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Beautiful Tension: A Conversation with Natalie Krick

Mom Laying In The Front Yard, 2012. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Natalie Krick‘s photographs are messy. Though visually striking and impeccably executed, her photographs evoke the clashing of belief systems and the disruption of accepted norms, and that often comes with contention and messiness. Her ongoing series Natural Deceptions blends Krick’s identity with that of her mother’s and uses the styling and staging that is often found in the pages of fashion magazines as an apparatus to question femininity, sexuality, age and our own skewed views of beauty.  In light of her upcoming solo show at The Coat Check on July 12th, I sat down for coffee with Krick to discuss the complexity of her work, what it is like to create intimate portraits of her mother and her fascination with the deception at the core of photography.

Mom and Dad, ok cupid date #2, 2013. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Tempestt Hazel: What compels you to use photography as your primary medium?

Natalie Krick: I started off doing photography in high school. Then in college I became really interested in fashion photography. I’m interested in how deceptive photography can be, but that’s not necessarily why I started with it. That’s just something I learned to love about it because it is so believable. We still have this idea that photographs are real—even though most people think about that and know that they’re not. But people believe portraiture a lot of the time, I think.

TH: Is part of what draws you the ability to manipulate how people see the world?

NK: Yes, I think that is one thing that’s great about being a photographer: the ability to manipulate people and deceive them.

TH: From what you’re saying, I can see where the themes of this current series stem from—your interest in fashion photography, beauty and deception is undoubtedly present in Natural Deception

NK: I definitely look at fashion photography. A lot of the pictures that I make are based on other images I’ve seen in fashion magazines. Even though it’s not always apparent, a lot of them are referencing poses. But I’ve never really been very interested in fashion designers. I’m more interested in personal style and how people construct their identities through clothing.

TH: Where does the title of the series come from? Natural Deceptions is a really conflicted title.

NK: It’s actually from a brand of fake nails—the French tip press on nails. They’re called Natural Deceptions. They even have the half-moon [that mimics the look of real nails]. I love the idea of covering your nail with something that looks exactly like your nail, but more perfect. It’s so much about that façade to me. And I think of portraiture as a natural deception. It’s easy to believe a picture of a person and [for the viewer] to place their own ideas about [the subject] on that picture just from what they’re wearing and how they’re posed. When people look at portraiture, so much about them comes out and how they feel about the picture. It’s more about the viewer than the actual subject—or about what the photographer is showing you. So, I got the title from the fake nails.

TH: One of the first things I noticed was the vibrant color you used to set the scene in each photograph. Your use of color with the strong composition creates a tension with the content. For you, what role does color play?

NK: I’m really attracted to color and I’m sensitive to it. The colors that I like [are ones that] many other people may think are garish. I think they’re attractive, but also garish. I try to use these bright colors to draw people in. It’s like when you walk into Target and you’re seduced by everything. But I can’t be seduced by it anymore. The façade is lost on me.

TH: You started the series by looking at your mother as a reflection of you, or posing her to be you. But when I look at these portraits I feel like I could be scrolling through someone’s photos on Instagram or Facebook—they’re like a series of selfies.

NK: That’s awesome. I love that. I think it is so interesting that we have the power to construct an identity online and control how we want to be seen. We already construct ourselves how we want to be seen [in our daily lives], but then when you’re doing it with a camera you can be even more manipulative. You can decide to only put up pictures where you look good. I think we have a certain understanding of what looks good.

TH: Over the past two years or so of working on this series did your relationship with your mother change in any way?

NK: We’ve gotten a lot closer but I think that also has something to do with other things that happened during that time in my life. While photographing with her we have talked about identity and how we think other people view us. It definitely has opened up conversations that probably wouldn’t have happened before. She is fully aware of my ideas and what’s going on with the project.

TH: Those must have been great conversations to have. Before you started the series, did you think about your own understanding of beauty and self-image or did you ever talk with your mother about hers?

NK: I think her understanding of her self-image is not in the pictures at all. She doesn’t look anything like that [outside of the photos]. It’s funny because growing up as a teenager I remember coming home with a bunch of eyeliner or dying my hair ridiculous colors. I remember my mother saying, “Let’s go to Clinique…” or “Let’s dye your hair a more natural color. I like the more natural look.” As a teenager, learning to construct my own identity was influenced by my mom but also by what I saw in popular culture. So now with this project I’m turning the tables by constructing my mom’s identity based on my appearance and the things I see in popular culture.

TH: How is it to direct your mom?

