Rachel Cox: The States Project: Michigan
Kicking off February, Lenscratch will be featuring the work of Michigan-based photographers as part of our ongoing series, The States Project. Before Rachel Cox takes over this weeks as our guest editor for the state, it is a pleasure to share with you her body of work Feel Some Type of Way. Not held to a specific way of image making, and insistent about pushing her comforts as an artist, Rachel Cox continues to make thoughtful and visually interesting work. This time around, in a departure from her previous series where she photographed her grandmother in her last 10 years of life, Rachel has synthesized primal responses to personified objects. How she has photographed these hot tubs gives me chills, and I am bothered by how much I want to feel their silky finishes, or trace their shiny, plastic forms.
Below, Rachel and I talk more about the changes in her practice, and the desire to photograph these objects.
Rachel Cox lives and works between Dallas, TX and Michigan. Prints from Cox’s series have been presented nationally and internationally. Recently Cox has shown work at Museo de los Artes in Mexico City, Baijia Art Museum in Nanjing, China, The Musee del’Elysee in Switzerland, Museo Amparo in Mexico, and at PHOTO London 2016.
In 2016 Cox’s project Shiny Ghost was awarded 1st place by Lensculture Magazine for their International Portraiture competition. Additionally, her work was nominated for the Paul Huf FOAM award by the Foam Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam, an international photography prize for artists under 35. In 2015 Cox was selected as a participating artist in reGeneration 3: New Perspectives in Photography, an international survey of contemporary photography curated from a group of 50 artists with only three coming from the united states. Her work has recently been published in Vice Magazine, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The British Journal of Photography. Cox’s recent monograph Shiny Ghost was published by Aint Bad Editions, winter 2016.
Cox received her MFA from the University of New Mexico in 2013, and is represented by Talley Dunn Gallery in Dallas, TX.
Feel Some Type of Way
Human beings lack the most basic prerequisites for relating to each other, we instead choose to define our commonalty with an ever changing panoply of objects and occasions. — Hickey, Dave. Buying the World. Daedalus. Fall, 2002.
I use photography to examine the intersections between objects and social behavior. With my project Feel Some Type of Way, I look towards hot tubs as a unique subject to begin this investigation. My interest stems directly from the intriguing ways we combat social inadequacies and, moreover, how we are dependent on such objects as a means of projecting our innermost pleasures and desires.
These hot tubs were all captured in showrooms and sales floors. The infrastructures supporting these situations are filled with beautiful, uncanny, and sometimes humorous paraphernalia. Curated tableaus of fake food and flowers propose particular experiences to buyers, while highly aestheticized tub interiors highlight our innate attraction towards lush corporeal suggestion.
The project as a whole addresses a broader narrative. One where artifice and mystery not only flourish, but also describe a complex system for cultivating intimacy in the most unlikely of phenomena.
What was your perspective on being a Michigan-based photographer?
The area of Lansing, MI where this recent group of photographs were made contains a lot of mom and pop local businesses. I love these kinds of places because people are so friendly and are genuinely excited to talk to you about their shops. Nothing is more fulfilling than hearing someone talk about what they love. I lived next door to this hot tub sales showroom and after a few times of going in and just talking with the owner we struck up an arrangement where I could come with my 4×5 camera and lights and really have the run of the place.
What is your relationship to the state? How did you wind up in Michigan?
I moved to Michigan in 2014 to start working as Visiting Assistant Professor of Photography at Michigan State University.
I wouldn’t necessarily say any of you work has locational vibe, mimicking the feel of either the South or the Midwest. Though, I do see a visual and conceptual shift from Shiny Ghost to this current work Feel Some Type of Way. Having lived in both the South and the Midwest, would you say there were changes in your practice because of these moves?
My work has always focused on locating the familiar in potentially new and foreign places. I’ve moved around so much that naturally I am intrigued by objects and situations that resonate with me in some kind of uncanny way. Therefore, the work I made in Michigan is not so much about that specific state or living there, but comes out of NOT living in a place that is known to me.
Each series of images I work on is always a major shift from the last. Not necessarily due to different places I’m living, but because I’m interested in challenging myself as much as possible. Once I’ve made a body of work that has a specific feel, subject matter, perhaps consistent visual style, I’m really not interested in doing that same thing again; it presents nothing new for me as an artist. Therefore, I usually begin a new project by giving myself a question; How can this type of subject matter come across in a particular way that accomplishes a particular idea I have? For me this inevitably results in major formal changes when compared to the previous series.
