Interview #64: In Conversation with Katie Stienstra
CUS: First of all, why don't you tell me where you're from and how you got to be in Montreal.
Katie Stienstra: Well, I'm from Calgary, Alberta and grew up around the city in a small town. I went to a fine-arts high school and started taking pictures then. After high school I went to college, but it was kind disillusioning and I hated it a lot. I dropped out and started working in a horrible retail job and stopped taking any pictures because I was so sad about art-making. After working for two years in retail I figured I should go back to school so I researched different places that had good photo programs and Concordia seemed pretty amazing. Montreal seemed really . . . artsy you know? (laughs) I came here for a visit and it seemed like a different country. I don't think I've ever fallen in love with a city so fast.
CUS: The move from Alberta to Quebec is very . . . drastic. In terms of arts especially.
KS: Incredibly drastic!
CUS: So, you've been going to Concordia for four years?
KS: Yes. Technically it should be my last year but because I'm from out of province and also overwhelmed myself with a million classes I'm probably going to have to do an extra semester at the very least. But I love school a lot so I'm not in a really big hurry to leave.
CUS: Maybe you can talk a bit about your work and more specifically what you've been exploring both in and out of university.
KS: I should probably be pretty good at explaining this by now, but I guess what I do mainly is portraiture. The main themes I work with are always auto-biographical whether they're to do with my childhood, my body, my own sexuality, or personal experiences. But I think that in a way a lot of the things that I try to undertake in my work can be applied to greater social issues or plights. More recently I've dealt with things like anxiety and this past year or so I've gotten away from the more structured portraits I was doing and now have started producing more diaristic work. Mostly because my life at the time didn't really allow me to do anything else. That kind of stuck with me. My blog was always something I was doing on the sidelines but it has become a bigger part of my work in a more real way, now that I've done diary projects in school and presented them in galleries. I guess it just feels more . . .
KS: Yeah, and it's become a heavier part of my practice in the way that I approach my work. It's gotten even more personal because of that vain of my practice. The last little while I've been experimenting with strange mediums outside of just printing photographs on paper. I've been interested in tissue paper and more structured and conceptual fine-art pieces that are still very auto-biographical and connected to my diary work but not "diary work."
CUS: You mentioned that in college you explored various mediums, such as painting.
KS: Yeah, I didn't actually get really into photography until college. My background is more in drawing and painting. I don't know why I didn't think about photography in a career-way until so late because I always took pictures even when I was a little kid, which I don't think is that uncommon, but I definitely had a camera as a kid. I think in the 12th grade I was like, OK this is the way that I can actually be able to have a career (through photography) because no one is a painter anymore, right? (laughs) There comes a point where you have to acknowledge what you're good at and what you should do.
CUS: I think the fact that you explore different mediums within photography is really interesting. I remember your project in Body and Landscape, the tissue paper project.
KS: I forgot you were in that class!
CUS: Yeah! A lot of your work is very painterly, but obviously very photographic. Your color palette and aesthetic is always pretty moody. It has a lot of emotional baggage and context.
KS: I think I'm kind of a raw nerve. I can't help but make emotional things.
CUS: Can you talk a little bit about how you use yourself in your work? You photograph other people occasionally, but you primarily use your own body.
KS: I think that even when I photograph other people for official projects, most of the time I'm projecting personal stories onto them. So even in that way those become not direct self-portraits but conduits for self-portraiture. But you're right, I have been using myself a lot a lot lately. There are various reasons for that; the simplest is that I'm always there.
CUS: I find that sometimes it's hard directing people, and then you're like "Ugh, just let me do it!"
KS: Yeah! But it's also really hard not being able to see yourself, to see those little tweaks.
KS: It can be so frustrating when you get a roll of film back and your foot is in a weird position, and you're like "fuck! If I had just seen that." I think that on a more realistic level, I feel like the only real access I have to truth is my own truth. The only way I can tell a story honestly and be entirely accountable and responsible for that story is if I tell my own. It's really powerful to be able to use your body to tell that story. Especially because growing up I felt (like a lot of women and girls) that my body wasn't my own. There are just so many things going on there that make you feel detached from yourself and detached from the way that you look. Your beauty, your ugliness, or whatever. Once I got older and became a young adult, it became really pertinent for me to re-appropriate my body and be able to frame it and show it to people on my own terms. It evolves through various narratives but always works in a similar vain of me trying to frame myself.
CUS: And what about nature? It seems to be a pretty big element in your photography just looking through your photos.
KS: When I lived in Calgary I spent whole summers camping out in the mountains. Nature was a big part of my childhood. Even in Alberta, when you're a totally urban person, in 45 minutes you're in the middle of nowhere. So it was always a big part of my life. When I moved to Montreal it was completely stripped away from me because nobody has a car here -- I certainly don't. You can't get out of the city so easily. Growing up and learning to be a photographer just naturally evolved into this process of figures in the landscape. I never really addressed it in any way then because I was young and it was part of my lifestyle. Now that I've gotten older, I've become more critical about that and have tried to think about why I seem to be "better" when I photograph this way.
