Leslie Hall Brown - Interview
Leslie Hall Brown is an artist and psychotherapist whose film photography springs from the deep soul-knowledge of what it is to be human, to be woman, to be feel with the eyes and see with the heart, to exist as both a continuation of culture and myth and as an entity powerfully oneself. She lives in the Missouri Ozarks, surrounded by nature and without a neighbour in sight.
Hi Leslie, and thank you so much for speaking with me. Can you tell me, what are the (internal and external) things that make you want to press a shutter switch?
I would have to say it is emotion. When I feel some deeply stirring emotional reaction within, then I look closer to see what it is that I am reacting to. I am very intuitive and trust my intuition to lead me. Sometimes when I feel that prick of reaction I don’t know what it is. I will look and wonder, and sometimes think, 'what could it be, that looks boring'. Other times I feel almost an electricity and know there is something waiting to reveal itself. I try to immerse myself in the moment and to not allow conscious censoring. I literally dip into my child self and embrace a play mode. I first started using the Diana to learn how to play again, in an effort to access the intuitive and visual right-brain while not engaging the organized, logical and analytical left-brain. My thought was that if the photographic act could be simplified and made more playful, that the creative right side of the brain would have a greater involvement in the process.
That led to using plastic cameras exclusively for twenty-five years. The resulting images, flawed with unpredictable vignetting and unfocused areas, beyond the Diana’s usual lack of sharpness and centrifugal illumination, suited my vision.
Ordinary, mundane moments that would otherwise be forgotten, if even noticed, draw my attention. I lean toward the primal, ambiguous, half told stories, which spring from the makings of confused dreams and subconscious stirrings. I am after an otherworldly aura, in a time-wrapping, ageless image that feels as if it could have been drawn from an archetypal memory-bank.
These images are hinged together in circular time rather than linear. One is no older or newer than the next. They are all part of a centrifugally expanding body of work driven by the same goal, to scratch the surface and reveal the essence of the thing itself, of a moment in time, of the inherent metaphor, all in an effort to delve into a mythical realm of imagery.
I'm interested in that idea of circular rather than linear time, and I notice that your work progresses in series or cycles, and that these cycles have a cumulative power, not just within the cycle but within the greater collection of cycles. Is that something you consciously set out to do?
Having grown up in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which is the capital of the Five Civilized Tribes, I have long been drawn to Native American writers, and particularly those who employ magic realism in their fictional writing. That combination of realism, fantasy, magic, history, the unbelievable, all laid down over myth and folk stories is titillating to me. In any given moment of time there can be the present, the past and even the future. I don’t view time as linear on a personal level because it feels more like living in reality and a dream at the same time. As human beings we carry within us, wherever we go, all of our experiences and all the people and ancestors who left an impact on us. So it is as if we are living in the past, the present and the possibilities to come. I think divergently, more in terms of webs than chronological lines and perhaps space instead of time. My memories make my reality different from the person standing beside me and thus I see different things than others who walk the same path.
By cyclical time I am speaking to the idea that patterns repeat and that the past is not behind us, never to be revisited, or that the future is ahead and unseeable; this of course falls within the realm of Native American thinking and magical realism in terms of literature. Cyclical time not only emphasizes repetition but is also very influenced by the cycles apparent in the natural world. Reality is subjective, time is relative and we are continuations of our ancestors.
I feel equally connected to the land and animals I have known in my life and they greatly influence the spiritual aspect my awareness. The circularity of time is another way to conceptualize the idea of the collective memory, in which myth, superstition, archetypes and imagination inform one’s understanding of the world. Linear time is dissolved when one is open to seeing all possible events or times. When circular time is embraced our ideas of how to understand the world and its events is expanded.
I view my body of work as cyclical, with smaller cycles within the larger whole. I am homing in on various aspects, a bit like running around a bush a hundred times and seeing something different on each revolution. It is much like therapy, in which the same ground is covered over and over and then one day there is an aha moment and suddenly something becomes clear, because of a shift in awareness. I cycle on a given theme, idea or feeling until I am satisfied I have revealed the inner sense I was after. The images in a given body of work amplify one another. I have always been a storyteller and I believe I often end up doing this photographically even when I don’t set out to.
You speak of human beings, in time, in myth and in culture, but it seems to me that your work draws on something - comes forth from something - profoundly female. Do you think this is accurate? How important to your philosophy and praxis is it that you are a woman?
I do believe my work comes from something profoundly female. I believe the sensibilities I have are feminine in that children and home consistently hold my interest. I feel I have a great deal of empathy which impacts on my work. My life experiences have shaped my values, priorities and interests, which have determined the visual language of my images. Perspectives on domesticity and my daily life have influenced the subjects I am most drawn to including womanly metaphors of conception, gestation, labor and birth. Raising children has a sensuousness that provided its own aesthetic dimensions, as did the relationship of mother to child.
