Nathan: First of all, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and share your images. I have been, for many years, trying to gently persuade you to do an interview with me— and I appreciate the effort and time it takes to complete one. Let’s begin with the obvious question: when and where does photography first begin for Athena Carey?
Athena: Thank you so much, Nathan: for your friendship and guidance for the many years that we have known each other, for asking me a very long time ago to do an interview, and for your extraordinary patience in waiting for me to finally be ready.
Photography began for me from the far side of the lens. I was the first grandchild, and my paternal grandfather was an avid amateur photographer. My shift to the camera side of the lens came at age nine. Just before departing to spend the summer in Switzerland with my Godparents, my mother handed me her little Kodak camera. I spent that summer adventuring through Switzerland, France and Italy, and very thoughtfully capturing what I considered important moments. Every evening, my Godmother forced me to write in a journal, which I hated, but I believe this also influenced my photo decisions. Most often the photos captured the very same people, events and places that I wrote about. This shifted what might otherwise have been random photo snapping of a nine year old towards something more complex – storytelling.
Nathan: Which photographer or photographers first inspired you to pursue photography?
Athena: In my childhood, my exposure to photographers didn’t extend beyond my family. As such, I was free from almost all creative direction. I made images of whatever piqued my interest. The only limits I had were financial. My budget for film and developing was meager at best.
Nathan: Are there any photographers that you have discovered in recent years that are currently inspiring the directions you are taking your work?
Athena: Many and none. There are many artists whose work I see and admire that is very different from my own. I don’t actively try to emulate them but I know my appreciation of their work quietly influences my own. So many things and experiences do.
These three do not directly influence my work, but I would like to share this small handful of female photographers. Their work is exceptional and meaningful.
Nathan: Are there any painters, writers, poets, or other artists that have inspired your work?
Athena: I love this question. Yes, during my Masters of Fine Art work, it was largely painters. I chose to work in color and to create dramatic, symbolic and very surrealistic photographs. For the most part this was a huge step away from the work I had been producing at the time and so I turned to the art world for inspiration. Here are some of the painters that inspired me the most.
- Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi were both masters of the dramatic use of tenebrism. They used dark backgrounds to create an air of mystery and to force the viewer towards their subjects.
- Joan Miro was rebellious in his use of imagination and symbols to express deep meaning. He was a surrealist beyond any that chose the label.
- Gustav Klimt worked with a wide array of subjects, always using symbolism. He was a founding member of the Secessionist Movement, whose symbol was the goddess Athena.
- Edward Hopper managed to paint the commonplace full of intrigue and drama. His work is fascinating and engaging and is a reminder that there is something worth seeing everywhere, if you look from the right angle with the right light.
- William Turner subtly created scenes full of turbulence without the heavy use of saturation or contrast. The violent truths of his paintings rest quietly behind a veil of delicate color and light.
- Bridget Tichenor was a very international, female surrealist artist of the 1900s. Her genre is actually called “magic realism”. Her use of color is both soothing and captivating and her subjects are utterly otherworldly.
- Remedios Varo was a less known Spanish surrealist who created fantastical worlds of unease, delight, beauty and horror. These are the nightmares from which you do not wish to wake.
Nathan: Does music play a role in your work? For example, do you listen to music while you process your images?
Athena: Yes and no. When I am working, I am very happy to be embraced by silence. I find that music, especially with lyrics, pulls me away from my work. But I also think that music and lyrics (and poetry and movies and everything, really) affects what I think about, and that disperses into my work.
Nathan: Time for an abstract question: where do you think inspiration comes from? Do you think your development as an artist primarily comes from having done the work and continuing to put in the time or, perhaps, does it come from some mysterious place that we can never quite understand (and, thus, we should cultivate gratitude for when it does arrive)? Or, of course, you may have an entirely different idea. Your thoughts?
Athena: I think my development as an artist and my inspiration for work are largely separate from one another. I see my development as an artist as the result of a massive amount of work both theoretical and practical. It is ongoing, hopefully until my last day. My inspiration, however, is more an infusion of what I am exposed to both actively and passively and what I am, which is fluid. These two are woven or dissolved together and my ideas grow from this agar. Nonetheless, I do think gratitude is important. I am immensely thankful for the privilege of having the means and the time to create.
