Lens On: Jamie Knowlton

Photographer Jamie Knowlton captures our connections with the natural world and the beauty of the human body.

Jamie Knowlton asks “Why aren’t we all more interested in investigating the body?” Good question. Examining the natural states of the human body, Knowlton examines what makes us human, and uses her art to remind us (and herself) that all bodies are natural, beautiful and connected with the earth. Looking at every body as a vessel and at life as an experiential activity, Knowlton examines how our lives can be defined by our bodies and the healing process that art can have.

Moving between providing a critique of how society views bodies by taking objectification to the furthest she can push it, and examining the senses and experiences our bodies provide us with, Knowlton addresses the way female body is viewed and defined. Examining how our bodies are used for sensorial experiences, her models leave feeling healed, as Knowlton provides them with a cathartic experience and makes their bodies art. Stating photography as the art medium that most closely captures reality, Knowlton’s work allows her viewer to question their own reality and what they really see.

Knowlton is an advocate for the accessibility of art, believing that through the internet and Instagram important discussions can take place and the democracy of the art world is opened up to the true benefit of the artists. Presenting her work through photographic zines such as “Rooms I Have Lived In” (26 Google Earth images of the homes she has lived in), “Our Tender First Date (photos and interviews with individuals she met on Tinder, taken on their first “date”) and “The Female Gaze”, full of images of nude sculptures, Knowlton has perfected the art of tackling and representing the human body in all it’s natural glory.

What’s your first photography related memory?

In relation to my current work it would be finding a book of very cheesy art photography that consisted mostly of staged scenes in fish tanks, and inanimate objects given theatrical presence and breath. I loved it and looked at it until it turned to tatters, it really defined for me (before I understood language to discuss this) the concept that an object could be representative of so many things. The object becomes a non-object via meaning, the signifiers of this always have opportunity to change.

Do you carry a camera with you wherever you go?

Not so much anymore. I spent years blowing film on people and things, which, has a particular reward of course. But I’m more intentional with my work these days. I try to always carry a photographic perspective with me, framing and observing potential scenes and objects in my mind. It helps me to be more present in general.

Do you prefer shooting on film or digital, and why?

There is absolutely no preference. They each offer benefits. With digital I can test more shots, know if I need to keep shooting, or get some crisp close-ups, etc. Then, there’s film.There’s nothing like the depth and color of film, to me, and it’s the mode I was using when I fell in love with photography. I’ll never turn my back on it.

The human figure is a central part of your work. What do you find fascinating about the human body and what always brings you back to photographing it?

Whew. What a complex question! At least, I feel there are so many ways to answer! We’re all stuck in these corporeal flesh sacks, aren’t we? Why aren’t we all more interested in investigating the body? Part of my spiritual emphasis does see the body as perhaps, a vessel. I have a lot of reverence for what that entails. So many aspects of our lives are defined by our bodies. Our economic worth/capacity for labor and our oppressions or privileges come to mind immediately. When I was asked this question, when I started this body of work, I emphasised the need for femme visions of bodies. I also was attempting to critique main stream porn by objectifying bodies to their farthest extreme, turning them into still life. Check out Community Action Center, by AL Steiner and AK Burns, for an incredible example of another form of porn critique.

Now, I’m kind of going in a different direction. I think those elements are still so important of course and alternative forms of beauty/sex will always be a huge part of my life. But at this point, I’m really curious about the sensorial experiences that our body provides. It is our window into a reality, an experience we try and understand. I’m interested in the abstraction of bodies, I’ve been drawn to more obscure crops and etc. in an attempt to capture this. The whole of life is an experiential activity and I think that’s forgotten. A lot of my models, and I’ve said this before, leave feeling healed. I think this is because they see their bodies in the photos as concepts of art, as a new vision. I would imagine this feels very relieving for them, a respite from walking around this world feeling the weight and witnessing of their body, often without their consent.

Where do you find your models and muses?

Tinder tbh, even after my zine. I’ve only lived in Portland for 8 or so months so its an easy way to make friends and art accomplices. Generally, I ask friends, or friends of friends, but yeah most often the internet.

Why do you think it’s important to photograph bodies in their natural states?

We forgive nature so easily. There’s no weight scrutiny with cats, you know, people love Garfield. I hope I’m making sense. I just think and this is especially true with plants, that we tend to appreciate the differences in flora and fauna, more then with ourselves. It is important to me to remind myself and my audience, that our bodies come from the earth, obviously you came from your parents, but you know. That we are sustained by the earth. I don’t understand why we don’t give ourselves this same grace. On the one hand. On the other hand, many people, including myself even when I’m trying my best (which I will always do) neglect the planet. It scares me, honestly. Bodies in their natural states, whether this be at rest or in subtle movement, or bodies in nature…both encapsulate a relinquish of that anxiety for me. I’m trying to remind myself and others, that we are natural. That this is something to embrace.

