Last week we lost a truly great artist and soul, Lauren E Simonutti. When I heard the news I couldn’t take a breath for what seemed to be an entire day. My heart is still in knots… I had just seen Lauren two weeks before and I couldn’t get my head around the fact that this amazing woman was no longer with us.
Lauren was an inspiration. She was one of the most courageous artists I’ve had the honor of knowing and her work never disappointed. She was one of the rare breed of photographers who reached deep into their soul to communicate her most personal thoughts.
This past January, I had the great pleasure of featuring Lauren in my column American Connection in Black & White Photography (UK). In all truth, I feel it is amongst my best columns and I was thrilled that Lauren was more than pleased with my words.
I grappled with what I could do in her honor and since we chatted a number of times about reposting her original Q&A on Underexposed, it’s the only thing I can think of doing. So this one’s for you Lauren. The fine art world has lost a truly great and courageous artist. You are deeply missed.
SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?
LAUREN SIMONUTTI: I have the first picture I ever took (aged 3 1/2, of my mother). I blew the focus but I still stand by my composition. I began regularly taking pictures at age 12, trying to do photo essays and landscapes with a 110 camera. I have always taken pictures. The decision to embark on the pursuit of fine art photography was decisively made when I was 18. I was a romantic (still am) and had no idea what I was getting myself into.
SB: Did you study formally or are you self-taught? If formally, where?
LS: I switched high schools in junior year and was fortunate enough to find a school that had a comprehensive photo program (rare for 1984). 10 enlargers, our own processing and printing, black and white and color. Quite remarkable really. I souped my first roll of film in my New Jersey high school at 14. At 17 I enrolled to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where photography was my major.
SB: I read that you have been a photographer since the age of 12. How would you describe your imagery prior to creating this body of work?
LS: For all those years, up until the mid 2000’s I photographed externally. The world around me. The people I knew. There was a time in my life when I was quite a social creature. These images seem rather alien to me now. I recognize the faces, I know that was the life I led, but I do not remember much about it. I cannot feel it. If I do not have a photograph of something I cannot be certain it happened. I rely on them for proof. I still take pictures for that reason - proof, that I saw, that I lived, that I was; but after everything fell apart I shifted my focus from the outside, in.
In my past the only photographs I made of myself were self portraits as myself. The girl holding the camera in the mirror. It was only after that life ended did I become a character in my own theater, an inhabitant of a world of my own making.
SB: Would I be correct in assuming you began 8 rooms, 7 mirrors, 6 clocks, 2 minds and 199 panes of glass in 2006? What was the first image you shot for this body of work? (was that Sorry And The End of Sorrow?) Can you talk a bit about that first image and the subsequent series it was part of?
LS: The first image I ever shot that heralded the beginning of where I was heading was ‘Not all books have a happy ending’. I look nothing like myself in that image and while I consider it a stand alone, not part of ‘8 rooms’ it was the impetus.
The first official image of 8 rooms was my 2006 birthday shot - ‘Tomorrow is my birthday and all my friends are here’. I had been getting sicker and the people in my life had been systematically fading away; one day I received an email from my two closest friends, a married couple I had photographed, I spent all my time with, I had loved saying they loved me but they could not handle the way I was sick and d good-bye. (This is not a matter for blame, mental illness is insidious, I was subject to regular hospitalizations/committments-people get scared, they get confused, they get angry, they feel helpless and then they leave.) I felt that if I was going to be left alone with my illness then it would just be the two of us in the house and I isolated myself from the world. My birthday was a day away and I gathered up all the things I could find in my house with a face, I bought myself a cake, I lit my candles, I posed my friends and I took the picture. Thus began a tradition. I do a photograph every year the day before my birthday, in the same room, with the same cake (it has lived in my freezer for 5 years and only comes out briefly on the 1st October then back it goes again. It is beginning to look a little the worse for wear.) These pictures mark time. They mark me.
SB: Following the completion of your first chapter in this body of work, did you realize at that point you would create a greater body of work or did the process of your creations happen organically and unplanned?
LS: There was no plan. The was no method to the madness, the madness was the method. I was taking the pictures because that is what I do. I was taking pictures because I was lonely. Because I was afraid I was fading away. The pictures are what I have.
SB: Can you tell me a bit about each chapter in this body of work?
LS: As I wrote ‘The Birthdays’ mark time, they mark the changes in me. ’Sorrow and the end of sorrow’ was the last time I allowed myself to play the tragic heroine. The Devil’s Alphabet was an exploration, an attempt to save my soul.
The 8x10’s are a lament. In addition to the subject matter, myself or otherwise- the length of the exposures record both the movement of light and shadow and record the passage of time - hours, minutes, seconds, moments. They are also the only images that feature the house as its own subject, not my model, not my backdrop, but my safe haven.
SB: You mentioned that you rarely create self-portraits and that you are conveying visual narratives within each character you embody. How do the characters evolve? Are they literary adaptations or are they based on individuals from your own life?
