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Shalon interview featuring author Robin Lippincott: part of the independent creatives series

A few months ago, I posted about the Shalon, a cross-collaborative professional creative group formed between myself, an author, an artist, and a filmmaker. Inspired by the concept of 18th century French salons, we decided to meet monthly to discuss our goals, be accountable to one another, and brainstorm ideas. The three menfolk of our group suggested the name based on the first three letters of my name. Being an independent creative professional can challenge the most stalwart of creative souls, and this group helps keep all of us focused and productive, both creatively and from the business standpoint. I hope that this, and future interviews with fellow independent creatives will inspire and support those of us making a living with our art. In that initial post, I mentioned that I'd be focusing on the Shalon-ers individually so you can learn a little more about them and their work. This week, I interviewed our resident writer, Robin Lippincott, the author of the novels "In the Meantime", "Our Arcadia", and "Mr. Dalloway", among many other published works.

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Robin Lippincott, photographed at Mt. Auburn Cemetery
Robin Lippincott, photographed at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

Sharona:

Hi Robin, and thanks so much for speaking to us about you and your work. Could you tell us a little bit about you and your work?

Robin: I am a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction. I have two books coming out: Blue Territory: A Mediation on the Life and Work of Joan Mitchell (November 2015), and Rufus + Syd, a young adult novel co-written with Julia Watts (Spring 2016). I am also the author of the novels In the Meantime, Our Arcadia, and Mr. Dalloway, and the short story collection, The 'I' Rejected. My fiction/nonfiction has appeared in over 30 journals, including "The Paris Review," "American Short Fiction," "Fence," "Memorious," "The Literary Review," "The New York Times Book Review," and others. I teach in the low-residency MFA Program at Spalding University, and am also an avid film/museum/gallery goer, as well as a frequent walker in the city.

Sharona: How did you first venture into writing?

Robin: I first got into writing as a result of grief, not death but loss, as has been true for so many writers—one long, hot, long ago summer in Central Florida, where I grew up. Van Gogh's letters to his brother, collected in Dear Theo, and Anne Frank's Diary, were seminal aspects of my aesthetic and moral education that summer.

Sharona: 

What are the greatest challenges in your work, and what helps you overcome them?

Robin: The greatest challenge in the work itself is simply getting it right, and in creating something that's beautiful and true. And then there are the challenges that occur at the intersection of art and commerce, at which there's most always a collision: sometimes it's only a bump or a scratch or a dent; at other times the vehicle is totaled. In both cases, you've just got to keep at it, teeth (sometimes) gritted.

Sharona: Whose work do you admire or influences you?

Robin: The list is long. I consider Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence as my literary parents, with Emily Dickinson as a great aunt, and from there it's largely the great minds and/or stylists (the writer's writers), as well as a few Southern writers, whom I most admire. Here's a shortlist:  Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, John Berger, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, Elizabeth Hardwick, James Salter, Grace Paley, James Schuyler, Toni Morrison, Renata Adler, Michael Ondaatje, W. G. Sebald, Anne Carson....

Sharona: 

How is the Shalon, or meeting in other creative professional groups, helpful to you?

Robin: The Shalon is invaluable to me for several reasons. First, I believe the artistic pursuit (and the life that goes with that) is best and perhaps only really understood by other artists; in my experience, non-artists just don't/can't fully get it. And so I receive meaningful emotional support, both generally and also specifically. And I also get ideas and inspiration, and stimulation, as well as direct, inside exposure to the work of artists working in other art forms.

Robin Lippincott, photographed at Mt. Auburn Cemetery
Robin Lippincott, photographed at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

Jane Attanucci, poet

Jane recently came to me because her first book of poetry was about to be published by Finishing Line Press, and she was looking for a book jacket photo that represented both her and her work.

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She explained that she was looking for a quiet, contemplative image that would accurately represent her keen mind and curiosity, as well as the warmth of her personality. I learned that we both enjoy photographs that showcase honest, "in between" moments, conveying thoughtfulness and a investigative process, so her images needed to capture that sensibility. In addition to writing poetry, Jane has been a professor of psychology and department chair for many years, and meeting her and getting to chat with her was such a treat for me - I always relish the opportunity to chat with those who worked in psychology, as I did for several years.

To suit Jane, I shot against a lighter neutral background, and bounced light to create a delicacy and softness to her imagery. She has incredible green eyes, and we chose an outfit in a mossy green both to highlight her features, as well as to pull in the earthy quality of her new book, "First Mud."

