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My name is Adrienne Catanese, and I am a female emerging fine art photographer living and working in Long Island, NY. My current work is mostly conceptual still life created in my “studio” (read: tiny kitchen), but I also love shooting on-location portrait sessions, street photography, etc.
I am primarily a digital photographer; my gear is minimal: one Canon 5D Mark III body, one Canon 24-105 f4 lens (L series, came with the MarkIII), a cheap Amazon tripod, cheap Amazon speedlights, cheap Amazon triggers. I have a Canon T6 Rebel and a nifty-fifty that I carry for back-up when shooting weddings / paid jobs.
I make my own light modifiers like reflectors, snoots, grids, gobos, etc., using Dollar Tree materials, garbage, even things I find on the side of the road. I also hand-build my own props using thrift store materials and eBay items, often gluing, painting, sanding, even burning objects before meticulously arranging them in still life compositions.
My “creative vision” when making photos is usually very *obsessive* but in a good way. When working on a series, I can barely sleep as ideas, and even fully-formed images will appear in my mind as I lay in bed. In the middle of the night, I wake up to write notes and diagram shots in a notebook I keep next to the bed.
I got into photography because I was inspired by a photographer friend; she did self-portrait based “365 Projects” for several years running. I then started my own “365 Project” (also self-portraits), and that was how I began teaching myself photography. First, I was shooting daily on my iPhone 5c. After a couple months of daily shooting, I bought a used Canon T3 Rebel from my photographer friend for $150. On that simple, beat-up camera, I taught myself all the basics of manual exposure using library books and online resources. I firmly believe that consistent daily practice with a “beater” camera and studying photo-books (both instructional and monographs) formed my skill set foundation.
One of my biggest influences, especially for my more conceptual / studio (especially self-portrait) work, is Cindy Sherman. Her technical mastery and attention to detail inspire me; also, her embrace of “the grotesque,” her willingness to revel in ugliness, to critique the feminine identity, and to explore the darker places of the human mind…she’s nothing short of heroic. I also adore Mary Ellen Mark. I’m in awe of her eye and her compassion. Her images seem to elevate the mundane and the disenfranchised to an almost holy place; I view her as one of the greatest photographers of all time. When I’m shooting street or documentary, I often am inspired by her work on a subconscious level–but even if I were to shoot for a thousand years, I would never approach her level of mastery.
I’ve been shooting since 2015, so five years total. I’m 36 now, so I found photography pretty “late” in life compared to some. Back in the late 90s, I took darkroom film photography in high school, but I (stupidly) was more concerned with cutting class to smoke pot with my friends, so I don’t count those years 🙂 From 2015 – 2018 I was entirely self-taught, but I also was helped and guided by some brilliant, generous photographer friends along the way. Then in 2019, I enrolled in a photography program at the community college where I also work (as a writing tutor). Enrolling in a Photography program was the best decision I ever made for my work; I am still enrolled and eventually hope to pursue an MFA in Photo. My work has evolved in many ways through formal study: I shoot more often, and in more varied ways, my compositions are more mature, and I have a sense of accountability to my mentor, my professors, my classmates. Deadlines are good for my work. Healthy competition is good for my work. Wanting to impress professors is good for my work.
My identity often informs my photography in both approach and in themes: I am a woman, a trauma-survivor, a fat person, a bleeding-heart liberal, an atheist raised in born-again Christianity. I am a survivor of mental health conditions; I experience chronic physical pain. I’m an extrovert and a hopeless optimist. My day to day personality with others is funny and sunny, but my photographic work is often dark, anxious, and complex. These aspects of my identity inform my photography: I make work about the body and food. My current series is about surviving a sexual trauma that occurred over 20 years ago. Being a late 30s overweight woman makes me wonderfully invisible when shooting street work. Living with chronic pain means I’m more comfortable pulling long days in-studio rather than on-location. Don’t get me wrong: at 260 lbs, I hop fences to get my shot, climb in trees and lay flat on my ample belly in public places…I am a photographer, first and foremost. But after a 10-12 hour day second-shooting weddings, I’m laid up on the couch with my hubby bringing me Ibuprofen and rubbing my swollen feet. And I wouldn’t change one bit of it. Many of the circumstances I live with SUCK, but who am I to say any of it should be different? My identity informs my work; I love my work, and I love myself.
