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An Interview with Lauren Smothers


JUKE JOINT: Lauren, thank you ever so much for sitting down with us for a chat! We’re excited to catch up, but also to talk about this sharp series of photographs you’ve submitted in Issue 5. We don’t know what the weather has been like for y’all up in Jackson, TN, but down here in Jackson, MS it has been one of the strangest winters/springs in memory. Several weeks were well above seventy degrees mid-winter while other weeks were in the forties and thirties. And we've seen more rain in places like Vicksburg and the Delta that the flood stage has been higher for longer than it has ever been since the flood of 1927. Frankly, even though it's hotter than hell, we're thrilled summer has finally come to the plate swinging. Anyway, we invoke the weather because there is something in your series of photographs for this issue that speaks to the mood winter and fall can bring. These photographs feel like late fall/winter, and despite the tender image of the person holding flowers (hebnit deadnettle?) they all seem to feel slightly melancholic, but in a wonderfully evocative way. Can you talk to us about what inspired this sequence?

LAUREN: Purple dead nettle, I think! The sequence comes from two disposable cameras I shot over the course of the fall, winter, and spring of 2016-17. It was my first full year of living in Tennessee again, after living in North Carolina for a few years. I was having trouble articulating my uncertainty about living in Jackson again, stemming from several years of struggling with my mental health and questioning my work as a poet. So, I picked up a camera because it was a ‘safer’ medium to express myself.


JUKE JOINT: Clearly, we need to do better homework with our flower nomenclature. One thing we love about these photos is the way you’ve conveyed a sense of emptiness. Each photo articulates longing or absence in some form, from the charred, cut logs in the woods to the tangles of kudzu in winter. Certainly, the light spilling into empty rooms and hallways evokes this feeling of absence.


LAUREN: It’s interesting, when I was shooting these photos, I wasn’t aiming for any particular feel or mood. I have training in social documentary photography, so I think this influences how I view the use of a camera. After I got the disposable cameras developed, I put the photos aside until a few months ago. When I looked at them again, I felt the images could’ve been taken that week. The same emotions I had experienced almost three years ago were still present, but clarified. I now view the sequence as a narrative, as a kind of closure for that period.


there’s a lack of control with disposable cameras. With the fixed focal length, cheaper design, and a sometimes-questionable development process, there’s a lot of risk involved. Sometimes I’m only able to get one or two images per camera. And sometimes the images I end up loving are not ‘created’ by me at all, but by the developing. Light leaks, etc.

JUKE JOINT: It seems like these evocations are purely organic which is all the more fascinating because these photos, in our view, seem guided by some force, but perhaps this gets at the sublime nature of art: sometimes it’s beyond the artist? Or maybe that's the "social documentary" lens you mentioned—this eye for conveying how it is we live. We're glad you mentioned that these were on disposable cameras because you noted this point in our earliest email correspondences, and we found that remarkable. You note, specifically, that you “like the lack of control / unknown with this kind of camera.” We’re curious about this uncertainty with disposable cameras. In a time when we can so easily take photographs instantaneously through our cell phones or digital cameras, what is it, beyond the “unknown” that compels you to use disposable cameras? Hell, a lot of folks might be surprised to know you can still get these things developed!


LAUREN: Using disposable cameras has been very freeing for me. They have been my primary camera of choice for a while, especially when my beloved Contax T3 was out of commission. (The Contax T3 is a compact 35mm fitted with a Carl Zeiss lens. Sofia Coppola uses one to shoot stills on sets). Yes, there’s a lack of control with disposable cameras. With the fixed focal length, cheaper design, and a sometimes-questionable development process, there’s a lot of risk involved. Sometimes I’m only able to get one or two images per camera. And sometimes the images I end up loving are not ‘created’ by me at all, but by the developing. Light leaks, etc. The lack of control or uncertainty is probably thematic in my writing and photography over the last five or six years. This feels at odds with my original focus in photography: telling stories through social observation, detail, framing. The last few years, I’ve had to write and photograph based on a lack of narrative. I think that’s been good for me.

I acknowledge that vulnerability may bring suffering. I also acknowledge it can bring solace. So as far as what I’m after, I think it has to do with my environment more than anything. Whether that be a particular place or community or mental state, I’ve discovered it strongly influences what I pay attention to.

JUKE JOINT: Your work (including these images) clearly has an aesthetic. We’re not certain we can articulate it in words, but we get the feeling that you’re concerned with intimate spaces, homes, rooms, the light and the relics / mundanity we leave in these places. Maybe you could dig into this some and tell us more about what you’re after?


LAUREN: Intimacy and loss are entwined for me. I’m thinking of the trees in my neighborhood, covered in kudzu and Virginia creeper, how the vines are allowed a begrudging existence by many, but how I long for the green to return every spring. I acknowledge that vulnerability may bring suffering. I also acknowledge it can bring solace. So as far as what I’m after, I think it has to do with my environment more than anything. Whether that be a particular place or community or mental state, I’ve discovered it strongly influences what I pay attention to.


JUKE JOINT: We’re always curious about the ways that identity and connection to place take shape in the work of an artist. As someone from the South and living in the South, can you speak to the way (if at all) region and/or place factor into your work? We know you’ve travelled quite a lot, both domestically and abroad, so certainly this also informs your work?


LAUREN: As someone raised in a conservative Southern Baptist family, I have a delightfully complicated relationship with the “South”. After raising me and my siblings in parsonages in west Tennessee, my parents moved us overseas in 1999. A daughter of missionaries, I spent middle and high school in Krasnodar, Russia and London, England. It goes without saying that those experiences play a large role in my work, in what I’m drawn to or obsessed with. I returned to the South in 2006, and I feel like I reevaluate my status here every year or so. I still don’t fully understand the weight of my childhood, the sense of lack in my own faith practice, or the sheer terror nostalgia brings. (All this seems very Southern-centric.)


JUKE JOINT: Lastly, what are we missing? What work are you currently devouring that our readers shouldn’t miss: visual artists, poets, fiction/nonfiction?

Women are still fighting for their lives, choices, and dignity in 2019.

LAUREN: Visual artists / makers

Kelly Reichardt. Certain Women is excellent, but I just watched her first film, River of Grass, and was blown away.


Poets

Analicia Sotelo. Her collection Virgin is on my nightstand. Terrifyingly beautiful poems.


Fiction

Joy Williams (not to be confused with the singer-songwriter with the same name). My introduction to her was reading her novel Breaking and Entering poolside last summer. When I read her work, I feel like I’m underwater--there’s a depth and pull to her sentences. Much of her fiction is set in Florida. Taking Care has stories of folks in and out of love, loneliness, and screen doors. My next pool read is her first novel, State of Grace.


Non-fiction

Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. There’s a lot of hype around it because of podcasts like My Favorite Murderer covering the original case and HBO producing a series based on it, but I think the story is necessary and timely. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark isn’t about something awful in “the past”. The Golden State Killer’s modus operandi sounds a lot like headlines in my Twitter feed: rage, violence, and abuse directed at and perpetrated towards women. Behind those headlines, I know there’s more. Gaslighting. Manipulation. Stalking. Women are still fighting for their lives, choices, and dignity in 2019. Michelle’s work is empowering. May its horror be an impetus for change.

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