Stumptown Artist Fellowship: Jennifer BrommerFeb 05, 2018
May Barruel is the fantastic brain behind Nationale, a multifaceted art space dedicated to the promotion of culture through exhibitions, performances, and a selection of carefully chosen goods. She is also a long-time Human of Stumptown. Originally from France, she joined our family in 2005 as a barista, became the manager of our Annex and then the art curator of our downtown Cafe in 2007. Her newest project is curating the Stumptown Artist Fellowship, which celebrates its second recipient this month: Jennifer Brommer. They sat down over a cup of coffee to talk about the newest exhibition.
May Barruel: When I first looked at your Memphis series, I was so surprised by the interiors your subjects surround themselves in, that I first thought they must have been staged. I've personally never been exposed to that kind of wealth, these over-the-top decors. When did you first get a sense that this might not be the norm and when/why did you decide you wanted to document these people in their homes?
Jennifer Brommer: I grew up in a pretty weird way. I lived between two parents in NYC and Memphis. When I was in NYC, we lived in seedy hotels but my grandparents there had an extravagant apartment so I was always on the outside looking in. My dad grew up in Memphis, he was a single dad mostly working as a carpenter when I was growing up, yet he got my mother's parents to pay for me to attend a private school, so I was around people who were wealthy. I would go with my grandmother to her country club and I found myself always observing people with money. My grandmother's home that most of these photographs take place in got pretty dramatic when she married her second husband. I think she suddenly became very rich and it seemed she wanted to make that clear to others. I think because I had been living in NYC for so long I was able to step away from the South and really observe it in a different way when I wasn't living in it. I started working on the series around 2005 and that initial portfolio was my grad school application. It got me a full scholarship at San Francisco Art Institute. I continued working on the project on and off, but focused on a different series for my MFA, based on my mother’s Romanian ancestors, The Wechslers.
MB: Tell me more about some of the objects in the background. It seems, at a distance, that maybe some point to colonialism—maps, characters on curtains, figurines on desk?—definitely to a world long gone. Others, like the elephant foot and the small sculpture of a black servant—or slave?—are straight up disturbing. By including these objects in the portraits, what are you trying to point out?
JB: It’s interesting that most of the subjects in these homes collect the same objects. There's the silver, the German hand-painted figurines and china. It seemed to me that it was the norm among people living in this world to have these objects. The environment of these subjects were just as important, if not more, than the subjects themselves to me when photographing them. I was really interested in how the people that I photographed let their homes identify them. It seemed that when you walked into these people’s homes, they were trying to tell you that they had wealth. I was really fascinated by my grandmother. Her second husband put her on another level in terms of grandeur. Also, because my mother was a New York Jew, I’ve always been an outsider within my own family, Southern Christian and outwardly anti-Semite and racist. I wanted the photographs to show the whole truth.
MB: I noticed in two of the photographs that the subjects are standing in front of what looks like portraits of themselves as a child and as a young woman. Something feels inherently sad here. Would you tell us more about these two specific shoots, and what you felt your subjects were going through at that time?
JB: The portrait in the image of my grandmother on the floor is my aunt Betty as a teenager. Seen in a lot of southern homes are portraits. It seems most people have paintings done of their children, but I did photograph a friend of my grandmother’s who had a portrait of herself as a young woman in the living room .
MB: I guess I’m wondering how all this stuff affects your subjects, especially these old portraits. They seem to be from a long gone era and I can’t help but get a huge sense of melancholy in general in the photographs. When shooting these portraits, what was the mood like? What were your interactions with these people like?
JB: I think most people, especially my grandmother, didn't understand what I was doing. So many things happen subconsciously when shooting. There’s a lot about the South that I have trouble with, including racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. I don’t agree with the personal politics of my family, therefore my own values are probably subconsciously coming through and so maybe that is sensed in the work.
MB: The one image I find especially arresting is Sandra and Jack. You had mentioned in passing when we first talked that Jack had fallen asleep during the photo shoot. When I look at the objects displayed behind them, there’s a great disconnect there, an oblivion to the natural world. How fitting that Jack would fall asleep while someone is there to take his portrait! Is that something you were able to laugh off? His tilted hat obscuring his face greatly contributes to the strength of the shot, but how did that affect your plan?
JB: Jack is an interesting character and quite old. One member of his immediate family is one of the richest people in the world. They own land in Africa and regularly fly there to hunt. They kill and bring back these animals. I think as a photographer you have to smile along with people that you are shooting even though you find things unsettling. Accidents are everything. I'm so happy he fell asleep.
MB: I guess I’m wondering how you approached the series in term of your own voice as a photographer. I love for instance in Marie, how the subject's face is very much mirroring the child in the painting. Similarly in Jack and Driver, even though the two men are both in front of the table, there is a hierarchy visible here, where the driver appears to be "behind" Jack. He stands strong and tall whereas Jack slouches and uses the table for support. Did you instruct them at all or was this how they presented themselves?
JB: I set up lights and I tell my subjects where I want to shoot them but it's great to let things happen, too. Some of the best shots are when you're trying to figure out something with your lights or camera and people are caught off guard.
MB: Do you plan on revisiting the Memphis series or do you feel the project is finished?
JB: I haven’t worked on it in a while but I do have more ideas I want to explore next time I’m in Memphis, especially involving my daughter and her great-grandmother, who just turned 90.
MB: Once the stress and excitement of mounting and promoting this exhibition is over, will you be working on a new project?
JB: I'm having a fun time on a new series called Looking for a Fight. I'm staging photos of my daughter and me to promote shows of our metal band that aren't really happening. In every shot we are in a crazy new scene. It's been fun. I'm also the artist-in-residence for the Salem Art Association this winter, driving out to McMinnville teaching photography to an entire K-5 grade as part of their Artists-in-the-Schools initiative. We’ve been doing light painting in the darkroom and some exciting studio shoots, in character! The kids are loving it.
JENNIFER BROMMER | Memphis
On view February 1st – March 28th, 2018
Image block 1, clockwise: Marie, Granny on the Floor, Granny Playing Tennis
Image block 2: Jack and Driver, Sandra and Jack
Image block 3, clockwise: Darmy, CCC, Untitled (Looking for a Fight)