Her book is available now through Finishing Line Press.

The faceless portrait: author, illustrator, and sculptor Adam J. B. Lane

When I interview artists and authors before I photograph their portraits, the first question I ask is whether the person I'm photographing has any special requests, ideas, or preferences, far before I take out my camera. Children's book author/illustrator/sculptor (narrowing this fellow into a category is a challenging task) Adam J. B. Lane's request was a creative stretch for this portrait photographer: he asked if I could take his photograph without the viewer really knowing what he looked like, so that he could be passed by unrecognized by someone seeing his portrait the moment before.

Curious, I asked why. Adam said he was influenced both by the legendary radio producer Ira Glass and also the author Daniel Handler ("Lemony Snicket") who felt that viewing the physical appearance of a formerly faceless narrator robbed a story of some abstraction and potency.  Adam had always personally found the difference between the impression created by the work and the author in reality a bit of a disappointment, and preferred to be photographed in a way that left something to the imagination.

So I took the approach of letting the images reveal the author primarily through his activities and the wonderful textured environment of his home studio, rather than the entirety of his face. I lit enough of Adam to pull him away from his background, but not enough to define his features. His illustration work is dark and contrasty, and I mirrored some of that feeling through to the photographs.

Adam recently published Stop Thief, a story of a little boy who takes off after a stuffed animal snatcher. His illustrated books are aimed at children, but have a chiaroscuro palette often associated with darker themes. The Lemony Snicket influence shines though Adam's color choices.

The product of both a British and American upbringing, Adam was heavily influenced by comics throughout his childhood and maintains that his success communicating with children comes through a strong case of arrested development. As a child, he remembers not being able to conceive of adulthood and was terrified that life would end after his bar mitzvah, around the age of thirteen.

Later, Adam went on to write and illustrate for the Harvard Lampoon, and upon graduation, moved to Los Angeles to work on Disney feature films.

While at Disney, Adam started going to book stores to do research on what kids wanted in their favorite stories, and fell in love with picture books. He delved into creating stories because he wanted to do something for kids and parents to actively do together, and to be part of the magical relationship of a parent reading a story to a child.

Jennifer Haigh "News From Heaven" author photo shoot

Last June, Jennifer Haigh and I took a walk through one of Massachusetts' most beautiful parks together, World's End, in Hingham. We followed a wooded path through drumlins, low, rolling hills formed by glaciers, until we reached where the Atlantic Ocean reflected the sky. Jennifer walks these paths in order to think and compose, and I thought that it would be an appropriate place to photograph where she puts thoughts together to create her character-driven novels and short stories.

Originally, these images were going to be part of my Boston writers and artists series, but I was very pleased when Jennifer contacted me this past fall to ask if she could use one of the images from the shoot for her upcoming book of short stories set in and around the fictionalized coal-mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, Her new book, News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, will be published by HarperCollins Publishers on January 29, 2013.

Jennifer is as she is photographed; direct, thoughtful, intelligent. She has a wry and down-to-earth sense of humor that came through our chat, and often surprised me through the course of our conversation. I remember asking her what she wanted to grow up to be when she was a kid, expecting that her answer might have to do with writing or the arts, and she paused thoughtfully, and replied, "I remember, at age five, wanting to be a gas station attendant." She had no memory of why, and we both chuckled. Obviously, things developed in a scholarly direction for her as she got older, as she ended getting her MFA at the University of Iowa in writing, and as an adult, she said she couldn't imagine doing anything but write.

I loved working with Jennifer because she was confident both of herself and how she enjoyed best being photographed, and also because of her trust in me. The walk was wonderful, and I was delighted to work with Jennifer, photographing her on a beautiful day at the World's End. If you'd like to learn more about Jennifer's work, please visit her beautiful website at http://www.jenniferhaigh.com.

 

Boston's artists and authors, featuring Bradford Johnson

I'm embarking on a new project to create portraits of some of Boston's most talented artists and authors. Each artist is interviewed and then documented in the space that they work in, or a space inspired by their work. The goal of the project is to reveal through the photographs a real sense of the artist, to tell their stories visually and through narrative, and to gain an understanding of where their work comes from. The first artist I'm featuring is Somerville, MA-based artist Bradford Johnson. Brad's wonderful warm intelligence, wry wit, and good humor was a joy to be around, and spending time with him in his studio was delightful. His work is based on painting the people and places first captured by distant photographers (hmm, wonder why I like this guy?). One of his projects that I find most intriguing is entitled, "Tangible Dreams of a Dying Explorer", and it is based upon the real-life experiences of an Arctic explorer who perished more than one hundred years ago, but whose photographic film was discovered 30 years after the expedition's demise.

