Creating a Photographic Memoir
Written by
She Writes
July 2018
Written by
She Writes
July 2018

This guest post is from Jennifer Spencer author of The Artist Portrait Project. Discover the inspiration behind her photographic memoir to decide if the genre is a good fit for your passions. 

The Need

As an artist photographer, my photographic memoir began with a need… the need to reconnect with a past and the people in it.  This was a time in the life of my art community that was growing and vital in San Diego.  The artists I worked with at the time were part of that community.  What started out as a way to reconnect with my artist friends became a ten year project of artist portraits in their studios all over San Diego County.  My photographic memoir contains both the portraits of the artist and diary notes I took during our portrait sessions.

For thirteen years, I was the ED for COVA, Combined Organizations for the Visual Arts. My community was that of artists. In my daily responsibilities to the organization, I had the opportunity to meet many fellow artists who were trying to make a name and place for themselves in the art world. Over time, many of the artists became friends. Retiring and returning to school short-circuited my usual attendance at art openings and other art gatherings. Though I’d already begun The Artist Portrait Project, I found myself drifting further away from the everyday existence of my fellow creative artists. In the beginning, some ten years ago, I was enthused about meeting up with my artist friends and taking my 4x5 camera into their studios to capture them in their environment. About the same time, I lost my downtown studio to the development of the ballpark. The high ceilings and open space I was used to for painting was no longer available.  A confluence of events propelled me into the project. I moved my studio home, where it became relegated to the family room. Not only was it a lonelier existence, I also found the environment no longer conducive to painting. Hence, I moved toward photography when I returned to school. To keep in touch with my fellow artists, I found it beneficial to start The Artist Portrait Project as an entree into their studio lives. It was the most natural thing for me to do.

The Project

The Artist Portrait Project opened my eyes to seeing my fellow artists in a different light.

Initially, my artist portraits tried to capture what I’d subconsciously observed for many years but had not put into words or images.  The work of many of my fellow artists very often reflected much about themselves personally, both in content and appearance. One might think it would be obvious that the artist’s work would be an expression of who they were and their view of the world. This is the essence I have been challenged to capture in my portraits of San Diego artists. The artists chosen for the project came from different sources, and most are artists I’ve known and respected for many years. Some have been selected because they participated in the COVA Open Studios program or other COVA programs and exhibitions. All are artists I’ve known, some better than others. I’ve admired all their work and thus they have had some impact on me as an artist. These are artists who have contributed to the creative culture of the region. It’s not just about their work . . .it’s about who they are, the creators of the fabric of culture in San Diego County.

The Creative Spirit

The above is a statement of my original premise. This project is also about the persistence of the creative spirit. What I discovered in the process of The Artist Portrait Project was more revealing about the artist culture of San Diego County than I’d anticipated. It has always fascinated me how my fellow artists can continue to do the work they do over time, under financial burdens and family responsibilities that would have stopped most people. Their creative spirit has been so strong that, in the light of economic struggles, many have found ways to support their need to create art. Many have become teachers, instructors, art school managers and some just got lucky and found financial support in other ways. The book is dedicated to those who’ve continued to honor their own creative spirit and to those who’ve passed on that love of art and the artistic process to their students through community colleges, universities, and art schools. To those who’ve nurtured the creative spirit in others.

Having a photographic record along with diary notes of my experiences photographing these artists, will hopefully become a part of San Diego’s artist history.

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