“Get a modestly priced camera of proven make and learn to use it” (The Camera by Time-Life Books 1970, p. 71). That is one of my all-time favorite photography quotes and a motto I live by. I am *not* a gear-head, and my inventory is minimal:
- Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 24-105 L F/4
- Good memory cards and hard drives
- Back-Up: Canon T6 Rebel w Canon “nifty-fifty.”
- Various film cameras and manual lenses; fun films
- Off-Brand tripod, speedlights, remotes, light stands
- Homemade modifiers
I chose this gear list because I am not rich, I am not concerned with the prestige or newness of gear, I am focused on getting it right “in-camera” and feeling connected to my instrument.
I shoot with natural and artificial light, but I am mostly a *natural light* shooter; I love the timeless quality of natural light. My Plagues of Egypt (2020) series is shot entirely with natural window light in my apartment. That being said, my current series about being a trauma survivor is shot using harsh artificial light (direct flash) because this lighting approach suits the themes and aesthetics of the project. I also use (bounced) flash out of necessity when shooting indoor event coverage, like weddings.
Photography is my meditation, my medication, and my highest form of communication. I am a better, happier person when I am making work.
My mentor talks about “farmers” and “hunters”…as in, we can understand street photographers or even documentary-style wedding shooters as “hunters,” whereas in-studio still life or portrait work is more for “farmers.” Yet herein lies one of my biggest dilemmas as an emerging photographer: I love both, and I do both, depending upon what the current series calls for, or where my head is at that year, or which photobooks I have been reading. For instance, all during 2020, I have been a “creator” / “farmer,” constructing meticulous conceptual still life in my house…this is shaped by my vision as an artist, sure. Still, it’s also a practical adaptation during a year of pandemic life. Prior to 2020, my practice was much more focused on street photography, candid portraits, and documentary work. I expect that I will do both and never fully be able to choose one over the other throughout my life.
When I’m shooting, I need to be alone (unless it’s portraits or event work, obviously). My preferred music for shooting lately has been The Smiths, The Pixies, Portishead…I like to shoot to music that is brooding, chilled out, artsy, and evokes an earlier time–I sort of choose music that takes me back to my teenage brain. Usually, a conceptual still life image has been diagrammed in advance in my notebook. I’ve usually spent days or even weeks mentally planning my shots, so by the time I start shooting, I feel *ready*. I drop into a “flow-state” of hyper-focused attentiveness. I can shoot for hours and “forget” to eat dinner. I often find myself working with a painfully-full bladder because I am so engrossed that a bathroom break feels like an unwelcome interruption. I’m not saying any of this is healthy, but, damn, it feels amazing when I’m lost in it. I turn my tiny apartment upside down, hanging sheets for backdrops, working with window light, or setting light stands. I *sometimes* use a tripod for still life work, but other times I feel like the tripod tethers me, so I handhold even for still life (a bad habit, I know, but I am a very steady shooter who can hold slow shutter speeds). I often make a few test images and then go from there, tweaking my exposure settings, rearranging objects, changing my position and approach, etc. Even while shooting still life, there are happy accidents: something will spill or fall; I will experience a lighting problem and solve it in a new way…Even when I’m controlling everything, I’m open to the unexpected. Inversely, when I’m documenting unpredictable street scenes, I’m still trying to exert control through framing and compositional choices. The paradox of control vs. spontaneity is essential to how I work.
