Chicago, Aug. 2009 -- Jill Frank's work chooses to visit the memories that we try to forget. Abraham Ritchie, ArtSlant's city editor in Chicago, had the opportunity to get coffee with Frank a few days after the opening of her exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art's 12 x 12 Series. Ritchie and Frank discussed her work, and the tense, sometimes hidden drama that lies behind it. Frank has shown with GOLDEN gallery in Chicago and was included in the Chicago Cultural Center's "Three Hours Between Planes," an exhibit of emerging artists from Chicago and Leipzig, Germany.
Jill Frank, Installation view of The Franks series, 2005-2007. As shown in "Three Hours Between Planes" at the Chicago Cultural Center, May 2008.
Abraham Ritchie: Before you consider a photograph finished, you mentioned that you keep it around your studio for several years, looking at it a lot. I was wondering if you could talk more about the Psychodrama series and how that came about? What are the conceptual underpinnings of it?
Jill Frank: The Psychodrama project came directly out of a project I had done about a year before. I was living in Brooklyn at that time and I had been there for about a year or so, when I had to move home because one of my parents was in poor health. I was twenty-five at that point and it was just shocking to move home.
When I returned home I started this project, inadvertently at first, where we re-think a lot of our awkward memories, our embarrassing memories.
AR: And this first project that you are talking about turned into The Franks series?
JF: Right, and it seems that everything I do now relates back to that project. It was an epiphany for me: that photographs weren’t matching my experiences, and that my important experiences weren’t recorded. I couldn't easily find myself in the photographs that were on my parent's walls or in their albums when I went home. So I recreated a number of personal memories for the camera, kind of out of some weird sentimentality at first. When a parent exhibits signs of mortality you go through strong feelings and phases, and that, in part, inspired the work.
After that project I got really interested in other people’s experiences that weren’t necessarily represented in photographs, and how images were or were not consistent with people’s actual experiences. I got excited about this idea, that there were life events that are completely undocumented and that there are these relative experiences we consider traumatizing. My version of traumatizing was being humiliated, because I was so lucky to have such a great family and upbringing that being embarrassed was about as bad as it got. But still there weren’t images to anchor these major experiences.
[In starting the Psyschodrama series] I was just trying to get other people on my page. I was posting ads in Craigslist and I ran ads in free papers in the suburbs. Most respondents at first wanted to do trades, they needed a headshot or something, quid pro quo. So I did accommodate that, you know, “I’ll photograph your son skateboarding, if you re-enact a traumatic event.” It was interesting but it took many months to find people were actually interested in the project and wanted to participate. It took a lot of shooting to get anywhere.
AR: So there were different levels of participation at first?
JF: Yes, for sure, there people who I literally thought were doing it for my services in return, but in the images you will never know. I did find that the incidences were more or less trivial depending on their engagement with the project. People who cared more about the project, their incidences were more significant to them and became even more significant to them.
I met a young man who told me that the most significant thing that happened to him when growing up was the first time his brother beat him up; really beat the shit out of him. He said he felt that he grew up so much that day, he figured out a lot about himself, his family. So we figured out a way to make him feel like he was in that place again and look like he had been beat up as it had happened.
Jill Frank. Bloody Nose, (Tim's brother punched him), 2003/2008. 24 x 20, C-Print; Courtesy of the artist.
AR: And that led to the image Bloody Nose [2003/2008, seen above]?
JF: Yes. When I got involved with people who were more into the project, that’s when it started to get exciting. One of the pictures that came out of this kind of participation shows a woman getting electrocuted [Electrocuted, 2006/2008, seen below]. The woman is part of my family, she’s my sister’s mother in-law. She was injured, pretty seriously, being electrocuted on her electrified horse fence. When I asked her what pivotal event in her life wasn’t documented in any way, she mentioned this electrocution. In her life it was a really huge deal, she was really sick for a long time, but people didn’t take it very seriously, it’s really funny to a lot of people. I took a picture that has a little humor in it, but it also has the seriousness. She only was zapped a little bit in the picture but I think that was enough to get across the feeling. I went back to shoot the picture at her farm in Kentucky where it had happened.
