Allison Morris‘ artist statement for her 500px exhibition—as part of the 2019 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, the largest photography festival in the world—states that her series explores the norms and expectations that construct and constrain the feminine body.
And at surface-level, that’s exactly what it is: “What Is Hidden By What We See” absolutely delves into the harmful stereotypes that have plagued women since time immemorial, in captivating style and with a stunning aesthetic, no less. But as is often the case with Allison, what you see at first glance is just the beginning.
We at 500px know the impact of Allison‘s work, perhaps better than anyone. After all, we created a complementary exhibition to Allison’s work, which consists entirely of impactful, conceptual photography that was shot by our community and inspired by Allison’s creations. We’ve seen Allison‘s ability to inspires countless seemingly-different people firsthand.
So it was thrilling to chat with the artist about the inspiration behind her work, how she creates works that are at once achingly beautiful and deeply unsettling, as well as how her role in CONTACT has shaped her personally and professionally.
Full disclosure: this is our way of saying “we knew her when.”
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself as a photographer—how did you get started?
A: I was always interested in art, and got my first camera when I was 16. I fell in love with the instantaneous results I could achieve with it, and have been drawn to photography as my chosen medium ever since.
Q: How would you describe where you are now compared to five years ago?
A: Five years ago, I was living in Florence, Italy for my third year of art school. That was a really important year for me. It was my first time living away from home, and I think it was the first time I really started to take my own work seriously and to develop as an artist. Now, I feel much more confident as an artist—I’m much more aware of my intent and my artistic process.
Q: For anyone who isn’t familiar with your work, can you tell us a bit about the story you’re telling with your photos?
A: I use self-portraiture to explore feminine identity and the body. Often through the use of traditionally-feminine objects, I try to challenge how we view and assume gender. More recently, my work is based on historical representations of the feminine body and trying to (literally) break free of the physical boundaries of gender and the body.
Q: Was there a specific moment or incident that sparked your idea for the series, initially?
A: The title of this body of work came from a quote by artist René Magritte, who said: “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”
This project began a few years ago, when I began researching veils after I had become fascinated by their symbolic significance in relation to both revealing and concealing the female body. I always found myself coming back to this quote, in particular because we have historically been eager to categorize women and make assumptions about their abilities, limitations, and overall status, without paying attention to what these people are beyond their social roles or identities.
The female body is constantly being pressured to be something that it’s not, and boundaries are always being drawn and redrawn as to which shapes, sizes, and categories we should squeeze our bodies, our sexuality, and our behaviour into.
Historically, female-identifying bodies that did not fit into these expectations of what a woman should be became the monstrous and fear-evoking subject of myths and lore.
Q: How do you go about creating your photos, from conception to post-production?
These photographs were my way of breaking down these walls and representing the body as something purposefully monstrous, out-of-bounds and at times, not even as a body at all. I aim to challenge my viewers’ perception of what is simply an object and what is a figure to be gazed upon.
Some of these pieces show multiple figures within one body—in those photos, I was particularly interested in capturing the ideas of women’s solidarity, or women as a group coming together, forming a cohesive whole.
A: I don’t have an exact formula, but for this project, I knew what ideas and issues I wanted to explore, so I started with a lot of research into feminist theory and literature. From there, I often try to map out the different ways of approaching the making of an image in a sketchbook, once I feel the “spark” of a new idea or concept coming on.
I also spend a lot of time looking through second-hand and vintage clothing shops. I’m always surprised at how often I’ll stumble across a piece of fabric or clothing that sparks an idea, or directly relates to a concept with which I’ve been toying. When I’m really stuck on something, I’ll just set up my gear, play around with materials I’ve collected, and see what it leads to!
I typically do my shooting alone—I’m always trying really awkward or hard-to-hold poses and strange ideas, so it’s nice to be away from any gaze during this process. It gives me the freedom to really experiment, away from self-consciousness and distraction.
That being said, with “What Is Hidden By What We See,” a lot of the images were really difficult to achieve on my own, so I needed a second person to help direct me when my face was covered, or when there were a lot of things to keep in balance.
As far as post-production goes, this process really depends on the image with which I’m working. I find it really helpful to look through all my images, step away for a day or two, and then come back to them with fresh eyes. This allows me to notice details I wouldn’t otherwise, and to identify what I can do to improve it. I’ll often reshoot one idea two or three times, sometimes more, to achieve what I’ve pictured in my head.
