Myra Holt is a fine art photographer and educator currently based in Kansas City. Her work explores a range of concepts, but they all stem from the broader idea of connection to places, people, and nature. I spent a morning chatting with her to learn more about two of her bodies of work and what advice she has for newer photographers wanting to create photographic series.
'A Girl Walks Into The Woods...'
"A Girl Walks Into The Woods..." was one of Myra's very first series that she created back in 2010. She had been working commercially in Los Angeles but decided that she wanted to focus fully on her own photography, so she enrolled in a seven-week work-study program to immerse herself. Part of the program required that they have a cohesive body of work to show at the end of the seven weeks, which was a new process for Myra. It was somewhat happenstance that she stumbled on the subject of this first series when she found a tree limb that inspired her. The woods were always her escape and she would go out photographing on a daily basis while in this program (and in general), but when she saw that particular tree, it struck her that her connection to nature was something she wanted to explore. She saw herself reflected in nature and also saw nature reflected in her. So, she started searching for more pieces of nature that could be visual reflections of her and vice versa.
Since the work is about her connection to nature, the images are entirely self-portrait-based. She does, however, only show small pieces of her body and never shows her full self. This was partly because who in particular she was wasn't important to the series. Leaving her identity vague allowed the series to be more relatable to others. It also was a very deliberate visual decision since,
You don’t see the entire woods when you are in it; you just see fragments.
The images were shot digitally but converted to black and white in post-production for a few reasons. The black and white put everything on an even playing field, making the connection between her body and the natural elements stronger. In certain images, the values of her skin tone nearly blend in fully to the values of the surrounding scene, making them become more intertwined. Also, formal elements like line, shape, and texture become the dominating features, which wouldn't happen as much were the images in color.
I may be stuck on a theme here, as I just wrote about motion blur, but I love blur being used purposefully in images, which is something Myra did extremely well in this series. When asked about this, she explained that at the time, it was really only a visual decision. She wanted something to break up all the solid, heavier images in this series and used motion to do so. But, looking at the images since creating it, the movement has taken on new importance. She told me that while reflecting on the work, she sees:
The motion blur communicating the idea of being part of nature and letting everything move naturally around you.
'The Forgotten Home'
Myra's "The Forgotten Home" series was the culmination of her master's work. This body of work examined the family farms where her parents grew up: her dad in Wilton, New Hampshire, and her mom in Syracuse, Kansas. While the work took on a more formal process in graduate school, the series was something she started working on informally (and unintentionally) in 2010. Both farms were falling into disrepair and Myra kept traveling to both, documenting these places as a way of capturing family history and also to document the changes each was going through. At the time, she was unsure what the images were for or where they would go from there, but it clicked when she started graduate school and had to focus in on something. When she began her graduate program at Kansas State University, her mother's family farm in Western Kansas became a sort of escape for her. It allowed her to get away from the stress of graduate school and also feel close to family, despite being physically far away from her them as they were back in New Hampshire. The Syracuse farm took on much more importance to her during that time as a result.
The connection between photography and other mediums, such as drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, also became an important thing during this time. Myra explained to me that when she started graduate school, she
had this interest in seeing what photography could do beyond being a photograph on the wall.
Because of that, she started exploring the layering of images, image transfers onto various materials, and combining photographs with other mediums. It wasn't until someone made a comment in a critique about wanting to understand what was so interesting out there to her and wanting to see it for themselves that she thought of putting her images into physical windows that would stand in the gallery. The way that Myra was taking these images happened to lend itself well to that presentation. The house was locked up and while she did get access to go inside a few times, the interior was in very rough shape with many animals living (and dead) inside. So, most of her photographs were taken from the outside looking in through the broken windows. This allowed her to put her images of window views into a window frame and have a lifelike feel.
After deciding how she wanted to present things, the development process began. She knew that she didn't want a solid, straightforward photographic print so she started exploring ways to transfer images that would add to her installation. There was lots of problem-solving with the image transfer process, but in the end, she settled on gel medium, plexiglass, and photocopy prints of her images as well as lots of patience while gently removing the paper from the back of the plexiglass with a damp sponge. Myra also had to figure out how to build the window frames so that it would feel like you were actually looking through into a physical room. Space between the front frame and the image was the key (three inches, in this case), so the frames had to be built with slits both at the front and toward the back to slide in the two plexiglass layers. The window frames with cracked paint were taken from printed photographs of actual windows at the house, which she then carefully cut out and adhered to the front piece of plexiglass. This method created lots of depth and made them into sculptural elements, not just photographs. Setting the work within wall frames placed in front of windows furthered the feeling that you were looking into an actual room, since the light changed throughout the day, just as it would in person, and illuminated the room photograph within the frame.
Images printed on fabric also was a tool that she used to create a real environment in the gallery space. The air conditioning and movement of people walking by would cause the fabric to blow around, a reflection of the wind that the open spaces of both farms dealt with. Myra also incorporated written memories from her family, which went in a single line around the gallery at the same height as the horizon line of her fabric images, furthering the idea of vast, open spaces and the connection to family, memory, and place.
The installation space was a powerful thing and when asked how she felt about it when it was all finished she told me,
I had one viewer, a man who I did not know, come up to me while crying and thanked me for putting this together and letting him remember his own childhood home. That moment stood out because I knew my work connected with someone who I did not know and who was not just being polite.
Advice for New Photographers
One of the reasons I wanted to talk with Myra about a few different bodies of work was to give some insight to newer photographers, or even more experienced photographers who haven't worked on a project like this before, on what it is like to create a body of work or series. This is also a good time to highlight why you would even want to work on one project for an extended period of time. Creating a cohesive body of work takes time and dedication, but it is also an excellent chance to improve on your skills and challenge yourself! By returning to the same subject over and over again, you get a chance to analyze, self-critique, and improve on what you did before. It also gives you a chance to know your subject, whatever it may be, on a deeper level. Taking one-off photos is fine and well, and there will always be a place for those, but investing time into a single project and working to find new angles, new details, and new insight into that subject is a very valuable thing.
There are three main pieces of advice that Myra had to share when it comes to getting into more conceptual work, or just creating a series of work on one subject:
- Spend time writing. Jotting down ideas of things that interest you is a great place to start and can help you identify what you are going to be passionate enough about to spend potentially years photographing.
- Art that connects with others is generally going to be personal to you first. If you are going to make art you have to be okay getting a little personal and understanding who you are or what you are dealing with and fighting with and how you want to express that.
- There is a stigma against looking at other artists or getting inspiration from other artists that isn’t deserved. We are all influenced by something or someone and it’s okay to find other artists that you may connect with! It’s even okay to try to mimic what they do first and then try to find your own style with it.
You can see more of Myra's work on her website.
Images used with permission of Myra Holt.