Angela Strassheim photographs life’s transitions for Project Atrium at MOCA Jacksonville
Moving to new homes, changing careers, getting married, having a baby—these are the transitions that have shaped photographer Angela Strassheim’s life. Now her photographs—how she makes them and thinks about them—are undergoing an evolution.
Her Project Atrium exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, a cultural resource of the University of North Florida, embodies some of those transformations. Her photographs are hung salon-style in the three-story Haskell Atrium Gallery. Half of the images had never been exhibited before; some were first shown in her Pause and Left Behind collections. “A lot of the images I’ve chosen center around points of transition in someone’s life,” Strassheim says.
For instance, in Untitled (Moving In), a preteen boy peers into a window, surveying a kitchen counter cluttered with cleaning products, a potted plant, a can of Mandarin oranges, candy canes, giant lollipops, and other random items usually only found tossed together during a move. His face barely masks his feelings of upheaval. Untitled (Girl in Blue Dress) depicts a pixie princess frozen in a childhood phase that evaporates too quickly. Untitled (Headlights), featuring a half-clothed teenage girl and boy running with abandon in dimly lit woods, illustrates the freedom of young adulthood.
The large-format prints, some as big as seventy-five inches wide, can be viewed from all three floors around the monumental gallery. Their placement is based on how viewers will engage with the works. For example, Untitled (Moving In) is hung just above eye level, making the boy appear to gaze at onlookers below. Strassheim has never presented her work at this size or hung in this composition. The layout also allows images to speak to one another through their proximity and positioning.
“I’m allowing the space to speak to me more than just working with a handful of images,” she explains. “It gives me an opportunity to look at my work in a different way, to look at the internal space within me and how I want to bring that out.”
“I’m playing more on an emotion or a feeling than a set of parameters—an energy more than anything,” she continues, expressing the hope visitors are inspired by that energy. She relishes the opportunity to introduce her work to a new audience in an uncommon gallery space. The Project Atrium series also features a video with each installation. For Strassheim’s story, MOCA Jacksonville sent Jacksonville filmmaker Joe Karably to Oregon to capture a behind-the-scenes look at how she works during two days of photo shoots with her family.
The collection illustrates Strassheim’s view of the precious, fleeting nature of childhood and her reflections on motherhood. “It’s such a complicated time in everyone’s life. It’s not until you’re an adult and have your own children that you realize how easy you had it.”
Many of the images feature her family, especially her brother’s children. The images span time so the children appear at several phases of their lives. Her nieces and nephews are accustomed to appearing in her work.
“That’s just how they know me. That’s their relationship with me. ‘Angela’s coming to visit. Of course she’s bringing a camera,’” Strassheim says. “They always comply with me. They just know that’s what I do.”
Now that the children are teenagers, however, they are sometimes hard to convince. On a recent trip to Oregon, she noticed her sixteen-year-old nephew’s bedspread was the same one she photographed several years ago. She asked him to remove his shirt for the quiet lounging mood of the image, but he refused. “It took a lot just to get him to take his socks off.”
It’s one of the hazards and joys of working with family, she muses. One image she considered for Project Atrium depicts three nephews and her brother in the bathroom. Two of the boys face the toilet while they urinate, but one turns toward the camera in surprise. She removed the photograph based on the nephews’ objections. “Maybe one day they’ll think it’s funny. I just have to respect that. Maybe someday I’ll be able to show it.”
Much of her work has required elaborate strobe lighting to catch the exacting details in images with expansive depth of field focus. “Why not show all the description that you can?” she asks. “That’s how our eyes focus—on everything.”
For instance, in Untitled (Isabel at the Window), light shines from two windows of a two-story house shrouded in twilight and shadows, but the details are so clear that viewers can detect a home security sticker on the front door. The photograph is one of a few autobiographical scenes in Strassheim’s work. In this piece, the frame captures a girl changing clothes from a distance, as if she is being viewed by someone at ground level. Strassheim shares the story of a boy who used to visit his grandparents each summer. Before he left one fall, he kissed her and told her to look for a present outside her house the next morning. She found the note that read “For Angela’s Eyes Only” in which he described watching her through her back window at night. “I was mortified by it.” She says images like this one represent her attempt to understand those situations by recreating them from the other person’s point of view.
