Barbara Diener was born in 1982 in Germany. She received her Bachelor of Fine Art in Photography from the California College of the Arts and Masters of Fine Art in Photography from Columbia College Chicago. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL, Hyde Park Art Center, Hyde Park, IL, Alibi Fine Art, Chicago, IL, David Weinberg Gallery, Chicago, IL, New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, NM, Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, MA, Invisible Dog Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, Lilllstreet Art Center, Chicago, IL, Riverside Art Center, Chicago, IL. Pingyao Photo Festival, China, The Arcade, Chicago, IL, Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, Philadelphia, PA, Darkroom Gallery, Essex Junction, VT and Project Basho, Philadelphia, PA among others. Diener’s photographs are part of several private and institutional collections including the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. In 2013 she was selected to participate in two highly ambitious and competitive artist residency programs: the Fields Project in Oregon, IL, and ACRE in Steuben, WI.
Diener is a winner of Flash Forward 2013, the recipient of a Follett Fellowship at Columbia College Chicago and was awarded the Albert P. Weisman Award in 2012 and 2013. In addition, Diener received an Individual Artist Grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Events in 2015. Today we share an interview with Barbara about her latest series, Phantom Power .
In my previous work, I photographed in small, rural towns that triggered childhood memories. During that process, I met and became fascinated with a woman named Kathy. She owns the diner in town and lives on her husband’s family farm, which is haunted by his ancestors. Her belief in the spectral sparked my own interest in the unexplained and ties back to my ongoing curiosity about religion, spirituality and the human desire to believe that something else happens after we die and that a part of us, the spirit or soul, continues on.
The camera is a crucial tool for most paranormal investigators, so it was a natural step for me to become an amateur ghost hunter myself. Photography has been linked to the spirit world since the 1860s with the popularity of spirit photography and post-mortem portraits. Since its invention photography has lent a sense of immortality to its subjects. In recent years the paranormal received amplified media attention through numerous ‘reality’ television programs that sensationalized any experiences for the camera. On the contrary, my approach is self-reflective and curious. To make the resulting images I adopt both traditional and contemporary approaches to capturing the invisible, as well as my own interpretation of the magical and mystical.
Hey Barbara, can you briefly speak about how you came about pursuing your most recent project, “Phantom Power”?
While photographing in a small town here in Illinois that reminded me of the town in Germany where I grew up, I met and befriended the woman that owned the diner in town. Her name is Kathy and the house she lives in, her husband’s family farm, is haunted by his ancestors.
What are your earliest perceptions of paranormal activity? How did these ideas shift while you were photographing “Phantom Power”?
Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure to experience any paranormal activity. That is certainly part of what keeps me invested and motivates me to continue with this project. Honestly, I am more interested in this human need to believe in a life after death or at least that something beyond our body survives when we die. But the paranormal has opened up an array of fascinating cultural and scientific aspects for me from the person who has dreams about their grandmother dying and then wakes up to hear that she has died to particle physics, which could potentially explain all paranormal phenomena. I have become equally fascinated with the person who blindly believes and the person who has to find a scientific explanation for everything we experience.
How does this body of work engage in the history of photography, especially in reference to “ghost photography” and post-mortem imagery?
I have always been interested in the relationship between photography and death. I don’t think this project references post-mortem imagery directly but since I was little I have been obsessed with photography’s ability to capture and memorialize a fleeting moment. Post-mortem photographs certainly emphasize a sadness that I am very drawn to. They are fueled by a desire to hold on to something that has clearly passed. The subject is dead and at the time that these images were popular that photograph would likely have been the only captured image of that person. Since the 1860s, when spirit photography was accidentally discovered through double exposure, the link between photography and the desire to capture the spirit world on film (or a sensor) has been strong and continues on today. Some of my photographs in this series directly reference 19th-century spirit photography with ghosting figures, double exposures, long exposures and orbs.
I feel like this project asks a lot of the viewer- it forces them to momentarily consider the possibility of life after death. How do your photographs, as objects, engage with the intangible?
That is a very interesting question. It seems contradictory that objects can engage with the intangible but we do find that with religious paraphernalia all the time. I am by no means comparing my work, neither the images themselves nor the resulting objects, to that but I do think it is possible to have a visceral reaction to some artwork and that does seem intangible or at least not quantifiable.
Your series “Phantom Power” appear to interweave landscapes with more performative imagery, like that of “Green Lazers in Tree, 2015”. Can you speak about the differences in this type of image-making?
I have enjoyed the playfulness that this work has allowed me to embrace. Utilizing gadgets like lasers and filters have been really fun and have opened up my practice; loosened me up a bit if you will. A project like this, which has various points of reference and embraces a broad spectrum of interpretations, just lends itself to many different modes of image making.
How do you think your endeavor into the paranormal will affect your photography practice moving forward?
This certainly relates to the previous question. Through my research into the paranormal and the culture surrounding it, listening to many, many podcasts, reading books and contacting members of that community, I learned about many nifty tools and gear that is utilized by paranormal investigators. This in turn prompted me to a deeper involvement and intervention with my subject, even if my subject is an inanimate interior or landscape. Moving forward this is something I will heighten in my practice.
What do you hope for viewers to gain after experiencing Phantom Power?
In the spirit of embracing ambiguity, within reason anyway, I want my viewers to have an individualized experience with my work. Their personal back-story and own connection to death and the afterlife should certainly add a layer to the work that I can’t foresee or control. What do I hope for my viewers to gain? Ideally, a moment of solitude and reflection.
Diener is the Collection Manager in the Photography Department at the Art Institute Chicago and teaches photography at Oakton Community College and at the School of the Art Institute.
A solo exhibition of her work featuring imagery from “Phantom Power” will be on view at Alibi Fine Art in Chicago, Illinois until October 22, 2016.
To see more of Barbara’s work, please visit her website.