I’ll be the first to admit that I really admire Jennifer Schlesinger. Several years ago, when I first learned about her, it was solely as the Gallery Director at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was mentioned that Verve, under Jennifer’s direction, had an impressive roster of artists that was something of a showcase of talent to aspire to. Creativity and beautiful printed work were prevalent there. Fast forward to recent days, and we find the unfortunate closing of Verve - but in its wake, the newly formed Obscura Gallery, owned and operated by Jennifer.
During this period of years from one gallery to the next, I also realized that Jennifer was far more than just a Gallery Director. She was also an extremely talented photographer…one of us! Her work is surreal, ethereal, and something that I could gravitate towards as a fellow artist who also appreciates the effort and tenacity it takes to create a body of work. People with experience and history like this are the ones I mentally hug from afar. Thankfully, this technique keeps the harassment charges down. Seriously though, it takes a special person to succeed while taking on both of these careers.
The business of fine art photography is a bit of a minefield, especially in the early days of ones career, and Jennifer has the experience nailed down from both the perspective of an artist and a gallerist. Her perspective and compassion for both sides makes her a more than worthy subject for this interview, and I appreciate her time in sharing her thoughts with all of us.
Jennifer Schlesinger is an Artist, Curator, Gallerist, and Educator based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Schlesinger has approached her fine art photography with an interest in the historical development of photography as an artistic medium - having influences from the age old camera obscura, to 19th century albumen process, to 20th century gelatin silver printing. She is interested in how the evolution of photography can expand upon the development of photography as an art form. Her artistic mediums of choice have been the 19th century albumen process and gelatin silver printing processes and her work mostly focuses on the landscape and how humans philosophically interact with the natural world around them. She uses photography as a tool to capture the world around her both poetically and metaphorically, and is highly influenced by the investigation of life through philosophy.
Jennifer graduated from the College of Santa Fe in 1998 with a B.A. in Photography and Journalism. Schlesinger has exhibited widely at Southwest regional institutions such as the Marion Center for Photographic Arts (SFUAD), Santa Fe Art Institute and the New Mexico Museum of Art, as well as national institutions such as the Southeast Museum of Photography and the Chelsea Art Museum. Her work has been published online and in print with international publications such as Black and White Magazine (U.S and UK), the cover article for Diffusion Magazine Volume III, and Fotoritim in Turkey. Schlesinger is represented in many public collections, including the Southeast Museum of Photography, FL; The New Mexico Museum of Art, and the New Mexico History Museum / Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. She has received several honors in recognition of her work including a Golden Light Award in Landscape Photography from the Maine Photographic Workshops and the Center for Contemporary Arts Photography Award in Santa Fe, New Mexico, both in 2005. She has been awarded many distinctive nominations such as the Santa Fe Prize for Photography by the Center and the Eliot Porter Fellowship by the New Mexico Council for Photography. She was the Assistant Director of Santa Fe Art Institute from 2003-2005 and was the Director of VERVE Gallery of Photography since from 2005-2017. She is now the Owner and Director at Obscura Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Schlesinger has taught Adjunct at the College of Santa Fe and continues to teach via workshops through the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, Art Intersection, and other venues.
Schlesinger's photographic work can be purchased at her represented galleries including Catherine Couturier Gallery, Houston, TX; Tilt Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Vision Neil Folberg Gallery, Jerusalem, Israel; and Camino Silvestre, San Miguel de Allende.
Michael Kirchoff: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions Jennifer, I appreciate it. First of all, what set you on a path in the photographic arts in the first place?
Jennifer Schlesinger: When I was about 19, I had taken some time off from college to try to figure out what I wanted to study, what I was passionate about, and I had moved to Atlanta with friends and had just started to get interested in art history. I had a friend put a Pentax K1000 in my hands and I fell in love with photography immediately. I got a job working at a custom photo lab and ultimately the rest is history! I went back to school, transferred to the College of Santa Fe to finish my degree in photography, and have been working with the photographic arts for 25 years now.
MK: Is there anything from your past that you feel has had a dramatic influence on how you create images today?