“I don’t take pictures. I make photographs,” she states. “Everything in a photograph is there because I decided it would be there.”
She describes a recent shoot with her niece, Savannah, sitting on the couch with a cat for Untitled (Savannah with Keelee). It was a scene she had witnessed previously and thought about repeatedly before returning to capture it. She realized the background didn’t work and had to reposition the girl on a different couch to create the frame she envisioned. She said the final image reminds her of Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Madame Monet on a Sofa with similar content. Previous Strassheim images have evoked themes from Old Masters’ work, such as Untitled (Alicia in the Pool) which recalls Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus (c. 1482-1486).
She shoots with a 4 x 5 view camera, using Polaroid film to preview instant versions of her final exposures. A few years ago, when Polaroid film was scarce, she experimented with a digital camera. “I hated being tethered to a computer. It made me miserable.”
She prefers the craft and pace of working with the large-format camera and film. “It’s tedious. You don’t even know if you truly captured the moment because it’s film, but that’s what I do. I’m going to stick with it for as long as I can.”
On a recent trip to Oregon, she shot twenty-two exposures of her nephew and son surrounded by chickens on her brother’s farm for Untitled (Zane and Emmet with the chickens). That time she was successful; which is not always the case. “I have to see it made in order to know what to do next time in order to make it work,” she explains. “I won’t show a photograph until it’s done. I’ve had some photos that take eight years to get right.”
Strassheim’s work style has been evolving, too. Many of her new pictures are using less lighting and less depth of field, sometimes out of necessity. “I usually have to experience something, think about it, and recreate it,” she says. “A lot of pictures lately have been about life in the moment.”
Her rambunctious two-year-old sometimes makes it difficult to work in her usual methodical style. The equipment is unforgiving, sensitive, heavy, dangerous. He tries to touch the camera and walk through the tripod legs. “He wants to help out. He wants to be a part of it,” she says. “I can’t spend three hours making a picture. I’m lucky if I get twenty-five minutes before, ‘Is Mommy done working yet?’”
If she can avoid setting up lights and only use a reflector, she does so. She photographs during his naps, or finds someone to entertain him, or puts him in the pictures. “His way of helping me is being in the pictures for a few of the frames many times.”
Strassheim was born in Bloomfield, Iowa, in 1969, as her father was flying overseas to fight in the Vietnam War. She was nine months old when he saw his daughter for the first time. By the time she started kindergarten, her family had lived in five different places. They moved to Minneapolis in time for her to attend high school and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she received a BFA in media arts in 1995.
After graduation, she searched for a way to support herself as a photographer. Her fascination with the medical examiner profession led her to the Forensic Imaging Bureau in Miami where she learned how to shoot everything related to photography and law enforcement—crime scenes, autopsies, surveillance, search and seizure, drug trafficking at the airport. She received her Forensic & Biomedical Photography Certification in 1997 and worked in a Virginia crime lab. But she hated it.
She returned to the art world to earn her MFA in photography at Yale University in 2003, but her forensic training influenced some of her earlier work. Hearts is a series of five images of human hearts: one pierced by a gunshot wound, one damaged by obesity, one affected by cancer, one weakened by a drug overdose, and one of a normal child. In the Evidence series, she photographed rooms where domestic homicides occurred. She often created the images months to years after the incidents but used Blue Star, a luminescent, blood-sensitive chemical that investigators use to uncover traces of DNA at a crime scene, to reveal what was left behind.
Originally, she had planned to weave photos from those two series with the family images, each one representing a different phase of life. As the time for the exhibition drew nearer, she decided to pursue a different course—another transition in her work. “It was too heavy.”
Perhaps the change in focus comes from the different stage of life she finds herself living—a young toddler, new approaches to work, and fresh perspectives on her past.
Strassheim lives in Connecticut and works in New York and Israel. Her work appears in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Monterey Museum of Art in California, and many others. She has exhibited in museums and galleries around the world.
Asked how she first became interested in photography, she quickly deadpans, “Because I couldn’t draw.” So she found a medium through which she can express herself. “For me, a body of work is like my voice. It’s how I speak, it’s who I am and what I think about.”
Angela Strassheim’s work will be on display thru March 1, 2015.
Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, 333 North Laura Street, 620-3224, mocajacksonville.org.
Article written by Denise M. Reagan