Grace Ahlbom is a Brooklyn based photographer currently pursuing a B.F.A. in Photography at Pratt Institute. Although her photos are not of herself, in a way she is shooting self-portraits. Her work explores her fixation and envy towards boys while taking a playful approach toward her confusion and exploration of her gender identity. Grace started taking pictures in elementary school, photographing her friends riding BMX bikes off of homemade jumps. This eventually led her to documenting everything her friends did. Now, her style is more pseudo-documentary, placing her subjects in an environment that she finds interesting or stimulating, often dressing them in clothes from her own closet, and improvising from there.
I use photography to create an image that reflects my identity through a subject other than myself. By capturing characteristics and mannerisms typically associated with the male gender, my work explores my gender identity and adolescence. This area of focus has helped me continue to create my own terms of gender identification that transcends the antiquated dichotomy that dictates gender in society today.
My process for making work starts with a sketch, usually an idea based off a photograph or painting by an artist who I find stimulating, allowing me to recreate things in my own world. Some artists I like to reference are Ryan McGinley, who testifies throughout his work that there are some rules that are meant to be broken with a rebellious spirit; Larry Clark, who uses his subjects as an avatar of his adolescent self in the series Teen Lust and Roe Ethridge for his highly stylized and manicured photographs with unexpected elements.
I practice pseudo-documentary style photography because I enjoy capturing the subtle intricacies of everyday life with people that intrigue me, but I refuse to wait around for the ideal photograph to come about naturally. Instead, I create an image by placing my subjects in a location and improvising from there while keeping an overarching goal in mind. When shooting, I usually dress the subject or modify their outfit using clothes from my own closet. I am making photographs as opposed to taking them, because documenting reality has become irrelevant to me. Instead I am manipulating aspects of an image to suit the aesthetic I am looking for – an artistic study of the complexities of the gender spectrum and the ways I can test them.
AB: Hey Grace, in your photographs we find a polished yet natural style that conveys a critical message all the same. Can you talk about your untraditional approach to the “decisive moment?”
GA: A lot of my photography comes off as “polished” because I am very meticulous and aware of everything that’s in the frame. I have OCD with just about everything in my life but I try to push all of that energy into my photographs. Although I am very harsh on myself as far everything looking perfectly manicured, I try to make things feel as natural as possible. I want to make it believable to viewers that I just stumbled upon the situation, rather than me creating it.
AB: What role does photographing your friends play in your relationship with them?
GA: For a while I had just been shooting my friends because they were the readily available and almost always down to do anything I wanted to do. I guess because we had that certain trust with each other that comes with having history with someone for a while. It wasn’t until not that long ago I started scouting boys that I have a greater interest in, not to say my friends weren’t fulfilling enough, they just weren’t satisfying a void. I am extremely interested in the connection between female photographer and male subject as well. The dynamics are even more interesting when you hardly know the male subject you’re shooting. I also have a great quote by Collier Schorr, who is another huge influence to me. “I always feel that the connection between myself and the boy or man when I’m shooting is very clear: he is aware that I’m a woman and he’s clearly posing for a woman. It’s a very different kind of picture. I don’t think men can take the kinds of pictures I take of men because men pose differently for women.”
AB: Your work definitely blurs the line in the previously divided spaces of male and female photography. Is it important your images be read as taken by a female?
GA: Yes, I feel like it totally changes the photograph! It’s so important to know weather it’s the male or female gaze. All sexualized images are positioned as male, there’s not many female photographers going around shooting nudes as much as there are male. Female desire has always been an afterthought, which is why I think it’s important that my images are read as taken by a female.
AB: For that matter, what would you like to see more in the art world? What would you like to see less of?
GA: I want to see more of the female gaze. Desire that is heterosexual, queer or anything else in-between. There are too many straight male photographers out there getting recognition for shooting nudes of girls and backing them up by saying they’re “liberating women”. I just read that as a sorry excuse to get away with shooting erotic images of women. Women should be shooting sexualized images of other women and for males vise versa. If there was a straight male out there shooting nude images of men I would be truly impressed.
AB: Let’s hope those men read this interview then! Any particular projects or anything else you are excited about coming up?
GA: Right now I’m working on two different books of two series of mine, planned to be released at Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair early next year. I’m also in the process of creating my senior thesis; since it’s my last year in my BFA photography program at Pratt Institute. My thesis will also be followed with a show in the new Pratt Photography Gallery at the end of the school year, which I am extremely excited/nervous for.
For more of Grace’s work please visit her website.