Photographer Whitney Bradshaw talks with Esthetic Lens about how she has continued to make new work during the pandemic. Though it has significantly impacted Bradshaw’s current project, Outcry, she has found inspiring ways to work around the new constraints and keep producing. She recently discussed the project online during the Anderson Ranch, Virtual Thinker Thursday.
1. How are you holding up?
Real Talk?! I’d say I am managing. I hear many artists feel that they have extra time to pause, reflect, and work more in their studios. I, unfortunately, haven’t had that experience. I long for dedicated studio time like that. Besides being a practicing artist, I am the chair of the visual art conservatory at ChiArts (the Chicago High School for the Arts) where I also teach AP Photography. Like everyone in education, I’ve been working overtime to translate my in-person teaching practice into a remote one that is engaging, inspiring, and meaningful for my students. I have also been very busy training my new faculty, supporting my part-time teaching artists, while working with the administration to develop procedures and protocols for this new and less than desirable situation. All with an eye to much needed social-emotional supports for our students and faculty alike. It is an interesting challenge and one that takes much more energy and brainpower than I could have imagined. Now that we are five weeks in, I am seeing a lot of amazing work being done by my faculty and my students. This is the good stuff that keeps me going!
In addition to all of this, I edited, printed, and laid out the work for two large exhibitions of my Outcry project. One is a solo show including 200 portraits at the Wave Pool Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio and the other is an installation of 100 Outcry portraits included in the Well Behaved Women exhibition at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City, Indiana. Both exhibitions include a short video that provides viewers with a 3-minute sneak peek into an Outcry scream session, made by one of the project participants, Anamarie Edwards at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in October 2019. I am absolutely elated about the exhibitions as they both turned out to be incredibly powerful and are running up to and through this critical election!
2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
Covid-19 has had a considerable impact on my work. Both of my concurrent projects engage with portraiture and with community. I have had to alter each project to some extent, due to the need for social-distancing. Outcry is an intersectional feminist social practice project that requires groups of womxn who don’t know one another to come together and practice speaking up and out for themselves by screaming together. As you might imagine, screaming en masse is a super spreader event. Those respiratory droplets are propelled far and wide with something as propulsive as screaming. Over the past few months, I have run four Outcry scream sessions, two for each of the exhibitions that are currently open. To prepare for them I engaged in a lot of research to ensure that I could create a space that would be safe, not only for the womxn involved to be able to express themselves, but also to keep everyone safe from COVID-19. It turns out that these pandemic scream sessions require all of the womxn in the group to be approximately 27 feet apart while screaming together. While wearing face coverings we are able to get closer, but we are still much more distant than in the pre-COVID Outcry sessions and resulting portraits. In addition, several womxn have had to cancel because they, or someone they knew, contracted COVID-19 and had to quarantine. It’s sobering and painful, as are many things in this historic moment. For my other project titled Slow Release, I have been photographing my daughter, Ruby, over the last 5 years along with our community of mothers and daughters of the same age. I wanted to document this journey, in part to be able to hold onto us- our togetherness, and in part to picture the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships as we simultaneously travel through adolescence and peri-menopause. For this series, Ruby and I visit the homes of our friends, where I stage them and their things with the goal of making three portraits in each of the families’ homes; including one of the mother/s and daughter/s, another of Ruby and the teen/s, and a picture of Ruby, the constant, alone. Since the pandemic, I have continued the series by making new portraits of Ruby at our home while sheltering in place. About a month ago I made the final portrait for the project. It is a portrait of her and me, the only one of us together in one frame. We made it the evening before she headed off to college. It was bittersweet.
3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?