From where does your inspiration come, Nathan? Do you feel it is connected to your development?
Nathan: I can say with certainty that I have absolutely no idea where inspiration comes from. But, like the wind, it comes when it comes, and I always do my best to unfurl my sail and catch its flow and let it take me wherever it might take me. When I first began thinking about photography, I tried to choose specific directions and figure out how to do things. Now, I just let whatever happens happen when it happens. I am also certain that I have developed what I have developed as it has developed– and I will continue to develop whatever I develop as I develop it. I must say that I am still largely drawn to photography because there are moments of pure chance and mystery. If I knew everything about it– or had figured out how to be exact and precise all the time– I would stop. Mystery, I think, is food for the soul.
And you definitely get extra points for integrating “agar” into your response!
Let’s head down this direction now–> you have crafted many long exposure images over the years. What first attracted you to using this process and, as importantly, why do you continue to use it? Also— do you think long exposure has become a photographic cliché?
Athena: My initial attraction to long exposure photography was twofold. Visually, I find a well-executed long exposure with a fitting subject to be very serene. This type of image contains not just a stillness, but also a sense of order. In a world full of chaos, these small tokens of calm are valuable to me – helping to hold entropy at bay. The second reason is that LE was a photographic technique that I hadn’t mastered, and I like a challenge.
While I do continue to use long exposures, I do it much less frequently now. In part because I have mastered the technique and so moved on to other challenges but also because it became quite popular. I’m rarely interested in making what the masses are making. I use LE now when it is a good match for my subject, the shooting conditions, and the message I want to convey. During the pandemic, I even used it for work I was making in the studio during lockdowns.
Nathan: What are your most favorite places and subjects to photograph? Do you prefer to revisit the same places and subjects, or do you prefer looking for new places to explore (or perhaps a little of both)?
Athena: I am drawn to places and concepts. Some of these are:
- historical sites
- locations where man’s effects have been or are being undone by time and nature
- the sublime – where beauty, wonder and fear come together
- spiritual places and thresholds
- the balance of power and powerlessness
- the concept of identity
- grief / sorrow / loneliness
I enjoy both revisiting favorite places and subjects and also seeking out new ones. You should see all the pins I have on my Google Maps of “places I want to go” and “have been and loved”. It’s a bit mad, but I think it is important to continue to cultivate the desire to create. For example, I have no idea when I will next get up to Scotland, but I stay excited about the prospect because I continue to research and add locations whenever I stumble upon them. There will be a tipping point, when the excitement and number of locations can no longer be left to wait. And then I will go. I have several such things brewing pretty much all of the time.
Nathan: Because of our playful debate about this topic over the years, I am sure you knew I would ask: why do you favor the “rectangle” over the “square” composition?
Athena: Because rectangles are sexy.
Ok, ok. The truth is, I often feel confined by squares (and also by vignettes). I cannot really explain this beyond saying that as the result of a childhood trauma, I am quite claustrophobic. I think this is also a part of why I prefer wide angles to closeups. I need to feel I have space to breath both in reality and in my work.
Nathan: For the record, I have a lot of “rectangles.” I just rarely share them!
In terms of going out to take images, do you see yourself as a “planner” and “preparer” or do you rely more on “what you find in the moment” or, perhaps, is it a little of this and a little of that? Many photographers talk about seeing the image they ultimately plan to later produce through post processing as they select, set up, compose, and photograph the image. Is that how you work? What are your thoughts?
Athena: I am a planner to the extreme. I love the research side of my work, but I have been doing it long enough to know that after all the planning, success comes more consistently if I remain open to serendipity. I arrive with my camera having an idea of what I want to achieve but then let the moment / place / situation speak to me. Once I understand what I am feeling, I assemble an image from the available elements that have contributed most to that. This gives me the best chance to visually express things that others can relate to. Still sometimes people looking at my work read something entirely different from it and to be honest, this brings me much joy. Not because I want to be misunderstood, but because it means the work evokes feeling and/or thought, which is the whole point.
Nathan: When you sit down to process an image, do you already know what you are going to do, or do you discover it as you process? (I am assuming you sit down—though I sometimes have this funny image in my mind of a person processing an image while they are pedaling on an exercise bike).
