Chapter 20. Dialogues with Great Photographers: Joyce Tenneson
Internationally lauded as one of the leading photographers of her generation, Joyce Tenneson’s work has been published in books and major magazines, and exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. Her portraits have appeared on covers for magazines such as: Time, Life, Newsweek, Premiere, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. Vicki Goldberg, critic and author, writes of Tenneson: “Tenneson possesses a unique vision which makes her photographs immediately recognizable. She creates enigmatic and sensuous images that are timeless and haunting....The images are deeply affecting, often evoking forgotten memories.” Tenneson is the author of sixteen books including the best seller, Wise Women, which was featured in a six-part Today Show series. She is the recipient of many awards, including Fine Art Photographer of the Year in 2005 (Lucie Awards), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Photographers of America in 2012. In a poll conducted by American Photo Magazine, readers voted Tenneson among the ten most influential women in the history of photography.
Joyce Tenneson, Dasha, 1998, Archival Pigment Photograph
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT HOLDEN LUNTZ GALLERY, ON June 4, 2015. READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE.
Harris: You are primarily a portrait photographer and have said, “A true portrait can never hide the inner-life of its subject.” How does the visual dimension of photography transcend physicality to reveal this non-visual “inner-life?”
Tenneson: I feel that in all of my portraits, I really try to reveal the spirit and inner-life of my subjects. I’m not interested in just the surface reality; I’m not a photojournalist although I admire photojournalism. I like to connect with my subject and collaborate with them. If I’m lucky, then something magic can happen through that connection. Through a portrait, we can potentially see everything, the history and depth of a person’s life, as well as evidence of a primal universal presence. I have dedicated my professional life and creative energy to capturing these transcendent moments in which a connection is made between the subject, the photographer, and the viewer.
Harris: What are some of the ways that you collaborate and connect with your subjects in order for them to reveal something deeper? Describe the process of working with your models and the relationship that evolves with them.
Tenneson: Most of my subjects are familiar with my work, but usually I have a portfolio of recent work and I show them what I’m working on now and what I seek. I try to collaborate in the creation of an image that gets below the surface and transcends a normal portrait. I seek what lies beneath surface beauty. What interests me is our own human complexities -- the darkness as well as the light. When I work with my subjects, we often become close personal friends. I love relating on a deep level, and try to be open and present during the shooting session. If I am lucky, sometimes grace descends and a gift presents itself in front of my lens. My best photographs are an honest collaboration, and, when the viewer also connects, I feel the circle of communication is complete.
Harris: How do you commonly find your models for your portraits?
Tenneson: I lived in New York City for 25 years and it was so easy to meet people from so many countries there. For instance, waiting in line at the art store, at openings, on the subway. I would approach people that would have something unusual about them and that could be interesting in a portrait.
Joyce Tenneson, Dogwood, Archival Pigment Photograph
Joyce Tenneson, Love-in-a-Mist, Archival Pigment Photograph
Harris: You mentioned that it was easy to meet people from other countries, so are you more drawn to these people and is it because they have different experiences?
Tenneson: I lived in France for a year when I was 18 and ever since then I’ve been attracted to people from different countries. I’ve always had international friends and my partner for 25 years was British. I’ve gone back and taught in Europe and Japan. I feel like living in New York gave me an opportunity to really be in an international community. Every culture has its own energy.
Harris: Going back to your beginnings, you first started photographing in the cultural context of the early 1970s. Do you believe that the women’s movement and the feminism of the time had an impact and left a mark on your work?
Tenneson: I was very much involved with many of the movements at that time. There was the Vietnam War, race integration, and marches for equality. The 1960s really was a time where things were changing fast including women’s roles in society. I grew up with three sisters, and my mother was one of eight sisters. I grew up on the grounds of a convent so I had a lot of focus on the female psyche and I’ve always had a fascination with uncovering secrets of the female psyche.
Harris: When you began experimenting with photography, you largely created autobiographical self-portraits in the early 1970s. What did you originally learn from them?
Tenneson: I have been on a journey all of my life to grow and evolve as a human being and I think that my work has shown that journey. In my twenties I was doing self-portraits because I was really at the beginning of that journey. I think most people change between their twenties, thirties, forties, etc. The early self-portraits were an attempt to probe my inner life and to experiment more on myself before I approached other people.
Joyce Tenneson, Sandersonia, Archival Pigment Photograph
Joyce Tenneson, Tulips, Archival Pigment Photograph
Harris: Another variation in your bodies of work is your evolution in the late 1980s from black and white to color photography. What do you believe the employment of color has done to alter the atmosphere and overall character of your images?
Tenneson: I was really lucky when I first went to New York City that Polaroid Corporation gave me a grant to use their large camera that was a kind of refrigerator on wheels. It actually turns out that the Polaroid’s color and tones were quite beautiful. My book “Transformations” was done with a 20 x 24 Polaroid camera. I felt very lucky to be using that camera for many years in New York City to create hundreds of images with that. It was a great experience and it’s no longer there because Polaroid went out of business.
