Laurie Toby Edison was born in 1942 in New York City, and grew up in the post-war world, she has exhibited work internationally and is a recognised nude portrait photographer.
Anyone studying our level 2 photography course Gesture and Meaning may have come across some of her work before.
Laurie has been kind enough to answer a few questions for me about her life as a photographer and the processes she goes through when creating her work.
How do you start a project – what influences you to choose a particular subject?
My first project, Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, came out of my activism around body image. It began with listening to the negative experiences of friends and family, and the realization of the ways in which fat phobia served to control and diminish women. I wanted to show the beauty and power of fat women.
Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes followed Women En Large as my take on the male nude – taking respectful nude portraits of men from 19 to 92. Twelve photos from Women en Large were exhibited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 1996. I went to Japan for the exhibition, and saw that, contrary to what we’re told, Japan is not homogenous. This led to my collaboration with Japanese feminists on Women of Japan, a clothed portrait project of women from varied backgrounds.
Diversity is central to my work so that is always important. All three of these photo suites were influenced by both the politics of body image and my aesthetic of fine art black and white portraiture.
How much research do you carry out before a project – does the research influence the photography in anyway?
My work has a strong intellectual component, which frames and contexts it. Writings from the models are important. (In this part of the work I collaborate with my writing partner, Debbie Notkin.) The work must be anchored in people, and not be beautiful images unconnected to life.
My research is exploration of the subject both in reading and conversation. Working in community with the people I photograph is essential, as is the outreach that is always needed. I tend to start a project with what I think is a clear idea, and then the research and the community work shapes it. I always ask people how they want to see themselves portrayed – that’s crucial.
You said your daughters have helped shape your work – in what way, and do you think family support can help with your creative practice?
My daughters have helped shaped my work in an endless conversation, and in their very useful opinions on the photography. Rather than inhibiting my art, they have deeply enriched it. My work supported me and my daughters. My life has been often dense and complicated, but it’s always been good.
Did growing up in the post-war world influence your work at all?
There are several important influences from growing up when and where I did. I’m a Jew who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. The central image of this from my childhood are the photos of the piles of naked bodies of the dead. As an adult this made me an artist whose work honours the living body. Growing up in the US in the 1950’s was a constant lesson in the repression and control of human beings. I discuss this at length at (http://laurietobyedison.com/biography.asp).
Your models look beautiful and womanly even though they are large women, they look comfortable modelling for your photographs and I wondered because you are a female photographer do you think it helped make them feel more comfortable and womanly?
My portraits are a collaborative work with the models. When I ask people if they want to be photographed, I want them to take serious time to decide so that they are committed to the project. As a portrait photographer, making people comfortable and relaxed is crucial to portraying some essential sense of who they are. My experience is that people feel safer and less judged by a woman photographer, which makes it easier for them to be natural.
Do you have much control over the positioning of your models or do you like them to have an input – if so do you think if makes the photograph feel more relaxed?
I photograph people in an environment of their own choosing – most in their homes. I want them to relax into their natural body language. They control the pose and their chosen backgrounds in the portraits are also part of who they are. The aesthetics of the composition are mine.
What do you love most about your job as a photographer, and are other creative practices just as important to you like your jewellery and sculpture?
I love making pictures. I love learning how to do what it takes to make the pictures I want. All of my creative practices are equally important. A writer friend of mine said that the pictures are like poetry, and the photographs are like a novel. Since all my photographs are long-term projects, this has always felt right to me.
Do you have any advice for photographers just starting out in the profession?
My life as a photographer is different than most. I haven’t needed to do commercial work, and my work is created in community, not in the gallery/academia/grant world, so my advice is about the work.
Make the work you love. Learn to tell which is your very best, and be ruthless with the rest.
Are you working on a project at the moment – if so can you tell us a little bit about it?
I have a very new project that I’m excited about. It’s called “Memory Landscapes: A Visual Memoir”. I want to re-engage with the memories of my complex life, to create an autobiographical visual memoir, to express the poetics of non-linear time. My memories are not linear – “inside the head everything happens at once.” (Penelope Lively)
Memories are filtered, by who we are now, who we were then, and what has happened in between. What is remarkable is not how much we forget, but rather how much we remember. We view our past through layers of memory, and the past is everything that happened except this moment.
Creating memory landscapes for the iPad lets viewers, for the first time, see the original art, not reproductions or recreations.
Photography is a way of capturing moments in time. These illuminated images are constructed from carefully chosen real objects, many relics from my life arranged and contexted to express slices of my life.
I expect that it will take about 5 years, since that seems to be my project number.
My website is laurietobyedison.com
Image: Laurie Toby Edison, April Miller, from the series Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes
Laurie Toby Edison, Edna, from the series Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes