Today we have the honor of showcasing this article and interview with Stacy Kranitz written and conducted by Michael Adno. Michael is a photographer himself and a very talented writer. I have recently had the opportunity to get to know Michael and his work. You’ll see more of him later on the website. But for now enjoy this piece.
The Inimitable Otherness of Stacy Kranitz
Where Literature, Photography, and Indifference Stand Trial
By Michael Adno
Stacy Kranitz’s otherness is one that is inimitably her own. Her work has a deadening quiet at times akin to Stephen Shore or William Christenberry but an overwhelming fierceness that echoes William Eggleston or Martin Parr. It’s what Lange, Evans, and Laughlin were able to accomplish in their now canonical works. And for Kranitz, that age-old canon of photography is one that she continually returns to in order to revive it again and again. She has worked almost entirely in rural communities—including the Appalachian region, the Southern Marshes, and the Deep South— documenting what many would consider the parochial archetypes that make up our understandings of such places. She has little hesitation to plant herself right in the center of the communities she intends to work, pushing herself towards a willed unraveling point.
While her work is undoubtedly regionally specific, its strength lies in its ability to speak to broader understandings of place in America, concerned with social and political idiosyncrasy. Where one may see detritus as flippant ruin-porn, Kranitz has been able to thread together multiple bodies of work that seem to suggest more fluid and apt ways to represent poverty or rural communities. Her adept sensitivity toward her subjects and the places she works is the resounding thread of solidarity in all her work. Where one may cautiously back-away from tangible indifference, Kranitz trots toward the uncomfortable with unfettered enthusiasm. And after so much time, traversing the annals of American back-roads, she has developed a belabored and discerning approach to making photographs or what could be seen as an earnest attempt to represent everything bound up in the idea of a place. Recently in New York City, I sat down with Kranitz to talk about her work, her sense of photography today, and what it’s like to reach the tipping-point while out on the road.
Michael Adno: It seems like you have a literary approach to your work. Do you think of literature and journalism as part of your practice?
Stacy Kranitz: So much of my interest in this break in the documentary tradition revolves around James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It was published in 1941, and 75 years later, I think we’re still struggling with a lot of the same concerns. We’re struggling with a very formal approach to photo journalism Its inability to update itself. Photojournalism has refused to participate in much of any kind of self-reflexive dialogue. I worry it will become outmoded if it continues to hold on to the fantasy of objectivity. It must begin to open itself up to the truth that is embedded in the subjective point of view. I began to use text in my Instagram pictures because Lately, I’ve been unbearably irritated with the formal nature of the image and caption. The photojournalistic caption is belittling and narrow-minded. It would be so much more honest and real if we could have captions to that connected, even celebrated that there was someone there on the ground feeling, smelling, seeing things beyond that image. Why not utilize this additional space to add some type of dimensionality to the image. Why not give the reader a broader window to enter that image.
MA: Do you think of the role that plain language and detail play in those captions?
SK: I was trying hard to mimic my thinking process. I’m not a thinker that’s bogged down in theory. I’m not a thinker interested in using very complicated language, because I don’t speak that way. I didn’t grow up that way; I grew up with a family of consumers of romance novels and b-action movies. That was the culture that my family was consuming. So, I feel strongly that I should talk in a way that doesn’t alienate a certain set of people, which I think we do sometimes with language.
MA: How do you gain the trust and of your subjects?
SK: The first thing that I do is I don’t assume that I can build trust, or that it’s in place. Even with my closest friends, there’s ruptures in those relationships. Somebody inevitably disappoints the other person and then we come to a head. It’s about sticking around, having that fight that’s ugly and uncomfortable, but that gets everything out in the open. I’m drawn to people who are like me, very conversational. They want to talk everything out, and the subjects that I end up becoming close with are the types that won’t be afraid to call me out when I overstep my bounds, and ideally I can do the same with them. I’m drawn to people who can handle me. That fucked-up power dynamic in photographic portrayals of poverty and the power it has to marginalize people, leads me to seek out subjects who will assert themselves. It’s that sort of relationship that—over time—builds this deep bond. It’s not like were getting closer and closer, because I don’t think relationships work like that. Even love affairs; it’s a constant tussle. We’re always trying to figure out where we stand with each other, reasserting our boundaries.
MA: How do you gain access to events like Ku Klux Klan rallies and how much of yourself do you allow people to see in those cases?
SK: That was a peculiar experience. Normally, I’m very very friendly, and I’m interested in revealing myself, because the more I do the more people reveal of themselves. Showing your vulnerability to people goes a long way. It’s a great way to get close to people. In this case, because I’m Jewish and know so little of Christianity, I was concerned. However, there’s always some way to connect. I didn’t know you couldn’t drink beer at Klan rallies, because they’re purportedly wholesome family events. I’m used to everyone hanging out, getting drunk, and then we behave a little silly and that connects everyone, but at this event everyone was sober. I remember talking about rock music with people. It wasn’t uncomfortable during the barbeque leading up to the cross lighting, but then came the speeches, which I recorded. And the speeches were indicative of the expected rhetoric directed towards African-Americans. Then, a guy stood up and said, ‘Let’s not forget about the Jews and the Gays.” He starts going into this whole diatribe about the importance of keeping them down. Afterwards, everyone is milling about and this guy comes up to me and says, “Hey, I’m really sorry that I offended your people.” And I just remember going white, thinking I’m doing such a good job of not seeming like a fucking Jew. It wasn’t anything I said It was the way I looked different, not like everyone else, Jewish. It was a really informative and provocative moment for me. When you’re one on one, in person with people who spout hatred, it’s difficult for them to hate you. He was apologizing to me, and that made no sense, because I had gone to the event knowing that I would be belittled, my people would be belittled. It was such a bizarre moment. I will say that after I was outed, I quickly left. [Laughs]
MA: How do you think of photography as fiction?