Harris: So there’s no longer any way to access the Polaroid film today?
Tenneson: There’s a studio in New York that you can rent, and that Chuck Close actually uses. They have enough film to maybe get through a couple of years because they bought out the film from Polaroid, but it’s only really used occasionally for big projects.
Harris: Your depictions of women in the later series “Light Warriors” is a departure from the earlier portraits in “Transformations” not just in terms of the different tonal ranges of the portraits, but perhaps also in their direct and probing style. Was there a change in you for this evolution to occur?
Tenneson: The work from “Transformations” I see as almost being channeled. They appeared almost effortlessly in front of my lens. Sometimes you hear writers say that they are writing what they’re hearing and they’re channeling something. The series unfolded for me and it was a surprise how it burst forth. People always ask me how I did it because the tones are so ethereal and critics have said it’s transcendent, haunting, mysterious. It was a gift in a way and I think sometimes you’re lucky in your career when you have moments that are an effortless creative flow from your inner psyche and with your collaboration with your subjects.
Harris: And then after “Transformations,” how would you say that “Light Warriors” was a different kind of body of work and a change for you?
Tenneson: The darker brown tones in the book, “Light Warriors” feel earthier and more rooted and grounded, whereas the earlier work in “Transformations” is more poetic and fragile.
Harris: In “Light Warriors” you incorporated a kind of light feature in them. How did you come to create these elements in those portraits?
Tenneson: I used a laser and I called it “light writing” which is really a magical kind of process. I got behind the subject with a laser and beamed it into the lens and drew with it designs around my subjects. I really couldn’t control it precisely, so the result involved some unknown magic.
Harris: So you wouldn’t really know what would appear until you developed the photos?
Joyce Tenneson, Larissa, c. 1990s, Archival Pigment Photograph
Harris: Although primarily known as a portrait photographer of people, how does your other work with such subjects as flowers, trees, and shells relate to that of people?
Tenneson: I’ve always loved people and nature. After I did eight books depicting people, although not strictly portraits like in “Transformations” and “Light Warriors,” I felt I needed to take a break from that and recharge my batteries by being in nature. I looked at nature like how I had looked at people finding how unique each flower is. I really tried to photograph flowers as if they were people and show what’s special about them and their inner life. That’s why I called the flower book “Intimacy” and used the subtitle “The Sensual Essence of Flowers.” I really tried to do the same thing I did with people and uncover their essence.
Harris: How do you see your place in the tradition of portrait photographers and yet how are you unique?
Tenneson: The photographer I feel the closest to is Irving Penn. I really admire his signature style which I really see as European elegance that is really very different from Avedon even though they were from the same school, and I love both of their work. I would say that I think my work has a kind of elegance.
Harris: What makes your work unique compared to their work?
Tenneson: It’s my own signature style. Critics have noted a sensual, otherworldly dimension in my work. I think that’s what sets it apart. I think when you can see the work of great photographers such as Avedon or Penn, and myself the work looks different but you can really tell that it’s coming from those people. I met both Penn and Avedon before they passed away and they looked like their work. I remember this Japanese curator came to my studio in New York and when he opened the door he just kind of gasped and I said, “What’s wrong?” And he said “Oh you just look so much like your work.” I’ve never forgotten that and I just took it as a kind of compliment. It’s not just that you physically look like it, but there’s something about your energy that feels like your work. It’s difficult to put into words.
Joyce Tenneson, Suzanne and Snake 2, 1991, Archival Pigment Photograph
Harris: You think it says a lot whenever you can look at your photo and it’s a reflection of yourself and people can see that because it’s really a part of you.
Tenneson: Yes. Exactly.
Harris: I heard you are having a retrospective in Stockholm, Sweden at Fotografiska running from September to November 2014. Could you tell me a bit about the museum and the show?
Tenneson: It’s a very exciting photography museum. I was there in April  to work with their curators for a week. I was so impressed with it. It’s an old customs house and it’s right on the harbor. It’s four stories high and I’ll have one whole floor and four rooms. I’m going to have one darkened room where they have projections. It’s going to be three projections and the museum hired a famous composer to do music for it. I’ll be showing some new large gold work as well.
Harris: What was your process working with the curators at Fotografiska and how did you come to be involved with them?
Tenneson: I’ve spent a lot of time in Scandinavia. I had a show in Norway at the Stenersen Museum in Oslo a few years ago, and I’ve been teaching in Norway for over a decade, so I have a large following in Scandinavia. The Stockholm photography museum Fotografiska approached me about two years ago and I’ve really been working on it ever since then. It’s a big show and some of the images are even going to be life size such as the images from the series “Transformations” and “Light Warriors.” Also, I’m also half Swedish. My grandparents on my father’s side were born there so I feel a real connection, almost like going home. When I was there I felt such a family sense of really connecting with their sophisticated aesthetic, the beauty of their city, the way they design the space, and their attention to detail because the Swedes have a good reputation for being really successful for such a small country. They’re really very professional and were great to work with.
Joyce Tenneson, Poppy Bouquet, 2000, Archival Pigment Photograph