Mom as a blonde, 2012. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

NK: She’ll do most things for me. That’s one of the reasons why I started working with her. Previously I was working with people from the internet and I felt that I could only get so far with them because I started feeling weird.

TH: What kinds of things were you asking people to do where you started to feel uncomfortable or thought that it was maybe going too far?

NK: It was just awkward to go over to someone’s house and say, “I’m going to make you over. I’m going to touch your face…” That’s really strange to do with someone you just met.

TH: It’s really intimate.

NK: Especially when it’s not in a professional setting and it’s at their home. It’s not awkward with my mom, even though the pictures are really awkward and have a lot of tension.

TH: So, do you pull that out of her?

NK: Yes. And I think the camera has a lot to do with that too.

TH: When I look at the photos I think about how if I were in your position there would be a point where I would put myself in her shoes and think about how I would feel looking at these photographs. Seeing them might be somewhat difficult depending on her understanding of what it is that you’re trying to do. Has she shown any change in how she sees herself as a result of this series? Or has she seen a photograph and wanted you to take it out? Or maybe seen one that she liked?

NK: I think it was hardest at the beginning. The early ones I took of her were definitely some of the most unflattering. But I think that had a lot to do with all of the makeup I was putting on her. I’ve become more subtle with the styling. But she can easily separate herself from them. She never looks at them and thinks that they are a representation of her.

TH: Right. So, she sees it as a character? Playing a part?

NK: Yes.

TH: So, does she see it as you? Does she see you in these portraits?

Self Portrait In The Hallway, 2012. (Image courtesy of the artist)

NK: I haven’t asked her that. But I think in some photos she does look like me. Maybe it’s because of the hair or the way I do the makeup. Though she doesn’t think we look alike at all, but I kind of think we do.

TH: When talking about being uncomfortable and putting ourselves in a flattering light, I can really appreciate your mom’s ability to play along and not be phased by it.

NK: I know, she’s amazing. It’s funny because even though she is a little insecure and shy, she does this for me.

TH: Yes. So people’s perceptions of your mom are completely skewed.

NK: Then when people actually see photos of her they see that she’s totally adorable and stylish. But then we start asking ourselves what is considered flattering. And when we start asking ourselves that, that’s when the problems of our culture start to be revealed. It is about perfection—that’s what’s considered flattering. And that’s so unattainable.

TH: You talked about the change in dynamics of the process when working with your mom versus strangers. Did you find yourself getting closer to the questions you are trying to ask with this work by working with your mom rather than these other people?

NK: With my mom there are a few things that are more poignant for me—there are many things. The project started with me photographing lots of people and now I’m solely photographing my mom. I think the repetition of the same person is really important. And that falls into traditions like [Alfred] Stieglitz photographing Georgia O’Keeffe or Nan Goldin photographing Cookie [Mueller]. What does that mean? Does it start to reveal more about the person? For me, I’m not trying to reveal more. I’m trying to confuse and deceive, and show gender and sexuality as something that is put on and malleable or fluid.

Also, her age is important. A lot of the tropes I’m showing are usually shown on younger models. So that automatically complicates things, which is important to me. And the fact that she’s my mom—I think knowing that automatically complicates things too. I don’t think all of the photos have an exaggerated sexuality to them, but I think there are some that do.

TH: Some of them show a certain amount of confidence, hyper-femininity and sexuality. But others show a vulnerability and uncertainty. For me, that mix is very important to the reading of the work. It feeds the tension between self-image and striving for something unattainable, but also being uncomfortable in your own skin. And an additional layer comes with being in front of a camera and being exposed in that way.

NK: It’s so great that you get that reading because it is something that I feel [when making the work]. Culture likes to frame female sexuality as women who are in control of it or women who are victimized by it. It’s really complicated. You can own your sexuality but it’s never just about being empowered or disempowered by it. You’re always feeling all of these things–it’s not just one or the other. It’s both. I think being a feminist now things are cloudy and it’s hard to navigate cultural images.

TH: At what point did you start to insert yourself into the series?

NK: Pretty recently.

TH: And what was the impetus for that after spending so much time photographing your mother?

NK: It was mainly because I’m here and she’s [in Colorado]. I wanted to continue making work while I’m here [in Chicago]. I really haven’t made too many self-portraits. But I think it also stemmed from wanting to confuse our identities. I think that’s one of the directions this series is going to end up going. Maybe the pictures of me could be read as a younger version of her.