Athena: Most often, yes. I know what I intend to make. Even if it is not a fully formed visual, it is the essence from the place or subject to which I wish to give form. Sometimes though, I go completely off the rails and do experimental things, letting the process dictate the results as much or more than my own conscious intentions. It’s a bit like dancing naked in the rain with wild abandon. Or should that be cycling?
Nathan: How has the opportunity to share images on social media shaped, if at all, where you have taken your photography? I would be grateful if you would also discuss your general thoughts about photography and social media.
Athena: This is a very complex subject. I think we could have a long and engaging conversation on this subject alone. My own relationship with social media is rather love/hate. I like the opportunity it provides to be exposed to other artists and their work. This expands my world which helps me understand what I want to do, see, and make. I also like sharing my work with others, but I find I do it less and less on social media. There was a time when sharing work on social media led to engaging conversations, opportunities to learn and explore, but that rarely happens anymore. Now sharing work on social media seems more like a collective process of accumulating likes and compliments within a whirlwind of images flying by on small screens. This doesn’t add much value to my experience, so very often my completed photographs sit in the dark on my hard drives instead. Do they want to be seen? I don’t know. Does it even matter? I don’t know that either. What I do know is that I find far more joy in getting out and making more photographs than sitting at my desk or staring at my phone, so that is what I do.
From a broader perspective, I think photography is continuing its journey of democratisation and social media plays a role in that. When it was first developed, photography was only for the wealthy. It was not easy or cheap to make photographs nor to have them. Few did. Through the invention of smaller and cheaper cameras and mediums, photography has now become ubiquitous. I wonder what percentage of people in the world owns a camera of some kind today. No doubt, it is the most ever.
Until recently, of those who made photographs, only a small handful were in a position to have them published. But social media has made that quotidian as well, and so we have the whirlwind of images I mentioned before. Most photos get a few minutes of total viewing time, if that. When you have an abundance of something, its value as a whole may be high but the value of each component becomes low.
I also wonder about the temporality of photographs. In the past, we printed our photos and many of those prints still exist. They have a thingness that digital images lack. In a few generations, will any of these digital files still exist? Will anyone see our photos?
And lastly on this subject, I think that the abundance of images of social media that have been made with phones is affecting what we like. Phones have a small sensor, which creates a vast depth of field (a lot of the image is in focus) and the software in phones processes the images to be somewhat HDR and over saturated. So what you get is a detailed, saturated image with fewer shadows – a hyperreality of sorts. As a result of extensive exposure to this type of image, I can see a trend towards it, away from the more subtle photographs that have been popular in the past. I am intrigued by how technology is shaping taste.
Nathan: I most certainly agree with a lot of your observations and conclusions– and nothing I am about to say is a disagreement– just my recent thoughts on the subject (which no one has asked me to share, but I am sharing anyway). I, personally, have come to appreciate every like and/or fave much more than I used to. While I personally used to think “likes” meant people were just aimlessly scrolling and clicking without engaging, this was mostly because I was, like you, always seeking conversations and engagement with anyone who might be willing to do so (you and I and others most certainly remember those wonderful conversations and the overall spirit of sharing on Google+ before it was opened to the general public). But now, after fifteen+ years of wandering through Flickr, Art Limited, 500px, the now-defunct Google+, Instagram, Facebook and other photo-sharing sites, I have burned myself out a bit. I think I might have finally seen too many images! I still love viewing images. I really do. I love to see what other photographers are doing– and I like to keep track of what my photographer friends are doing. But … but … but … I now often just leave a ‘like’ or a ‘fave’ as if a bread crumb to just let people know I was there (even if they do not know I left that bread crumb and they think my little click of approval is only one more like in a crowd of voiceless and faceless likes). I think my like is valuable because it means I really like what I see, for I never click like unless I really, really like something. I have come to realize that a lot of people are probably just like me in this regard. After all, if we all commented in detail on every photo we liked looking at, then we would have no time to take care of our always pressing life responsibilities. All of that said– I am very suspicious of superlatives– or, perhaps what we might call the well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless hyperbole. I do not know what “wow” and “wonderful” and “epic” mean anymore. That said– I am profoundly guilty of excessive overuse of “wonderful”. But, I don’t know, sometimes I just think an image is wonderful and that is all I wish to say!