JS: After college I worked at non-profit organization in Santa Fe called the Art and Science Laboratory, founded by two video art pioneers, Woody and Steina Vasulka; a sound artist David Dunn; and a Santa Fe Institute scientist James Crutchfield. I was the administrator as well as an artist-in-residence of sorts and I learned to experiment with photography and technology in ways I had not done before. We always had artists in-and-out of the lab working on projects, collaborating, experimenting. I was invited to do a collaboration by a sound artist/composer Steven Miller and we created what became my first art installation. His vision was to create an installation through sound along with my photographs of the Pecos River area from the headwaters of Northern New Mexico all the way to Texas flowing into the Rio Grande. Steven really opened my eyes to understanding how photography has the power to create a visceral experience. I think I started to see what was possible when photography was taken out of its traditional documentary contexts (which is mostly what I focused my college studies on). This project opened me up to the ways in which I could use photography to create such a visual experience within the print itself, how to make an image come alive, so-to-speak. That collaborative installation, Along the Pecos, is now in the collection of the New Mexico History Museum.
MK: What is it about your creative process that you feel is represented most significantly in your photographs?
JS: I would say that my photographs tend to include the act of process itself – the making of a photograph rather than taking a photograph - whether through doing this in the physical process of printing the image or in the act of creating the image.
MK: Your work seems to take places and objects from reality and cast them into a new world entirely. Do you prefer to make images that do not represent any particular place or time? Why is this?
JS: I do! I think I do this because I have always used art as a way of ‘coping’ with the ‘real world’. Photography and art, truly saved me in my early adulthood, giving me a creative outlet that otherwise not found may had been detrimental to my well-being and my future path. I think I always used photography as a way to find a respite, a place to find beauty and comfort through creating other-worldliness.
MK: Was there a specific point in time where you felt that you had found your voice in photography and become satisfied with the direction of your work?
JS: I think the period of time when I was transitioning from my Object Diaspora series where I photographed objects with a large format pinhole camera, to then working with a digital camera and constructing negatives in the digital darkroom for my Here nor There series printed in albumen, was a highly significant time for my work. Once I started working with the computer to create negatives I realized that my images didn’t have to be limited to the images captured on film – I could then truly create the images I had in my head.
MK: Do you ever truly find yourself in a good place with your images, or are you always searching for more?
JS: I think there are some images I have created that worked exactly as I wanted them to, or happened by accident in ways greater than I would have been able to create them with intention. Those images and that feeling of satisfaction are definitely special – images like that don’t always happen that easily for me and I suppose it makes the need to continue the ‘search’ for that feeling of satisfaction even greater. The great images always reward and honestly, they are the ones that perpetuate the need to try and recreate as such satisfying work. It’s never completed, no I’m never satisfied, and yes, it’s always a search!
MK: You had been Gallery Director at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe for quite some time before they closed the doors. Was it an easy or natural decision for you to continue on in that role by opening your own photography gallery?
JS: It felt like a natural decision, because I could not fathom what I would do with myself in Santa Fe otherwise! I had eleven years experience of running Verve Gallery. It was truly at the encouragement of my partner Brant, who gave me the confidence to try my own gallery. Had he not been so supportive and encouraging I most likely would have gone in a different direction. But all the elements were in place – I had a group of artists who were enthusiastic about transitioning with me to Obscura, I had the building space we were about to remodel in a very prominent downtown location, I had the experience and knowledge of how to run the gallery…and in all honesty, I didn’t have the time to think otherwise – I literally started the process for creating Obscura the day after Verve told me they were closing! If I had more time to think about it, Obscura may have not been born! I can’t say owning my own gallery had ever crossed my mind as something I intended to do prior to Verve closing.
MK: Being a photographer yourself, do you feel as though you may have a better relationship with them in your role as a gallery director?
JS: I think having experience in both roles as an artist and as gallerist truly do give me a well-rounded advantage in that I know what qualities both roles should aspire to in the gallery relationship. I’m able to be compassionate for the role of artist, as well as business owner. I know, for example, that artists want to be paid in a rather reasonable time frame of when their work sells. To me, paying the artist or consignor comes first, before anything. I also know what it’s like to have to expend the energy, time, and money to create work – it’s an investment for the artist both literally and emotionally. Because I know this first-hand as an Artist, I feel as a Gallerist that I can give the proper attention to how work should be honored through the presentation, marketing, etc.
MK: Is there a specific creative process as it would apply to your career as Gallery Director at Obscura Gallery?
JS: I definitely feel that curating and creating exhibitions fulfills a wonderful creative outlet for me as a business owner and Director. It truly is an art to select artists and their work, create themes for shows, and think of opportunities for the Gallery and our Artists. It’s very rewarding to create my own gallery business.
MK: I often find the question of the role of technology in photography coming out. The question for you though, is two-fold. How has technology changed how you create your work, and how has it changed the business model of photographic galleries?