Jill Frank. Electrocuted (When Emma was electrocuted by the horse fence), 2006/2008. 30 x 40, C-Print; Courtesy of the artist.
Psychodrama really became to be about memory, personal experiences and where they lacked documentation. It was also about making those memories accurate for the participant, making this person feel that in their history of visual images some of their most important experiences are visually represented.
AR: When we look at these images, they’re more or less obviously staged in a kind of exorcism of the past, of events that we may not have fully come to understand as really important. Do you feel some kind of relief or closure after confronting these events? Or do these events remain an indelible moment in the past? What did the participants experience?
JF: I like the use of the word “indelible” to describe this project, it’s a good word for this. I think the whole idea in calling this project Psychodrama is to make reference to the idea that it could be cathartic, that there could be some sort of release through re-enacting these traumas. The images from this series that I chose to put in the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art [Chicago] are all physical, violent moments and that was intentional for that kind of presentation. But certainly not everyone had those kinds of experiences.
Jill Frank, Dad gave me puffy, 1985 from The Franks, 2005-2007, 20 x 24, archival ink jet prints; Courtesy of the artist.
Like I mentioned, and as depicted in The Franks, my parents and my own experiences were humiliating. They were emotionally traumatic, not physically traumatic. One of the most important images to me is about my family, when my Dad would brush my hair. I have really curly hair and everyday before school he would brush my hair and send me into this really uptight, conservative school with huge hair.
AR: I was wondering what a ‘puffy’ was!
JF: Yeah, so there would be these sort of, motivational posters on the wall at my conservative school in Kentucky that say “A collegiate girl is . . . a hockey player! A mathematician! She sews . . .” All these pictures of these girls and I realized that I was none of those girls. My hair was huge, I wasn’t that good at school, I never found any place to enter those sorts of ads. That was the first picture that I did with my Dad, because it such an extreme memory of mine, to always be confused about why my hair was so different. All the other girls’ hair would go straight down and mine was curly and all the time at school it would be standing straight up, because you don’t brush curly hair. It’s ok, he didn’t know.
Of course I can’t speak for everyone, I can’t say that for everyone it was cathartic but that was my experience. There were definitely varying degrees of sincerity amongst participants and the more interested the participant perhaps the more cathartic experience. There was a varying level of connection. The better images are the ones where I know that the participant really felt something and really connected.
AR: And those are the images that get shown because maybe they have more presence?
JF: I think so. Especially when you have to say “I know we shot you being electrocuted but we’re going to shoot it again because the horses weren’t running. We’re going to shoot it again because the electric zap wasn’t on. We’re going to shoot again . . .” This isn’t a very speedy process, I’m a pretty methodical and slow person with what I do. A lot of these shoots we would do over and over again, it really talks about the re-performances and almost erasing that original experience a little bit. Now when you look back on these experiences, are you remembering the original one or are you remembering the five times we did it for a photograph?
AR: Well I know you can’t speak for everyone, but have any participants responded about the experience helping them move on?
JF: There was a girl who wet her pants, who wrote me years later, to tell me that it really helped her feel not humiliated about it.
For me it’s really about the image, and making an image more consistent with experience. How funny that we usually make images that aren’t aligned with what become the most important events of our life.
AR: You mean the artifice of something like a family portrait?
JF: Not the artificial but the arbitrary-ness of it. It really makes you think about the family portrait as this kind of event that becomes a permanent measure of time when it’s quite arbitrary. Really, a whole set of other experiences that never occur to us as events for documentation, when those events are in fact much more significant to our lives.
It says a lot about one’s relative experience of trauma That my traumatic experiences were mostly humiliating says a lot about my life. But my most humiliating experience could be just as traumatic as someone’s physical injury. It’s just how our brains interpret these things.
AR: It’s a relative experience.
JF: It is relative, but there are no photos of the more humiliating things. And I started to find most of the participants in the areas relating to humiliation, shame and embarrassment. Not the events that you might find on Law and Order, not the crime scenes. We have photographs of those, they serve different purposes. My photographs are more about being human.
ArtSlant would like to thank Jill Frank and GOLDEN Gallery for their assistance in making this interview possible.