Jessica Eaton (b. 1977, Regina, Saskatchewan) holds a BFA in photography from the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia. Eaton has exhibited in solo exhibitions in the US and Canada, as well as numerous international group shows. Her work is held in the permanent collection of the UBS Art Collection, NY and Bidwell Projects, Cleveland, Ohio. Notable awards include PDN’s “30 New and Emerging Photographers” (2013), the Hyères Photography Jury Grand Prize (France, 2012) and the Foam International Photography Magazine Talent Call (2011). Eaton has received grants from Canada Council for the Arts (2011) and Humble Arts Foundation (2011) and was recently awarded a Darling Foundry studio for 2013-2016. Reviews and profiles include ARTINFO Canada’s «Top 12 Shows of 2012,» Canadian Art, The Believer Logger, The New Yorker, Foam, The British Journal of Photography (cover March 2012), ARTnews (cover image March 2011), BlackFlash, Border Crossing, Colour Magazine and Lay Flat 02: Meta. Jessica Eaton lives and works in Montréal.
Can you talk about your work process: how do you go from an idea to the creation of a final piece ?
It really varies from project to project. There is never just one idea, often things come together out of combining different things I have been thinking about or find interesting. Sometimes things develop really quickly, other times over years or decades.
For our 5th collection we invited you to collaborate in a series of 3 patterns around the XPol Series, can you tell us what the title means? I am also curious to know how you came up with this series: did it happen randomly or did you control it and what was your first reaction to what you saw?
The XPOL title of this series I made up as a short form for Cross Polarization. Polarization refers to the orientation of the oscillation of waves. When you cross two polarizing filters (in this case linear and circular) with light waves you are able to see stress induced birefringence in cheap plastics. That is exactly what these photographs are. I didn’t come up with the technique cross polarization is really common in things like electronmicroscopic work. Crystallines (like plastics) are birefringent, so it is a useful technique in order to see information for their study. The colour properties of birefringent materials under polarization really fascinated me, so I thought I would make some large format works exploring this result. Nothing random about it and I knew more or less exactly what the result would be before I started.
Visually speaking it is very close to painting, but you associate the work more to sculpture. How does your interest in these 2 mediums ultimately bring you to produce a photograph ?
The works themselves to me are completely photographic. The reference to sculpture has to do with the process of making them. Because the colour is intensified in the stress of plastics under this process, in order to make the works I had to stress the plastic. So there was a lot of manipulating the physical three dimensional material to make the works, which is sculptural in nature.
I see myself as an artist as opposed to a photographer. I don’t see hard lines between the mediums. It just happens to be photographs that are my final result and that act as a basic framework for my thinking.
I know that you dislike the use of the word abstract, how would you describe these artworks?
Meta Photographs maybe. What you are seeing is information that is very real. Just not accessible through our sensory abilities.
What is your relation to textile or fabric design?
I don’t have any personal experience with textiles, but I think a lot of my work could be really great as a basis for fabrics. I hope to do more collaborations like this in the future.
You live in Montreal, what do you particularly appreciate about this city
Montreal is great for a few reasons. It is first of all one of the more European places you could be in North America. It is nice to have a mix of culture and language. It has a heavier socialist mindset, leading to better arts funding and more affordable studio spaces.
Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles. Do you relate to one of these cities in particular, in terms of art scene?
Every city has its own charms. In terms of the art scene the city with the most people I would like to studio visit or sit at a bar with and talk shop with, as well as having the most exhibitions I want to see New York is definitely the winner.
Can you tell us about your experience being awarded the Hyères photography prize in 2012 and what new opportunities it has brought you?
Hyères was really great. Mostly for the friendships I made there. It was so far one of the greatest opportunities I have had for meeting people. It was also the first experience I had with the world of fashion, which was really interesting. That festival is certainly a much bigger deal for the designers. It is always really hard to pinpoint what opportunities came from what exactly I can for sure say that Hyères was useful for starting to get some attention in Europe.
I had the chance to experience the 3D viewing installation you did at the same festival the following year. The installation seems to reach what you might have always wanted to do: fully experience space, colors, shape, light, halfway between picture and sculpture.
That is great you got to see that! It was really different from what I usually exhibit. It was a perfect opportunity to try something else as the festival itself is more fashion based, so not the typical fine art scene. I don’t have any installations planned at the moment, but I hope to do an even more intense 3D one someplace in the future.
How important is the notion of space and installation within your work?
Generally not that important. Hyères really was an experiment. Usually I just want the simplest white cube of a room and put all of my focus on the piece in the frame.
In your work process, you repeat operations, continually experiment and leave room for mistakes, similarly to research work. How close to science do you feel?
There is some basis in the scientific method in my practice, but I don’t have the same goals. I’m not necessarily looking for truth or to explain the nature of the universe. I’m more interested in generating more questions, and am happy to stop at an interesting picture that answers nothing.
Most of your work uses film right? What about digital - do you have specific works that you would like to shoot in digital?
Pretty much all of my work is film at this point. In some projects the film plays an important role as a variable and is essential. For other things digital would be fine if I had a good enough quality sensor. I am very attached to the plane movements of a view camera so I would really need a digital back for that, rather than a complete digital system. Something like the XPOL works for this project would have been fine captured digitally as the effect is created through light and filtration, the film was only a capture device. I just didn’t own a high enough quality sensor for the size of prints I wanted to make. Also the extreme highlight to shadow can be tricky digitally film is still more forgiving in that sense.
What is your relation with software like Photoshop or Illustrator?
I never use Illustrator. Photoshop is my current day darkroom.
The basic feeling when anyone takes a picture is to capture an instant, a specific moment. Your work is the opposite, you talk about layers of time. What is your personal/work relation to time?
Time is a human creation to help explain our perception of lived experience and organize our existence. Photography allows me an opportunity to work outside of my limitations.
You talk about how incredibly limited our ability to perceive the world is. Would you consider the main reason to make art is to highlight these words?
It is definitely one of my main reasons. As for art in general, there are many reasons. There is no universal answer to that question.
What do the words True or Real evoke for you?
Photographically they are both pretty meaningless.
Do you feel that you are part of a current art movement or a group of people that work around similar ideas and concepts?
There is a Man Ray quote about only being able to be “of your time” in response to a question about him being “ahead of his time”. When I look at the work of a lot of my peers I can really see how we are all of our time. In the best of examples we see a lot of different ways of expressing that state.
Your work offers a visual experience by inventing colors. Can you tell us something about the color blue?
My work increasingly proposes, or points to the fact that colour doesn’t actually exist. It is just our perception of certain wavelengths bouncing off of material. Of blue I can say that it is our naming of our perception of the electromagnetic radiation of around 475 nanometers.
Conversation with Jessica Eaton, Montreal, April 2013. Photography by Études Studio