I’ve long admired Polly Chandler’s evocative imagery and had the good fortune of meeting her in 2007 at Photolucida. Since then, we’ve remained good friends. At the time that we met, I was a freelance writer for Black and White Photography so I pitched Polly’s work to my editor and it resulted in an 8 page feature in September 2007.
Recently, Polly and I had a chat about her new series, You Build It Up, You Wreck It Down, which is based on music by Tom Waits.
SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?
POLLY CHANDLER: In Undergraduate School I majored in Graphic Design and Fine Art. I tried a lot of different mediums, but I particularly enjoyed silkscreening and the use of photo emulsion to make some of my pieces. I suppose that was my first introduction to “Painting With Light”, but I knew that I had a passion for photography when I took my first basic B&W class. I could not stay away from the darkroom and I was constantly shooting. Making photographs felt like a natural high and I knew there was “something” there for me. I found my passion; which for me does not always equate to joy. It’s as close to a Purpose as I will ever get, and with that can come strife, hardship and frustration. But on the other side of that hard work is a creation of my imagination, and nothing is more satisfying.
SB: Your work is reached a level that it’s practically synonymous with Polaroid 55 and 4x5’s. When did you first begin using this combination for your personal work?
PC: Wow, really?! Cool! I have to be honest, I first began using Polaroid 55 when I was in Graduate School; while I was working three jobs, taking theory & history classes and producing thesis work all at the same time. So, the instant positive/negative was perfect for me. Aside from that, Type 55 is rated at 50 ISO and has a quality to it’s tonal range that I’m in love with. Now having photographed with if for over eight years, it’s like an old friend. I can predict how it will react to exposure, temperature, etc. Although, it also continues to surprise me with it’s fickle nature, every sheet does something slightly different.
I was introduced to Large Format Photography as an elective when I was in Graduate School at Southern Illinois University. I cannot imagine where my work would be right now if I hadn’t taken that class or without the support of my Graduate Committee to continue using it for my Thesis Work (Dan Overturf, David Gilmore and Michael Onken, who are all mentors to this day). But I know the camera, format, process and film changed the trajectory of my photography, and my life, for that matter.
SB: Your latest body of work, You Build It Up, You Wreck It Down, is based on Tom Waits songs. What was the first image you created in the series? What song inspired the image that particular image?
PC: I was taking a lengthy walk one day after having made some pretty big changes in my personal life, and was listening to Tom Waits as I went along down the street. “What’s He Building” came on which is such an amazing song. It’s probably strange to describe music this way; but that song is almost cinematic and tactile for me. I began to imagine what the song would “look” like. Soon after that I took a trip to see my family in Missouri. There was a shed with all these old glass bottles inside out behind my uncle’s farmhouse and I began to see “What’s He Building” form in my mind. My mom and Stepfather posed for the photograph, and so my “Tom Waits Series” was born!!
SB: Beyond being a fan of Tom Waits, was there a personal impetus for pursuing this body of work?
PC: A few years ago I struggled with letting go of a couple of personal relationships around the same time, I traveled to Peru and got to see a completely different way of living and left a good job after four years of working there. I think all of those things came together to creative to perfect emotional storm for this project (Tom Waits song reference).
SB: How long have you been working on this series? Is it complete or ongoing?
PC: I’ve been working on it since 2009 and I’m not sure it will ever be complete. I think this series is a project I will always revisit when another song by Waits inspires me. There are times when I have an idea for an image and I’ve noticed that I start exploring his music to see if my idea “fits” with a song. Hmmm.
SB: Do you conceive or sketch out your shots prior to going to a location?
PC: My process for making pictures has changed and evolved over the years. I definitely location scout and sketch for my large format work. I think because Polaroid 55 is no longer in production there is even more of a sense of importance with each sheet used; it’s precious at this point because there is no more of it. I liken the end of Polaroid Film to telling a painter that paint has been discontinued, it is my medium of choice. There are certain cameras and film I use to shoot more spontaneously, but again, not my 55!
SB: Do you direct your subjects to communicate the lyrics as written or are your images more of an interpretive, impromptu creation?
PC: I definitely direct my subjects: it’s a partial mix of format and my creative process but I don’t always explain my concept until I have a chance to think about the final image myself.
SB: Have you or anyone else contacted Tom Waits to exhibit how you’ve honored his music?
PC: Not that I’m aware of (I haven’t yet). I think if I contact him, it will be to thank him for his inspiration. I would never dream of asking him for more than that. But man, would I LOVE to hear what he thinks. Or just know that his eyeballs have looked at my images!!!
SB: Is there one image in this body of work that speaks to you more so than others, perhaps because it cuts to the heart and soul of the music you are interpreting?
PC: It changes as the body of work grows, I suppose. Right now the image “I Didn’t Think You’d Ever Find Me Here” inspired by the song “Blue Valentines” is my favorite. But “9th & Hennepin” is really the song/images (I made two inspired by this particular song) that cuts to the heart of this series, I think.
SB: Do you have any exhibitions or events for this work or previous work in the near future?
PC: I will be doing a Workshop and Portfolio Reviews at Filter Photo Festival 2011 in Chicago this October, and I’ve had pieces exhibited here and there, as well as having six images from “You Build It Up, You Wreck It Down” accepted into the 2011 Issue of PDN’s Photo Annual. But, other than that I’m just “saving all of this madness in the nightstand drawer
To see more of Polly’s work, pop over to her website.