Karen Asher describes herself as an artist from “the middle of nowhere,” also known as Winnipeg, Canada. “The prairie city is isolated and freezing cold in the winter, but the people are warm and friendly and the city is cheap living,” she muses. “I’ve been dreaming of moving to New York since I was a teenager, and have had stints elsewhere, but Winnipeg is apparently home.”
Karen’s lightbulb moment was coming across some of Diane Arbus’ photos in a fashion magazine when she was around 12. “Her images cut right through and it was something I couldn’t really shake,” Karen says.
After taking community photo classes and then more formally at the University of Manitoba, “where I spent most of my time in the darkroom”, since receiving her BFA Honours in photography in 2009, Karen has been garnering grants and awards, and exhibiting work in both Canada and further afield as far away as Beijing. Despite the international appeal of Karen’s work, her lens stays firmly trained on the prairie city she grew up.
“I think I’m always trying to create a surreal, baffling moment thats multi-layered and asks a lot of questions,” Karen says of the offbeat, question-prompting images which span four series worth of work. “I love a good sense of anticipation, so there’s generally a lot of chaos and movement in the imagery. And I’m madame buffoonery numero uno, so humour plays an important role, even when the context is heavy. I’m obsessed with the human condition, and how we’re all trotting along through this world brilliantly and pathetically, so trying to find a balance of those feelings in my photos is crucial to me. And flash. Bad flash. I love crude lighting, film, and lo-fi imagery.”
Among those four series of images, the near decade-old series, No Cause For Concern leapt out to us. Bathed in flash, Karen’s cast of strangers and friends bring Winnipeg’s community to new life. “No Cause For Concern” is kind of like a scrappy love letter to Winnipeg, taken in different locations all over the city between 2008-2010,” Karen says. “I photographed friends, family, strangers — nobody was off limits. I think I wanted a true depiction of who was around me at the time. The tie that binds the images together is mostly the idea of creating something out of nothing — like when a regular moment becomes surreal and otherworldly. That kind of tone seems to thrive on the self consciousness in the air during a photo shoot. I love the intensity and awkward transaction between subject and photographer. It’s kind of like we’re both desperately performing for each other, and the camera picks that up.”
Looking forward, Karen recently finished working on The Full Catastrophe, “a depressingly long project that was very personal to me” and she’s keen to take on studio work “to focus on abstracting the body, without the familiarity of domestic decor” and begin to explore video. “There is so much movement in my photographs, so video is a natural progression. Maybe I’ll make a porno!” she laughs.