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CLOSE UP - Interview with Lisa Powers

by B. Larkin

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing photographic artist, Lisa Powers, as she prepares for her upcoming show at Art on the Quay. Lisa’s show opens on 8 March and features entirely new works in the artist’s unique photographic style.

Let’s start with your background. What inspired you to become a photographer? Was there anyone in particular who influenced you? Tell us about your training and work in New York.

I was never inspired to become a photographer. It was thrust upon me! I had been working as a creative director in a VERY small boutique advertising agency that specialised in fashion, e.g. catalogues, retail advertising, promotional materials and such.  I was responsible for concepts, hiring photographers, booking models, stylists etc.  I really enjoyed the work. I thought I was a good director and had an ‘eye’ for composition. One photographer, (whose name I still remember!) looked at me an said, “You do everything but push the shutter! Here. Take this camera, shoot some pictures, and when you’ve finished a roll, we’ll develop it and see what you’ve got.”  With that, he pushed a camera towards me and I took it.  It was the first time EVER that I held a camera in my hand.

I was a college dropout in my mid-twenties and this unfamiliar object was about to change my life.

True to his promise, the photographer showed me how to develop my film. Then we made a contact proof sheet. It looked like a chequerboard. I knew NOTHING about metering light and setting exposures. There were perhaps two images that he said were good enough to print.  He showed me how to print, and seeing the image magically appear in the developing tray was like the needle in my arm.  I was hooked!

I quit my job and was hired to do janitorial work at a large commercial photo studio. The studio had a small room for me to live in. That’s when I began my training. I watched the photographers set up and shoot in the day, and I had access to all studio equipment and darkroom at night.

Have you had any formal education in photography? How do you feel it helped you to develop as an artist?

I had no formal education in photography. I worked in the commercial studio for nearly a year, during which time I experimented with lights and different films. I loved, loved, LOVED the darkroom.  The commercial photographers whose studio I was living in, had gotten bored with developing and printing, so that job got added to my janitorial duties.  I started shooting models almost at once, since I had worked with the agencies before. This was called ‘testing’, which meant no fees.  Fortunately, I was allowed to use the film in the studio refrigerator and whatever paper and chemicals were in the darkroom, so I had no out-of-pocket expenses.  The models had my photographs in their portfolios and art directors began to take notice. I borrowed many photography books from the library and studied the images.

How did you come to be in New Zealand? How have you found it breaking into the New Zealand art market? How has your time in New Zealand influenced your art?

Sometimes I’m still astonished to find myself in New Zealand!

I remember when I was in my twenties, I sat for a reading with a psychic and took a few notes.  She said that I would leave the States and live in another country.  She also said I would get married.  Nothing could have been further from what I wanted to hear, although she did say that I would have a career in the ‘arts’.  I did leave the States to live in Tokyo for a while, although I still kept my house in the States, so I don’t think that was really leaving.

And I did get married.  I married a NASA astro-physicist and my life shifted from advertising photography to space exploration. At the same time, I was both fascinated and terrified by the new digital cameras that were displacing analogue photography!  Fortunately, I had access to NASA and what better place to learn state-of-the art computer graphics than NASA? I had several brilliant computer geeks who admitted they knew nothing about making beautiful images, but they could show me how to navigate a computer.  My husband and I had visited New Zealand as tourists and I was charmed by Christchurch. When my marriage fell apart I decided to relocate to Christchurch.  The psychic’s prophecies were correct.

I had no “roots” in New Zealand — no family and my only friends were a couple who were killed in their private plane crash six months after I arrived. I was totally alone and clueless about what to do.  I didn’t want to get back into advertising photography, and even if I had wanted to, my style was not a good fit for New Zealand.

It’s taken me several years to shift my focus from being “a New York photographer living and working in New Zealand” to “a New Zealand photographic artist from New York”. New Zealand’s biggest influence on my art is my isolation.  I enjoy solitude.  I have no husband, never had children, have very few local friends, but I have six shelter-rescue cats who nurture and delight me.  I live high up in the Port Hills and have a spectacular view of a city that I rarely enter.  I remember a quote from the French sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, who said, “To be an artist, you need to exist in a world of silence.”  I have created that world for myself here in New Zealand.  Hence, my first solo exhibition as a New Zealand photographic artist is titled, “ Silence, Stillness, and Solitude”.

What influences inspired you to become a photographic artist? How did you develop your style with your subject matter? 

I think the ‘artist’ was always there, just below the surface of the advertising photographer.  Art directors sometimes sensed it and would ask to see a portfolio of my personal work, not my commercial work.  Some art directors enjoyed hiring me because I’d solve the concept for them!  I think in a visual language.  I should have been born Japanese or Chinese!  I direct my subjects as a film director. I suggest scenes or emotions to them.  There is no dialogue, so they need to express the story in a single frame.  It’s not easy.  Some models, especially here in New Zealand, have been trained to pose for the camera and I have to be ready to capture that fraction of a second when they forget to pose, and I see something real.

The films from the 1930’s through 1950’s were a great influence on me.  I especially loved the ‘Film Noir’ lighting.

The photographers whose work influenced me are Josef Sudek, Man Ray, George Hurrell, Baron DeMeyer, Jean Cocteau’s gorgeous films, Cecil Beaton, Julia Margaret Cameron, and many others in that era.  Again, it’s the lighting and the wordless story in their photograph that engages me.

Tell us about what sort of preparation went into your current show? When did you first start planning? How many new pieces did you complete for it? Who helped you along the way?

I started planning the show the minute the title came to me.  Everything seemed to fall into place from there.  Nearly all the images are either completely new, or re-worked. I started a series of still-life photographs of flowers, which I hadn’t done before.  I experimented with the different shades of Cyanotype, and   I named the series, “Even Flowers get the Blues”.  I developed a sepia colour that has an underlay of gold that I really like for my vintage-look images.

My helpers are always my faithful kitties. We work well together, and they remind me to take breaks. Otherwise, I’d work straight through days and nights.

I feel satisfied with the images I selected. I was anxious and fearful at the prospect of a solo exhibition, but as with anything else, I immersed myself in the work, and soon saw the exhibition taking shape.  An artist friend said to “imagine it finished, and it will be done!”  Good advice.

What’s next for you? What plans do you have for your art/photography in the future?

I’d like to put together images for a photography book.  I’ve had many images published in anthologies, but I haven’t had a monogram.  Perhaps 2018 will be the year!

SILENCE, STILLNESS, SOLITUDE

An Exhibition of Photographic Art by Lisa Powers
opens 8th March at Art on the Quay

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©LisaPowersPhotography
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