LS: The characters evolve as I do. Through the ground glass I see a space in the frame where a character needs to be and I insert myself into that space. I have a changeable face. I wear black so my body fades into the background or white so that it stands forth. I frequently move and at the properly intervals many of me record. I do know the characters are not based on individuals from my life, those I have known. I do not know where they come from. I never know who they are until I see them come up in the developer tray. That is when I choose my titles. When I give them a name.
SB: While your style remains consistent throughout all your work, I am curious if the meaning or approach to the work changed, shifted or evolved for you personally at any point in the process? I ask because it’s extremely rare to come across an artist who is so honest about their inner selves and struggles within a creative context. Most would retreat from consistent exposure such as this and either reemerge into something entirely different or fade away completely. But you bravely continue to create bold pieces of work. A true and rare feat I greatly commend you for.
LS: My work has changed tremendously from what I used to be to what I am, particularly over the past half dozen years. For me it came down to a matter of control. Ceding control and running on instinct. A dangerous thing for a woman who has been locked up for hearing voices to say, but comes a point in telling a story where you have to stop trying to direct it and simply do as you are told.
SB: How many handmade books have you created, what are the titles and what years were they produced? Are they still available and where they can be purchased? To the best of my knowledge, you have three: No Such Thing As Silence, Devil’s Alphabet and Drowning. Did you also create a limited edition hardbound?
LS: My first handbound book was ‘Crash’. It was a series of 35mm images I made in hospital and during rehabilitation after being run over and partially shattered by a car on the lower east side of Manhattan. The book is hardbound, complete with cut out pages framing a small toy car and collage of the police report sketch of the stick figure me and my placement in the intersection after the crash. There is only one.
‘A Hidden Monograph’ 1998 my first fictional narrative, a tale of tragic (accidental?) death and what is left behind. I think there may be 2 or 3 somewhere.
‘Not all dolls are pretty’, 2004, accordion book, images, doll head, paint & poem. Sold Out.
‘The Devil’s Alphabet’ 2007 was a hardbound, post bound book of reproductions of the complete alphabet on rag paper with a devious cover. An edition of 26 - Sold Out.
‘Evidence’ - police blotter or sociopath’s sketch book? 2008 Edition of 39 Sold Out.
‘Drowning, not waving’ 2008 (from a body of work created in 1999), offset, hand made cover, spiral bound. Edition of 250. Still available.
‘The Black Book’ portfolio book in all black, 2010, edition of 13. Sold Out.
‘No such thing as Silence’, custom sidewinder binding, 19 images on Indian Petal Paper. This book comes with bells on. Edition of 43. A few copies still available.
‘The Devil’s Alphabet’ is the only hardbound handbound book I have made. I like creative bindings and softbound and fine exotic papers are infinitely more malleable. I do have a print on demand book of ‘The Devil’s Alphabet’ with complete text available through blurb.com in soft and hardcover.
SB: What was the personal impetus for creating your own handmade books, rather than making digital or offset printed books? I assume it is partially because it’s a perfect compliment to your one-of-a-kind, handmade approach to printing. But perhaps there is a greater reason?
LS: The handmade books are something other. The discipline of bookbinding serves as an ideal counterpoint to the restrained chaos of my shooting and printing. It is the closest I have ever come to finding balance. I also make them because they can be closed. As much as I intend to make pictures for the rest of my life there are moments when you want to see the series finished, the project complete. In a book the pictures can be selected, the sequence arranged, the text written, the type set and once the cover is bound in place you can breathe for a moment knowing that you are done. Then of course it starts all over again.
I have designed print on demand books but my marketing abilities are lacking and they languish. I have one offset printed book, my very first visual narrative, ‘Drowning, not waving’. The money for that book was a donation/gift from an individual who I have never met. I live quite literally hand to mouth and offset is beyond my means. My greatest desire is a proper monograph (or several) from a proper publisher. It is that to which I aspire.
SB: Catherine Edelman is your sole gallery representation, correct? How long have you been working with her? How did she come to know your work?
LS: Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago (www.edelmangallery.com) is my sole gallery representation. It was mid to late 2009 that Catherine saw my work online in an interview/feature I did several years earlier with LensCulture and contacted me via email expressing an interest in representing me. She then flew to Baltimore and came to see the house and my work. It was important to her to see the work as well as to know the story was true.
SB: What are you currently working on?
LS: The next picture. Always the next picture. I find myself of 2 minds lately (no pun intended) and am working point/counterpoint - 5x7 dark, very little toning and unsympathetic countered by 8x10, concentrating on light, gentle tones and reflecting a softness I do not feel but do remember. The story continues as long as I do - somewhere between the next 10 minutes and the non-foreseeable future.
SB: Where do you see your work going in the years to come?
LS: It will go wherever I find myself, the location of which (literal or mental). I would not, at this point in time, even begin to hazard a guess. But it has never abandoned me.
To see more of Lauren’s work, visit Catherine Edelman’s website.
There’s also a wonderful artist talk with Lauren posted here.
Rest In Peace, Lauren. Your strength, honesty, courage and visionary imagery will remain with me forever.