Heidi Lender interview
Blue Mitchell: When do you think you created your first successful photograph? What brought you to this moment?
Heidi Lender: Your question made me do a little retrospective of my short life as a photographer! I'm not sure if I'd use the word successful, but the first image I created that worked for me was the yellow dress from the series, Once Upon, made in October 2009. Back then I titled it, "Bench Monday #21." Self-taught, I was glued to Flickr when I began this photo journey, gobbling up images, how-to's, texturing, camera info, and bantering with and learning from fellow amateurs, and some pros. I joined groups for inspiration and some for structure. "Bench Monday" was my favorite, and fast became an addiction. The instructions were simple — a self-portrait (I presumed), standing on something, post only on Mondays. For some reason, I assumed my head had to be cut off, which was fine with me. I began obsessing over what I would create each week, trying to outdo myself, dreaming up scenes, props, interiors and rediscovering my closet, full of left-over frocks from my days as a fashion editor. Somewhere around the time of the yellow dress image — #21 — it became apparent that this project was bigger than Bench Monday, bigger than even me, and I was expressing something beyond a pretty picture. I quit Bench Monday, and the project evolved into Once Upon. I often return — still — to the yellow dress image to study the elements that, for me, made it work: balance, color, composition, light, and just the right amount of textured layers. Funny what we discover in retrospect: Apparently, I bought a wireless shutter release just after I created that image (and nearly broke my neck running to and from the self-timer).
When you started Road Trip, did you plan on turning it into a full blown photo project?
I jumped in a rental SUV six months into a serious breakup. I was a wreck, creatively impoverished, unproductive and obsessed with saving my relationship. I needed a break from all of that, and from talking to my ex. The summer prior, I had had a romantic plan to haul our massive airstream on a photo-trek across the West. That never happened. So now, I was determined to attempt a revised jaunt (solo this time), along with another romantic notion — to make self-portraits across Route 66. This would jumpstart my creativity and productivity. That was the plan, at least. Very soon into the trip, however, I realized this wasn't going to happen. Though I kept my Nikon on the passenger seat floor and iPhone in the cup holder, there were a lot more tears behind the wheel than I had imagined, blinding and thwarting what I thought was going to be an inspiring project. It was only after reviewing all the images, iPhone and otherwise, months after the trip, that I realized I had created a full-blown photo project, after all.
At my first Starbucks stop, on The 5, between San Francisco and LA, I bought Adele's CD, 21. I popped it in, not knowing anything about her, and the background music was set for the rest of the trip: Clearly she had made this CD for me, I thought. It was the only thing I listened to for 35 days, over and over; perfect break-up, tear-inducing tunes. The dog runs out of the room when I play her now.
I'm drawn to the Jack Kerouac quote you are referencing in your artist statement for Road Trip “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Is everything really still ahead? Or is it NOW?
I love this question, naturally. Yes, indeed, it is NOW. But there is always movement. And change. And therefore, an awareness, at least, of what is ahead. In the driver's seat, you're looking a few minutes in front of you, alert, anticipating a turn, a deer, an obstacle, an unexpected treasure; where you came from is n the rearview mirror.
In a way, my journey was about putting the past to bed, and laying out a blank canvas from which to paint new dreams.
On a side-note because of your Kerouac reference, I'm curious if this photo project was spawned from an existential notion?
I was once diagnosed with “existential despair,” so probably most everything I do is spawned from my incessant curiosity about life and the meaning of life. The gypsy in me is a seeker, I suppose; a road trip, then, a natural depiction of that way of being, and a way to create meaning to one's life. But really, I just needed to move and to get out of my own way, explore and push myself out of a sad stupor. Making images is also an antidote for all that, now that I think about it.
I met you and saw your work at recent portfolio reviews. Now that you've done several of them, do you have any advice for photographers that are interested in participating?
Yes! Keep expectations low, be open to everything around you, listen with awareness, and remember that the reviewers are real people just like you and me. And people, in general, like to connect - not just with your work, but with you too. I hear many folks talk about the how-to rules of a portfolio review, the do's and don'ts….but I'm not one for rules like that. If you relax and just be yourself, any number of great opportunities can arise if you are open, even just meeting wonderful people or feeling inspired. (That must be the yoga teacher in me talking!)
What about young budding photographers, any advice you can give?
It's a similar rant about being true to oneself, and open to anything. And though I am still a (not-so-) young budding photographer myself, I adamantly agree with MY yoga teacher: "Practice, practice, all is coming.” Don't fear, take risks, learn by doing, looking, listening. I spend a lot of time scouring images in cyberspace, in photo books, learning as much as I can from what others are doing or not doing. I am self-taught, and this has been my main form of education. Coupled with the Flickr community, which helped to hone my skills and figure out what, how and why I wanted to make images. I'm having a similar, inspiring experience with Instagram at the moment, and a full obsession with my iPhone, which seems to be glued to my palm these days. I shoot daily with it…more practice.