featuresStudio visits
Thursday, June 1st, 2006

Barbara Yoshida

You started your career as a painter and sculptor, and first became involved in photography with a project you did making portraits of women artists in New York City.

I felt that male artists were photographed a lot, and I wasn’t seeing as many representations of women artists, and those that I did see weren’t done the way that I would have done them. My switch to photography emerged from my desire to document the community of women artists. I started using a camera in 1989, and over the next couple of years, I photographed over 70 women artists. After I completed that project I just continued to use the camera.

Barbara Yoshida Nancy Graves 1992  silver gelatin print,  14 x 11 inches  all images courtesy the artist
Barbara Yoshida, Nancy Graves 1992 silver gelatin print, 14 x 11 inches all images courtesy the artist

As you became more comfortable with the camera, and this project came to an end, you turned the camera on yourself.

I was in a feminist stage then. So I made some naked self-portraits as Eve, as Hecate (the Greek death goddess), and as the maiden, the middle aged woman, and the crone. I also made a series called “Conversations with a Dead Pig” beginning in 1993.

These photographs are less strictly documentary. You’re using props. There are traces of movement in the images also. The pictures are constructed. You began to see photography as a medium that could accommodate a different kind of input from the artist.

I found that photographs enabled me to express concerns that I hadn’t been able to express before, in painting or in sculpture. I was able to deliver a more specific message.

At that time, there was a lot of discussion about the male gaze. I wondered, can photography represent the naked female body without it being a male projection? How do you make concrete something that has to do with the inside of the body, where the feminine is located? That’s a very difficult thing, I’m not sure if it has been done successfully. I also wanted to reexamine the connection between woman and nature, from a contemporary perspective and in relation to feminist iconography.

You wear the mask of a hare in some of these pictures, and there is a real pig head that you use as a prop.

I’m a big Beuys fan, and he knew the hare was a traditional symbol of the feminine in Europe, and it was one of the key animals he identified with. Hares are prolific, and they are also capable of superfoetation, in which an already pregnant female can become pregnant again. Beuys made a lot of hare pieces, including the performance, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” in which he carried a real dead hare in his arms. I thought it was time to hear what the hare had to say. So I made the series called “Conversations with a Dead Pig.” I wore a hare mask in those pictures and there is a real pig head in my lap or at my feet. I had thought the pig would represent a male chauvinist pig, but in fact, the conversation was different than I thought it would be. The pig itself was so benign, he had a sweet smile and he didn’t appear aggressive or antagonistic or any of those things that might have evoked a different kind of conversation. There is movement in those pieces because I wanted the photographs to reflect the active nature of the conversation.

Barbara Yoshida Babydoll Trilogy-1 (from the series "Conversations with a Dead Pig") 1993 silver gelatin print,  14 x 11 inches
Barbara Yoshida, Babydoll Trilogy-1 (from the series "Conversations with a Dead Pig") 1993 silver gelatin print, 14 x 11 inches

All of your work is made in natural light, even the ones at night. You started making portraits of yourself at night when you were making these imaginative self-portraits for particular reasons.

Traditionally, the sun has been thought of as male, and the moon has been thought of as female. It goes along with some chauvinistic concepts linking the fearsome, unpredictable side of the night with female emotions and intuition, as opposed to strong, clear daylight, which is associated with men. And of course the cycles of the moon and the cycles of women’s bodies are linked. It’s interesting to note that in Japan and in Morocco they see a hare in the moon, not a man.

And then you started photographing other places in moonlight.

I did several residencies in the National Parks from 1996 until 2002. I zeroed in on photographing what I call “rocks with a presence”, shooting by moonlight as well as during the day. Then I started traveling more and photographed special rocks that were revered by other people in other cultures, and not just selected by me. I grew up in northern Idaho, about 100 miles away from the Canadian border, and I’m comfortable with camping and the out-of-doors.

Some of these stones are seen as animate.

In Japanese Shintoism, everything has a spirit within it, and in Japan, people visit and pay homage to these stones. I feel a kinship with that culture because I do feel that everything has a spirit. To some people, rocks and stones are the bones of the earth. There’s something so basic about them. They are a link to the past and to the future.

Around that time I also started doing photogravure. It’s an early photographic process from the late 19th century. You transfer a photographic image to a copper plate and print it like an etching. It’s a continuous tone process that gives a full range of tones. And it’s the most archival process—you use good etching inks and good rag paper and that’s it. It’s a labor-intensive, temperamental process. And while it is an old process, I’m doing things with it that they never did then. I use blue inks, for example. Photographically, I make long night exposures with star trails, with movement and time. And they didn’t do that then either.

You did a project called “Urban Orators” in the late 1990’s. This is a strictly urban project.

I live in the city, and I can’t always be outdoors, and I do need to work whether I’m traveling or not. So I have done some urban projects.