Sorry, for the interruption. Time to get back to the truly important task: your wonderful responses to the questions.
Your first degree was in psychology, yes? Do you think your studies in that subject have contributed to your photography? If yes, how?
Athena: This is a question that quite a few people have asked me. For whatever reason, I feel some pressure to say yes, but the truth is, no, not specifically. However, my interest in human behavior is what led me to psychology, and that same interest feeds into much of my photo work.
Nathan: What inspired you to formally study photography? If you are willing, I would love to hear about the degree you earned, what you studied, and how those studies have influenced your work?
Athena: I had reached a point where I wanted more from photography (and myself), and I wanted to be involved in something larger than my own practice. First, I completed a Photography BA in Geneva, and after that, I earned a Masters of Fine Art (with distinction) in England. The two programs are dramatically different and both have helped shape the photographer I am now.
My BA was earned at Webster University in Geneva, where I now teach. The program exists within the Media Communications Department and its focus is on history, practice and communications. Much of the program was reinforcement of my existing practice but certain parts helped me to see photography from a new perspective.
My Masters of Fine Art is from The University for the Creative Arts in England. Being an art school, their approach is very different. They focus heavily on the meaning embodied in the work. This was not a new concept for me but it was expected at a much higher intensity. I spent two years heavily engaged in research and image making, and in presenting and defending my work to many tutors and visiting artists. It was a sometimes painful deconstruction and reassembly of my approach to and relationship with photography. I finished the program a very different photographer.
View the Video fertilty (c) Athena Carey
Nathan: Are there specific projects you have pursued as a direct result of these studies— and how, if at all— have your formal studies shaped your approach to landscape photography and your use of long exposure, both of which you worked on extensively before getting your photography degree?
Athena: I think the area that really came to life is my conceptual work. It may even be more accurate to say that part of my practice was born from those studies. At the time, I took a large step away from landscape photography. While it was not easy to give up something that I find so much comfort in, I needed to give myself enough space to focus on something new and challenging. They were a difficult two years, but I am grateful now for what I learned in that time and for how it changed me both as a person and a photographer.
All of the photographs I have made since have been conceived and produced from this new perspective. It may, however, be less obvious in my landscape photographs because how I work in the landscape hasn’t changed very much. I still research, travel, visit, listen, look, collect and assemble elements to make those photographs. I am still attracted to places that are calm, silent, and serene and my photographs are still a reflection of what I feel in those places. In recent years, I have returned in part to landscape work and have been out shooting it again in Japan, Norway, England, Ireland, Spain, and Iceland.
Another thing that changed for me as a direct result of my masters studies is my willingness to do photography other than portraits and landscapes. In the year immediately following my graduation, I found myself in a sort of limbo. A huge achievement was behind me, and I wasn’t sure exactly where to go next. In between doing the research and planning work for a few new projects, I began venturing into London with my camera. What I found is that I particularly enjoy the quiet interiors of museums. They are beautiful but simple buildings filled with enchanting objects. When people enter these spaces, they are, in a way, transformed. They assume a new role of quiet and thoughtful observer. This combination of space, artifact and demeanor fascinates me. I have spent many hours alternating between studying the art, watching the people, imagining their interpretations and capturing the interactions. [Editor’s Note: Be sure to view a second video at the end of the interview]
Nathan: For quite a few years now, you have taught many others how to develop and shape their own photographic pursuits. Why do you think you first chose to do this? And, now, how have your formal studies contributed or even changed how you teach?
Athena: I began teaching photography in Malaysia, in 2005. Through the years I have taught people all around the world – elementary and high school students, university students, professionals, and retirees. It has all been hugely fulfilling to me. There is such a delightful sense of purpose attached to sharing knowledge. Seeing people make progress in their creative endeavors makes me very happy. I feel privileged to be a part of those journeys.
The two biggest changes my degrees have caused in my teaching are 1) I am able to teach at university level now with an MFA and 2) I include more theory and history in my lessons. Without a doubt, I am a more effective teacher now.
