Monday, February 1, 2010

Instructor Interview: Roxann Arwen Mills

This winter, we're happy to have Roxann Arwen Mills teaching with us again. After a successful Master Class in 2009, she is back leading A Perspective on Nudes: A Short Photographic Workshop. A wealth of energy and inspiration, I thought she would be a good interview subject. And she was! See below for her thoughts on the industry, the challenge of shooting nudes, and the importance of trusting your own creative voice. To see more of her work, visit

How did you first become interested in photography?

I don't know if I was initially interested in photography itself. I was interested in traveling the world, and a camera seemed a good tool to document those experiences. In my mid-twenties, a good friend of mine found a beat up Nikon F camera in a trash bin and asked me if I wanted it, and that became my first camera. I had no idea what any of the numbers on the camera meant, and I really had no idea how to take photographs, but I didn't let that stop me. I would pack boxes of color and black/white film along with that old Nikon while trekking through the jungles and coastlines of the Yucatan Peninsula, South Pacific and many other places. I was interested in archeology at the time, and was exploring the ancient ruins of the Mayan civilizations along with many others.

I was mainly interested in using the camera for documentation, until I understood that it could be much more. That revelation happened when I took my first printing class at a local community college. I lived in their lab for 2 straight years. I was always the last one to leave; they literally had to kick me out every night after the lights went on. Community darkrooms were fun for a while, but I knew I needed my own space to explore my ideas further. And I no longer own a darkroom, but eventually I plan on getting back to some alternative printing processes that I really connected with, like salt prints, platinum prints and camera obscura boxes. Art Center College of Design had an amazing printmaking facility, and it was there that I fell in love with silk screening and alternative printing processes under the tutelage of a very talented but a bit cantankerous instructor named Tony. For me, printmaking was something that I felt I could spend a lifetime with.

My father was a lithographer and offset printing expert; he used to print magazines like National Geographic. But he died just as he and I were reconnecting after a rather distant relationship growing up, and other than visiting the plant he ran in Quebec a few times, that world was alien to me. And I left printmaking at Art Center knowing that I had only scratched the surface of what was possible in that realm, but the experience left an indelible mark on the way I viewed art, and that of course included photography.

I'm still exploring what it means to use the camera in the context of photography as a fine art tool. The larger projects I'm working on now are less about photography as it's traditionally viewed than about an attempt to transcend the object that's being photographed. I hope to present some of that work later this year.

Where do you find the inspiration for your personal projects?

I get inspiration from many sources. One of those has been film and it has had a very strong influence on my photographic vision, in many ways much more so than still photography. When I started my "The Influence of Blue" project (images from it are included in this blog) I was haunted by the color of the blue, beaded lamp in Krzysztof Kieslowski's film, "Blue." The coldness of that blue glass, along with it's seemingly ethereal quality, and the way it held the light, propelled me to begin an investigation of blue, water, and a body in water--mine.

Another strong source of inspiration has been dreams and myth. One of my favorite professors at Art Center, Laura Cooper, looked at my work at that time and suggested that I read Idols of Perversity. That book forever changed the way I viewed the female in art throughout history. It was a very compelling and absorbing book, with in-depth discussions on the Dracula myth as well as others, and especially paintings from the early 19th century, "paintings that looked harmless and even beautiful but in reality were naïve, unconscious images of archetypal sexual symbols who's real meaning wasn't being widely discussed at that time, and still isn't", and continues to influence the way woman are photographed today in the 21st century.

After Art Center, I was contacted by a Ph.D. candidate from Cornell University, who asked if she could use images from "The Influence of Blue" series to illustrate an article she was writing on the modern representation of Ophelia. She felt that the work was a contemporary interpretation on that myth. And I think she was right; when I was a young girl, I was deeply affected both by the Ophelia archetype and that of Dracula. But Jungian analysis freed me from that, and reading Idols of Perversity allowed me to make more informed choices in my art.

I've also been inspired by dreams and my daily meditations. One evening, after a long meditation, I had a powerful, lucid dream; I was standing on a ledge on top of the tallest mountain in the world. I looked down and felt a bit frightened because of the height, yet I was surprised at how well I could breathe. Then I looked up at the clouds, which were white and luminous, and I began to fall. As I fell, I "woke up" in the dream and became completely conscious of what was happening. I was falling very fast, and I could hear and feel the strong wind moving through my body. I remember thinking, "Oh, this is interesting, I'm falling to earth and I'm going to die in this dream, something that has never happened to me before." I let go of my fear, and as I watched the white clouds swirl around me, I became a fleck of life in a vast sea of sky, rapidly falling to earth. Then I suddenly struck the ground, and the earth cracked open and I floated into the cosmos.

It was total blackness at first, in the kind of quiet that is almost impossible to find on this planet. I don't quite have the words to describe the experience that followed, of moving past distant stars and planets hearing strange popping and hissing sounds. Then I was thrust back, and I woke up. When I opened my eyes, I saw what would become the first image of my "Woman" series: a symbolic image of two women, one filled with pure light, one an outline filled with stars, lying in space. To me that represented a connection between heaven and earth, a bridge between the physical self and the spirit that resides within. That particular image is below.