Why do you think photography is a good medium to discuss ideas surrounding body image?

Both “the nude” and photography have a long art history regarding this topic that I’m not going to bore you with, but is worth researching. Off the cusp, I’ll say that representation of marginalised folks is extremely important. A lot of young, contemporary photographers are incorporating this. This could be argued, but it’s the medium that most closely “captures” reality. If this is true, it allows one to create a new reality that is more easily absorbed. It allows one to question their own reality because they believe what they’re seeing. Does this make sense? It takes what we typically see and reorients it, this is also an important aspect.

How has social media affected your career? Do you think you would be where you are now without it?

The New York Times put out a decent article about this very thing. I agreed with some of their points. Specifically, that Instagram can become a virtual portfolio of sorts. I have classes with a few older people who believe art on the internet isn’t real or doesn’t have as much worth. I entirely disagree. A lot of folks have seen my work via the internet, I feel so lucky for this. I would not have gotten interviews or features without my Instagram. At least, it would have taken a lot more time. My goal isn’t to make a schmillion dollars, my goal is be an activist via art. And I feel one important aspect of activism, is to make the reach available to everyone. This doesn’t mean I’m opposed to gallery or museum work, I am not. And I have and will show work in gallery spaces in the future. However, first and foremost, I want my art to be accessible. If someone decides to print one of my photos off your site and put it on their mirror. That’s awesome! I love that! I love the democratic socialism of the internet. Artists are allowed to represent themselves, in some ways challenging the art market of the 80s-90s.

You’re currently based in Portland – what’s the art scene like there and how does it inspire you?

I have only recently begun to do that actually. I just started my MFA at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Like most major cities, there’s a mix of high and low brow art and everything in between. The undergrads at PNCA inspire me, young people are so fresh and untethered, I love it. Disjecta, Nationale, and Yale Union are a few spaces that continually show interesting work. PICA just held the Time Based Arts Festival. Juliana Huxtable, AK Burns, and Dylan Mira’s performances were extremely influential. The plants of the PNW are like nowhere else. Major inspo.

Do you have a project that you’re most proud of?

I’m always working on an idea, a photo in my head, or more recently an installation. Each time I create something and it’s “finished” in some ways I hate it. It’s like I purged it and now all I want to do is move on. It’s hard for me to be “proud” of my work. If I had to choose, my favourite photo is my partner Phoebe hanging nude off a basketball hoop, at this amazing court surrounded by massive trees. I’m proud of it because I’m proud of Phoebe. She possesses an amazing physicality that I don’t. She was really frightened at one moment, but she wanted to do it until I got the shot. For herself, not just for me.

When you’ve had an idea for a project, how do you go about executing it? Are you spontaneous or do you like to plan?

It depends on the project. For photo shoots, I’ll bring along objects that I want to work with, but otherwise feel very spontaneous. I’m working on a video piece right now for school and that’s been weeks in the making, figuring out the appropriate execution. It always feels good to photograph spontaneously for me though, I’ll always return to that.

You’ve created quite a few zines, each with very different themes. Why do you make zines and where have the ideas for projects like “Rooms I Have Lived In” and “Our First Tender Date” come from?

This is in tandem with my activism as well. I’m a huge zine person, I have a portrait tattoo from the cover of what I would consider one of the first zines ever made in the US. It’s a text called Semina. People always ask if the women on the cover is my grandma!? Anyway, Semina is derived from latin word for seed and that’s what I view zines as. Seeds we plant. Once again, I enjoy the empowerment one gains by publishing and distributing their own work. Rooms I Have Lived In, was the most healing work I have ever made for myself. Its kind of sacred actually. I did it to help me keep track, to archive my life. Our First Tender Date was exploring my obsession with radical vulnerability and exploring further the body politics I elucidated earlier. Cute story, months before my partner and I met she read Rooms, she didn’t realize it was me for quite sometime because it doesn’t have my full name. But anyway, she loved it a lot. It’s to this day her favourite zine. She loved it before she loved me.

You’ve said you view plants as an integral aspect of life – how do you think nature effects us as people and how does that manifest itself in your work?

I believe our natural state is in direct relationship to our world, whether that be weird vibeys or shitty pollution or whatever.

What are you up to next?

I didn’t go to art school for my undergrad. I went for psychology. So, my future is really just going to be settling into this new experience that is the MFA. I was asked to be a part of an exhibit in Mumbai, INDIA, during the Focus festival. Really happy for that. I’m going to keep exploring installations with backdrops and sculpture. I come from a lower class background and so it’s especially insane to suddenly have all these opportunities, I’m just fucking grateful every day.

Lens On: Jamie Knowlton

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