An Interview with Photographer Abby Powell

YSC friend and photographer Abby Powell is a California native who makes her home in Portland, OR. We emailed Abby to ask about her process, her recently-launched online shop, and about her particular aesthetic that blends rich patterns and bright colors with passing glimpses of friends, family and the occasional model.

NB: To begin, can you tell us how and when you developed an interest in photography?

AP: I think from an early age I developed a unique aesthetic taste. My mother would constantly take my sisters and I thrift shopping, and I started to enjoy finding beauty in the textures and character of objects. I've always loved photographs for their documenting purposes, but I'd say it was about four years ago when I moved to Portland that I began to be interested in photography as an art form. It was then that I started sharing my slightly different sense of what beauty is that I really began to love photography. I created a blog to show my friends and family what I'd been up to and found a whole group of people out there who liked what I was doing. It felt really good and I've been doing this ever since.

NB: Can you talk a bit about the differences between shooting on traditional film versus shooting Polaroids? Do you prefer one over the other?

AP: When I shoot with my 35mm camera I can control the focus and I have a much broader range that I can shoot. When I shoot with Polaroids, there's a lot of room for error. I shoot with two kinds of Polaroid cameras; with the One Step (early 90's version) I intentionally broke the flash and love using it for landscape shots. With my Polaroid Land Camera I can somewhat adjust the focus and prefer to use that to shoot photos of still lifes or people. Polaroid film is expensive and hard to find. It's being discontinued, so there is a bittersweet feeling when I shoot with it. I have to say, I love shooting with all different types of cameras, but if I could only have one it would be my Yashica tl electro. I feel as though I know exactly what to expect from it.

NB: Generally speaking, there are rarely broad horizons or empty spaces within the frame of your photographs. Frequently, the areas outside of or behind your subjects are richly colored or patterned. If there's a person in a shot, the viewer frequently only sees his/her head and hands, or a pair of shoes. Aesthetically, what draws you to the tight or close shots?

AP: It's hard for me to express in words why or why not I enjoy the certain look of something, but I will try. I think that the life I live is very vibrant and colorful that these shots often just happen. If one were to look at my flickr favorites (a sort of log of my inspiration) you'll see that I do love simple, more stark shots. But my home and my life here in Portland are so very full that I think that overflowing of color and pattern just comes through in my photography. Perhaps that is why I like the tight shots; they allow the viewer to focus on a specific area of the mayhem.

NB: There's something optimistic and even nostalgic about your color palate, so that even when you're shooting something that could seem melancholic -- an empty diner table, a field of dessicated flowers -- the bright tones of your work kind of push the viewer to reconsider the nature of your subjects. Is that at all a fair statement? Along those same lines, what draws you to work primarily in color, rather than in black and white?

AP: I think that is a fair statement, if not a little generous. I really do believe that almost anything and anyone could be considered beautiful-if we just looked at them in the right way. Call me cheesy, but I really do believe that. I think that we have all witnessed this to be true, at one moment or another. Those are the moments I try and capture. Black and white photography is nothing I have ever really enjoyed. I think many people have produced great works in black and white, but I just prefer color. Maybe someday I will change...

NB: Your photos are incredibly composed, but there's something improvisational and immediate about your work as well. When you set out to shoot, do you generally have an idea of what you're looking for, or do you just shoot what you feel like at any given moment?

AP: I'd say about 99% of my (recent, within the past year) shots just happen. I rarely set up a scene to shoot. Yes, sometimes I'll be at a party and tell some one "don't move, literally" and line up a shot... but other than that I just go with my gut. I still don't drive and often walk everywhere I go. I always take a camera with me when I walk. I will often go to certain places hoping to get some good shots, but I try not to force it.

NB: In terms of your process, do you work in a studio or out of your home?

AP: I work out of my home, which at this moment is probably half filled with bits of my work. The other half is filled with my partner's instruments-so it works for us.

NB: I know you recently began to sell prints, and that you've done some commercial work as well. I think in any artistic field, there's the perennial question of whether commercial interests encourage or inhibit creativity. Now that you're selling your work, have you felt pressure to produce more? Has it been liberating to get your work out there? A combination of those things?

AP: Definitely a combination of all of those feelings. I am really trying to let go of my own expectations and any expectations I may feel from others. A few years ago I was selling block prints and stationary and burnt out on the whole thing very quickly. I'm trying to not do that this time and learning to say "no" when I really don't want to do something. I am lucky to have a big community both online and in "real" life that is hugely supportive.

NB: It's always a tricky or tenuous thing to claim influence, so I won't ask you for a laundry list of influences, but I am interested to know what inspires you.

AP: I guess just the normal things in life; a nice pen that writes smoothly, an interesting houseplant, a well made dish cloth, a good piece of bread, a new pair of socks. Those little things that make our day to day lives seem less mundane. And flickr, I'm obsessed with flickr...

NB: Do you see yourself working as a full-time photographer ever?

AP: Hmm...I could never be a photographer who shot portraits or studio shots for a living...but if I was able to travel around the world shooting what I wanted, then of course. Bottom line for me is that I dislike people telling me how to create art. If I can find something where I can express myself and people want to pay me, cool. If not, I'd prefer working an easy job during the week to support my happiness.

NB: Thanks for talking with us, Abby, and best of luck.

AP: Thank you!


BJK said…
wow, i love these!
abby said…
thanks for doing this, nate!
i love this blog, esp. the previous post. have a good night, abby
alice said…
Interesting interview and answers :)
cindy : quaint said…
i love abby's photos and enjoyed reading more about her process. i'm a newbie photographer and would say she is a top influence for me. thanks for the interview!
L'Atelier said…
Thanks for this great interview. Abbey is a very talented artist and it was great to find out more about her.

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