For me the camera is a starting point, a means to capture an image, something that may express what I'm seeing, or a lever that I can use to create or express another vision entirely. I use the camera as a key to unlock the creative process, to open the door to that universal creative energy we all have within ourselves, and to allow it to express itself as freely as possible. And when I can allow that to happen, when I can get out of my own ego, freeing myself from the concerns of whether the work will be good or bad, whether or not anyone will like it, then it all flows out of me. It's a river that never stops running; I jump into the rapids and see where they take me. There's always time later for reflection about the work, but I save that for when I've gotten far enough along to have some distance from it, as there's nothing like self-judgment to kill any idea before it even begins to find its voice.

What are some of the challenges of this art form?

This is an interesting question, and I believe that the answer would depend on what kind of photographer you asked, what kind of photographic work you are concerned with, what that photographer was trying to achieve with his or her art. With the nude, the challenges are many and can be huge, both because it has a long history in art, and also because of its controversial nature. There are many political and critical conversations going on about the nude these days, from the dominant female nude to the homoerotic works of photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe.

Some of the challenges will be discussed in the class I will be teaching this winter, although one can hardly address the real complexity of the subject in a 4 week workshop. Your question deserves a deep and complicated discussion, but one that's better left in its fullness for something like a masters program, a place where you have time to digest all of the information and decode it and decide what information is relevant to the work you're interested in producing. Otherwise, over-thinking a subject typically brings in a lot of judgment, which stops the creative process entirely.

It's important to know what you're creating, and to make informed choices, but that happens over a period of time. Our vision has to be more than just an intellectual understanding of the nude and it's history, it's also our own personal relationship with our bodies. In my upcoming class I would like to pose questions more than provide answers. We come into this world naked and I think "NAKED or NUDE?" is one of the first I would ask any photographer attempting to portray the unclothed human form.

What do you hope to impart to your students that they might not be aware of when shooting nudes?

I'm not sure that I can answer that question specifically, as I believe the journey will be different for each individual. But there are many interesting questions that face us when photographing the nude. One I might ask is, "What is the contemporary idea of a nude?" If we use the nude image as an artistic trampoline, where do we go after we jump a certain height? A great height has certainly been achieved with it, which is why it's a difficult subject to approach in the contemporary art world. But even so, I believe it's still worth investigating, that there is still room for new creative expression.

These issues, along with a brief history of the nude in art, will be discussed in class before the location shoot to allow students the opportunity to make informed choices with their work. We will also have a very special guest speaker who has printed for such icons of the photographic nude as Sally Mann, Helmut Newton, and Irving Penn, as well as many other emerging and established photographers who have contributed immensely to the artistic exploration of the nude.

What advice would you give aspiring photographers, or what is something that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

I never planned on being a photographer; the career in a way chose me. I was taking photography classes at a local community college, and much to my surprise, I was asked to submit my portfolio to Art Center. Even more to my surprise I received an eight-term scholarship. While at Art Center, I left the commercial Department and became a fine art major with a photography minor. My last semester I decided to take a fashion class with an instructor that I kept hearing about, Paul Jasmin. He seemed to respond to my work and suggested that I meet with his agent, Marysa Masiansky , owner of VISAGES RPS, INC on sunset blvd. I did, and I was taken on immediately. It was great to have that support, but it still wasn't easy. I was a complete unknown at an agency with the likes of Herb Ritts, Mary Ellen Mark and others. I also wasn't prepared for freelancing, and the business side of being a working photographer. Even though I had worked in management in the business world, I had always worked for someone else, and that taught me many valuable skills. But, I had no concept of what photography was like as an industry, and the difficulties of working for myself as an independent contractor.

And the business of photography has changed drastically. It has always been difficult, but in many ways it is much more so than ever before. The increasing dominance of the Internet and digital image capture, the decline of print magazines and print advertising, the enormous abundance of stock imagery, and the constant influx of new photographers into the business has altered greatly the way photographers are able to make a living. After 13 years in this industry, I would advise anyone who's really serious about photography as a career, to understand that photography is a business, and to learn as much about it as possible before they get into it. They should align themselves with professional photographic organizations and learn from other professionals about real world photography. It's the wild West out there in regards to what's expected and demanded of you as a working professional. The business of photography can be brutal, but also very rewarding, and to survive you need to make informed choices.

On the more creative side, I would advise people never to be afraid or too closed-minded to take a closer look at work you don't like, especially if it makes you angry! It may eventually lead you in directions you never dreamed of, or in the least, open your mind to viewpoints you never considered before. Otherwise you may find yourself locked into a tiny world of personal likes and dislikes, and when those are left unexamined, they can lead you around in creative circles. And maybe most importantly, look for inspiration in everything around you. Learn, like Alice, to use your imagination daily to enter at will through the looking glass into your own wonderland.

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