Q: What kind of gear do you use to shoot your photos?
A: I actually have very little gear. I’m a strong believer that it isn’t the camera or equipment you use that makes the photograph. I shoot with a Nikon D750, and believe it or not, only use a 50mm lens. Having a single prime lens to work with has been a really rewarding challenge, because it forces me to be creative in different environments.
Other than that, I typically use a wireless remote when taking self-portraits, and shoot with a single strobe and beauty dish combination. I also consider a mirror as part of my gear—having it behind the camera really helps me to grasp how a shot will turn out and how it can improve before I even click the shutter.
Q: You’re the main exhibitor for 500px’s CONTACT Photography Festival gallery show. How has this experience affected you and your work, so far?
A: This has been an amazing experience for me and my work, and has allowed me to continue to develop my practice. 500px has given me an amazing platform to share my work, and has allowed me to reach out and connect with a wide variety of creatives that I may not have otherwise met.
The 500px team have been extremely supportive of my work, and have allowed me to really make my own vision a reality. It’s also an amazing and empowering feeling to be in such great company with the other participants in the 2019 CONTACT Photography Festival.
Q: You have a great personal brand—did this come naturally to you, or did you spend time consciously develop it over the years?
A: To be honest, I’ve never considered myself to have a personal brand. I think in the past few years, I’ve come a long way in developing my photographic style by knowing what it is that I’m trying to convey with my work before I even pick up a camera.
Q: Any advice for younger photographers looking to build their own personal brand?
A: I would say it’s about finding what you really care about and want to convey to the world. Use that as the fuel behind your reason for making work and taking photos, and you’ll always be inspiring to yourself and to others.
Also, don’t get caught up in having the best gear or the most expensive equipment. What’s most important is developing your relationship with your camera and developing your voice.
My biggest tip (and something I follow myself, although not perfectly) is to do one thing a day! Even if you’re working with a 9-5 schedule, just set yourself at least one single task a day towards improving as an artist—whether it’s getting your work out there, learning new techniques, doing research, or expanding your creativity in some way.
It will surprise you how far you’ll go in a short period of time, and how rewarding it can be for your practice and confidence as a creator.
Q: Photography has traditionally been a very male-dominated space. That’s changing, but slowly. How have you and your work been received in the photography industry?
A: I find photography to be a really interesting space to be in as it overlaps both the art and technology industry. I worked in the tech side of the industry for many years, and it was a very male-dominated space. Often I wasn’t taken seriously, or was assumed to be less-educated on photography than my male counterparts.
I’ve also received some art critiques of my work, saying it’s “too pretty.” I found this to be really unsettling at the time, but I now realize that says a lot more about the critic than it does about me.
A lot of people equate beauty with a lack of substance or critical thought, which can happen when people just look at the surface level of my art.
But there is something much darker and critical going on beneath the colorful fabrics and curly blonde wigs, and I think that in itself is an interesting metaphor for the way we view women and their bodies.
Ultimately, these experiences have just made me more determined to continue to create work on my own terms and address these unfortunately-common experiences.
Q: What’s the story behind your choice to shoot self-portraits instead of models?
A: I promise it’s not narcissistic, but I’ve only ever driven to create self-portraiture. I find that being a part of everything that goes into the image gives me complete ownership. It also allows me the room to be completely free in the creation process and have control over all aspects of the work.
I’ve never been interested in shooting models because I’m quiet and awkward about directing people. Because of this, art and self-portraiture have always felt like the most natural way to express myself and my opinions. When people are getting to know me, they usually can’t believe that the work is by the same person—I find that fascinating.
Q: How do people typically react to your work? What do you hope people take away from your photos?
A: I find that people are typically drawn in at first by the “beauty” of my work. Whether it be the colors, textiles, or props that I’ve used—I often use wigs or false eyelashes, heels that are way too tall to be practical, or giant crystals. After taking more time to really look at the work, they’ll realize that something much darker is going on beneath the surface.
I also love that with this new body of work, people can’t figure out whether or not it’s me in the photos, a group of people, or just objects, and I try not to answer their questions.
It feels really powerful and exciting to be able to play with people’s perception in that way, and make them question themselves and their assumptions.
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