Are you really my friend? Exhibition brochure
Facebook friendships exist in the nebulousness of cyberspace. Social networking creates a forum where we may connect or reconnect deeply with dear friends or befriend new people at a superficial level. But what happens when we reach across real time and space and connect with these same “friends”? In her multi-dimensional portrait project, Maine artist Tanja Hollander collapses the intangibility of cyberspace and literally steps into the living rooms of her 600 (and growing) Facebook friends, traveling the country and the world on a modern odyssey to visit and photograph all of them. The project makes social media tangible through the physicality of photographs printed on paper and hung on gallery walls. Hollander’s installation at the Portland Museum of Art encourages interaction through a comment wall and an ever-changing grouping of portraits. Are we supposed to acknowledge the artist’s creativity, photographic skill, role within the tradition of portraiture, or should we critique the management of her Facebook page? This exhibition is the fifth in a series called Circa that explores compelling aspects of contemporary art in the state of Maine and beyond.
Interview (October 2011)
Mark Bessire: Please describe your first project shoot. Who was the first friend?
Tanja Hollander: It’s a bit of a two part answer, and actually comes full circle. I started photographing my friends in late December of 2009. The frst shoot was Jed French, whom I met through my day job (family law). He is a lawyer I spoke with quite a bit on the phone at the office and had seen a few times in real life. I started thinking about all the different kinds of friendship I had, and asked him if I could photograph him in his office. He very grudgingly agreed, and since I knew the opportunity was a fleeting one, I scheduled him for the next morning. I spent the next year photographing friends in their homes, offices, and studios. While I really loved the images, I felt I needed something more to bring people into the project.
I wrote to Jed, who was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010, which got me thinking again about friendship and Facebook, and which started the rebranding, for lack of a better word, of my new body of work. I spent the next couple of months working through the idea, quit one of my jobs, launched a fundraiser, and wrote a grant for the portrait project in February 2011.
The first person to respond to my fundraising e-mail was Samantha Appleton, the ex-girlfriend (of about 15 years) of a really good friend of mine. She was working as one of Obama’s photographers at the time. She was really excited about the project, bought a print, and invited me to DC to photograph her, and also offered me a tour of the West Wing. Again, seizing an opportunity immediately, I booked my flight (three weeks out for background check and White House scheduling). I feel that was the real start of the project. It was really amazing because we had only run into each other here and there over the years and had shot emails back and forth. I brought her to talk at SPACE Gallery (she was a war photographer before the White House). She was kind, generous, let me stay on her couch for a week, lent me her car, took me to her favorite restaurants, and really welcomed me into her home and life. I also learned a lot about scheduling, traveling and shooting, and the emotional parts of the project I wasn’t prepared for. Now that I think about it, I was in Boston the weekend before and did a couple of shoots before a photo lecture I was going to. I still technically count DC, though, as my first real shoot. The day I arrived was also the day the government was about to shut down, so [Samantha] was sending me frantic texts from the White House that she may not have a job by the time I arrived. I rushed to the National Portrait Gallery before they closed, right off the plane. It is really interesting, remembering back.
Mark Bessire: One builds an identity on one’s Facebook page, but what happens to
constructed identity once friends enter the space? To me that is the
real moment of truth for your project. What do you think?
Tanja Hollander: That’s a good question for sure. I don’t know if I have the answer. I think the moment of truth for me happens off of Facebook when I am
sitting around the kitchen table with my friends, loading film in my
camera and catching up. Right? I mean, that’s what it is really about—that
moment I cherish so much with friends around the dinner table,
drinking too much red wine and telling stories. Is that moment photographable?
But back to constructed identities—I think that is side consequence. The portraits I take portray a very different way of looking at someone than the usual pictures you find on Facebook. So I guess I’m the one doing the constructing! Ha. Of course, it is the control freak in me.
Bessire: In the
classic quote from Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message.”
Is the medium the message in your project? If so, what is the medium
and what is the message?
Hollander: Yes, of
course. I am using the only medium I know (and love)—photography—to
ask questions that are hard, both of myself, my friends/subjects,
and of the audience (and curator, too!). If I was a
writer, I’d write about it; a chef, I’d cook about it; a musician, I’d play
about it. You get the idea. The message is a question—what is friendship,
what does it mean to you? My style of working, of course, is also
thrown in there—like it was really important to me that I visit people
in their homes. To me, a real friend is someone you invite into
your home to ideally share a meal and drink. The easy thing to do
would be to rent a studio in say, seven major cities, shoot digitally,and
have everyone come to me. But this really was about going on an
adventure, talking to people, meeting their families, listening to great
music, seeing great art, eating fantastic food, traveling all over the
world. All the things I love to do, all of the things that form me and shape
my identity as an artist.
but is Facebook the medium?
of course, thank you for keeping me on subject. The analogue girl in
me wants to say no. But in a way, yes, Facebook is absolutely the
medium—or medium in the fortune teller way, not the art way. You
know, not like oil on linen, but like spirit in the wind. Facebook is where
it all comes together from beginning to end—so maybe it is the
medium in the spirit and art way?
project itself becomes its own marketing device. Are you concerned
that the marketing aspect may be seen by critics as an anathema
to fine art?
you should ask that question! At the PR meeting the other day, I really
wanted to emphasize that this was about portraits and not about Facebook.
I actually didn’t realize what a crazy marketing tool it was until a
couple of months into the project when I started uploading pictures
and tagging people. Naive, I know. I just assumed it would be my
circle of friends and colleagues interested in the project—I had no
idea about the ripple effect. Same thing with the blog. I didn’t (and to
some degree still don’t) get the amount of bloggers out there that
reblog and reblog all over the world. I’m actually more surprised by the
criticism of not continuing on with the landscapes, and the number
of people who have told me that “portraits don’t sell.” Which is what
it is. I have never made work to sell it, and I always thought of
myself as more punk rock than someone who makes beautiful landscape
photographs, even though that’s what I did for many years.I’m
still conveying the same message, just in a different way.
love your camera?
Tanja Hollander:You have no idea how much I love my camera. (And as importantly,film—color negative Fuji film to be specific). I recently had to replace the one I have had since 1994, and it was a very sad and traumatic day for me. It was a 1971 Hasselblad with a chrome lens, back when they were still handmade. A good friend lent me hers which is a slightly newer model, and which I love, but it doesn’t have the same sexy shutter sound my old one does. When I am rich, I will find a little old man in Germany who has the parts to fix mine.
Mark Bessire: Since you began the project, what aspect has been the most unexpected?
Tanja Hollander:I am continually surprised, and especially at the beginning of the project, at how warm and welcoming people are. They have fed me,housed me, showed me around, introduced to me to their friends and family, and really cheered me on. I feel like it’s the olden days,and I’m showing up at people’s houses in my wagon and they give me whatever they have to share. I don’t know if it’s what happens in a down economy, or if it really is the human compassion that we all have. I have crowd fundraised almost the entire project, that’s over $20,000, and the majority of that was $25 at a time. It’s amazing.