Frank Meuschke spoke with fellow Rosalux Gallery artist Priscilla Briggs about how she came to be a photographer, her early influences, and the challenges of picturing different cultures in this global economy.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Delaware and grew up mostly on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but spent summers in Central Pennsylvania and went to high school in Worcester, Massachusetts. I’ve lived in Maine, New York, and Georgia as well, so I’m pretty much an East Coaster at heart with a deep connection to the ocean.
When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
It was really a gradual awakening through which I realized art was something I could actually do to make money rather than spend all my money to make. I took one darkroom photo class as part of the undergraduate graphic design curriculum at Carnegie Mellon University -the art department didn’t offer photography at all. After college, I took a color photography class at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers. I realized it was something I wanted to do because I was willing to spend all my money on it. Eventually, I got a job teaching photography because of the portfolio I developed.
Did you go to college to study art? If so, where?
I studied graphic design and computer graphics programming at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh as an undergraduate, and later went to graduate school at MICA. But, in-between undergraduate and graduate school, I worked as a photography instructor at the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild (MCG) in Pittsburgh, which was an education in itself. I had a great mentor there, Lonnie Graham, and half my peers already had their MFAs, so they really helped me prepare to apply to graduate school. I actually had only taken the two formal photo classes mentioned above before attending graduate school.
How do you think that training affected your future work?
First, Carnegie Mellon was a very tech-oriented school, and I was actually a computer science major for a year. Even graphic design majors were required to take programming classes. I also, laughably, had a class on one of the first Apple Macintosh computer models using MacDraw. I did interface design and programming, computer animations that took days to render. All this enabled me to adapt very quickly to emerging digital technologies, later, as the field of photography changed drastically and rapidly.
At the MCG, I learned how to use a large format view camera, and fell in love with that process. The organization was very well funded at the time, and so there were all kinds of resources at my disposal that allowed me to experiment with a gamut of processes and equipment from Polariod transfers, studio lighting, color printing, cyanotype and Van Dyck processes, etc. That place changed my life, really. The people I worked with were fantastic and are still some of my best friends decades later. We had a blast going to work everyday. We taught “at-risk youth," so that was an education in itself.
Graduate school was where I really started to focus on a career as an artist and developing work that addressed more complex concepts. It is a singular experience to devote all your time and energy to making art, without having to worry about making money to support yourself--of course, I was paying those loans off years later, but it was worth it.
At what point did you arrive to the Minneapolis region?
I moved to Minnesota for my first college teaching job at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2003. I met my husband a year later and have been here ever since!
Are there any artists that are particularly strong influences on your ideas and practices?
I get super excited when I discover a new artist who resonates with me deep in my bones. Some artists who have had that effect on me over the years include Martin Parr, especially his book Common Sense; Lauren Greenfield; Jim Goldberg’s work in his books Rich and Poor and Raised by Wolves; Lorna Simpson’s work over the years from her conceptual work with text, her wig pictures on felt, and her recent collages all have a minimal, potent quality that that is shaped through presentation and materials. Glenn Ligon’s use of text is genius; William Eggleston’s visual language; Ed Ruscha and Martha Rosler. Edward Burtynsky’s work about China and the film Manufactured Landscapes has been a big influence on me as well. And Cao Fei, especially her video Whose Utopia.
Your work is witness to the intersection of advertising and commerce, landscape and cultures. What ideas or thoughts stimulated this investigation?
My initial interest in photography was primarily portraiture. The more I thought about identity within the context of the environmental portrait, the more I started to think about how our larger context and its systems shape who we are. Our role as citizen in a Capitalist system is that of consumer. The advertising that supports capitalism creates and perpetuates certain narratives of who we are or who we should want to be within that system. It takes imagination and self-awareness to look beyond that filter. Traveling to other parts of the world is a great way to step outside and look back in, but also to explore the interactions of culture that occur all over the world.
John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and The Suit and the Photograph were powerful and relatable reads for me when I was studying art. What works of writing were important to you?
Actually, Ways of Seeing was a big influence on me as well and I have my students read parts of it every semester. It is a text that ages well and discusses the role of advertising in support of Capitalism. My 20-year old mind was also blown the first time I read Mythologies by Roland Barthes and Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Stephen Kern’s book The Culture of Time and Space was impactful. Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is referenced in my series Making Mona Lisa.
One last one...The Essential McLuhan, which is a collection of Marshall McLuhan's writing. I think his interview with Playboy magazine was actually the most comprehensible piece in the book -he tends to ramble in his writing. I had to laugh a while back when I had my students read the interview and one student was absolutely scandalized that I was assigning a text from Playboy magazine, and then absolutely shocked that he had trouble understanding it. I still remember how thrilling it was for me to sit with my dictionary reading Baudrillard. I had to look up every fifth word. It was like decoding a secret language and it opened up a new world of thought for me.
Much of your work has focused on contemporary China. How did this come about?