All photographers, male or female, see in accordance to who they are. I believe having an alcoholic mother sensitized me to all things female and ‘mother’. I was determined to not be my mother as a woman or a mother. My family, children and home are of utmost importance to me and I record everything, perhaps as proof or validation that I am living a life of my own making.
I believe women tend to have a wider range of emotions available to them and with a greater range or depth of emotions comes greater intuition. That results in an increased ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind, and also between instinct and reason. The unconscious mind searches through the past, present, and future and connects with feelings in a nonlinear way. I always follow my internal voice, ignore the inner critic and allow my emotions, in fact encourage my emotions, to flow freely. With this, as a woman, I believe I do photograph subject matter in a more intuitive manner, reacting to non-verbal and non-conscious sensitivities. I am probably freely less rationally organizing than men. When I am looking at the world with a camera or aiming my camera, I am not thinking, I am reacting, and when it feels right I make the exposure. I am drawn to birth, rebirth, nature, relationships, children of all ages, animals, nurturing, growth, and mundane or ordinary life.
When I first began in University photography courses, my images were overtly feminine on purpose: I was trying to find my voice. I eventually photographically explored the experience of pregnancy and then my children. I believe I approach the world with a nurturing eye and when I raise my camera, I am embracing something that matters to me, sometimes for reasons I don’t yet understand. I am trying to write visual poems and I can only do that about things I know intimately: home, my children, pets and things to which I have an emotional connection. Making a photograph for me is a means to step away and see more clearly, even objectify, but at the same time it is a means to look closer, to gain a deeper understanding and to re-experience.
Your Serpentina series stands out for me as something slightly different. Will you say more about what it means to you?
With Serpentina, I instantly hoped for a story. She would have been happy with one shot printed and delivered, but was flattered and gracious enough to allow me to return. She was emotionally at the bottom when we met but by the time I shot twenty or thirty rolls of film of her she felt like a star, which had been a hope on my part. Her self-esteem needed a shot in the arm. The project is a very personal one for me because it is the only time I have consciously combined photography with my work as a psychotherapist. I was doing therapy as I was making images and it was a powerful experience.
DO YOU TINK YOU WOULD EVER COMBINE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY WORK WITH YOUR THERAPY WORK AGAIN? CAN YOU SEE HOW IT MIGHT WORK?
In terms of ever combining therapy with photography again, I don’t know. I have used photography in therapy with children to deal with identity and self-esteem issues, but not with the intent of making art, due to confidentiality issues. Many years ago my husband and I did a three-year project in which we photographed terminally ill Hospice patients. It was because of that project that I returned to graduate school in the mental health field. I saw how making images of these individuals gave them such a sense of worth and validation. I have entertained the idea of a project that could be therapeutic and also result in solid images, but have yet to hit on an idea I like enough.
I suppose in a way I am doing a therapy project by photographing the small town where I live and maintaining a Facebook site where I post the photographs I make of the area and its people. I believe it has brought the residents a greater sense of pride in the town most felt was dying, and increased the general sense of community.
Who inspires you, in your life and in your art?
Because my art is an extension of my life and the visual communication of my inner being, the same people who have inspired me have also been an influence on my vision and resulting art.
I will list them in the order I became aware of each and was in turn influenced by them. As a child it began with Joan of Arc and Amelia Earhart, since there were so few great women included in school history books. Even at an early age I was most drawn to examples of strong fearless women. At 13 I was enthralled with Joan Baez and had the grand opportunity to march to Berkeley University behind her in a Free Speech Movement. At 18 I became obsessed with Jane Goodall and wanted to be her. She had at the age of 26 gone off to live with wild chimps in order to study them. As a college student I studied her in depth and wrote a massive research paper on her work. Also during college, while taking my father’s literature course on Flannery O’Connor, I became enthralled with the imagery she created in her stories. Flannery quickly became my favorite writer, eventually joined by American Indian writer Louise Erdrich, who employs magical realism and a rich tapestry of imagery. Next there was Betty Friedan who was born, and also died, on February 4, my birthday, and was a leader in the women’s movement and also the first president of the National Organization of Women, which I belonged to as a young woman. Gloria Steinem, the 1960s and 70s feminist icon, greatly impressed me with her intelligence and dry wit. I had actually first read one of her articles in Playboy Magazine as a 14 year old. I attended an experimental school in California, which Stanford University used for research in teaching methods. Instead of English textbooks we were given Playboy magazine articles and political cartoons stapled together without any pictures. As an adult I came full circle back to my roots and to Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, who was born and raised in my hometown of Tahlequah, Oklahoma and was a close friend to Gloria Steinem. These two women fought side by side for American Indian and women’s rights.
Strong, intelligent, liberal, independent thinking women with an activist nature have always been my inspiration.
The photographers whose work has been an inspiration include Keith Carter, Sally Mann, Wynn Bullock, Emmitt Gowin, Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, and Arthur Tress.
Thank you Leslie, it's been a true honour.