TH: When we were at the gallery before, I remember seeing Self Portrait as a Blonde and not realizing it was you.

Self Portrait As A Blonde, 2012. (Image courtesy of the artist)

NK: I think my body looks super ambiguous in that picture. I don’t think you can really tell that it’s a female body.

TH: I also appreciate the bit of humor that you subtly insert in the photographs through the titles.

NK: I like that. I don’t think that the work is uptight. I think there definitely is some humor to it.

TH: Though, you’ve gotten some pretty strong reactions to it. People have taken the work so seriously but if they really took the time to look at it they would see the complexity of everything that is happening. So, overall, what has been the reaction you’ve seen?

NK: I think it has much more to do with them than with me. People can be really mean, and that used to make me feel terrible as if I was causing this or that I brought it out in them. I don’t know if it’s asking too much to cause that reaction but then have people think about their reaction afterwards.

TH: It seems like the work is sparking animosity in people and that can be a good thing. What your work is attempting to do is complicate and break down our accepted understanding of what beauty, sexuality and femininity are. And whenever you find yourself trying to shake those things up or break them down, people aren’t comfortable with that.

NK: Which is good. I don’t want people to be comfortable with it.

TH: You don’t want people to simply say, “Oh, look, pretty portraits…”

NK: “…these are great! These are just gorgeous!” [laughs]

TH: It’s easy to do that. And not to say that they aren’t beautiful and captivating photographs. They just give a new definition of beauty and they ask the people looking at them to approach beauty in a different way.

NK: I think beauty is so often trivialized and easy to look at. You often see these pictures of women where you don’t feel very much tension or complication. But once you start looking at a female body in a complicated way it starts to make people feel uncomfortable.

TH: For me it begs the question of whether the general public thinks of that space—the space of the photographic image– as a sacred space for idealistic, romanticized view of the world. When elevated to the walls of a gallery, or in a magazine or on television, someone has decided that this is important and that you should be looking at it. I wonder if the general public connects that space with beauty and sees this space as one that should be reserved for the ideal.

NK: I think so. But then there are things like the Dove campaigns that say, “Diversity! Look at all of these beautiful different bodies!” And I guess they look more “natural”. But it is a romanticized view…

TH: Yes, it’s still a polished version of diversity and the “average” woman.

NK: And then they’re still selling creams that tightens your thighs, you know? [laughs]

TH: I have so much admiration for your mother because I don’t know if I would be able to do it. The role that she plays in this series versus how she understands it when not in front of the camera is what one would hope to be able to achieve with self-image–an acceptance of oneself that would lead to a healthy or positive feeling of self-worth.

NK: But I feel like it is impossible to feel that way. Or to give up control of our self-image—which is what I think she’s doing.

TH: Her release of control is still through the safety net of you, her daughter. You have the best intentions and what you’re doing is, in the end, something that asks great questions and is shaking people up.

NK: It’s just so funny the language that people use. Like the comments on Huffington Post. Someone said something about these photos making her look skin damaged. [After reading that] I was thinking to myself, “Are you talking about wrinkles? Aging? How is that damage?”

TH: The work is revealing how what is put out there in popular culture and what it is trying to tell us about ourselves becomes woven into belief systems. And how people actually talk about and interpret the world. Recently, I was asked what kind of art impacts me or that I gravitate towards. And it’s usually the kind that does that—the kind that shakes people to the core in such a way that it is no longer about art. It’s about how we understand the world, ourselves and each other. How we talk to and relate to one another. It would be easy for you when investigating these questions to do a series of self-portraits. Like Self Portrait in Hallway, you could have done a series of those. But how would that read? You definitely wouldn’t have received the same reaction. You’ve tapped into that discomfort with age and issues surrounding beauty politics.

NK: I think it also has to do with being a young person and it being accepted that you play with your identity. But then, at a certain age, we’re supposed to find our identity and stick with it. [It is thought that] we aren’t supposed to change it that much as we get older. With the pictures of my mom, her identity is fluctuating so much. That starts to make people think she is unstable in her psychology. Or maybe women who are older and who do that are viewed as eccentric, but I think that’s interesting. When I’m an older woman I think that I will still be playing around with my identity because it’s fun. And there is this playful aspect to it and maybe that’s not explored as much by women who are older.
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Be sure to catch Natalie Krick’s exhibition, Natural Deceptions at The Coat Check (300 W. Superior Street), which runs from July 12 through September 27, 2013.   To see more of her work, visit nataliekrick.com.

This interview was edited for length and content. 

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