Kirsten Hoving on A Photographic Life
Today’s post is by Kirsten Hoving: mother, wife, photographer, gallerist, enthusiast of all thing photographic. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kirsten as a juror for a couple of shows at the Vermont Photo Place Gallery, and I thought it would be interesting to have her discuss what it’s like to be a photographer and own a gallery. Thank you, Kirsten, for a wonderful essay.
by Kirsten Hoving
As I put the finishing touches on my first significant solo show of my photographic career, it seems like a good time to consider the journey that has led to this signpost in my life. In two weeks I’ll begin my twenty-eighth year of teaching art history at Middlebury College, where I teach modern art and history of photography. For many years, I was content to teach my art history students, do research, and write books and articles about topics in my field. However, when the younger of my two children left for college five years ago, I was suddenly, inexorably compelled to make art. Photography became my medium.
One of my heroines in the history of photography is Julia Margaret Cameron. As an art historian, I have studied and written about her work and life in some detail. Cameron turned to photography after her last of eleven children (some her own, some adopted), left home for university studies. At the age of forty-eight, faced with an empty nest and accompanying depression, she found solace in mastering wet-plate collodion photography. Along the way, she forged her style: a dreamy, soft-focus look that suited her literary subjects. Facing criticism that her work lacked sharpness, she countered by demonstrating that focus could be a tool for poetic expression, as well as factual description. Her willingness to take risks with her process has a remarkable legacy today, in the work of many wonderful photographers who use unconventional methods to produce compelling images.
But what I love most about Cameron is the leap she took at that stage in her life. I think I’ve shared something of the excitement she must have experienced when, in my mid-fifties, I suddenly found a new creative life opening up to me. Soon I was experimenting with all kinds of subjects, including personal narratives about my children leaving home. I began showing my work in juried group exhibitions and in local galleries. And, I discovered that the creative process is so exciting that it’s hard to imagine anything even coming close. When Cameron produced her first successful photograph, the story goes, she ran around the house looking for gifts to shower upon the little girl, Annie, who sat for her. I understand that impulse—sometimes you get an image that makes your heart race, and you just want to thank someone.
A little over a year ago, my husband Rick Clark and I embarked on a project that is a form of thanks for photography. We founded the Vermont Photography Workplace and opened a gallery in our town of Middlebury. PhotoPlace Gallery, as it is called, hosts juried photography exhibitions on a variety of themes. We operate on a shoestring, but it’s worth it to be able to share the amazing work being done all around the country (and world) with the visitors to our gallery and website. We try to publish a Blurb Book of each exhibition to have a lasting record. Along the way, we have met many remarkable photographers, made a number of cyber-friends, and found inspiration in the work we’ve been privileged to exhibit. When we are utterly exhausted after hanging a show, I think of Cameron and her seemingly boundless energy. She worked long nights, meals were missed, and her house filled with prints in the service of her love of photography.
I like to imagine Cameron visiting our gallery. She sweeps through the door in her black taffeta dress, swoops down on a photo that catches her eye, and swoons with delight at one of my own modest efforts. She fills the space with the force of her personality, delights us with a long discussion of her own aesthetics of photography, and then, as I curtsey to her, she’s gone. As I turn, I see that she’s left one of her cartes-de-visite on the counter, the one with her photograph of Ophelia that is my favorite.
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