12 September 2007


In her series 'Inscape' and 'other orchards', Ahndraya Parlato has created a solid though intriguingly indefinable body of work. Into everyday settings, she inserts a grain of discomfort whose resultant tension wears over time and in turn makes repeated viewings of her work a new revelation.

Following her work, it is anything but linear, full of tension and contradiction, exposition and mystery. They are hard to grasp and without a definite trajectory, I am looking forward to seeing what she will will come up with next.

Born in Kailua, Hawaii in 1979, Ahndraya received a B.A. from Bard College and went on to graduate from the California College of Arts with an M.F.A. where she returned to lecture. She now teaches at Ithaca College in New York state.

Your images have a lot of variety in content and location, which seems to imply spontaneity even for images, which are obviously setup (or so it seems). Would you give us some insight into how your images come about and what typically sparks an idea into an image?
I very consciously work at creating a body of work that is thematically & conceptually cohesive rather than say, uses one subject matter as the premise for an entire series. I have never been drawn to work that is “all photographs of” couples, abandoned houses etc, they always seem too succinct and all-encompassing – a bit smug – rather like they’re telling us something instead of asking – for me, making photographs is also an act of exploring, so I may have ideas I want to work on, but I don’t know exactly what it is I’m looking for – if I did, I feel like to a certain extent, there would be no point in making the images. Subsequently, I tend to be interested in more expansive bodies of work – or ones that although conceptually or thematically unified, might allow for a certain diversity or range within subject matter; I am thinking of artists like Jeff Wall, Collier. Schorr and Wolfgang Tillmans.

Sometimes, before taking a photograph I have specific ideas I want to convey and I will write them down and think about the things that for me visually connote these ideas.

Things like:

  • Trying to contain the uncontainable
  • A private language
  • The inside is unsafe
  • The outside is an extension of the inside
  • Where do people place their reality w/in a socially constructed/accepted reality and how much do they deny it to fit in?

(I love list making)

I am, however, a bit of a creature of habit, the image ideas I come up with usually are sparked by something I have seen a million times, a thicket I pass in the car everyday, a gesture someone often does, I am TERRIBLE at shooting on the fly or in a new, unfamiliar location, I travel a lot and I never even bring my camera – despite it being a 4 X 5, which can be a bit cumbersome, I hate the stress of creating an image at a place I can’t readily re-access or don’t already know.

"...it seems we’re often lead to believe that placing your own desires above social conventions suggests mental askew-ness."

Sometimes the process changes, and the thought to make a photograph is triggered by a visual experience and I’ll realize later that it’s serendipitously tied to the themes I’m exploring. For instance, the image of the boy sleeping with the shirt over his face is literally something my boyfriend does all the time, for years I would look at him doing this, and to me it really connoted the desire to shut off your senses. I also like the idea of how it’s somewhat socially frowned upon to sleep during the day, (definitely something suburban soccer mom’s would gossip about) as it seems we’re often lead to believe that placing your own desires above social conventions suggests mental askew-ness.

I do usually stage the occurrences I photograph – although, I try to keep a mix of images where “the staging” is quite apparent and others where it is not so obvious, I like when the images affect each other - either questioning or solidifying verisimilitude. Over the last year, as an attempt to further push these tensions and to some what thwart viewer expectations I have begun making photographs where there is no intervention at hand; rather I have tended to look for places where I might have wanted to intervene, and have then made a “straight” photograph.

What would you say is the common theme between the images in Inscape and in Other Orchards individually? And how did you approach naming these series as well as defining their content? (I have read descriptions of these series but never directly attributed to you)
Well, for me they’re very connected thematically – they just represent different points of my own awareness. While making Other Orchards my senior year at Bard College, I was thinking a lot about when normalcy starts to become abnormal – exploring 19th C notions of hysteria and how when women were diagnosed w/hysteria they were often prescribed bed rest, but to me how this would be more crazy-making (think The Yellow Wallpaper or Fassbinder’s Fear or Fear). The whole time I was very research-oriented about this aspect of my work and although I grew up the only child of a mother who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia – surprisingly, I was unable to consciously connect that experience to my work.

The fall before grad school, my mom passed away and it just sort of hit me, how much the work (Other Orchards) was about making sense of her world - the world I had been raised in - the “real” world, and, the grey area in which the two overlapped. In our relationship I often had to be the responsible one; I was always trying to get her to “pass” as normal – which I had a lot of guilt about – but we were very poor and often her antics would cause financial repercussions (eviction) and I felt I had to keep her in line so to speak. But I’m actually not very invested in social conventions of normalcy, so I was somewhat forced to take on a role which was incongruous to my personal theologies. I think unconsciously my photographs were a way for me to bridge this gap, and acknowledge the validity of her world, in a way that I was unable to do w/in our relationship.

I think as soon as I realized the connection between our relationship and the series, I was sort of paralyzed from making work (or any good work). I was just too aware, and I was also turned off by the stereotypical types of work that are often done about mental illness (which I knew I didn’t want to do at all). I knew I wanted my childhood to be a springboard for the exploration of many things rather than specifically communicating something about mental illness. It took a few years of mess-ups for this to come about I suppose this is where Inscape comes into play.
"...I have always wanted my images to exist in the actual world rather than make their own world..."

