads cropped off?

Tenneson: I try to neutralize my figures. I want them to be mythic and timeless. I want them to have an identity that is not identifiable. I want them to be beyond time, so I’ve used many ways to banish the hair – either the skullcaps or the cowls I have made, or just pulling the hair back. I don’t like hair. I like the face and wheats going on there. The hair is a distraction.

PhotoInsider: When you are presenting workshops, what are your goals?

Tenneson: They’re about personal growth but photography unites us in some way. Afterwards, participants write to me and tell me that they were attracted to my workshops because they were in a transition. There’s been some kind of insight that they’ve gained or a new type of self-confidence. I get letters afterwards saying that it was a transformational experience.

If I’m giving a simple portrait workshop, that’s more basic in terms of giving assignments and showing lots of slides of work. Because of my academic background, I always come
very well prepared. I have lectures on the history of portraiture so we can look at slides and talk about what makes people different stylistically and, over time, trace trends that are intellectually stimulating. That’s fun to do; I love feeling that I’m opening new world for people that they don’t have time to investigate themselves.

I like to tease them that I am raising their IQ in photography. A lot of people are seemingly attracted to photography because it is seemingly easy. Yet, you don’t study literature without studying the great books. So, to me, you can’t be interested in portraiture or anything else without knowing the historical precedents. I bring all that to the workshop as well as my interest in human development and in people. We also laugh a lot.

PhotoInsider: Your photographs of people cover a wide range of ages and physical types, as well.

Tenneson: I am a people person, but I’m not a superficial cocktail conversation person – I’m an intimate friend person. I’m interested in what makes people tick. The people I work with, the people I photograph, become a kind of family to me.

PhotoInsider: Tell me more about your latest work – The Spiritual Warriors.

Tenneson: It’s sort of a continuation of my ongoing autobiographical series which shows my interest in looking into the inner life of my subjects in a new way, to try to find their essence and see what is alike about us all. It’s been one of the most exciting times in my career, because the work seemed so effortless. The images just poured out of me.

PhotoInsider: Once you’ve found a model and set up a time, how does a session proceed? How do you prepare for it?

Tenneson: Because my work often has a very still, meditative quality to it, it looks like the studio must have been filled with hushed tones in a very serious atmosphere. Well, it’s the opposite. I have a lot of fun when I photograph. That’s the high point of my life. I spend a lot of time getting ready to photograph and cleaning up afterwards. So when I actually get the chance to photograph, I’m flying high.

PhotoInsider: When you know a person is coming, how do you plan which background and props you’ll use for them?

Tenneson: I make a series of props, then I organize a series of people I want to work with. I usually have several people here at the same time. I like the synergy of what happens. Maybe I’ll photograph them together. Also, they don’t to be so nervous. I’ll shoot one person and then give them a break while I work with another person.

PhotoInsider: And that might last how long?

Tenneson: All day. With all of this work, you don’t think I’m going to set up for an hour do you?

PhotoInsider: How many days a month do you do this?

Tenneson: Just a couple days. It takes me a long time to get things ready and to clear things down afterwards. People always want to know, “How do you get your subjects to look that way?” The only thing I can say is, “hypnosis”-jokingly. I don’t ask then to do anything, I’m just interacting. They somehow read me or become one with me, and so it’s effortless. I never have to direct, “Do this or do that.” We’re just being together. And if I am lucky something new and magical emerges. I’m always surprised by the mystery of how my best images appear. And that excitement and shock of discovery makes my life at these moments a gift.’

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