What was the initial draw to photographing the formal qualities of hot tubs, and how did it lead into these sensual depictions?
I was raised by my bachelor father, and he obviously had hot tubs my whole life for entertaining. So every few years I would go with him to upgrade to the newest model. Even as a young kid I found the interiors to be so ravishingly beautiful, yet ironic that once they were filled with water you never saw how much work went into creating the striations in acrylic, or chrome fitted jets.
After visiting some stores for the project I now realize just how sensual they were. The primary force behind the sales power was aesthetics; we were being lured in by the raw seduction of these big shiny vessels.
Within a historical context, I am thinking about this work in conversation to the peppers of Weston, but more so in the mindset of O’Keeffe. How do these photographs fit in this contemporary dialogue?
This is a good question, however I was actually thinking of Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers more so than a Weston Pepper, which is really just a meditation of similar ideas surrounding formalism and the suggestive power of the image. I’m interested in making images that carry a trace of the uncanny; you recognize something in the image, it has an ambiguous familiarity, however it has been presented to you in a completely new way. I am interested in fundamental truths surrounding the social behaviors of western culture: our inability to connect to one another, our need to project emotion on to inanimate objects, and the often overlooked power of beauty to help us work through these feelings.
Can you talk about the conceptual growth of you work–going from the durational documentation of your Grandmother’s final years, to the more lighthearted, yet sensual, photographs of jacuzzis?
The project about my Grandmother, Shiny Ghost, was something that grew over ten years of me evolving as a woman and an artist. Those images look the way they do because they were born out of practicality (e.g. I needed to use a flash due to lighting concerns), or I was caught up in one of her stories and was photographing very quickly which gives the work a snapshot feel. I have always had great admiration for Emmet Gowin’s work about his family and he has cited many times how people always asked him why he doesn’t make that work anymore. “Why don’t you make more pictures like the ones you took of your family? We liked those”. He has this terrific reply where he explains that those images are from a particular time and situation. That “you shouldn’t go looking for that again because you won’t find it”. This is exactly how I feel about my project. I’ll drive myself crazy trying make work that looks like the Shiny Ghost images the rest of my life. Therefore, after the project was over I’ve really felt this freedom to explore other aspects of human behavior that interest me; especially niche phenomena that is humorous, delightful, or revealing of larger social truths.
Recently you published a book with Aint-Bad for Shiny Ghost. This must be a really nice closer on what was such a long project. Can you talk about this experience? Do you think it is something you will revisit?
The pictures I made for Shiny Ghost span almost a decade. When I first started making them I never showed them to anyone, I didn’t think they could be considered “art”. Then eventually as the years past the work became paramount for me in understanding myself as an artist. I wanted to make a book but was hesitant to self publish or jump at the first offer I received. The people at Aint Bad really connected to me and the project. It sounds weird but I felt confident in “giving” the project to them. Making books is fantastic, it’s great to have something like that existing in the world. However not every project makes sense in a book format. I’m not sure if my future projects will translate well in that context, but it’s something I would love to revisit if given the chance.
Are you currently working on any Michigan related projects?
I’ve started a 6-month residency at the CentralTrak International Residency Program in Dallas, Texas. I’m in the process of making new work but it’s not about being in Michigan or being in Texas. Rather it is an extension of the ideas I was concerned with in Feel Some Type of Way. Particular I’m still fascinated by the objects we have created as a western culture that help us combat uncomfortable situations.
Finally, describe your perfect day.
Listen to Morning Edition.
Receive an email from a friend.
Go on a walk.
Find a great place for lunch (Tex-Mex would be nice).
Walk around a museum.
Make a picture I’m excited about.
Have friends over for dinner.
Watch some type of sci-fi thriller movie with my cat.
Go to sleep.
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Liz Cohen: The States Project: MichiganFebruary 11th, 2017
Jon Verney: The States Project: MichiganFebruary 10th, 2017
Georgia Rhodes: The States Project: MichiganFebruary 9th, 2017
Leah Gose: The States Project: MichiganFebruary 8th, 2017
Kottie Gaydos: The States Project: MichiganFebruary 7th, 2017