Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Toni La Ree Bennett
Rappahannock ReviewArt Editor: Describe the use of black and white in many of your pictures and how grayscale works to enhance their meaning and/or aesthetic.
TLRB: While I am predominantly drawn to color, both in potential photographic images I want to capture and in paintings I admire, there are times when only a black and white will do. I kind of think of it like the difference between a short story and a poem (I write both). With a short story, there are various points of interest in the journey as you read through it and you may be more attracted to some over others but they should all work together as individual attention-getting colors do in a painting. But with a poem, at least shorter poems, you’re being grabbed by the face and told “look at this and don’t wander off.” In a black and white, your attention span is divided by only two choices, light and dark (unless, of course, line and shape is the major focus). You gravitate toward the light but the areas of light derive much of their meaning by the contrast of the surrounding darkness.
RR: Do you stage your photos at all or do you just photograph something compelling as you come across it? How do you select your subject matter?
TLRB: My (adult) kids have given me the nickname “Ms. Step and Click.” I do tend to see most everything as compelling as I walk through life. I was backing up out of the carport this morning and saw my geranium through the kitchen window straining her flower buds towards the light and I had to stop the car and take a picture of that. As far as staging, I started taking pictures of my mother’s huge inventory of dolls when I used to visit her but didn’t dare touch them. Now, I have been toying (pun intended) with staging doll and toy pictures at home. Recently, I bought a bag of toy dinosaurs and a small metal toy schoolbus and posed a scene with two dinosaurs and the bus. Those pictures got published and might end up on a T-shirt so I will probably make some more trips to the thrift stores to buy used toys, photograph them and then take them back to the thrift shop so someone else can buy them.
RR: What would you say are the overarching themes of your work?
TLRB: I very much see myself as a documentarian who allows myself a liberal dose of poetic or artistic license. I want to show people what was there at one specific point in place and time that no one noticed because we were all busy rushing around. I am also very concerned with matters of connection. As I try to do in my poetry, I want my images to show the invisible lines connecting things we didn’t realize were connected. For instance, in one of my urban pictures, there is a an advertising sandwich board fallen flat on the sidewalk with the words “Home Is.” You can’t see the rest of the words on the board but you see balloons tied to the sandwich board dragged to the ground by the fallen board. Why are balloons literally tied to a definition of home? What is the definition of home that we can’t see in the picture? Is the connection between these things a positive one or negative? That depends on the viewer.
RR: Describe your evolution as an artist, in terms of medium, subject matter, and technique. How and at what point did your discover your personal artistic voice?
TLRB: I started both writing and photography at about age 25. I didn’t consider photography as an art form for me until 2001 when I got my first digital camera. For a while, I still took analog pictures and used slide film and even took darkroom classes but my very impatient nature loves the digital lifestyle. I want immediate feedback. I also love the computer equivalent of developing the photos in computer software. Initially, I took pictures of landscapes and animals. I was most interested in taking pictures of pets, farm, and zoo animals. I discovered I hated taking people portraits because I don’t like being looked at when I’m taking pictures. For many years I went around doing event photography, doing candid shots of people at parties, work events, rodeos, county fairs, etc. but don’t do that anymore. I ended up moving away from rural landscapes and switched to urban landscapes. Even though I’ve been doing this for a while, I definitely feel like I’m still defining my artistic voice and about the time I define it, it will change. Right now, my artistic voice is trying to express in images the oxymoronic dualism evident in the dynamism of static forms; I strive to show the life essence hovering around dead things. I ask questions like: What is it in a plastic doll’s silent lips that speaks back to us humans who make creatures in their likeness as if we were gods? What is it in a pile of rocks that tells us something we didn’t know or forgot? Or what is it in the lines of a neon sign that gives us hints of who we are by focusing on how we decorate our city landscapes?
RR: Describe the process of editing your photos.
TLRB: I was an avid Photoshop user from early days, even getting my certification as an Adobe ACE. I edited some textbooks on Photoshop, which was fun getting to use my writing, editing, computer, and photographic skills on one project. I was able to write some of the tutorials and provided many of the photographs in the book. I keep all my photos in an Adobe Lightroom database and keyword them assiduously. I use color labels to identify photos that would work well in future collage projects. As far as editing specific photos, after a photo shoot, I will go through every photo and improve the obvious things like contrast, cropping, maybe removing non-essential distracting objects like power lines, unless the objective is a truly documentarian image. Then I look through my 5 star rated photos (and also my 2 rated, 1 being the lowest) for photos I want to share. First step is always cropping. Then I work with lightening and darkening various points to draw focus where I want it, sharpening different points, adding contrast. Sometimes, especially with the “bad” photos, they become starting points for abstract, surreal, or impressionist adaptations of the “real” subject. If so, I may then do some blurring, color swapping or intensification, and/or collaging, taking a few images into Photoshop as separate layers and experimenting with the combination. Like with my writing, I always start out with something that captures my own attention and then, if I’m lucky, after working with it, surprise or enlighten myself with the end result.
Toni La Ree Bennett’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.