At 52 Insights we value new talent and we found Carla Coffing’s work beguiling and truthful, echoing greats like Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Alec Soth. In 2014, PDN voted her one of the top 30 talents to watch out for. Her work has been seen in Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times and Marie Claire. Here she talks to us about her early directionless beginnings and the reasons people are so enthusiastic about spilling their life on camera to her.
So, please tell us, how did this all start for you?
I took some photography classes in high school and college, but I never have the confidence to think I could be a photographer. I remember looking at the New York Times Magazine and other good examples of editorial photography – people telling stories with images – and that really appealed to me because I’d always wanted to tell stories, but I didn’t know how. I remember always making pictures in my head. People would kind of open up to me and I would see the conversation as a frame. I didn’t go to art school – I went to a technical school. I needed the tools to make pictures, but I already had the pictures in my head.
I graduated from college with a sociology degree, worked a handful of odd jobs to get by, and cried myself to sleep a lot. I was lost. I felt like such a failure – it almost took all of that to get the courage to go back to school for something I loved, but I kept being drawn to photography. I remember meeting a few photographers and feeling triggered somehow, like I was jealous of them. So I went to check out NESOP, and when I walked into the building I knew I wanted to be there, but I still had a really hard time admitting it. I had a hard time telling my parents I wanted to go back to school. I didn’t know how I would make money – but it felt important.
You worked as a waitress, got to know the regulars who came in and asked them if you could photograph them at home. These people let you into their comfort zone; did you ever feel like you were taking advantage of them?
I’ve never thought that because I’ve only ever photographed people that I genuinely respect and kind of fall in love with in a way. Often my subjects seem like ordinary people, but that’s not why I single them out – they’re people who have worked the same job for 50 years, or have a true sense of home and identity, or a genuine character. I’m interested in what’s on their mantle, what kind of music they listen to and how they ended up where they are.
I photographed this woman Helen – a waitress, in her living room – wait, let me preface this story with the fact that Helen inspired my first real body of work, uniformed workers in their domestic spaces. I adore Helen. She was family to me. Well, the owner of a new Italian restaurant, Coppa, came across my portrait of Helen and wanted to buy it for the restaurant wall. I asked Helen how she would feel about that, and she was thrilled. I took her to the opening with me and the photograph was blown up to 2ft by 3ft. She was so excited to be going there but the first thing she said when she saw the photo was “my shoelace is untied.” I had felt so happy that I had shone a light on this woman, and it was just as much her picture as it was mine, and the only thing she said was “my shoe is untied.” It kind of broke my heart.
Even though I’m in love with my subjects, they don’t necessarily see themselves that way and maybe the viewer doesn’t either, so whether or not I’m taking advantage of them is a good question. I collect these stories but once they’re out in the world I’m not there to explain them, defend them or tell people how great they are. But I try to be respectful as a photographer and shoot with equanimity and I hope that is conveyed in my work – I shoot everyone the same, whether it’s Forrest Whitaker or Helen the waitress. My true intention is never to exploit anyone, but to capture them as they are and let them live forever.
What is it about the humans that you are particularly drawn to?
The things that we hold on to. A lot of my interest has come from moving around a lot. I’m attracted to ideas of home; and attachment and routine; Our capacity to cling, our denial of our mortality, our desire to hold on to things. There is a kind of painful beauty in that.
There is an intimate quality to your work. How do you get your subjects to open up?
By being genuinely interested in them. People can tell if you are being authentic or not. I’m not a street photographer; I don’t have my camera with me all the time. So a lot of my subjects I meet and hang out with over and over again before I even bring my camera out. I have been spending a day a week with my 95 year old neighbor, just getting to know her, letting her get to know me. I’m in no hurry. I want my images to tell a story and sometimes that takes time.
Can you tell me about the Lovers Shirts project which garnered a lot of attention?
Sometimes a story takes time, but sometimes there is an amazing level of intimacy you can achieve in just a short time. We came up with a system of interviewing and photographing our subjects whereby the subject looks into a mirror while Hanne Steen [writing partner] leads them through a kind of open-eyed meditation and a series of questions about the shirt and the person it belonged to. Confronted with the questions, and their own reflection, deep feelings are often brought to the surface. People tend to be nervous when they begin, but then they settle into themselves. During the first half of the twenty-minute session, subjects do not answer any questions but merely reflect on them while looking at their own reflection in the mirror. This has a calming, grounding effect, and establishes an atmosphere of trust. After a few minutes of this, I step in and start photographing, and after about ten minutes Hanne begins a gentle dialogue with the subject about their experience of reflecting on the questions.
I think we are all hungry to feel and share these deep, intense, complex emotions, but so rarely are we given permission, and rarely are they accepted without judgment. Often after a break-up, we are met with things like “you just need to let him go” or “you can do better than that” and other such clichés, which do not do justice to the complexity of the human experience of love and loss. Likewise, in committed relationships we are not expected to have feelings of doubt, fear, or insecurity. In this project, we simply bear witness to whatever arises – if the subject still misses an ex after seventeen years, there is no judgment. If they carry shame and regret, there is no judgment. If they are married but have a secret fear of inadequacy or doubt, there is no judgment. It is an incredibly humbling experience for us to be allowed to witness our subjects’ deepest, most tender feelings. The responses are unique, but there are common threads running throughout. No one has ever ended the process before it was finished, and no one has ever left upset. Moved, teary, lighter, deeper, more connected, bitter-sweetly nostalgic, yes, but never upset.