As Brad explains: "In 1897, on a barren Arctic island, photographer Nils Strindberg finally escapes the brutal cold when he slips into hypothermia. Shortly thereafter, he becomes the first member of S.A. Andree's Polar Expedition to perish. As Strindberg loses consciousness, he cannot know if his human remains or exposed film will ever be returned to civilization. His compatriots bury him in a rocky grave, and their demise soon follows his. Months earlier, in a daring attempt to explore the North Pole, Strindberg, Knut Fraenkel and Andree pilot a hydrogen balloon into the polar region under the flag of Sweden. Strindberg conscientiously documents key moments even when they crash far short of the pole and are forced to trek for months across the pack ice in an attempt to return home. The remnants of their final camp are discovered over 30 years after their deaths. Among the detritus returned to civilization are detailed diaries and 5 rolls of Strindberg's exposed film. 93 viable negatives are miraculously salvaged."

I photographed Brad in his studio, after chatting with him about how he was drawn to art, what he studied, how he defined himself as an artist, and how he combined his work with being a dad to two kids.

The moment he started to feel like an artist: Brad fell into art in high school - it was his sanctuary. Like many, high school was kind of a drag for him - he didn't really have any energy for the academics, but painting was something that drew him in. During his senior year when thinking about his future, Brad felt kind of lost, but his art teacher suggested that after graduation, he apply to RISD - the Rhode Island School of Design (one of the nation's top art schools) -  and he got in.

Three words that describe Brad's work: "Narrative, material, hand-rendered."

But it wasn't easy: Sometimes its easy to doubt your own abilities. While at RISD, Brad felt like an imposter, despite his abilities, surrounded by other talented artists who were Artists with a capital A. He transferred to a small, vigorously academic liberal arts school, where he enrolled in the drama department, and found like-minded souls. But eventually, the visual arts kept calling, and he switched back to studying fine art, continuing his studies with a MFA from Hunter College in New York, where he lived for five years before moving to Boston to be with his wife.

Finally: "I'm an artist, finally, because I'm unsatisfied with any given answer."

Artist as adult: Artists are often considered solitary creatures, huddled in a garret somewhere, but artists merge into adulthood like those of us in more traditional professions, with all the responsibilities that entails. Brad has two children and a wonderful, supportive wife, Jackie. I asked Brad how the balance works for him, and how difficult it is to pursue his vocation while wrangling pre-schoolers. His response - "it's a whole lot harder, but doable", thanks to great childcare, and a wife with a more traditional employment situation. He also credits a network of fellow creative friends who bounce ideas and provide support for each others' ventures.

Olmstead's Paine + novelist + kid + portraits = one glorious day in Waltham, MA

Yesterday was an insanely beautiful day in the Boston area - warm, sunny, mid-seventies with a hint of breeze blowing in the smell of Spring! To take advantage of this very odd, but lovely Boston spring weather, I grabbed my kid, home for Spring vacation,  and drove to Stonehurst, the Robert Treat Paine Estate, where I met up with fiction writer Jon Papernick in his hometown of Waltham, MA.

 

Stonehurst was designed by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson and visionary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and it was completed in 1886 on behalf of Robert Treat Paine and Lydia Lyman Paine.

It is full of cavernous rooms full of beautiful mahogany carvings, eight-foot tall portraits of great detail, and furniture that looks as though the moment you'd turn around would surreptitiously slither away.

Of course Jon felt right at home among rooms full of books, and began chatting away with the caretaker as I clicked away, occasionally pulling a face and making me chuckle behind the camera.

 

Call me crazy, but when I visit old estates, I'm invariably curious about the bathrooms that were used back then. When I used to work at the George Eastman House, Mr. Eastman's bathroom hadn't been fully renovated for visitors, but as staff, we got to peek in. Here, my curiosity was assuaged by viewing an exquisite bathroom with a metal-lined tub with a carved wooden exterior.

Wandering the grounds and exploring the house, camera in hand, was the perfect way to enjoy the day.