CUS: I think that in Montreal, in order to make these types of images, you have to put in more of an effort to find locations. Photographs become more intentional as opposed just documenting your lifestyle and familiar environment.
KS: You end up returning to the same places over and over . . . I think it wasn't until I was older that people and myself started realizing the tension about putting figures in the landscape, specifically female figures.
CUS: There's a quite a background concerning that subject matter.
KS: It can be pretty problematic, but I think that it's a fair medium to be re-appropriated again by women. It's really important to acknowledge the difference between how you choose to present yourself and interact with an environment versus someone placing you in that environment, choosing for you what you're going to be presented as.
CUS: Have people ever felt uncomfortable in your classroom critiques? You're presenting yourself often without clothing, so I'm wondering if you've encountered any awkwardness or maybe people have found it difficult to discuss your work because you're present. Which is also problematic.
KS: It's definitely a little awkward sometimes. It's not even the fact that I'm presenting my naked body but sometimes I'm sharing incredibly personal and sometimes tragic or disturbing stories with my classmates. Sometimes I'm standing in front of my photographs and it feels like a psychologist's office because I'm telling this crazy story. But people are really kind; no one's ever called me out about being uncomfortable. People just bring really critical discussions and I'm glad. I'd rather people talk about my work then say, "great picture of a flower!"
CUS: Behind each of your images is there a more elaborate, personal story? Or memory?
KS: Most often, yes. Even if it's a bit ambiguous or vague as to what that story is . . . It depends on the project. I'm a pretty sentimental person. I tend to take pictures of those epic moments or create something out of an intense feeling or emotion.
CUS: Do you have any photographers who inspire your work in a predominant way?
KS: Oh my god, probably so many.
CUS: People always have a hard time answering that question.
KS: Especially nowadays with the internet. You're constantly bombarded by images. I think that I just have this library bank in my brain that's filled with aesthetics I'm interested in at the time. I rarely have a photographer that I follow everywhere or buy prints of theirs. It's constantly changing. The internet has done a completely different thing to inspiration, or being a fan of somebody. There are also so many people in my program that are amazing.
CUS: It's usually one of my favorite questions to ask people. How they think the internet has changed photography and whether or not they think it's legitimate place to show their work as opposed to a gallery or book. Obviously you have a blog and a website. So you're documenting your life to the public. Do you find that your work is presented differently in the flesh versus online?
KS: Yeah . . . It's really weird being in school and producing work within the structure of the art world or the gallery setting. But then also being 25 and having that incredible tether to the internet and growing up with blogs. I think it's obvious for me that the internet is a legitimate place. Both have their pluses and their minuses . . but I think sometimes the internet creates vast over-saturation to the point where images don't mean anything anymore.
CUS: They're consumed so quickly. You're just like "next, next, next..."
KS: Exactly. I feel like the more time I spend on the internet, the more I question my relevance or why I should be making work at all because there is so much work already that it's just like litter at this point. There's something about the gallery that has a kind of preciousness to it, but maybe it's more of a social thing . . . I don't think it's necessarily factual. Especially growing up in art school where the white walls are kind of like god, you grow up feeling like that's the most legitimate way to be an artist, which I just don't think is true anymore. But I don't think galleries are going anywhere.
CUS: So many people have "made it" without ever showing in a gallery, but they're respected by their artistic peers as well as people who don't know as much about art. I remember in a contemporary art history class I wanted to write about this young photographer who became really big via the internet, but my professor just wouldn't let me write the paper! I put forward so many arguments, I was like, "These theorists will back me up! Kant! Adorno!" And he just said she wasn't a real artist. I thought it was interesting.
KS: I think that the divide between the academic art world and the "internet" art world is very much still there. The gallery is still a place for the 1% and the internet has something very democratic and socialist about it.
CUS: It's also amazing that these young photographers can put their work out there without having these pre-conceived art notions, art history, theory, or the history of photography. I mean, I think that's all good to know, but it's also great that they produce really moving work without having any of that academic background.
KS: Yeah, I think the democratization of art that the internet has allowed for is incredibly fascinating. But one thing that worries me is: I talk to a lot of people who don't have an art education or think that education isn't necessary by any means, people who are kicking major ass and breaking huge boundaries in the art world who didn't graduate university or art school. But I worry about the critical nature of how people approach art. I've been approached by artists about this and that, and I'm like, you need to do some research! You can't just waltz into the art world without a critical eye. So much is being created without critical thought. I think that's a pretty big problem in general.
CUS: That's a giant conversation.
KS: Yeah! Some people are really opinionated. Some people hate the internet, other people love it. Some people would never step foot in a gallery.
CUS: Also on that note, one of my other favorite questions is, "Do you believe that with the rise of digital photography the phrase “everyone can be a photographer” is true? What are your thoughts on digital vs. film photography?
