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⤷ PiB Guide Nº55 JULY/AUG 2024

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7 QUESTIONS FOR…
Jenna Westra

PiB Interview Nº21 | June 2024

PiB is delighted to present the #PiBinterview Nº21 in our series »7 Questions for…« to you – this time with artist Jenna Westra!
The interview was conducted by Julia Schiller for PiB, accompanying Jenna’s solo show »Thread Song«, on view from June 6 — July 13, 2024 at SCHWARZ CONTEMPORARY in Berlin-Neukölln.

PiB: Welcome, dear Jenna! Would you like to introduce yourself?

Jenna Westra: Nice to meet you! My name is Jenna Westra and I’m a New York based artist working with photography and film. My latest project is an exhibition titled Thread Song at Schwarz Contemporary in Berlin-Neukölln, on view until July 13, 2024. I hope you will get to see it.

What is your favorite photograph (taken by you or someone else)?

It’s hard to choose just one, but the first image that comes to mind that I think of often is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Italie (Léonor Fini et André Pieyre de Mandiargues), (1933). It portrays a couple entangled in a body of water. Leonor floats behind Pieyre with her arms outstretched and legs wrapped around him, her face obscured by the back of his head. I imagine she’s looking to the sky in a feeling of bliss. To me the image would be purely romantic and sentimental if not for Pieyre’s strangely tense hand seen underwater in the bottom left of the frame. I get the sense that they are completing one another, it’s hard to tell where one person ends and the other begins. I’m similarly interested in confusing the limits of the body, and in unexpected details that somehow change the mood of a photograph.

© Jenna Westra, Mirror Cleaning, 2024, Archival inkjet print, 61 × 47,5 cm, 2024

Could you please pick one image from your portfolio and share the story behind it?

In my new work Mirror Cleaning (2024), I had the rather straightforward idea of capturing the model looking at herself in the mirror, so we see her back and face at the same time. I noticed when I was framing the image with my camera that the mirror was dirty and I wanted it to be clean. So I got some glass cleaner and started spraying it, but then saw how the liquid on the mirror was distorting the model’s image, and I loved that, so we decided to make the picture with the fluid mirrored surface instead. This sort of thing happens pretty often in my work, where I have one idea but then am presented by chance with something else that excites me. I know when I feel that way to trust my instincts and be flexible with my original plan.

If you weren’t taking photographs, what would be your outlet to express yourself artistically?

I would be a chef, I love to cook and enjoy the process of it. It’s very closely aligned to the photographic process. First you have to have an idea and make a plan, then shop for supplies, and put it all together in anticipation of the final result. I like that all senses are engaged in cooking too; there are colors and shapes, the tactility of temperature and textures, smells and taste of course, sizzles and clangs. It’s a very sensory experience. And in the end, you get to share what you’ve made for others to enjoy with you.

Which historical event (past/present/future) would you like to photograph?

The Women’s Suffrage Procession on Washington D.C. in 1913. There were 10,000 women working together to gain the right to vote in the US, all dressed in white. There is an image of the German actress Hedwiga Reicher (Editor’s note: see 1st image here) playing the role of Columbia in an allegorical tableau as part of the procession that is quite striking. We see the actress dressed in armor, but also young girls and another woman in a billowing white dress in the background. I imagine the event was as visually powerful as it was urgent.

Are photo books important to you, and if so, which book impressed or influenced you?

Photo books are very important to me, we have so many. Again, it’s hard to choose just one, but a favorite is Silvianna Goldsmith’s eponymous book. She was an artist and filmmaker but also a notable feminist activist, being an original member of the Guerilla Art Action Group and a co-founder of Women Artists in Revolution. Her book was published posthumously by our mutual friend and fellow artist Ryan Foerster with his DIY imprint Ratstar Press in 2020. It’s a hefty publication that includes Goldsmith’s photographs and contact sheets, but also her paintings and drawings along with personal papers; film scripts, show and screening announcements and typewritten correspondence from museums, galleries and libraries from the 1970’s to early 2000’s. It’s an amazing archive. I found the book at a time when I started using an analogue slide projector to project images into models and photograph that way. I was delighted to discover her work and see her images that use this same process, it was very inspiring for me and I return to it often.

What’s the most memorable feedback/comment/compliment you’ve received on your work so far?

It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but an indelible bit of feedback came during a studio visit in graduate school in 2012 with a very well known artist. It was my first semester and I was looking forward to it, but also a bit nervous. She came in and looked at what I had made and told me that my work had echoes of 1970’s feminist actions and performance art, which I took as a compliment since that period has always been influential for me. But she then continued and told me I had no business referencing that work because I wasn’t even alive in the 1970’s. I was pretty taken aback but have since come to realize she was plainly wrong. Now being a college professor myself, I would never tell a student any historical work was off limits to them. I think of art as existing on a continuum, a flow of evolving reactions to the current state, but also in relation to past times.

© Jenna Westra, Atlas, published by Hassla, 2018

What advice would you give to a photographer/artist at the beginning of their career?

The above, but also to be curious about others, we can learn a lot from our peers. It’s also very important to find one’s own tenor of voice, a visual language that is unique. I’d stress the importance of being educated and aware about what your work is in conversation with. You have to be convinced of what you’re making and care about it. Then I would say make a book – things really got going for me after my first book Atlas was published by Hassla in 2018. It was a small publication, but that also meant it was easily dispersed, many more people can see and afford a book than a print or exhibition.

PiB: Thank you for the interview, Jenna!

Related links

Jenna Westra: Website | Instagram
Exhibition feature on PiB for SCHWARZ CONTEMPORARY | Jenna Westra »Thread Song«
All features on PiB for Schwarz Contemporary
All features on PiB for Jenna Westra

PiB Guide Nº55 JULY/AUG 2024 © PiB (Photography in Berlin). COVER PHOTO: PiB Guide Nº55 JULY/AUG 2024 © PiB (Photography in Berlin). COVER PHOTO: Harf Zimmermann, Palast der Republik, Berlin 2005 © Harf Zimmermann, courtesy Collection de Gambs. Group show »Berlin, Berlin – 20 Jahre Helmut Newton Stiftung« at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin-Charlottenburg. +++ PiB Guide Editor / V.i.S.d.P. / Art Direction: Julia Schiller & Oliver Schneider · www.ele-studio.de +++ Printed on 100% recycling paper in Berlin-Köpenick by altmann-druck, many thanks!

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»PiB — Photography in Berlin« | PiB’s website, PiB’s weekly E-Newsletter, and the bi-monthly published PiB Guide: page 12 & 13 from the PiB Guide Nº15 Nov/Dec 2017; feat. the exhibition Evelyn Hofer »Cities, Interiors, Still Lifes. Photographs 1962 – 1997« at Galerie Springer Berlin; image credits: Queensboro Bridge, New York, 1964 / Coney Island, New York, 1965 / Girl with Bicycle, Dublin, 1966, all 3 photos © Evelyn Hofer, Estate Evelyn Hofer.

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