In Conversation with Blythe Marks
July 14, 2017
Artist Blythe Marks chats with Logan Jackson, sharing with us a few anecdotes about the intimacy of her photography, growing up on the internet, living in the desert, and more.
Images courtesy Blythe Marks.
Blythe Marks has been making photographs since she was 13 years old. I vividly remember discovering her work on the photo-sharing platform Flickr when I was freshly graduated from high school. The photographs struck a chord with me–while I was stuck living in a small Arkansas town, digging to discover the underlying beauty in a vastly uninspiring area, Blythe was doing the very same. Years later, now a college graduate, Marks has continued her practice and evolved the work into an ongoing study of the complexities of people. In our conversation, I wanted to find out from the scholarly artist the things that still remained unknown to me after our almost 8 years of being acquainted. What she divulged was a more intimate understanding of her focused train of thought, and what inspires her to keep moving forward.
You Do You: You’ve been making portraits since you were quite young, did you take a break at any point?
Blythe Marks: I did, actually. I became serious about photography when I started middle school in Southern California and stopped for a few years when I moved back to Arizona in 2009. I really focused on school and wasn’t able to reconcile my two identities—academic and artist—until college. I discovered writing in the meantime, and words and images, almost always in conjunction, are now the absolute foundation of my work.
YDY: Do you have a favorite subject to photograph?
BM: The human face is my favorite thing in the universe. I was indeed one of those girls in middle school always drawing eyeballs and surreal caricatures on any blank surface she could find. Women are always watching, scanning faces for meaning. For approval, for danger, for unspoken information. Each person’s face is a monument unto itself and I choose to focus primarily on isolated human expressions as a kind of open-ended confrontation to viewers.
YDY: How do you think the internet affected your growth as an artist?
BM: The community I’ve built wouldn’t exist without the internet. Flickr truly united a large, far-flung group of talented teenage artists into one location: We shared best practices, critiqued each other’s work, and watched each other grow into professionals. As many of us began to explore our respective queer identities and pushed each other to be more open, I also learned how to synthesize my emergent womanhood into photos, paintings, and prose. This period produced some of my strongest friendships and I’m so thankful to have a couch to crash on—and a face to photograph—wherever I wander.
YDY: I think you and I met through Flickr–what are your thoughts on that…interesting time in life?
BM: I’m thankful I began exploring the internet so early. My parents gave me a lot of freedom. As a 13-year-old stuck in a tiny town, stumbling upon a coven of tight-knit kids equally obsessed with art as me felt like a reprieve. I dove into this new space and developed a better eye and a deeper vocabulary that allowed me to contextualize my practice and understand myself.
YDY: What do you think your images say about modern friendships and relationships?
BM: I just graduated from university and there is a general malaise, a sweaty discomfort, among my cohort of graduates. (Is this universal throughout time and place? Maybe the anxiety is just ratcheted up for millennials like me, since we’re apparently killing everything in sight. All that carnage takes a toll.) I didn’t anticipate feeling so confused and disoriented at finally being set free into the world, flopped belly-first into a sea of choice and responsibility. I feel very in-between right now. I’m navigating my gender, romantic relationships, career and postgraduate prospects; the weight of it all makes my arms go numb.
Visually, I try not to delineate between friend, lover, and stranger. Ambiguity and ambivalence drive my work as I look out toward my uncertain future. The people in my life are complex and shifting, and my photos leaves room for the viewer to simply explore a face for what it is, rather than trying to telegraph identity outward. Relationships are messy! They’re also a refuge. My photos are a practice in queer world-building and the beautiful mess of chosen family.
YDY: Are your images shaped by the people in your life, or do you shape your subjects in your own vision?
BM: I try to capture people as they appear before me. Looking over the entire body of my work, even my earliest photographs of friends, my perspective is quite diaristic; some might say voyeuristic, which I don’t disagree with either. I’m still coming to terms with this. I’m not a photojournalist objectively gazing at a cultural moment. As I freeze a smile or a glare, the person in focus becomes part of a self-centered timeline. Where do they end and I begin? Does it matter?
YDY: Does living in Arizona play any sort of role in your image making?
BM: Definitely. My surroundings bleed into the spirit of my work, even in extreme close-up. In order to avoid getting lost in the mundane expanse of Mesa, the nation’s largest suburb, I learned to pay attention to details. The desert has a tendency to swallow and subdue. Laugh lines, veins, and indentations on the skin are all part of an expansive, imperfect landscape unique to each person I photograph.
YDY: Do you feel differently when shooting yourself compared to others?
BM: My pathway into photography began with self-portraiture. At the beginning I was my only willing subject, really. This blossoming obsession with taking pictures allowed me to really explore my own face and how I presented myself to others. It sensitized me. My camera is one of my oldest friends, and putting someone in front of my lens for the first time can be intimidating for everyone involved. I try to be as tender and patient with myself as I am with others. It’s a constant back-and-forth dialogue.
YDY: Who are some of your favorite artists / writers?
BM: Sara Ahmed, Maggie Nelson, John William Waterhouse, Juliana Huxtable, Devan Díaz, Serena Jara, Naomi Elizabeth, Ser Serpas, Shaye Saint John, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, Gogo Graham, and Martine Gutierrez.
YDY: Is there a particular reason you like to only shoot on film?
BM: It’s a physical thing. Film is a tangible, malleable medium that provides so much opportunity for experimentation; it’s also easily damaged, which makes the process more precious for me. Analog photography provides me a space in which I can slow down, which is rare.
YDY: What’s something vital you’ve learned from photographing people–including yourself?
BM: Most people, when I photograph them for the first time, almost always instinctively smile. In turn, I almost always assure them, “You don’t have to smile.” The split-second expression between their grin dropping and whatever comes next is something I’m still trying to figure out. Those little moments with my subjects are endlessly complex and I understand a particular person a little bit better. A quiet knowledge that keeps ringing in my chest long after the photo is taken.
See more of Blythe’s work on her Instagram @blythemarks