Fresh from topping the People category in this year's Sigma D-Photo Amateur Photographer of the Year competition, Auckland-based photographic artist Stephanie O'Connor this week launches a new solo show in an unconventional location. Over Saturn's Limb is a new series inspired by a mix of interplanetary observation, internet language quirks, and the alluring mysteries of science fiction – and O'Connor has found the perfect venue to match those idiosyncratic insights in Auckland's rustic Golden Dawn Tavern. Stephanie chats to D-Photo about the exhibition's origins, unusual technical set-up, and the desire to have photographic art showing in a more social space:
D-Photo: can you tell me a little about yourself and your background in photography?
Stephanie O'Connor: I sort of studied photography at Elam, after becoming obsessed with photographers like Irving Penn and Walker Evans. Although I began Elam when it went interdisciplinary, so I got given a lump of wax expecting to sculpt (or perhaps experiment) on my first day. I photographed it in the end, after grating the block into a pile. Needless to say, it wasn't the best start to the year. In saying that, I had a handful of inspiring teachers during my time there too that nurtured photographic interest, and that encouraged me to join the Photoforum organization.
Your new exhibition is called Over Saturn's Limb – what does the title refer to?
Recently I’ve become interested in the strange poetry you find in banal things like Google image captions, unfinished or uncorroborated Wikipedia entries and the like. "Over Saturn's Limb" is an extracted part of a sentence from a NASA Google image that, when truncated, became phonetically lovely and interesting. Originally it was something purely technical and directory; "A small Earth rests over the limb of Saturn”. I liked the dwarfing of Earth, and the strange connection created.
How would you describe the portraiture style you've used in the series?
Sweaty and iridescent. But really. I like that they become delineated by side light, they kind of emerge from a black goo. They are hard and graphic, not soft and painterly. Although the series isn’t primarily portraiture, the majority of it is inanimate things taking on various forms, I think the few portraits injects a bit of blood and human experience.
How many images appear in the exhibition, and do you have a favourite?
Five images are in the show, it felt more engaging with less. My favourite, if I had to choose, would be "It Might Actually Float", which is a dusty pink outdoor umbrella, which seems to assume the form of an elegant squid, suspended in its own ink.
The images look to have a very distinct atmosphere, how did you go about lighting them?
I borrowed my friend Luke's Redhead lights, which I don’t usually use, but I liked the filmic quality. They're also strong and, with gels, added an unusual colour and intensity. They were perhaps a little too hot, and many night flies met their death.
What other gear were you working with on the series?
One speedlite, 50mm prime lens, and my sweet second hand Canon 550D. I have limited gear, and it is nothing particularly formidable, but it forces me to accommodate. Sometimes the outcome is disastrous, sometimes very rewarding.
The exhibition description makes particular note of retouching, what's your approach in that area?
Retouching is integral to my practice presently, and it's not about taking short cuts. It enables a thematic depth that I like. Apart from it being my day job, it is something that brings me joy. I read often that people loathe sitting in front of the computer working on their images. I think if I have interesting images to work on, I would lose track of time because it thrills me, and it’s a form of visual problem solving. In saying that, there is also great pleasure to be had by leaving an image as is, it really depends on the project, and if it's necessary. I don't like the notion of being tied down by a methodology that you can't deviate from, I wouldn’t want to retouch for retouching’s sake.
Rather than a traditional art space, you are going to be exhibiting the series in Ponsonby's Golden Dawn Tavern – why there?
Golden Dawn has a wonderful indoor section that makes me think of an old attic. I liked the idea of the images being part of the furniture, and not isolated on a stark wall. It is a dark space, and perhaps if they went unnoticed, they would still loom quietly. I think also bringing work into a social space is important, and having them potentially reach a more diverse audience. Although it's not entirely subversive, they still hang on walls, but I think conceptually it makes sense that they do. Initially I was interested in exhibiting them at the Observatory, but it was met with a resounding and rather confused "no". I think also that some bodies of work fit into more conventional spaces, and work exceptionally well. It is not about subverting, but enjoying and utilizing both.
What do you hope visitors take away from viewing the show?
That photography has a strong and necessary place in contemporary art practice. Maybe it will inspire people to show in social spaces, maybe it will encourage them to watch more sci-fi, or visit the Star Dome.
What would you say are your biggest artistic inspirations?
It changes. At the moment it is a bit odd. I am inspired by, as I mentioned before, plucked sentences from seemingly boring things. They create a platform for narrative to bloom, and kind of allows for myth rather than actuality. Other than that, I am a bit obsessed with Francis Upritchard at the moment, Trent Parke, movie scores, and film stills. Also, ideas seem to occur when I am in one place for a decent period of time that is not my home or work. Over Saturn's Limb was shot at a place I house-sat over a period of time. It's sort of a familiarizing, and a re-imagining of a current setting. For this series I really wanted to explore the idea of occurrence and aftermath, there’s a weird tension there. I also have to say that I annoy a couple of my good friends with the forming of ideas. I find conversation much more fertile than sitting alone with my own thoughts. I like to know how other people think and interpret things, and it feels less self absorbed. So thank you to Mark Kaneko and Kate Roydhouse.
What's up next for you after the exhibition?
I have a show called Release the Hounds being exhibited next year at the beautiful Pah Homestead. Asides from that, I have a few bodies of work to keep me interested and busy.
The best piece of science fiction of all time is:
2001: a Space Odyssey! It is completely unrivalled. Although The Man Who Fell to Earth is pretty gnarly. And recently, Under the Skin. What a movie.