JS: As I mentioned above that being able to create negatives in a digital form really widened my photographic process. But also, for the business aspect, being able to market Obscura on social media and other online avenues opens the door for more people to know of and connect with your business, more ways for people to research your artists, and in general, it widens the audience. It’s remarkable what technology has done for businesses. It’s also a little daunting as there are so many ways for clients and collectors to find work online than there ever was before. This has put a lot of brick and mortar galleries, and shops in general, out of business. The trick is finding the online audience as well as bringing people into the gallery to experience the physical work. It’s not an easy task and can be very challenging. I do think the artists will always want a place to exhibit their work and ultimately there will always be an audience for people who want to enjoy work in this way. I hope that method of showing work will never go out of style, but just like anything, we have to learn how to morph and change with the evolution of our time. Nothing is constant – how’s the adage go? …the only constant is change….
MK: Time management can be a difficult part of life as a creative individual. Being a mother and a business owner, how do you find balance in order to continue with your own projects?
JS: Well as of late it’s been more challenging but for the most part, making time for your own work is just a part of life, a way of being - making art becomes part of your everyday life. It becomes a practice just like making time to work-out, etc. If you feel the bug to photograph and print, you just have to make it happen!
MK: Having a long history of working with historical photographic processes, do you find yourself drawn to that type of work as a gallery director as well? Would one find more of those styles of printing in Obscura Gallery?
JS: I am definitely drawn to work by artists who are using contemporary approaches to 19th and 20th century process in unique ways. That being said, process is secondary for me, it’s also about the image, the print/object, the subject, and how the artist chooses the process best suited for the medium. Most of the artists I represent are pioneers in their field, for example Cy DeCosse and later along with Keith Taylor, revived the platinum palladium, gum dichromate, and gravures processes over thirty years ago. Brigitte Carnochan had been working in hand-painted gelatin silver prints for the same amount of time. William Albert Allard had shot Polaroids in the 80’s and created dye transfer prints of some of his iconic images in the 70’s. Kurt Markus, is one of the few fashion photographers who still prints black and white gelatin silver prints even for major ad campaigns. Louviere + Vanessa are always pushing the boundaries of the photographic medium, working in resin, gold and silver leaf, and alternative ways of toning and presentation, and have been doing this for long over a decade. Susan Burnstine, who makes her own cameras and lenses has been doing this her entire career in photography. This is just a sampling of the artists I represent, but all of the artists I work with are working in unique and creative approaches to the medium and that truly is what I’m drawn to.
MK: What for you is the most fulfilling part of running a gallery? Do you feel that the environment there helps you in any way with your own photography?
JS: I think the most fulfilling part of running a gallery is creating and curating exhibitions, working with artists on the selections of the work for their shows, and selecting work for the gallery inventory. The marketing promotions for the work is also creative, yet sometimes challenging, but I do love putting it all together. It’s all a highly creative process. I have only been in our new space for 6 weeks, so how it works within the context of my own photography is yet to be seen. However we do have a photographic lighting system now in place in the gallery to shoot Brant’s art objects. I see that setup as a possible tool for my own work in the future.
MK: Out of all the other art forms out there, why do you think it took photography so long to be recognized as such?
JS: I think that since photography is unique in that it has the capability to render reality, that it always was and will be struggling with the interpretation that it’s a medium that represents reality. This, I feel, is the constant struggle for photography - to be accepted as an artistic medium on par with other mediums that don’t have such expectations. Also, photography is by nature, a medium of multiples since the 1850’s with the invention of paper negatives, as it became able to render multiple prints of the same image. This distinguishes photography from most artistic mediums and I think always played into question of the rarity of a print that could in essence be multiplied. Of course putting limited editions on prints, and making images unique from print to print solved this problem and most collectors accept this now, but it was still a factor for many in the past.
MK: What’s next for you, both as an artist and a gallerist?
JS: I am working on the exhibition schedule to finish off 2018 as well as 2019. In addition I have some new ideas I’m ironing out which will be able to include more artists via my website and artist inventory. Super excited to plan this out! As for my own work, I have some ideas brewing I’m getting ready to implement. Between my own work and the Gallery, it’s all a work in progress I’m very excited about!
MK: Thank you for your time and expertise with this interview, Jennifer. I wish you much success with your art, and with Obscura Gallery. I know for certain that on my next visit to Santa Fe, I will be stopping by.
JS: Thank you so much for including me in your new venture, Michael! I’m honored and wish you much success as well!
You can find more of Jennifer's work at her website here.