say hi to_ Hannah Whitaker
I was wandering around the FOAM vernissage a year or so ago in Paris when I first saw, and was blown away by the work of Hannah Whitaker. There are of course many talented Art Photographers but this was the first time that when I looked at her work, the first word that came to mind was ‘Art’ rather than ‘Photography’.
Using and distorting light, collage and manipulating photographs by hand, Hannah has caved out her own unique niche in the future of art photography. We chatted with her about living and working abroad in Paris, getting a formal creative education at Yale and the hardest part about branching out as an independent photographer in New York City.
Kristen de la Vallière
| Kristen | Please introduce yourself_
| Hannah | What I say depends on to whom I’m talking, not because I’m trying to position myself differently to different people, but for the sake of comprehension. For example, if I’m speaking with someone familiar with the art world I say I’m an artist because that person will likely understand that the word artist includes people who make photographs. Otherwise I say photographer.
| Kristen | What is a typical day at work for you?
| Hannah | The first thing I do is force myself to answer all the emails that I ignored the day before. I have real trouble promptly responding to emails. (Perhaps you’ve noticed this during the process of conducting this interview?) I tend to put stars on everything, let them accumulate, and then respond to them all at once. It’s a terrible system. I have 13,000 unread emails in my inbox. I realize that my inability to come up with adequate email habits might make me a failure at contemporary life!
Next, I head to my studio, usually by bike. I believe that I’m smarter in the morning than I am in the afternoon so I try and do any intellectual labor like reading and writing first. After that I get to work on images, almost as a reward.
| Kristen | What did your parents do?
| Hannah | My dad is a lawyer for the Department of Justice. My mom worked for the May Company, which is a company that owned department stores.
| Kristen | How big of a role did that play in your life? Did it influence you in one way or another? What about another family member?
| Hannah | My parents both worked full time and my mom traveled a lot so I was very independent. She was a very stylish woman who spent half her time in New York. For some reason it was always very clear to me that I didn’t want to do what either of them did. It doesn’t make any sense, as they have a nice life!
| Kristen | In retrospect do you think a university degree was necessary or worth the price for what you’re doing now?
"I’d say a degree is less important than an education"
| Hannah | I’d say a degree is less important than an education, though I am not a proponent of this trendy notion that college is not for everyone. A functioning society needs an educated populace. (Obviously it’s way too expensive in the U.S., which is a huge problem.) Of course some people don’t thrive in traditional learning environments. I was the total opposite of that—I loved formal schooling. I went to Yale and then ended up doing one of the few things where an ivy league degree doesn’t really matter that much as a mark on my resume.
| Kristen | Did you have any odd jobs along the way?
| Hannah | I was an English teacher in Paris for a few years. And then I moved to New York and I worked for the artist Vik Muniz for a while. Eventually I got a job as New York Magazine’s staff photographer. That was great as I had a little studio in the offices that I would use on the weekends for my own work. I’ve also taught classes on and off at Parsons for the last 5 or 6 years.
| Kristen | Did any of those influence you at all or did you learn things there that come into play now?
| Hannah | I can speak French and for while I had deep regrets that I didn’t learn a more useful language like Spanish. But now I actually show with a French gallery and find myself traveling to France all the time for work, so it’s become oddly useful.
Working for Vik was great as well. He has a big studio in Brooklyn full of interesting people, many of whom I’m still in touch with. The job at New York Magazine introduced me to editorial photography, which I didn’t previously have much experience with. I still shoot a lot of editorial and commercial assignments, which I wouldn’t really know how to do without having had the staff position. The work I make for assignments is very different than my artwork but it can also be quite rewarding.
Last fall the New York Times Magazine sent me on assignment around the world—I went to seven countries in 3 weeks. They even let me stop in Amsterdam where I was showing work. I gave a quick lecture and then immediately got on a plane to South Africa for a shoot. I owe this combination of experiences that I can have now to these early opportunities.
"I rely on the expertise of my agent and galleries for all things financial. It’s one thing to know what to charge and another thing to get them to agree to it."
| Kristen | How did you know what to charge the first time you had a client?
| Hannah | I rely on the expertise of my agent and galleries for all things financial. It’s one thing to know what to charge and another thing to get them to agree to it. Before I had those things in place I just asked people for advice. It’s not hard to get that info—everyone loves to give advice.
| Kristen | A lot of creatives have great ideas and talent but don’t know where to start when it comes to the business, accounting and PR side of things. Was this hard for you when you went out on your own?
| Hannah | I’m a bit of numbers freak so this isn’t as hard for me as it might be for other artists. However, I don’t excel at strategizing or PR.
Also, I must admit that while I usually like being in it alone, there are moments where it would be nice to have a range of abilities to draw from. I’m not great at certain logistical hurtles. For example, I have no idea how to design a proper system of archiving large files that is secure, searchable, affordable and doesn’t involve a desk covered in 75 separate hard drives.
| Kristen | What was the hardest?
| Hannah | At some point after living in New York for a few years while I was working full-time and working for myself nights and weekends, I met a fairly prominent artist who disillusioned me. He couldn’t make ends meet at all and worked full-time as someone else’s studio manager. I was maybe 27 or so and I thought—what kind of life am I working toward? I worried about not having enough agency over the course of my life. I still do! It’s a pretty rational concern.
| Kristen | Was there a moment when something really encouraged you not to give up?
| Hannah | I’ve never seriously entertained the idea of giving up. Maybe I’m not sure what that means or would look like. How one supports oneself is different than self-identifying as an artist or a photographer.
| Kristen | What do you have in the pipeline now?
| Hannah | I showed some work this fall at Paris Photo which was a preview to a show I’ll do at Galerie Christophe Gaillard in Paris in May. I’ll continue to do a few signings and events around a book I just published with Morel Books, called Peer to Peer. And finally, I curated here in New York at Invisible Exports called We Are Not Things that opens January 8th.
| Kristen | Where do you want to go with your career in the future?
| Hannah | I’m after some combination of wild success, longevity, and sustainability.
| Kristen | Can you recommend one person that you know from any other creative discipline who has an amazing story thats worth sharing?
| Hannah | My friend Hanna Sandin has an gorgeous jewelry line called Samma and she is also a really interesting artist. Both pursuits require a particular closeness with tool and materials that is fascinating to me, especially in relation to photography, which feels very detached from the material world. Even shooting on film, it’s a pursuit mediated by a computer and only materialized by an inkjet printer. Additionally, there is something very indirect about working on images all day, like you’re interacting with the world, but only through a circuitous route.
| Kristen | What other city could you imagine living in and why?
| Hannah | I like fruit and vegetables and being outside, so I also like Los Angeles. I show with a gallery there, M+B, and usually end up in LA a few times a year. The art world there is a bit smaller and more accessible and equally rich. Though, New York has LA beat in repartee, hands down.
| Kristen | What is the creative DNA of New York and how does that reflect in your work?
I love that New York is a city that values intellectual life. Even as the center of a bloated commercial art world, there is another parallel art world comprised of interesting people creating spaces for discourse and artful experiences.