Visually, I would say that Inscape is a bit more sophisticated, I have always wanted my images to exist in the actual world rather than make their own world – I think Inscape is more successful in this, as it is less theatrical, and perhaps also a bit less angsty.

Honestly I feel that I am a terrible namer! That’s why my images are never titled. As embarrassing as it is, my boyfriend, John Duvernoy, a poet, actually came up with both titles for me.

What are the key events in the development of you as a photographer? And what first attracted you to the medium and how old were you when you started?
I started staging photo shoots around 7th grade – I first became attracted to images through fashion magazines, I wld go to the local library and rip out images from spreads I liked and bring them home to put on my walls. Beyond that, key events were learning to use a 4x5 camera, forming relationships with people who I felt comfortable directing (hence the re-occurring characters – most notably, my best friend Lily) and, as mentioned, my mom passing away.

In your artist’s statement, you talk a lot about the absurdity of ideals. What is your feeling toward the segmentation of photography and other arts into categories such as “fine art”, “lowbrow art”, or “outsider art”? Does it serve a purpose?
It serves a purpose for the people who talk and write about art but I don’t think much of one for artists themselves.
"...sometimes, even if only briefly, we must know that categories (like everything) are just things we make up."

Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” Do you agree with that sentiment and why/why not? And what is your reaction to the stigmatising and stereotypical representations of mental illness in mainstream media? And in what way do you see your work addressing the issue?
I think America has a terrible way of dealing with mental illness, I just read that you can get antidepressants for your pets!! All we want to do is “fix” things without really looking at why the problems occur in the first place. I used to be obsessed with the etymology of the word schizophrenia – it means a fragmented mind – and I couldn’t believe how we just decided that a mind could ever be whole in the first place rather than, say, assuming that minds can be built just as differently as bodies. This derivation got me thinking about how we are imposed upon by ideals such as perfection and wholeness so that there is always a semblance of moving forward, and hence, of order. Without these ideals, there would be disorder and chaos, probably the most unsettling things to us – people fear the unknown, we are unable to accept things without categorizing them – however, sometimes, even if only briefly, we must know that categories (like everything) are just things we make up.

One of your works was featured at Conscientious in a series where photographers selected an image and gave an explanation as to why they felt their selection was great. Would you introduce us to an image by another photographer that you feel is great and explain what makes it special for you?
I am terrible at picking favorites. These are two photos, my friend, Elizabeth Moy, made. I see them as rather an ideal pair, although I’m not sure that she would consider them as a piece. In the image of the girl falling, I love how in general, the act of falling is a scary thing, but within this photograph, I read it as a metaphor for accepting the unknown, and thus, as hopeful-making. As opposed to being pushed or falling, I assume that the girl has consciously chosen to jump - despite what she may find upon landing - and because she has consciously taken this chance, as a viewer, I root for her.

from the portfolio of Elizabeth Moy (click to enlarge)

I think it works well with the firework image. If the falling image is about accepting the unknown, the firework image is almost like trying to make sense of, or control something that is uncontrollable. Which in a sense is also an acceptance of the unknown, as the gesture of lighting a firework designates an acceptance of an unknown outcome. I can’t not relate fireworks to fire, which as people we have a love/hate relationship with; we need it, yet it often destroys us, our land and things we love. Fireworks are almost a physical manifestation of the proverb “playing with fire,” we have made something for entertainment from something that we essentially have no control over, so there is a tension resulting from the knowledge that something out of our control could happen, despite the cautions we take.

In truth, I guess the images speak to my own interest in the notion of containing the uncontainable or ordering chaos.
"Something that really appeals to me about both art making and teaching is that to a certain extent they’re both about problem solving..."
Which non-photographic artists do you admire and/or inspire you?
I’m mostly inspired by writing and film. Some film makers I love: Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jane Campion, and Wong Kar Wai, some writers: Michael Ondaatje, Marguerite Duras, Jose Saramago, Don Delillo, Rosemarie Waldrop, Paul Auster, and C.D. Wright, some artists: David Shrigley, Roman Signer, Sophie Calle, William Wegman (early work), Gabriele Orozco, Henry Darger, Marcel Dzama, Andrew Wyeth (Esp. Helga Pictures), and Sarah Sze

In your work as a lecturer and professor, what have been some of the key things you’ve learned? And what one piece of advice would you give to aspiring artists?
Something that really appeals to me about both art making and teaching is that to a certain extent they’re both about problem solving – which is something I quite like to do.

I think I’m too young to start dolling out advice without sounding pompous. Maybe just work hard – any kind of creative process involves a lot of work.

What projects are you currently working on? And are there any other arts, which you would like to try in future outside still photography?
I am trying to make a book dummy of my photographs, but I keep coming up with ideas for new images that I feel like need to be in the series - so it has been dragging out a bit.

Collage - click to enlarge

Collage (detail) - click to enlarge

Over the last two years, I have started working on a body of work involving representations of crystals and “bling”, there two big collages that are stones cut of from magazines, some crystals I grew from a crystal growing kit children would use and a sculpture from ice cubes made out of plastic. I’m not sure where it’s going I just got a bit obsessed with the idea of these elements that convey wealth and glamour and how they get watered down when we try to represent them, but then how in real life they are actually mind blowing....

Thank you, Ahndraya.


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