On my way to my day job I used to pass this man whom people referred to as The Preacher. He stood on the median on Park Avenue with his Bible, and he was there every morning, rain or shine. His performative aspect was captivating. He had a distinctive way of walking in a circle, and the cadence and rhythm of his speech were also highly developed. He talked about the Bible and also about current events. He made me realize that there are people out there who feel theymust say their message publicly. I felt he was as dedicated, or even more dedicated, than most of the artists I know in getting his message out. So I photographed and recorded him and some other urban orators, too.

Barbara Yoshida The Preacher (from the series "Urban Orators”) 1998 silver gelatin print,  14 x 11 inches
Barbara Yoshida The Preacher (from the series "Urban Orators”) 1998 silver gelatin print, 14 x 11 inches

And then, on one of your travels, you saw a menhir.

I was in Scotland in 2003, on Orkney, and I saw the Ring of Brodgar. I pitched my tent next to this ancient ring of stones, and I photographed all night long. Then I started to focus on these standing megalithic stones instead of stones in general.Menhirs are found in the British Isles, Brittany, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Poland. And now the travel and the photography have become really intertwined.

What do we know about these stones?

Not very much. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to them. They’re mysterious. You can’t carbon date stones, and even if there are remains underneath, they could have been added later. As Keith Carter says, “I always love what I don’t understand.”

M. Scott Peck is the only one who said, “Maybe they’re art.” He suggests that we may be ignoring that they were intended as works of art. Do you see them as the product of artists?

Someone with a lot of charisma organized those people to select those stones and to transport them over long distances and erect them in certain configurations. That person must have been an artist, and they were making art. To me, they’re sculpture.

I think of landscapes as being traditionally horizontal, and the portrait format as more vertical. When I saw your pictures of the standing stones, my first thought was that they were portraits.

The stones have a somewhat anthropomorphic, vertical, thin shape. I think the photographs are portraits. I want to make photographs that focus on the stones themselves—their individual characters—even though the gravures are also about the particular atmospheric conditions and the experience of being there at that particular time. It’s possible that the stones are also a reflection of myself, the solitary individual artist who is out there in the elements.

Barbara Yoshida Ring of Brodgar Stone—Moonlight, Orkney, Scotland 2003  chromogenic print,  20 x 16 inches (prints also made in photogravure and pigment inkjet)
Barbara Yoshida, Ring of Brodgar Stone—Moonlight, Orkney, Scotland 2003 chromogenic print, 20 x 16 inches (prints also made in photogravure and pigment inkjet)

Do you use any digital technology in your work?

I do print from the computer in addition to making photogravures. I make inkjet prints from film scans. The inks and papers have improved enormously, and I think that is the future. But I love film, and I hope I’ll always be able to use it. Nikon’s not making film cameras anymore–every day there’s another nail in that coffin. But I suppose there will always be a way to work with it, just as photogravure is an old process that comes around every so often. Artists might have to make their own film or coat their own paper to work in that way.

These stones are remote. By virtue of the fact that you’re putting them onto film, we can now have many of these stones in many different places at once. We can partake of some of their special qualities. This is something that photography does uniquely well. And with digital technology, they can also be on the internet, and millions of people can share their qualities.

I want to communicate, and I want to reach as wide an audience as I can. I’m more interested in that than in making a unique piece of artwork.

You shoot on site and often don’t see what’s on the film until you get back home. You’re at the mercy of the weather and a host of other variables. There’s a lack of direct control over the product, in some ways.

I like that randomness, that element of chance. But not everyone feels that way. And then some people don’t appreciate the way it operates in my work. Some dealers have asked me to replicate the atmosphere of a particular image, and that’s impossible. The images are the result of particular conditions at a specific time. Being there in itself is quite an accomplishment sometimes, which not everybody would want to do in the first place! It takes an artist to want to do these crazy things.

Your work has become less overtly political and feminist. You’re communicating with pre-history, the 19th century, places all over the world.

I’m not in a very political phase right now. I feel defeated by the political climate, and I don’t want any part of what this country is doing. The sublime and the mysterious are things that drive me. I just read a short essay that Tom Robbins wrote about Joseph Campbell, and he says that people need to reconnect with myth. People may not realize that it’s missing in their lives. They may not realize they need to reconnect with nature and natural things. If I put even one pebble on that see-saw to help reestablish some balance, I’ll be happy. It’s all going one way now, and it’s not a way I believe in. And I have to make that statement.

In an artist’s statement you have talked about romance.

That’s seen as an old-fashioned concept right now. I have a romantic soul. Going into the unknown and voyaging is romantic by its very nature, and I’m interested in beauty and the spiritual sense that transcends specific religions and that brings people together. I have to follow that path with heart, even though I know that people are almost looking for anti-beauty in landscapes right now.

Is the artist a romantic quester, an orator of some kind?

We’re all looking for immortality. We want to make something that will be part of that chain that stretches from the past to the future. We want to say something that will have meaning for our time and possibly later times, regardless of what’s going on around us now. Artists select those particular things they want to make a statement about. And we work in a solitary fashion. Artists require solitude where most people fear it. Our society doesn’t value solitude and thinking and reflection. But from solitary searching, the artist might be the one who teaches people what it feels like, or might have felt like, to be someone or something else.