It’s true, I don’t use Photoshop. In many ways, my *fear* of Photoshop has been a blessing: for my first couple of years of shooting, I had no idea how to use any Adobe programs. I did all my image management and “editing” first through the Photos application on my iMac. Then, I eventually got through the free Canon software Digital Photo Professional 4 (sorry if that name-drop is intimidating to readers, LOL). The first time I tried to install and use Lightroom, I literally ended up panic-crying and calling an out-of-state photographer friend to talk me down. Nowadays, I LOVE Lightroom and feel really comfortable there…so comfortable, in fact, that I often have no need for Photoshop. I know that someday as a professional, I will need to learn PS (as well as Capture One and other software), but for now, I am scared of Photoshop and very content never / barely using it. In fact, as my iMac is older and needs an upgrade, it cannot even run PS well, another deterrent from even opening the program. As for my approach to post-processing in Lightroom, I keep things minimal: white balance and color correction, black and white tones, levels, vignettes, cloning out dust and small objects, whitening teeth, or lightly smoothing skin. Here’s a free retouching tip for all you family portrait photographers out there: when you’re short on time, just retouch MOM. Clean up blemishes, brighten the smile, light smoothing. When MOM is looking good, everything else in the image falls into place 😉 Seriously though, I am convinced that my lack of software tools early on and never really learning heavy retouching has improved my work. When you don’t know how to “fix it later” in post-production, you make damn sure you get the shot correctly in-camera. Plus, I am philosophically opposed to a lot of the image manipulation that goes on in fashion and advertising images, so even once I learn more tools, I will never be that photographer who slims a model’s waist or lightens the skin of a model of color; I think that kind of retouching raises ethical concerns.
I’m pitching two bodies of work to you with my attached sample images (5 from Plagues of Egypt , and 5 from In-Absentia, my currently in-process trauma project ):
Created during the 2020 pandemic, Plagues of Egypt reinterprets biblical plagues through a series of still life tableaux photographed in my apartment during the lockdown. This work draws upon art history, symbolism, and my own experience growing up in born-again Christianity. We now find ourselves on both the personal and national levels interrogating the existential meaning of disease, plagues, and pandemics. Our desire for certainty is seen in seeking divine explanations, often to the exclusion of scientific ones. But the philosophical problem of evil asserts itself: our collective cultural heritage is shaped by stories of disease as divine punishment and prayer as salvation. We feel a sense of helplessness in the face of a power that at once proclaims “Let my people go” while also hardening Pharaoh’s heart, which unleashes pestilence, darkness, and death the firstborn as easily as one might arrange objects in a still life.
In-Absentia is a photographic series about trauma and survival. In 1998, at age 14, I was raped by a 21-year-old who groomed my friends and me in early internet chat rooms. In In-Absentia, meticulous still life and archival material combine to form a narrative of my rape that is both personal and political. Surreal images evoke a liminal space representing the cognitive sensations of traumatic memory and the lawless nowhere-ness of the early internet. In-Absentia’s visual depictions of trauma suggest a sort of dream logic: nothing is as it should be, and I cannot seem to awake.
All images shown here are created without the use of Photoshop or compositing: instead, double-exposures are created in-camera, “sets” and props are built by hand and carefully lighted, and minimal post-processing is done in Lightroom to achieve a cohesive aesthetic.
As for why I embraced my current genre (conceptual / still life), it’s a combination of both interest and practicality: studio work is much safer and easier during a pandemic than street work, which I had been doing a lot of prior to 2020. And as for motivation: shooting even when I don’t feel like it, a desire to keep improving, and the hope of creating a body of work that will outlive me after I am gone…all of these are motivations small and large.
Readers may enjoy my work because my current projects are evidence that: one can make strong work even in a tiny apartment, and one can make strong work without a giant arsenal of gear. On a deeper level, I hope that fellow trauma-survivors might see my current in-process series and be emboldened to tell their own stories of trauma and survival through photography. Photography is a vehicle for exploring painful or difficult ideas, and I hope readers sense that in my work and find personal meaning in viewing my work.
Readers can find me and my work on my website. I’m currently updating my site and adding more images from my archives. I’m not currently active on Instagram or other social media as I find these platforms often distract me and take away time I’d rather spend making work.
All images and this essay is by Adrienne Catanese. Used with permission. Be sure to find more from her on her website. You, too, can feature work of yours that doesn’t include Photoshop. Click here to see all the details on how to get featured.