Photographer Monica Jane Frisell talks with Esthetic Lens about how she has maintained her photographic practice during the pandemic. Her work is reliant on travel; Frisell has been forced to quickly adapt, think on her feet, and turn the camera onto subjects not considered before in order to keep going.
1.How are you holding up?
The answer to this question changes daily. If we had chatted about this in March of 2020, I would have said I was hopeless…as the year has progressed and as I have made adjustments to my daily life – things have been OK. The collective pain is hard to feel– talking to friends and not having enough words that can console them or make them feel OK. I have a lot of friends and family in the music industry– listening to how they have been locked away from making art with each other is a hard thing to hear.
But again, I am OK. I am healthy and I am still creating, so what more can I ask for in this time?
Time has changed… What seems to get done in a day has changed… The weeks have blended together, and I am just ticking days off my journal...
2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
It absolutely has. It has forced me to turn the camera onto myself in ways I never thought I would. When this all started, and I first went into a lockdown, the loneliness was terrifying. I had just moved to a small town in New Mexico and had barely joined the community there. When the governor told the state to shut down and lock in, it was a terrifying experience. Not to mention, my family and closest friends were in Brooklyn, NY. When this all started. it was one of the hardest-hit areas.
It forced me to make work, for no other reason than self-preservation. I started simply by shooting one roll a day and processing everything in my kitchen sink…I didn’t have many other options. At the time I didn’t know if it was OK to mail things out–I was still wiping down all my mail with Lysol wipes and letting it sit in the sun for 2 days. I used a film loading bag and some metal tanks that I had and got onto a schedule. I’d shoot in the morning and by the evening I’d be looking at my film and scanning it into the computer.
When I think back on those early months, I think Covid taught me that there is always my work, there is always my camera. That no matter what I am feeling, the hopelessness, the fear, the overwhelming sense of dread, I can always lean on the camera to help me find some comfort. The pure act of making can keep me going…
3. What are some of the unexpected creative things or projects that have developed for you while navigating the current state of the world?
Travel has always been a big part of my process, and when this started, it seemed like that would be an impossible thing to do safely. I quickly learned that I needed to figure out a way to still travel safely. I have always been a road tripper– I have driven across the US more times than I can count. In June I decided I wanted to go back to Brooklyn to check in with my parents, but couldn’t fly there. So, I came up with a scheme to build out my truck, and in some ways, this has become a huge portion of my creativity over the course of the year. I have done many trips where I am camping along the way, sleeping in my car in Walmart parking lots or rest stops, etc, etc. I had just gotten a Tacoma Pickup, which is by far one of my dream vehicles, and started to build a bed in the back and a water system that is attached to my roof. This allowed me to bring enough water to always wash my hands, do dishes, and even take a shower if that was needed. The plan was to drive from NM to NY as quickly as possible– only stopping for gas. That is what I did, I started to learn how to maintain in isolation while still moving. It got me to realize I could still travel, and the more rural and isolated I am, the safer I would be. So, I started to plan for the Trans America Trail, which is about 6000 miles of dirt roads that go from West Virginia to Oregon (or California depending on what route you take).
I outfitted my truck with a system that would allow me to stay isolated for about 2 weeks– as long as I could get gas, I could keep going. At the end of August, I started the drive back to the southwest from NY. The trail lead me through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and I finished in Oregon.
The trail brought me into areas I had never really visited before. I was camping in free sites along the trail, or state parks, often going a few days without seeing anyone, or even another car on the road. I was just shooting… I wasn’t asking too many questions, I was just looking what I could see. I did some deep reflection on what my intentions should be; trying to see this country that I still somehow love. The trail brought me through tiny towns that maybe only have 1 gas station, and through old dirt roads that haven’t been cleared in years. I had to move tree debris, cross rivers, and sometimes had to find alternate routes because the roads had washed away. Some days I would only drive about 25 miles; to be able to drive at such a slow pace throughout the country was an absolute gift.
