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I first noticed Alyssa Minahan’s work in an exhibit this past spring at Panopticon Gallery in Boston. In a room featuring the impressive work of Stephen Sheffield’s Black & White class at the New England School of Photography (NESOP), the serene tone and sophisticated composition in both her landscapes and portraits stood out to me. In addition to the show at Panopticon Gallery, Alyssa was selected to participate in Flash Forward Festival’s 2014 student exhibition and received Honorable Mention in LENSCRATCH’s 2014 Student Prize exhibition. Now, the Boston-based photographer has graduated from NESOP with Honors. Her work has been exhibited at PhotoPlace Gallery, Black Box Gallery, StoneCrop Gallery and in F-Stop Magazine, and she will be part of the Visual Narratives exhibition at The Center for Fine Art Photography opening November 7, 2014. I’m delighted to present excerpts from my recent discussions with Alyssa about her images and photographic inspirations.
Elin: You came to photography from the relatively non-visual field of finance. Did you favor certain kinds of art as you were growing up? Which artists or types of art do you find most compelling?
Alyssa: I have always had a passion for art. I have a huge stack of postcards and books from the museums I have visited during my years of travel. Whenever I have free time, you’ll find me in a museum or the art section of a bookstore. My favorite painters are The School of Paris artists Henri Matisse, Amadeo Modigliani, and Chaim Soutine, and the abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. As for photography, I am most drawn to the energy and humanism of Japanese photographers Rinko Kawauchi and Daido Moriyama and the familial intimacy of American photographers Harry Callahan and Sally Mann.
Elin: What propelled you to become a fine art photographer?
Alyssa: As a child, I was surrounded by art. My parents are avid collectors of paintings, photographs and antiques, which are displayed throughout their home. My father is a self-taught photographer who successfully exhibited his large-format black and white prints in a Manhattan gallery. Although I had a deep appreciation for art growing up, I didn’t view it as a realistic career option and so I graduated from college with a degree in International Affairs, minoring in Business. After school, I got a job as an investment banker in the capital markets group of a Dutch bank in NYC. After 5 years at that job, my husband was offered an opportunity to work in Tokyo and we jumped at the prospect of immersing ourselves in a different culture. During our time in Japan, I took a hand-thrown ceramics class (in Japanese and I don’t speak Japanese!), visited art galleries and museums, and developed an appreciation for Japanese aesthetics. After 6 months, we moved back to Manhattan and subsequently Boston, where we started our family. I spent the next six years raising our two sons and my passion for photography deepened as I spent my spare time taking photos of my boys. After a series of personal setbacks, I decided to pursue a career in photography and in 2012, with the support of my family, I enrolled at NESOP.
Elin: As a recent graduate of NESOP, what is the most significant way in which your image making has changed?
Alyssa: These past two years at NESOP have completely changed my photographic style. Prior to enrolling in school, I took photos primarily of my children and my travels but I didn’t have a defined aesthetic. During my second year of school, I was given the freedom to shoot whatever I wanted and it was in that freedom (and under the supportive guidance of my professors) that I realized I was drawn to taking photographs of my daily life, whether it was spontaneous moments or more controlled portrait sessions with my children. I found that my most successful images were of very familiar places or people with whom I have a deep personal connection.
Elin: You’ve mentioned that living in Tokyo for six months fostered your appreciation for the Japanese artistic sensibility and, in particular, the work of Rinko Kawauchi, whose contemplative photographs focus on small, fascinating details in her daily surroundings. In what ways do you think Japanese style manifests itself in your photographs?
Alyssa: In the process of creating the series Once Seen, I spent a lot of time studying the photographs in Rinko Kawauchi’s monograph “Illuminance”. The way she appreciates and elevates ordinary moments resonates deeply with me. In my own work, I focus on heightening everday occurrences into extraordinary moments by eliminating context. By removing any specific representation of place or time in my photographs, I’m encouraging the viewer to see in a different way. As a result, the minimalist expression of colors, patterns of light and even the composition of the frame become the subject, triggering memories, thoughts, emotions or ideas.
In my project Ephemeros, I touch upon the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi: a reverence for beauty found in the imperfect and transient nature of all living things. An example of this can be seen in my photograph “Remnants”, in which the last leaves of fall cling to the trees, indicating a change of seasons and the passage of time. I am also drawn to the aesthetic of yugen, which is the power of suggestion rather than blunt disclosure. Many of my frames are minimalist, implying more by revealing less.
Elin: You’ve said that you’re drawn to images that “hint at something beyond the subject, something enigmatic that binds us together.” What are the underlying themes in your work? What thoughts and emotions would you like your images to elicit?
Alyssa: Like many people, I sometimes struggle with and try to understand the human experience – who we are and why are we here. Photography is the way I express myself and connect with people by tapping into emotions and feelings we all share. I’m not targeting a specific emotion with my photographs, but rather that indefinable feeling of belonging, whether through wonder, sadness, loss, joy or uneasiness.
Elin: Does your natural aesthetic lead you to shoot primarily in ambient light? Do you have favorite places or times to shoot?
Alyssa: While I prefer to shoot with natural light, I am not opposed to using flash. In fact, some images in the Once Seen series were shot with on-camera flash because that was the only way to capture the moment with the light available. Similarly, while my preference is to shoot film, I utilize both digital and analog formats depending on the nature of the project. For me, the ideas and feelings supporting a project are more important than the technical ways in which I am able to capture an image.
Elin: Whether shooting with film or digitally, you always print your images in a square format. Why?
Alyssa: The square format appeals to me because it is a further abstraction of reality. It is a different viewpoint than normal vision and it therefore encourages viewers to suspend the usual way in which they see.
Elin: The interplay of space and light in your images often suggest enchanting patterns. Have you thought about highlighting these by presenting sequences of your work in book form?
Alyssa: I am very interested in sequencing my images into books! As part of my graduation portfolio, I created a handmade book of my Once Seen portfolio. The process of making a photographic object that can be held and experienced uniquely by readers was truly gratifying. As my work progresses, I look forward to finding new ways to present my photography in book form.
Elin: What photographic projects are you working on now or planning to start soon? In what direction do you see your work progressing?
Alyssa: I feel that I am just starting to develop my own unique voice and vision. Right now, I’m working on two projects. One focuses on the expanding roles that women assume as they mature. I am especially interested in expressing the juxtaposition of my perception of reality with our idealized vision of those roles. Through my other project, I aim to further explore and understand Japanese aesthetic principles. Whether I continue with these specific ideas, branch off in some different direction or a new project arises, I will always search for the remarkable in everyday moments. It’s a very exciting time for me – I can’t wait to see what develops!
Feature image: “No. 2 (Beach)” archival inkjet print from the series Once Seen by Alyssa Minahan (courtesy of the artist)
To see more of Alyssa’s work, go to: http://www.alyssaminahan.com/