Deb Achak: All the Colors I Am Inside
I was familiar with the stunning work of Deb Achak, photographs that speak to family, beauty, created with a particular sense of wonder and spectacular uses of saturated color and light. Yet when I received her new monograph, All the Colors I Am Inside, published by Kehrer Verlag, I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by the publication. In book form, there is a whole new experience of remarkable sequencing and more importantly, remarkable seeing.
In All the Colors I Am Inside, Achak reflects on our relationship with the soft, quiet voice of our intuition and the beauty of who we are under the surface. Achak explores how our inner voice leads us on the most surprising and glorious adventures, but to hear it, we must quiet our brains and savor the present moment. Bringing together human and spiritual worlds, she uses landscapes that are rich and mysterious, the way our dreams and meditations might feel, and portraits in which the subject is consumed by nature, swept up by it. Achak seeks to represent the pictorial quality of intuition using imagery that walks the line between rare and familiar. Ultimately, the work invites us to think less, feel more.
The book can be purchased where all fine books are sold, www.bookshop.org or Amazon.com, and on the artist’s site.
An interview with the artist follows.
Deb Achak is an American photographer based in Seattle, Washington. She spent 15 years working at the intersection of health and mental health and earned a Master’s in Social Work at the University of Washington. She left that practice to launch her photography career, employing a visual medium to continue her exploration of the interior lives of herself and others.
Achak’s photographs have been featured in more than 40 exhibitions, including The National Museum of Anthropology in Tabasco, Mexico, The Lishui Museum of Art in Lishui, China, and The Sofia Photography Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria. Within the United States, Achak has had four solo exhibitions at Winston Wächter Fine Art Seattle and has been featured in group exhibitions at Winston Wächter Fine Art New York, The Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts, Southeast Center for Photography, PhotoPlace Gallery, and many others. She was awarded a Critical Mass Top 200 finalist in 2021 and 2023 and is a recipient of the Julia Margaret Cameron Award in 2023. All the Colors I Am Inside is her first book.
In All the Colors I Am Inside, I create large-scale color photographs of people and nature to explore the tender voice of our intuition. I am guided by my mother’s last words: “Trust your gut instincts.”
Over the years, her parting words have become my north star. Using tools of light, time and color, I challenge myself to construct photographs that reference the spark of energy and depth of wonder that pervade our interior lives. All the Colors I Am Inside represents the twining together of my mother’s final gift and my photographic practice. My photos are of landscapes and portraits, but I am really searching for ways to express what lies beneath the surface.
Energy connects science and spirituality. Physicists explain it through subatomic particles and equations. Mystics call it a sixth sense. Our intuition often hits us first on a visceral level, telling us what we need to know well before our conscious mind catches up. All the Colors I Am Inside invites the viewer to reacquaint themself with external and internal landscapes that are innately familiar yet hold an endless sea of possibilities. – Deb Achak
Tell us about your growing up and what brought you to photography?
I’ve always been interested in art. As a child, I gravitated toward drawing, painting, and books. But growing up, my understanding of a creative life was that it was a leisure activity, not a vocation. My mother was a hobbyist quilter and seamstress and worked with stained glass. Photography was not a part of my upbringing, and I had no concept that art could be a career path. Assuming I had to get a real job, I went to graduate school for social work. I worked in that field until my first son was born. Photography came to me after my second son was born in 2008. I bought my first camera to take pictures of my young children, and I quickly realized there was something far greater than just capturing my children. I dove in with everything I had and carved out any morsel of time I could to improve and learn.
You have a distinct way of seeing the world, how did you develop that way of seeing?
When I work, what I am looking for most is not necessarily a “thing” but rather a feeling. If there is a gravitational tug to make a picture, I move headlong in that direction without asking myself too many questions about why I am shooting. It is later, in the editing and sequencing process, that I attempt to explore what the images mean to me. It’s usually a subconscious answer. One that I glean after peeling back many layers, like an archeological dig into my innermost self. I am primarily self-taught, so working this way made sense to me viscerally.
I have a meditation and spiritual practice, and I used to think that this practice was separate from my photography. I was also trying to understand how my first career as a social worker informed the way I see the world with my camera. The epiphany came after years of looking at my photographs and preparing statements. It came down to my deep desire to understand what lies under the surface of each of us. I am infinitely curious about interior lives and our innate relationship to our intuitive voice, whether I express that while swimming with my camera (my early work) or, as within All the Colors I Am Inside, where I use portraits and landscapes to reference intuition.
Although beauty is subjective, searching for beauty in my everyday environment is essential to my work. I want to feel moved by the world around me and the life I am living. I want to access the highest frequency I can in my work.
You not only are observing the sometimes overlooked wonders of the natural world, but your children are within those spaces. It’s such a spiritual connection. Can you speak to this?
Photographing my children and other family members is an intimate and moving process. There is so much love, spontaneity, and trust in those moments. They extend grace to me by giving themselves so generously and asking nothing in return. They have faith in my creative process. That sense of connection is deeply meaningful to me. For my part, I have learned not to force myself on them. I want every aspect of the final picture, even the part the viewer would never see or know, to be pure.
Your work is traditionally seen in large-scale prints. How does the book format alter the experience?
Adjusting to book format was exciting. Much of the work in All the Colors I Am Inside was pulled from my archives. I loved the portraits of my family and lush landscapes, but they never had a place in my collection of large-scale prints. I kept returning to them, adding more, and waiting to understand them. I danced around the material for years, shooting the work and mulling it over. Eventually, I felt a book was the perfect way to experience this more intimate work – held in hand as a tactile experience rather than juxtaposed on walls. I saw the pictures in an entirely new way.
Tell us how the book came about.
For many years I collected and studied fine art photobooks. The art form fascinated me. I lingered over the tiniest nuances of pagination, paper, white space, and writing. I would scatter books around the house or leave a spread open on a table for days, thinking about how it made me feel. I added dozens and dozens of books to my collection. Along the way, the seed was planted that I wanted my work to someday manifest in that format. I started by creating a book dummy with Alison Morley. She was my photo editor and mentor from day one. Alison helped me understand the delicate threads of storytelling that constitute a photobook. I used that book dummy to pitch to publishers, and it has been my great fortune to work with Klaus Kehrer and the brilliant team at Kehrer Verlag.
Can you share about the design and sequencing?
It is a daunting and exhilarating process to take an extensive collection of photographs and make a carefully considered, thoughtfully sequenced book. I did not do it alone. I had a wonderfully supportive team at Kehrer Verlag. They allowed me to work with independent book designer Pascalle Willi. Pascale and I have an ease in our relationship, so it was a pleasure to find our way through the story together. I am also indebted to Alison Morely. I brought the concept and pictures to her early on, and she encouraged me to continue. She is gifted at reading a photograph and knowing how it relates to the photo that precedes or follows it. Together, we curated the work into a finished product I am proud of.
What’s next for you? Book signings, exhibitions?
The book is taking me on a series of new adventures. I attended PhotoFairs NYC and Unseen Amsterdam in September, both for book signings. I will be at Paris Photo to sign books at the Kehrer Verlag booth on November 12th. In January 2024, I will have a solo show and signing at Winston Wächter Fine Art Seattle. And in July 2024, a solo show and signing at Winston Wächter Fine Art New York.
Now that you’ve put this project to bed in book form, is there another direction your work will explore?
The honest answer is: I don’t know yet. Birthing the book took a tremendous amount of creative energy, not unlike having a child. I am resting and listening for the call to photograph in earnest again. This is the longest period of rest I have had since I began my career, so I am giving in to the need to recalibrate. In the meantime, I am busying myself with book promotion and curating my upcoming shows.
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