SK: I think about photography and its role as a fantasy factory serving the photographer’s desire about a place rather than an accurate portrayal of that place. It’s really important to acknowledge that no matter how much you get to know a place you’re still combating these fantasies, which you’re building up. I create an alternative world, merging their circumstances and reality with my ideas of what I’d like to say to a larger audience about those circumstances. I’m highlighting things that I think will transcend universally.
MA: How often do you hand off your camera to other people?
SK: Quite a bit. I don’t use other people’s images unless they’re images of me. But sometimes people are interested and as you’re taking so many pictures of them, they say, “Now let me take some of you.” If someone is interested in the camera, then I want to give them that opportunity—to see how fun it is—because that allows them to better understand why I enjoy it so much, and it makes them want to document their lives more. So many of us have smart phones now, and making a photograph is more accessible than ever before.
MA: Your work begins at a departure point where it’s not about medium specificity but does consciously acknowledge photography moving forward, I.E. taking the photograph as this historical testament but understanding it’s inherently fraught, or that the photograph purports to accurately represent something.
SK: It’s so funny that we all know that’s no longer the case. We still fall into that trap. I think it’s because it’s still perpetuated by the news and media. I think it’s wild that we still fall for it. I don’t know that there’s a solution or one way to indicate within the work that my images are reality but simultaneously fantasy, but I’m trying. I’m trying to come up with ways, tactics, and approaches that might help someone to see where fantasy begins and reality ends in their own perceptions of the other.
MA: What’s your editing process?
SK: With more people making images and exponentially more ways to make and view images, the one thing that sets people apart and allows me to best communicate my ideas is editing. I do see it as extremely important. I also don’t think I’m the best editor, but I obviously have a particular process. For a lot of the Appalachian work, I was editing in the field. I have worked digitally since 2009. I would go sit in McDonald’s for five hours. I edit in the field and then go back later and make another pass looking for things I missed before. I often miss things that are significant, but at the time I’m looking for one thing and then once I get some distance from the region, three or four months later, I have a different approach or feeling or thoughts about the work.
At the beginning there is not a lot of deep contemplation, because I was just taking in a mass amount of images, which I consider an archive. Its this obsessive compulsive desire to consume, collect, own, and then needing to reorder it and create my own version of it. I work kind of like an archivist and present the work as though you’re walking into my head, which is a sort of archive/study center, but instead of offering an objective view, the structure and categorization is organized subjectively based on a historical trajectory mixed with my experiences in the place.
MA: Are there images that when you begin a project or arrive somewhere that you have in mind? How much are you thinking of images beforehand and how intuitively do you let your subjects determine where you go?
SK: Many years ago I went to this Alec Soth lecture where he talked about these lists he would make, where he’s on this sort of scavenger hunt, looking for specific things, and it’s not as though he needs to find these things but it’s part of the process, a list to riff off of. I was like, oh! I do that. But I actually don’t. I do make lists. They make me feel more in control of what I’m doing, but I never use them. [Laughs] I do make a list of things I want to capture; but I often go into an intensely hazy fog when I’m immersed in a shooting scenario where I can’t for the life of me remember what I wrote on that list. So no matter how much I prepare, I am inevitably left with my impulses in the moment.
The only time I end up trying to go find something is when I see an image I have made and think, holy shit this is something, but I did not get that something. I almost got that something. Because at the time I really didn’t know what I was getting, what I wanted or what I was looking for. Experience has taught me that often times when I think I have a good image, I actually don’t. Sometimes I think something is interesting but I don’t stop, I don’t get out of my car and shoot it. Then it needles at me and I think fuck that was really important I’ll go back and try to figure it out like a puzzle. A good example might be the way that—in the south—the kudzu engulfs the landscape. I think its important to get this image right, to make an image with the kudzu that speak on behalf of this constant tussle between man and nature, culture and place. I want to communicate that idea, and it takes me a really long time to get the ideal image. But lately I’ve been using all the imperfect images leading up to the perfect image of the idea to give the viewer an opportunity to participate in my struggle, in my head, in the archive and study center that lives in my head.
MA: How does your own loneliness and desire play into the work as you move along?
SK: I’m the kind of person who thinks they haven’t accomplished anything until I bleed myself dry. I have to become undone by the work for it to have any use-value. I have to get to that point of break down. I hate that level of mania but I am so drawn to creating it for myself. Loneliness is just a part of my persona. I’ve come to reconcile that no matter how many friends I have around me, how close I get to people, there’s still a place for this well of loneliness. It goes away for a couple hours, a couple days, but it’s a consistent thing that always returns. We have all these weird personal quirks or things that make us a little fucked-up or not normative, and I realized that by leaning into those things, your work becomes more interesting and accessible to others. My loneliness and depression that sometimes has me crying in my car on the side of the road or in the Walmart parking lot is a part of me. It bleeds into the work and imbues it with melancholy. Empathy. Darkness.