Nathan: How has living in different parts of the world and traveling often contributed to your evolution as a photographer?
Athena: All the varied experiences of my nomadic life have contributed immensely to my evolution as a person and that flows directly into the photos I make. Obviously, this has allowed me access to many different landscapes to use as my subjects. It has also exposed me directly to diverse cultures, which affects how I see the world and my place within it. However, the downside is that I have no strong connection to any one place as my home and all of my friendships have eventually been disrupted by space. Without doubt, this also affects the ideas I have and the subjects and techniques I use to express them.
Nathan: As a landscape photographer, how has the ever-growing threat and reality of climate change contributed to how you approach your work? Do you ever wonder if the work you have already done, are doing, and will be doing might end up being a chronicle of how different the world will someday look? When you photograph nature, do you look at it with pure wonder or do you feel a tinge of sadness because you know it is likely going to be very different?
Athena: I take a lot of creative license with reality, using processes like infrared, long exposures and camera movement, so I doubt my work will become a true chronicle but I do still think a lot about climate change. I have a series of photographs of submerged trees that I made on the South Carolina coast. I spent several days alone in the area, camping and visiting the trees very early each morning. These trees are gone now – swept away by an enormous storm.
Another thing that weighs heavily on me is the damage caused by over tourism. This has led to my making changes in how I work as a tour leader, how I title my photos and how I share photos online. I feel I owe the places I visit whatever protection I can offer.
The rational part of me knows many of the places I photograph are threatened, but I still look at nature with wonder and delight. Perhaps this contributes to the somewhat surreal nature of my works? Your works have a similar surrealness. Where (not technical process) do you feel yours comes from?
Nathan: When I first started doing interviews in 2011, I tried very hard to create what I thought– at the time– was a poetic series of semi-intellectual explanations for my process, for what I thought I was doing, and for what I thought my images were ‘about.” I cringe when I read those interviews now. None of it was really true. All of it, at best, was just me looking back at what I had done and trying to explain it after the fact– and, at its worst, it was just me making stuff up that I thought sounded like I was important. The truth is that I simply attempt to photograph silence. I do not know if I succeed. I suppose that those simple words probably sound pretentious and ridiculous, but it is simply what I try to do. If someone also values inner silence and enjoys experiencing it in nature, then they probably bring some of that appreciation for silence to my images. If they see something surreal, something ‘other’ in my images, then they probably bring that. All I can do is continue my attempt to photograph silence and share my work. But, yes, I also never try to photograph nature as it is. I try to find that slice of silence. I can see how some might find all that “silence” surreal!
I love that you say you “still look at nature with wonder and delight.” I do as well– even though I know the world that has filled me with wonder for over fifty years will look very different to those who experience it fifty years from now. I would like to think that someone will see my images after I am gone, but I will be gone and everything will continue to change. Maybe my daughter will keep the prints I have made.
Speaking of changes, how has the Coronavirus pandemic shaped your work?
Athena: Covid seems to have affected everything in my life. Work wise, there are a few changes. I am not leading any workshops now because travel became difficult and dangerous, and I am not sure if I will return to that, for various reasons. The university courses I teach shifted to remote learning which has been a challenge but is also rewarding. And all of the travel that I do for my own photography projects was postponed indefinitely or cancelled.
It’s easy to see these changes as limitations but I also feel they are opportunities for change and growth. I am in a position to re-evaluate what I truly want and how to achieve that.
Nathan: Time for some informal questions. What is one of your most favorite words?
Athena: Content – a state of peaceful equilibrium. I find this elegantly simple and beautiful. It is also something I strive for in my daily life.
Nathan: What is one of your least favorite words?
Athena: Also starts with C. Has only four letters and is obscenely degrading.
Nathan: Are the ellipsis .. and … exclamation point used too much in social media?!
Athena: Yes, in fact I am one of the over-users. I think their overuse in SM along with the overuse of superlatives, is likely a partial attempt to compensate for the many ways that online interactions fall short in meeting our social needs. It is, in a way, like speaking loudly to people who do not speak your language, a futile attempt to connect.
Nathan: Name some of your favorite books.
Athena: I am not sure I do favorites, but here are some to which I am attached.