For the women involved thus far – from the youngest, 16 year-old Gracie, to the eldest, 91 year-old Louise – the process has been emotional and cathartic and has become as much a part of the project as the end result.
We look forward to creating a book and exhibiting this work, but for now the project is still growing, and it has taken on a momentum of its own, which we are happy to follow and see where it leads us.
“I felt like such a failure – it almost took all of that to get the courage to go back to school for something I loved, but I kept being drawn to photography.”
You seem like you’re the type of person who likes to get all your senses dirty. You mentioned that you like “Dive bars. Road trips. Bowling alleys. Neighbours. Customers. Attics filled with memories. Family businesses. Old married couples. Strangers. Front yards. Old cars. The light in my living room. Other people’s living rooms. People’s prized possessions. My grandmother’s handwriting.” What is it about these things you are drawn to?
I love the no-frills reality of life-as-it-is. I’m not interested in dressing things up. I’m not trying to create pictures that make life something that it isn’t, but capturing the beauty in everyday life and people as they really are. I love capturing people and places that have character – not that they are characters, but that they have character. There is also a sense of nostalgia that I am drawn to – capturing the way things are before they are phased out, or pushed out forever. It has to do with capturing things that are disappearing, so that some part of them will live on.
Do you find that a part of you makes it in to these photographs?
Certain themes that I touch upon in my work are definitely things that I am exploring in myself – a sense of belonging and home, for example. Lovers Shirts was a way for us to work through our own questions and fears about love and loss and commitment. But, even though my photographs will always have part of me in them, my main goal is to hold space for my subjects and let them tell their story. Portraiture is really a way for me to connect, and when I make a portrait and really connect to someone, I feed off that for days.
I recently watched this great documentary called The Overnighters about the poor folk who are trying to get jobs in an oil field in Wilmington, USA. I think documentaries are a great way of portraying the unique fragility of the human condition. Are you aware of the work of Errol Morris and Vivian Maier – keen documentarians of the human condition? Is that where you would like your work to sit? I know you work with video.
Those are two of my favorite artists so it would be quite audacious to say I’d like to belong amongst them! I adore Errol Morris’ process of holding space for his subjects and that has definitely inspired me. I also set up compositions and let the subject’s story unfold in front of me. As far as Vivian Maier is concerned, I have taken a great lesson from her in that, although it’s a shame that she didn’t see success in her lifetime, she did the work for the sake of doing the work, and I love that.
I have a sort of obsession with the idea of time capsules (I have actual time capsules that my husband and I have made for our prospective grandchildren) but in a more figurative sense, I like the excitement of making work and not knowing who will see it, or when. In some ways, I think my work will be richer in the future because some of the spaces and people and ways of life that I capture now will be gone by then. I’ve really struggled with where my work resides presently – am I an art photographer, an editorial photographer or a commercial photographer? – and I hadn’t really considered it until now, but maybe I am a kind of documentarian, even if it’s not conscious.
You once said something interesting in an interview about Alec Soth’s search for ‘beauty in the banal’. I think that’s what I love about work like yours; there is so much emotion and intelligence in the things we overlook. The most minute and often overlooked details are sometimes the most appealing.
Yes, exactly. Lovers Shirts is a great example of that. Here is a piece of clothing that is seemingly so banal – it’s worn and torn and slept in, just another piece of old clothing on the surface – but when you shine a light on it and ask someone to really think about it, a whole complex story comes out, and all this feeling and deep wisdom about the human condition. All from an old shirt.
These subjects seem sad. There is a truthfulness in their domesticity. Very simple ambitions and not really leaving a legacy in their lives. There is compassion in that. Would you agree?
A woman I met told me a story that really moved me, about her grandmother who lived in Israel and was a wife and mother and never had a career. When she died the woman went to her grandmother’s funeral and, after her uncle stood at a podium to talk about his mother there was suddenly a line of people that no one in the family recognized, who were compelled to speak. There was a lady who worked at the nail salon who said that after her husband left her, the woman’s grandmother was the only person who came over every day and sat with her and helped her clean, and another man said she would come and play cards with him every day. These stories went on and on. Is that not a legacy? We have such a limited idea of success in our culture and I am interested in what lies outside those limits.
What is next for you? What would you like to do with your work?
Develop it. Follow through with my personal projects. Maintain integrity. I’m working on a story about a local man who has been feeding ducks at the LA River for thirty years. I want to photograph all the people who live in my neighborhood. We’re trying to expand Lovers Shirts to reach more subjects. Mostly just grow.
When do you know a photograph is right or that you have found the right subject?
I don’t know how to explain it. I just feel it. It’s kind of like falling in love; someone can have all the right qualities but it just might not feel right. It’s the same thing with a photograph, you just know when it isn’t right and you just kind of know when it is.
A no-frills, hole-in-the-wall, family owned pizza place close to the Airport in Boston. This place makes me so happy.
My mom used to read this book to me as a child – it’s a beautiful story.
I am in awe of this record label. Through obsessive research and labor intensive digging, they have managed to compile and preserve some incredible music that would otherwise have disappeared. Check out the eccentric soul records.