Jen Davis uses her camera as a diary, daring to appear as a vulnerable subject examining her body, identity, and the meaning of beauty in contemporary culture. Photographing herself wrapped in a soaked towel and in deep states of contemplation and sadness on the edge of her bed, the viewer is granted access into deeply private moments where the composition feels raw and voyeuristic. Davis also turns the camera onto men who inhabit Davis’ personal space but also cast judgement on the female body.
Why did you decide to pursue your artistic practice on the East Coast?
I am originally from Chicago, and moved to New Haven, CT in 2006 to attend the Yale MFA program in photography. When I completed the program the decision had to be made on where to go next. It seemed only fitting to move to New York City. I contemplated other cities but felt that if I were ever to move to New York it had to be then. I had a community of fellow photographers, Yale graduates, friends from Chicago. Community was very important to me. I immediately fell in love with the city after the initial months of struggle, trying to find work, finding the time to make work, pay rent, be social… Making work here had always been a challenge and I found myself leaving the city to do so. I was coming out of grad school, a time of constantly making pictures and not working. When I moved to the city, I was deep in my thesis work, I ask in Exchange. In this project, I would approach men and ask to make a portrait of them, in that very moment and place. When in school I was traveling to make this work, primarily to small towns and cities in the south. I found that people’s guards were not up as high in these small towns as they were in New York. I was never interested in photographing men/strangers in the city. I felt that the camera would be almost too familiar to them and they would be not be willing to give me as much time or have the patience during the duration of the portrait to form a connection. So, I would leave to make work. Or work on the series of self-portraits in my apartment. I am currently in the beginning stages of a new portrait project that I will be shooting at a studio in New York, after four years, I have found a subject here that I can work with in my city.
Why not Los Angeles?
I’ve never really spent a substantial amount of time in California. I went to San Diego for a couple days to give a lecture, but besides that, only as a kid on a family vacation. I am attracted to the idea of California, the glitz, the glamour, this idealized perfection of the body, and the overall appearance of the place I have perceive illustrated by what I have seen in print and in the media. I do not know if I can see myself living there however. I have just never had the desire to do so. I wonder though how this place and how I perceive it to be would influence my work and practice as an artist. The underlining interest and themes in my work have to do with the body, performance, unattainable desire, sexuality and longing. It seems like there would be a lot for me to explore in California within this construct…
What do you find distracting about your urban environment?
Survival in general: one has to work so much to be able to pay rent and live in this city. So much time is dedicated the working. At least for me my photographic work has suffered due to this.
What do you feel is unique to your city?
How everyone operates in his or her own head. For the most part New Yorkers do not get into each other’s business; they do not look at each other on the subway or on the street. Everyone is focused inwards in public, walking fast, cutting people off, crossing the street as fast as they can on a red light, on top of each other on the subway, weaving between traffic, fighting for cabs. There is defiantly a pulse to the city that I have never felt in any other city I’ve lived in or traveled to. The rhythm on the street is unique as is the culture and diversity.
What do you find most appealing about Los Angeles?
I’d imagine it to be the light. What I have seen of the California light used in photography is captivating to me. For example, Katy Grannans “Boulevard.” The quality appears to me to be artificial. The weather and amount of light during the day is attractive to me.
What artists have influenced your practice the most?
The series Venue Inferred by the photographer Laura Letinsky has provided the most pronounced influence on me as an artist, and is a series of images that I still admire and question. When I was first introduced to this work, I was 23 years old, searching for my identity and for an understanding of my body through the camera. It was my last semester in college and I had just started this series of Self-Portraits. I found myself at a bookstore looking through the photo books between classes. I came to a book that had a women’s naked back on the cover. In this picture there was a mirror in front of her, reflecting her body as she held up a black dress. She was looking at herself in this mirror, as her lover who was lying naked on the bed was also looking up at her from below. There was so much psychological drama unfolding within the gaze of this one image. I was intrigued, and picked up the book. I went page by page, observing couples embraced one another, holding each other in both sexual and silent moments. I was shocked by this level of exhibitionism and amount of described emotional intimacy and detail that she was able to communicate within her camera frame. At that very moment, as I stood in the bookstore, I realized what intimacy was and that it was something that I had never experienced and was profoundly missing in my life. I remember suddenly feeling shame, like what I was looking at was semi-pornographic, at least to my innocent eyes it was. These pictures transcended what I knew about sex, love and desire and showed this to me in a new and exciting way. The images described to me a feeling that I longed for but could not obtain.
Images courtesy of the artist & Lee Marks Fine Art
THE 20+20 PHOTOGRAPHY ISSUE
Jen Davis is featured within Installation Magazine’s special 20+20 Photography Issue, which highlighted 20 Los Angeles and 20 New York City photographers. Download the full issue on your iPad and iPhone.