KS: Oh my god. I mean . . . fuck. How many times have I answered and thought about this question. I think that anyone can take a picture, but all you have to do is go on Craigslist and look at the apartment listings and god knows, not everyone is a photographer despite the technology available these days! (laughs) Personally I'm a really big film photography buff, for various reasons. The quality of digital just isn't as beautiful. It depends on what you enjoy about the photographic process. For me, I enjoy the mechanical aspects of photography, the tedious step-by-step stuff. Being in the darkroom for hours by yourself. There's something really cathartic about that. But at the same time, the convenience of digital is unmistakable. But I also worry about my professional practice and about being irrelevant once I graduate. In school I use digital more because of deadlines, but if I had the time and energy to do it in the darkroom I would. I like to think that when I'm a professional artist I might have the time to spend in the darkroom and make things perfect. I don't know . . . I mean, I think there's such a thing as raw talent, and that there's such a thing 15 year old picking up a camera and being an instant genius.
CUS: I definitely agree. In terms of film photography, there's a different process involved. With film, at least personally, I'm thinking more about the process because I have go take the photo, get it developed or develop it myself, scan it or print it, edit it, etc.
KS: It creates a more precious object because of that time. I would talk with [my professor] Jessica about large format photography: you end up bringing less film onto the field and since the film is really expensive you're stressed out about the success of your image. She would say your success rate is a lot higher because of the amount of time it takes to take the photos. I think there's something to be said about taking your time. All of those little steps, and the little knobs you need to tweak. There's something meditative and valuable about it.
CUS: I think there's also something to say about digital photography though. With large and even medium format you're taking a lot of time to take the photograph (focusing, framing etc), but with digital or a cell phone camera, you can just take-it-and-go to capture those in-between moments that you don't have time to set up or which happen too quickly. It just depends on what you want to do.
KS: Exactly. Knowing about different technologies gives you a lot of freedom. I like to think that film won't die out completely though.
CUS: I'm hoping not. I mean, people still paint (laughs).
KS: Yeah exactly, I was going to say the same thing!
CUS: People still draw, people still etch, you know?
KS: (laughs) People still carve things in stone.
CUS: So, for some straight up questions: If you could photograph any person (past or present) who would you choose?
KS: Hmm. I'd really like to photograph my mom when she was a teenager and in her early 20s. She was a belly dancer hippie and she had the most beautiful skin. I think that she would photograph so well. Also, the only reason why I feel this way is because I have a bit of a celebrity crush: the actress Lea Seydoux.
CUS: Yeah, she's beautiful.
KS: So beautiful! And I don't know . . . I think it's pretty easy to think "celebrity," but it's mostly just people I see around that I wish I had the balls to talk to. One time while I was walking down the street I saw a boy with white, white hair and eyelashes, and really pale lips. I thought he was so beautiful. It's those moments you want to capture when you see those magical people.
CUS: What are your favorite local hangouts in Montreal?
KS: Oh my goodness. First and foremost my apartment because I'm introverted and anti-social (laughs). Where have I been going . . . I went to Cagibi a few nights ago because they have really good hot totties. It's basically just hot, ginger cider.
CUS: That sounds amazing.
KS: It's so cozy. In the summertime, I go to Parc LaFontaine. I go to shows sometimes at Sala Rossa and Casa.
CUS: What are some of your favorite books and movies?
KS: I haven't read an entire book in a really long time because of university. I read Nabokov's autobiography which was great. Last weekend I went to expozine and got a lot of little zines, one of them about classicism and the social structure of fairy tales. It analyzes Cinderella and things like that. I don't really have favorite books, but I have favorite authors like Cormac Mcarthy and J.S. Foyer. I was really into the Game of Thrones novels as well, which is pretty dorky. Movies: I was so into We Need to Talk About Kevin. It was beautiful; every single frame looks like a photograph. I'm into dichotomies, anything that's creepy and beautiful, disgusting and sexual. I saw Stoker last year and it inspired me so much visually and pushed me into wanting to produce short films. Also, The Shining.
CUS: Do you have any upcoming news or exhibitions?
KS: Well, I'm updating my website really soon. Plus filling out a lot of applications.
CUS: Are you going to grad school?
KS: I'm not sure. I think I need a break, but I still want to make work. Part of me thinks that I need to stay in school so I can be fed more. I've learned so much but I still don't feel like I'm ready. But sometimes you have to jump.
CUS: What would you like to ask the next interviewee?
KS: What would I want to know from another photographer . . . When was the last time you were really, really scared?
CUS: Wow, that's a good question. And finally, one of our past interviewees, Samuel Bradley, asks: Why are you doing this interview?
KS: (laughs) . . . What a weird question! Because I think the site is amazing, and I like being in the company of amazing artists. You do a good job of digging through the internet and smaller social circles to find photographers who don't get as much attention. I've always wanted to be a part of the blog!
Katie Stienstra, from Calgary, Alberta
Images provided by Katie Stienstra. All rights reserved.
ed. note: text has been edited & condensed from an interview held at le depanneur cafe in Montreal, Canada.