Julia Vandenoever: Still Breathing
Julia Vandenoever has just released a new monograph, Still Breathing, published by Gray Sky Press. The book and project explores the significant loss of family, when one finds themselves on the front lines of life. After losing her parents and brother, Vandenoever is left to navigate the world without the the invisible safe zone between self and death. Their existence allowed her to remain in denial of her own mortality, but with this project, Vandenoever finds healing after grief by honoring her mother’s memory and celebrating the family she has created, looking to her children to anchor herself once again.
Julia Vandenoever is a lens-based artist whose work explores family, place and nostalgia through storytelling.
She has served as a visiting artist at Guttman College in New York City and received the 2021 Colorado Artist Relief grant. She has been included in numerous group exhibitions and had a solo show at the Center for Photography at Woodstock of her recent project Still Breathing. She was a 2021 Critical Mass Top 200 Finalist. Her first self-published book, Still Breathing, will be released in February 2022.
This year, Vandenoever was selected to participate in the Folio 21 through PH Museum Photobook Masterclass. She is presently an artist-in-residence at the Boulder Creative Collective, with a forthcoming solo exhibition.
Julia has exhibited at The Humble Arts Foundation, The Griffin Museum of Photography, The Center for Photographic Art, Colorado Photographic Art, Boulder Creative Collective, SE Center for Photography, and Center for Fine Photography. In addition, her work was featured in Fraction Magazine, Lenscratch, The FAR Center for Contemporary Arts blog, and the Boston Globe.
Losing all my family left me feeling alone and ungrounded. The year my mother died from cancer, I also lost my brother to a life of addiction. The people who knew me longest were suddenly gone. Our small family of three went to one marking the end of my family of origin.
Grief is a strange cocktail of emotions and it swallowed me. From craving to wear all my mom’s handmade sweaters all at once in order to inhale her smell to hours of uncontrollable angry crying fits about words gone unsaid. I did not want to forget and I could not let go. I collected everything in her house I could from handwriting on scraps of paper, birthday cards, old perfume bottles to used tissues in pockets – the only pieces of my childhood left.
As I was swimming in grief, my own two children were growing up. Their gestures and experiences illuminated the fragility and duality of childhood – with every step of growth there is a loss. Observing their childhood transported me back to my own. I saw myself back in these moments with my mom and brother. I threaded together our two childhoods to preserve both theirs and mine. By recreating my memories, I put my family of origin back together again.
Still Breathing is a meditation on loss and remembering. Distilling the chaos was a healing process for me. I told my mom that she would not be forgotten. Still Breathing is my promise.
Congratulations on the book. First tell us about your growing up and what brought you to photography.
I grew up outside of New York City. Then when I was 14 our close-knit family of three moved to Vermont. It was in high school that I discovered photography. I was a new student and a shy one. Photography gave me a way to start a conversation. I also loved using the quiet space of the darkroom, as an escape. Watching an image arise on the paper in the developer, the smell of the fixer, my handmade burning and dodging tools, I could spend hours bathing in the red light of the darkroom.
How did the book come about?
I began the project Still Breathing when my mom was diagnosed with Bile Duct cancer in August of 2013. It was both a meditation on loss and a way of remembering. I am a narrative photographer and I was naturally interested in putting this story into book format, but had no idea where to begin. When the pandemic began, I had no freelance photography work for 6 month. So, I used the time learn how to make a book. I took a photobook class at Maine Media with Shawn Bush of Dais Books, who guided me through the process. At the end of the class, I had a book dummy for Still Breathing.
How did the book form shift the way you see the work?
I come from a documentary background and I see photography as a tool for storytelling. Even before publishing a book, I worked within a narrative structure. However, the book form gave me the structure to edit and sequence the narrative in a new way. It also allowed me to add important elements to the project, like poetry, archival images, and an essay, which deepen and expand this story.
What do you want the reader to take away from the experience of the book?
I wanted to honor and share my grieving process, in a way that might resonate with the reader. I want the them to know they aren’t the only one with these feelings of lonilessnes, sadness, or anger. Grief is something we all share. At moments, the emotions can feel so big that you don’t believe you will ever feel differently. I hope that by sharing my own experience, the reader also feels seen. I also believe, that there is no right or wrong way through grief. Each of my family members experienced my mother’s illness and death differently, and each of those experiences were valid. And I hope this book conveys that as well.
Your photography straddles both editorial and fine art, does one way of working inform the other?
The two ways of working play off each other and strengthen both. As an editorial photographer, I receive a shot list from the editor and I am required to deliver images that reflect the written story. Sometimes, in my art practice, I get stuck because there are infinite options. The open ended possibilities make it hard to know where to begin. So, I use the idea of the shot list in my art practice, as a jumping off point. Once I start making photos from my self-assigned list, I feel free to play and explore. This freedom has traveled back into my editorial work, encouraging me to go beyond the shot list.
Who or what is inspiring you these days?
I’m loving reading Kate Baer’s poetry, especially her new book, I Hope This Finds You Well. She transforms the cruelty of online messages into messages of hope, love and positivity.
This transformation is an idea I’m exploring in my new work, While I Wait, an elegy to a lost relationship between a brother and a sister. August 2018 was my last phone call with my brother, who has a substance abuse disorder.
For the last 10 months, I’ve had an artist residency at the Boulder Creative Collective working on While I Wait. By April, I plan to have finished a book dummy, and will be having a solo exhibition to conclude my residency. After that I will refocus on my ongoing project, Being Grayson, which explores the misadventures of growing up with dyslexia and ADHD. The act of photographing both my son’s and my experiences is cathartic and promotes understanding and acceptance to the mystery of his logic. We’ve learned how to have a dialogue. By slowing down alongside him, not asking him to change, I see his beauty and gifts to the world.
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