When I moved to Minnesota, I focused on the Mall of America as a symbol of American consumerism. I was honestly shocked to learn that it was a tourist destination--that people fly in from around the country specifically to go to the Mall of America for vacation. I photographed at the mall with the eye of an anthropologist studying the commodity as fetish.
What challenges do you face in picturing cultures outside of your own?
Language is always a frustrating barrier. I often feel I might take different pictures if I could speak the language, so the images I make in other countries are definitely meant for an American audience. I am also careful to make pictures that are not exploitative. There are many photos I’ve wanted to take but didn’t because they could have entered that territory. I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, but to learn something I didn’t know before, to connect with people in a positive way.
Your work often appears documentary or journalistic -some images could be transposed to work with a piece of journalism. How do you come to terms with that or do you disagree with the premise of the question?
I’m not opposed to the question at all. Images are capable of functioning in all sorts of ways as their context changes. I often refer to some of my work as conceptual documentary, in that I shoot in a documentary approach and then contextualize the work through presentation. For instance, many of the images from the Market exhibition about the Mall of America were printed on postcards to reference the location as a tourist destination and text that referred to statistics about American consumer habits was printed on the back of the cards. They were displayed in stacks on a shelf similar to what you would find in a card shop and the viewer could purchase them right from the shelf.
Another example where the presentation was part of the process is the paintings of the production painters in Xiamen. With this body of work, I commissioned paintings of my photographs as a comment on labor in the global market -an oil painting of my photo cost slightly more than a professional print of the same image in the US.
There are also strong compositional forces at play that tell me your images are not spur-of-the-moment, documentary captures, but carefully crafted images. Would you explain your process of making an image? Are you slow and methodical, do you take several shots and then find the work in the studio, or a mixture?
It really depends on the situation. Sometimes I have to work very quickly and exhaustively and am not sure what I’m going to work with until I get back to the studio. Other times, I compose the shot very carefully and then wait patiently for the right moment, or the right light, to occur. With the portraits in Domestic, which are a nod to Rineke Djikstra’s beach portraits, I collaborated with the subject, positioning them against the sea and using a flash. The images in the Seamless series were taken with very long shutter speeds, a couple minutes each, because I wanted to use the available light rather than the studio lights. So, yeah, it really depends on the subject.
I see in some of your photographs of consumerism, mass consumption, and luxury advertising the suggestion of memento mori. In one of your images, “Last Chance” of 2017, it is rather explicit on the visible signage and supported by the empty chair. There is a sense of something running out in the rush to the middle or upper classes. In some of your images there is obvious environmental despoliation or a waste strewn construction site indicating the impact of that drive to “live better.” Can you speak to this notion?
Yes, for sure. In the US we’ve lived a life of relative luxury, comfort and unsustainable consumerism that has been unimaginable in, and often at the expense of, other parts of the world. Now some of those other parts, such as China and India, are becoming economic powerhouses with burgeoning middle and upper middle classes that want what we have enjoyed. The problem in general is that Capitalism is an unsustainable system that relies on perpetual growth fueled by finite resources. We see the repercussions in climate change, unbearable pollution, and mass extinctions. There is a terrible irony in the destruction of our surroundings in the pursuit of a better life. I love irony and had a great deal of fun playing with that in some of my earlier work, but later work that pertains to the environment is more sobering and straightforward.
I am attracted to an image I saw in your last exhibit, For the Gods, at Rosalux. It was an image of what I thought of as a stag staring out of the forest, into the light. It looked staged, but then, how could it be? Even as it was part of an exhibit focused on the Indian subcontinent, the image could have been taken anywhere -although the tree bark visible could cue a viewer to location if one is familiar with that kind of detail. This image is part of a suite of forest images that I find rather romantic and quite different from nearly all of your other work.
What brought you to this suite of forest images? Do you see these as different, conceptually, aesthetically, from your other work? Is there more of this in your future?
India has the largest population of tribal people in the world and many of them are being evicted from their forest lands, which have been deemed wildlife sanctuaries. It is a complicated situation, but as you might guess, the tribal people have been disenfranchised and many end up living in the slums on the outskirts of the nearest city. Rather than making photographs that depict this miserable situation, I opted to create photographs of a haunted forest. The image with the stag was an exception thrown in for balance; he is emerging from the darkness into the light.
What concerns you about the future?
Ha! Everything. But mostly environmental devastation, vanishing species, toxic plastic, poisonous food, the corporatocracy, 8 billion people on the planet and growing.
What are you feeling positive about?
There are solutions to all our ills, what stands in the way is mindset. As a professor, I work with young adults. I see the pandemic of anxiety and depression in action everyday. But I also see the resilience, creativity and passion with which my students approach the world and its problems, so I’m looking forward to them taking over. And art, I’m feeling very positive about art -it is proof that we have the imagination necessary to accomplish anything.
Priscilla is currently Professor of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College. You can see more of Priscilla's work at her website www.priscillabriggs.com