Tuesday, May 20, 2008
jessie mann interview: part 2
here's part two of Seven Questions for Jessie Mann. the photo above is of Jessie at 18, by Katy Grannan, scanned from the February 2000 issue of Harper's Bazaar.
Subjectify: I was so interested to find out that in addition to posing for your mother (and before the work you’re now doing with Len Prince in “Self Possessed”), you also modeled for photographers Justine Kurland and Katy Grannan. Did you always know that you would continue modeling and musehood? Did you ever rebel against it?
Jessie Mann: Even while I was working with Justine, and after I had posed for Katy—I still didn’t recognize that what I was doing was an artistic or creative action. It was just something I did, like breathing. I had no real sense of starting it, neither did I think of it as something I could stop. When Katy came to my boarding school for shoots, or when Justine and I would drive around the Virginia countryside talking about images and scouting locations, I did not think of myself as a creating agent. Ironically, it was through regarding the public response to mom’s photographs that I began to consider the role of the muse, not through the action of “musing.” As I digested the manner in which the public automatically dismissed our [my siblings and my] possible collaboration and enjoyment in the creative process which culminated in the Immediate Family series, I started to focus on the sad fact that this is a pervasive response in regard to the subject of art, specifically when that subject matter is a woman. It wasn’t until late in my conversations with Justine about the role of the subject and my frustration with the assumption of exploitation (while working in front of the camera) that it dawned on me that what I doing, was related. Honestly, it came to me very slowly that I could use this thing, this love I had for a connection with the camera, to tell the story about the very position, of being in front of the lens. A story often distorted or overlooked entirely. It is embarrassing how slow it all was when I think about it now. I think I came to understand the importance of the position of the subject while I worked with Katy and Justine but it wasn’t until I was already started on "Self Possessed" that I realized the full artistic agency of the muse. This delayed response was, you are correct in your question, because I did rebel.
Never did I rebel against the act of being a muse or subject. But I did rebel against the idea of ‘the muse’ as it is currently established and I also rebelled against being an artist in general. Of course it is a challenge to be the artist child of a famous artist, but what really put me off admitting to being an artist was that I had this sense that I had to do something concretely good in the world, and I couldn’t see that the only true way to do that, was to do something you love. I thought I had to do something serious and hard.
When I met Len Prince, I blurted out this bundle of ideas about the subject as an active agent in art, about how the story, from Alice’s perspective, has yet to be written, about how it had to be done through the looking glass, how I thought I might have an abstract character capable of symbolic action… and Len said “I need a muse”. Of course, given that I was a self hating muse at this time, I was a little insulted that he thought that was all I had in mind. It was only once we worked together, once we built our first set together, and gathered props like giddy playmates, only once we had made our first image together as collaborators, that I realized what a powerful thing it was—to muse. What a gift it was to have found a partner who defined muse in a way that made me love the word. I realized that I had been practicing an artistic craft all these years. When it finally dawned on me that art could make arguments better than words, when I realized that art could transmit knowledge and awareness, as much as any science—when I saw how elegantly art could code for both subjectivity and consciousness—I was like a convert. At that point, there I was, with my medium right under my nose, and a story to tell, and I reconciled with it all. With my rebellion over and already preliminarily engaged with Len on the zygote of Self Possessed, I found myself a zealot. I began to bring a new determination and purpose with me to the shoot, because I knew then that there was a way to express the ideas about self and subjectivity that I had so long considered, and I was lucky enough to have been granted the experience necessary to know how to do it. And then, there I was with yet another wonderful artist to explore ideas with. It was at that moment, knee deep in doing it, that I knew that this is what I would do forever and it was what I was meant to do.
I console myself that I am not the only one who was a little slow to realize the Aristotelian phrase “You are what you do everyday.”