4. Who do you wish were still with us to provide pointed commentary on what we are collectively experiencing and why?
My photographic hero is August Sander, and I would love to talk to him. I’d like to know how he would navigate all the differences between people, and still approach them with such an open heart and open lens. In my opinion, his portraits do not criticize, they show humans as humans. This is something that is very challenging to do at this moment in the US. People are so mad and lost in anger, including myself, (and it is often rightfully so) that it can be a challenge to have a conversation with someone. When I was in a small town somewhere in Clark County, Virginia, I was trying to get gas from a small gas station– I always wear a mask when I go inside– and the clerk would not serve me because I was wearing a mask. It was a strange interaction, I was not willing to fight him over it, I just left…I think of that moment almost every day now. There wasn’t a discussion, no meeting on common ground. Even though we shared a passport and a nationality, we would not have been able to come to some kind of agreement; It was just what it was. My safety and the safety of that clerk were reliant on this mask that has now become a political statement instead of a matter of health and safety.
5. What artists, performers, writers, have you come across recently that have created poignant work about where we are at right now?
I was quarantined with the artist, Sweeney Brown (@art_is_dirty) in New Mexico whose work and writing have been very influential to me over the year. We started making work together as well, and they pushed me harder into making self-portraits and to speak more openly about my experiences of now being sober. We are both sober artists that try to live on the road; that has been incredibly challenging throughout this year. They live and work from their converted school bus. To have an artist that also does not drink, and understands the drive to keep moving, and who is in my corner, has been paramount in my survival.
Other artists that have gotten me excited throughout the year: Richard Renaldi continues to make some of the most beautiful portraits of our time. I just discovered Mark Steinmetz, and have fallen in love with his books published by Nazreili Press. I was following @strange.victory, which is the Instagram account of the photojournalist Sinna Nasseri. He was traveling throughout the country and documenting some of the most dangerous environments; I found his conversations and images absolutely eye-opening. I also discovered Richard Beaven, and his new book “All of Us”, which is a collection of portraits from the town of Ghent, NY. I cannot stop looking at that book and those faces.
I also started reading more work by James Baldwin, his essays got me through a lot of early Covid. I finally read “If Beale Street Could Talk” and I think that has quickly become my favorite book.
One of my top books from this past year has been “Photographers of the Frontier West, Their Lives and Their Work.” by Ralph W. Andrews. I find myself always looking through this book. It makes me daydream of how I will keep making work on the road, even if I have to keep 6 feet from everyone I meet. I guess, it is not a lot of art about this time, but I have been looking at work that seems to still speak to this time.
6. What are you looking forward to?
I am so excited about what is coming next. I am spending the winter in Seattle, and I have started the massive undertaking of converting a cargo trailer into a mobile darkroom and work studio space. I am working with my close friend, Wolf, who is a musician and writer and has a strong history of refurbishing 1950s cars, so it is quickly turning into a darkroom / hot rod. He has been an inspiration throughout the year and a constant source of support; to be able to build this dream object together feels like an amazing opportunity. We have been referring to the trailer as an Ark, and I have a strong inclination that it will be a catalyst for many collaborations as well as a lot of personal work. This has been a dream of mine for most of my life. I have tried various different iterations of this same idea throughout the years. This year made it feel more urgent to get going on the idea, not to let things wait. I want to be in the country, roaming and seeking while we enter this new phase. I have never lived through a time like this– not many people still alive have, so I think it is going to be an incredibly important time to document as well as participate in a kind of rebirth. What better time than now to build the most ultimate tool?!?
Traveling with this trailer will allow me to process film and make prints wherever I am, as long as I can hook up to a garden hose. It will allow me to be immersed in communities, and make work there without having to send out to cities, or wait long periods of time to show the work to the people I’ve photographed. I plan on being on the road for the foreseeable future, traveling through the back roads of the US, listening to stories, and photographing whatever I see. There is no time limit to this project. The thought of being fully self-contained is one of the most exciting things for me. If it hadn’t been for Covid, I may not have made the decision to commit so fully to this idea, and to this dream.
Monica Jane Frisell, originally from Seattle, WA, first found photography in high school where she spent most of her time in the darkroom. Since then she has traveled extensively across the United States, and beyond, photographing people and places. Her approach to photography is tied to a deep dedication to analog practices, fine art, and anthropological documentary. She sometimes says she is a “collector of faces”. Her work can be found online on her Instagram or her website.