Definitely. A greater ability to be flexible and continue my work in a way that is somewhat different from my initial intention. Additionally, in the early part of the pandemic, I became really invested in the practice of walking. I did that to ensure I would spend some time away from my computer to quiet my mind and care for my body. As I took those, often, solitary walks I documented the changes within the landscape caused directly by the pandemic and later by the revolutionary and global response to the horrific murder of George Floyd. Some of the resulting photographs are unsettling, eerily quiet, painful, and lonely, while others are a beautiful testament to humanity and our need to communicate, connect, celebrate, and care for one another. After each walk, I would post the photographs I made on Instagram and Facebook. In response, I received messages from a variety of people about how much they enjoyed my walking tours of various neighborhoods in and around Chicago. The work itself seemed to provide viewers with a much-needed sense of connection. Many people weren’t able to get out at all and appreciated the view of their altered city, while others lived elsewhere and yearned to see what things looked like here. Since mid to late August, as school ramped up, my photographic walking tours have almost entirely halted because of the overwhelming amount of work needed for school. I miss them and intend to pick them back up again as things slow down.
4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?
It’s difficult to know for sure how folks are handling this extremely challenging time, but I have certainly been inspired by a number of artists who have continued their practice and/or altered it in response to these tumultuous times. Accra Shepp started making black and white portraits of essential workers in and around his neighborhood as he lives just blocks away from Elmhurst Hospital, which happened to be the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Spring. His Covid Journals, as he calls them, shifted after George Floyd’s murder from portraits of essential workers to portraits of activists at the massive protests taking place in NYC. Shepp’s series is a powerful document of this time. Tonika Lewis Johnson is an amazing artist and activist who has made an enormous impact on the City of Chicago and beyond with her Folded Map project. It is a social practice project that brings black and white people together from the north and the southside to picture, detail, and reveal the inequities inherent in Chicago neighborhoods and housing policies. Prior to the pandemic, Tonika had been working on a new project called Belonging for which she made portraits and videos of black and Latinx teens detailing their experiences with racial profiling and other painful and dangerous symptoms of white supremacy that have led to the wrongful murders and incarceration of many BIPOC in this country. Tonika has continued to share both of these projects and to push for change throughout the pandemic. She is a real force!
5. Are there any artists, filmmakers, albums, or genres you’ve been drawn to during the crisis? If so, why?
So many! To name a few, I re-read Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. It is a book-length poem about race and so much more. It is a must-read! Particularly during this moment when so many white people are beginning to recognize their privilege and their complicity with white supremacy and the perpetuation of it. In Citizen, Rankine writes moving prose that detail the black experience with daily racist microaggressions wielded by white folks on the regular. She has a new one out that I can’t wait to get my hands on, titled Just Us: An American Conversation. I have been following the work of several photographers across the country who have been documenting the massive protests that have taken place since George Floyd was murdered. One of the most remarkable photographers I’ve come across is Lynsey Weatherspoon from Atlanta. She continually blows my mind with her beautiful and intelligent compositions as well as her ability to capture a multitude of emotions and the intensity of these times. Her work reveals the extremely complicated nature of race and power in our country including astute observations regarding the relationship between the police and the citizenry. For example, she made a photograph of a black police officer in profile, filming one of the protests in Atlanta while on duty and seemingly longing to be on the other side with the protestors, while behind him, recognizable and out of focus is a white police officer in riot gear standing at the ready. There is a lot of powerful work being made both as documentation and in response to the revolutionary times we are living in. Janelle Monae’s song and music video called Turntables (Emotion Picture) is one of the most thoughtful and empowering works I’ve seen made in response to this moment. It’s Afro-Futurist sensibility interwoven with incredible historical documentary footage detailing black history here in America and the long fight for civil rights, all set against the backdrop of the pandemic and the upcoming election, is a strong call for lasting and meaningful change and a powerful reminder to VOTE!
Whitney Bradshaw is an artist, activist, and educator who lives and works in Chicago. She is the chair of the visual art conservatory at ChiArts. Her photographs have been widely exhibited and can are in the permanent collections of the DePaul Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and Columbia College Chicago. Her work has been published and/or reviewed in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Time Out New York, Vogue, Float Photo Magazine, and 14 East Magazine among others. WTTW Chicago Tonight ran a piece on Bradshaw’s social practice project titled Outcry in 2018. You can learn more about her work at whitneybradshaw.com.