Jenny Riffle was born in Washington State in 1979. She received her MFA in Photo, Video and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts, 2011 and her BA in photography from Bard College, 2001. Recent awards include FotoFilmic’s Buschlen Mowatt Nichol Foundation Award 2016, The Pilkington Prize 2015, PDN’s 30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch 2014, Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship 2013, and the juror’s award at Newspace Center for Photography’s 2012 juried show for her project Scavenger: Adventures in Treasure Hunting. A book of the Scavenger photographs was published by Zatara Press in the fall of 2015. Riffle’s photographs have been exhibited nationally and featured in numerous publications worldwide including Zeit Campus, PDN, Yen Magazine, and The Independent. Riffle lives in Seattle where she teaches at Photo Center Northwest.
I have been photographing my sister Emily since the day I picked up a camera. She has been my most constant muse. I have watched her steady gaze through my lens change as she grew up and slowly became more and more aware of herself and her own image. My sister and I are eleven years apart, which allows me to watch her from a distance, instead of going through the same growing pains she is. I compare and contrast our lives and I study her with special intensity and fascination as she grows into a young woman, losing the innocence of childhood. The older she gets, the more similar we become and the less the years between us separate our growth.
Influenced by Nicholas Nixon and his series The Brown Sisters, which consists of a yearly photo of his wife and her three sisters from 1975 to the present, I began taking a photo of Emily every year on her birthday, starting in 2005 when she turned 15. Emily is now 26 years old and there are 12 images in the birthday series. In 2013 she brought her girlfriend home with her and I decided to include her in the photo for that year, and every year since, but I also shot Emily alone those years. Seeing the progression of birthday photos shows how my sister has changed over the years, but in the end, for me she will always encompass all the images at once, I will remember her equally as the fifteen year old and as the young woman she is now.
As Emily grew up, was there more apprehension to having her photo taken? Or was she always willing to be your subject?
Emily was always willing to be my subject. It was a special time for the both of us to spend together creating the image. I never felt any resistance from her and felt that she was always very present during the shoots. I do think that over time she became more aware of what she looked like in a photograph and how I wanted her to look, and that influenced how she presented herself.
The differences in the way Emily presents herself in each photograph is striking. How much direction did you have when making these portraits?
The amount of direction changed slightly over the years, more in the very beginning but then less and less as time went on and we both fell into our rolls naturally. For the most part I only told her where to look, or maybe to walk to a new location, her postures are all her own. I generally work very organically, and will stop Emily when I see something she is doing that I like to say hold that pose, and then make the image.
What is something you’ve discovered about yourself and your own experience of ‘growing up’ while making these portraits?
I have discovered that my photography has changed since the project started in 2005, and my thoughts about portraiture and what I am interested in representing in an image. In 2005 I was working on portraits of all different people and making a narrative image that was not necessarily a portrait in the traditional way of it capturing the essence of someone. So in the earlier portraits I didn’t really go into the shoot thinking, how can I make Emily’s essence come through in this image, instead it was more like, how can I make an image of her that reveals an emotional space or narrative that the viewer can enter into. In the last few years I have been more aware of trying to capture Emily in a real sense and not trying to create a narrative. You are always capturing something of your subject and I think Emily’s essence does come through in the images, especially over time in the whole series.
Through the last ten years, each image looks consistent, as if other elements of time haven’t affected the scene, only her age changes. Can you speak more on this?
Well, I suppose my aesthetic has stayed similar over time, so in a sense the kind of images I am making will look consistent, and since Emily was 15 when I started and is now 26, she has changed a lot during this time, from a young adolescent into an adult. So the most drastic change is in her appearance, hair, clothes, etc, and the surroundings, though they change as well, are a backdrop for her physical changes. This will evolve as the project continues and she may look more similar now that she is an adult. It’s exciting to see what will come of this project in 10 more years.
I hope you’ll continue making these photographs, it will be a brilliant catalogue of not only aging but also your relationship with your sister. What else are you currently working on?
I am also working on “The Sound of Wind” a series of images I have been making in the Pacific Northwest in the last few years since moving back here from New York. This series is very connected to the landscape and a departure from portraiture for me. There is still a human element as I am working on showing my relationship with nature and the dark terrifying elements as well as the awe-inspiring beauty. The work came out of my memories of growing up out in the woods in a cabin at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.