In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams
Art and Feminism by Helena Reckitt and Peggy Phelan
The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho
Women & Power a Manifesto by Mary BeardWomen Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The Half-Finished Heaven by Tomas Tranströmer
Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry
The Wander Society by Keri Smith
Moving Matters: Paths of Serial Migration by Susan Ossman
Creative States of Mind: Psychoanalysis and the Artist’s Process by Patricia Townsend
I came back and deleted about half of the books I had listed because my list was a bit ridiculous. In looking back through the list, I noticed that there are very few novels. I do read fiction, but I just don’t get attached to those I guess. Here is a quick snap of some fiction on our bookcase to give you an idea of what I choose.
Nathan: Name some of your favorite musicians or composers or albums.
Nathan: Coffee or tea?
Athena: Both. Coffee (with soy milk) in the morning, and tea (with whole milk) in the afternoon.
Nathan: Wine, spirits, or beer?
Athena: Wine or clear spirits, but no tequila.
Two drinks that I like a lot are 1) an Aperol Spritzer (Aperol and Prosecco), and 2) Reyka Vodka mixed with a dash of Limoncello and a blood orange San Pellegrino. The second one has no name because I made it up last summer. What should we call it? [a San Cellino? — Nathan]
Nathan: Off the top of your head, right now, without thinking about it, what is the first image– which is not one of yours– that comes to mind? Why do you think that image was the first one you thought of? What do you like or not like about it?
Athena: These are the photos I thought of, in this order. I kept going because I didn’t like that this was my reaction to your question. By the fourth one, emotionally drained, I had to stop. It’s striking to me that despite my photography preferences, these dramatic and deeply disturbing images are the photos that came to my mind first:
I have come back to this question a couple of weeks later and this time it is Robert Capa’s Death of a Spanish Loyalist Militiaman. Still photojournalism, still grim. Not a pretty sunset, not a long exposure. There is something meaningful to be taken away from this. I am not sure yet what it is though.
Nathan: I certainly understand why those disturbing and jarring images came to your mind, Athena. I, personally, think those kinds of images, which capture a fleeting glimpse of truly shocking or tragic times, stick in one’s mind more often than landscape images– which are beautiful and often contemplative or inviting but often do not have that lasting impact like the images you chose. I often think about this–> famous image <– from Tiananmen Square and this–> famous image <– of a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk burning after setting himself on fire in protest. Their power intrigues me even more because they capture something I never experienced, but both images still resonate with an intensity that fuels emotions inside me.
On a very different note, what do you do when you run out of ideas and inspiration (or do you never run out of ideas and inspiration)?
Athena: Oh yes, I do. It used to bother me, but now I leave it. When I am not inspired to make photos I do other things. In particular, I like learning new things. I find that this expansion of thought and activity inevitably sparks new ideas and then the inspiration to come back to photography with these ideas to make new, meaningful work.
Nathan: And now to bring the discussion to a conclusion … where do you wish to take your work next? Do you have any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
Athena: If you had asked me this a couple of years ago, my answer would have been very specific. I had three well-researched and planned projects that I was about to start work on. Then the pandemic tore those plans apart. In the time that has passed, I have quietly thought about other things, shifted what I do, shifted again, questioned so much– about photography, about what I want, about life in general. For now, I am without a hard set photography plan. This is odd for me and I find it both splendid and terrifying. I have put aside my planned photo projects and am just enjoying what is here. I am doing conceptual work in the studio when the mood strikes me. I am visiting new and old places without the pressure to photograph them in any meaningful way. I am trying new kinds of photography like astro and wildlife and I am flying a drone. I think perhaps, I am in a phase of personal growth, like a plant leafing out to collect more sunlight before creating its next blossoms.
Nathan: And, finally, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I really appreciate it. Is there anything else you wish to share with your readers?
Athena: Thank you again, Nathan, for the opportunity to do this. It makes me happy to think that anyone is interested in what I think and do. Beyond that though, this interview was a very meaningful process for me. I enjoyed considering your questions deeply and even had a few revelations from my own responses. I’m grateful for that experience and feel that it will ultimately contribute in some way to future works!
More Images & a Video
All Images in Slideshow (c) Athena Carey
dreams (c) Athena Carey (music by Sarah Grosso)