Interview from The National Post
Awkward silences and other uncomfortable moments are things we often try to forget. But Winnipeg artist Karen Asher strives to preserve those instants, turning them into surprisingly appealing photographic portraits. With a hometown show now on at Winnipeg’s Platform Gallery, Asher tells Leah Sandals about her mashups of gangling and gorgeous.
Q How did you start doing portraits?
A There was never a question of what I was going to photograph because I love people and I love the intense dynamic between myself and a human subject. I can’t get that from anything else. I’ve tried, but the odd time I photograph things that aren’t people, the images are not as exciting.
Q So who are the people in your pictures?
A It’s anybody and everybody — usually friends and family, but also strangers, exes, acquaintances, neighbours. I like larger-than-life personalities. Recently, I photographed my mum in hospital when she was really sick. I also try to photograph people on the street occasionally, but because I use a large camera and my equipment is old and heavy, that has to be an intentional kind of thing.
Q Your photos often have an awkwardness about them. Why?
A I don’t set out to take awkward photographs, but I’m an awkward person, a selfconscious person, and I think that’s what probably comes through — an awkward sensibility. Working with a square format also makes me feel like I’m capturing people in these strange little worlds. And if I’m photographing someone I know, I tend to shoot for a really long time and wait until the subject’s guard is down — I think that captures a more raw and natural moment.
Q All your photos are set in Winnipeg, where you live. Though they focus on individuals, do you think your images reflect the city in some way?
A Well, I don’t have the money to go off and make a “destination” project. And there’s something strange about Winnipeg being so isolated, about having to drive for two days to get to the next big Canadian city. Then the winters are just ridiculously freezing, like -40. So there’s a sense of claustrophobia, of seeing the same characters day after day after day.
At the same time, I’m intrigued by the city. Those distinct seasons can make Winnipeg an amazing place to photograph– the city goes from frozen to balmy in a blink. And I like its strange contradictions –funny and sad, cold but cozy. There’s a dark, tough, strange undercurrent that gives the city its character.
Q Do you ever do self-portraits?
A I’ve tried, but they’re terrible because I’m so aware of the camera. I think we’re all selfconscious when the camera is on us, but when you’re in complete control there’s something really calculating about it. I like what can happen when someone’s not as aware of when the shutter’s going off.
Q You mentioned that you recently photographed your mom in the hospital. Did that feel different from what you usually do?
A It did, in a lot of ways. For one, I was looking at tragedy, which I hadn’t done before. At the same time, I know tragedy and comedy work together. I was at a funeral recently, and crying really, really hard. Then someone broke into song, out of nowhere, in this high, shrill voice, and I felt like bursting out laughing. I also have a photo, for instance, of an old man eating ice cream — he’s a stranger at a wedding, and smiling hugely, and the sky is so blue. But you can also see he’s using oxygen tubes to breathe. I’m trying to capture authentic moments, but in a surreal manner that makes you look at that moment in a different light.
Q What photographers inspire you?
A Probably my first great love was Diane Arbus. Maybe I’m nostalgic, but I really love the “oldies” –William Eggleston, Weegee, Garry Winogrand. They captured raw, real moments without a lot of bells and whistles. I think today we have so many technological options that it muddles down art sometimes. If all an artwork is is glossy and pretty, I probably won’t find it that interesting.
– Leah Sandals