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Toronto, ON, M6J 1Y2

Monday to Friday

9AM - 5PM

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In Conversation: Amy Friend

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In mid-November Amy Friend and I sat down together to talk about her art practice and the evocative photo-based compositions that are found in her series Vestiges, Dare Alla Luce, and Multi-Verse. These three projects reveal themes that can be found across the entirety of Friend’s artistic career, which feature her ongoing explorations of human relationships, her deep respect for ancestral ties, her fascination with the act of making photographs, along with observations about how we process and experience memory, and the interconnectedness of all things. The resulting artworks ask us to consider how we look at and live with collections of photographs, as well as reminding us of how time is fleeting. Viewers will notice that bodies of water feature prominently in Friend’s practice; a motif that intentionally recurs again and again. 

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"It Could Be Anywhere", by Amy Friend
Craig D'Arville: Amy, thank you for giving our FFOTO audience a view into your artistic process. In your multidisciplinary practice, what is it about photography that draws you in - both as inspiration and subject matter?

Amy Friend: Thank you. I think part of what interests me specifically about photography is that I find it to be a problematic medium to work with. And that actually is an inspiration. It has so many aspects around how we associate with it; these connective ways of thinking about what a photograph is. I find that interesting in terms of how our experience with photography also defines it. So, one person may have a very limited relationship with imagery which will define their relationship with that imagery. It maybe becomes more precious — or maybe becomes irrelevant. That's a very basic way of explaining the complex language that photography holds. I love the problematics of the language in the way that it comes to us and the way that we shape it as artists; photographers.

Vestiges 2, from the series Vestiges, 2008, by Amy Friend
Craig D'Arville: Let’s go chronologically through the series you’re offering via FFOTO. The first time we talked I mentioned how affecting I found your Vestiges series to be. You told me that Vestiges is some of your earliest work, and I felt it was important to include that work on FFOTO, not just because it is aesthetically arresting, but also because I feel like that work provides the seed for all your future explorations that involve interconnectedness, family, nostalgia, memory — all of that stuff. How did Vestiges come about?

Amy Friend: The Vestiges series began when I was completing my Masters; I had thought I would be pursuing my Masters in a different location, but home called me back. I think that it’s important to note that I was in Windsor; I grew up there and I was always surrounded by a significant number of family members. Italian relatives kind of take hold and make a claim, so that was my experience in a wonderful way. My grandmother, my nonna, had passed away We had grown up together, a bunch of families on the same street, for many years. My nonna lived through the Great Depression and, like many, held on to tons of items. You know, not wanting to throw anything away that could be useful. So through cleaning out her house I found this little, tiny grocery bag filled with night gowns. They were threadbare in the areas where she had slept, so I could see her sleeping patterns; I could see the presence of her body in these garments. She was not a small, delicate woman, and you understood all these things from the nuances of the fabric. I decided that I wanted to work with them because they were speaking to so many things — this presence, this absence — you know, not knowing who that person was in those garments, but also that idea of this way of describing death, as, well, The Big Sleep. I kept thinking about these garments, as we spend a significant portion of our lifetime sleeping. And then we talk about this other big sleep, which I found a little bit funny, a little bit weird, a little sad. But in the end, the garments just held an interest to me.

Green Babushka, 2015, from the series Vestiges, by Amy Friend
Amy FriendI'm always thinking about photography. You know, we can become obsessed when we're interested in something. And the nightgowns became almost like film; they held an imprint. So that was really sitting in my mind quite a bit when I was thinking about them. And so I started working with them. I started by placing them on light boxes, and they just ended up looking like creepy horror movie posters. So I decided that I was working with too much control in how I wanted to represent them. And there is no control, in a way, when you're sleeping. You're giving yourself up to sleep. And so I built a very large light box, and I would climb this ladder — it was a huge light box — and I would throw the nightgowns onto it, and they would land in a way that allowed them their own kind of voice. It took away that imprint that I had seen where her body was present, but it also added to this idea that something was there… but is not there. In a way it was a joyful act of uncovering the items in this bag, and here I am setting them out like, "Yes, you're right. They were still useful, somehow.” It became a little bit of a conversation with her. I’ve taken a thing that's giving me a certain amount of information, but it's also accessing feelings, as well. Like the viewing and handling of photographs can affect the perception of subject matter. And this is one part of what I mean by the ‘problematics of photography’.

We Are the Spirit Rappers, from the series Dare Alla Luce, 2020-ongoing, by Amy Friend
Craig D'Arville: Vestiges becomes a starting point for the recurring observations you make about an interconnected universality, which leads us then into your ongoing series Dare Alla Luce — that next series uses only found photographs, right? Or are there also family pictures in the mix?

Amy Friend: Dare Alla Luce uses all found photographs. But there will be a family member coming up and I decided to include it as a kind-of dedication. My father passed away, but he when he passed, an aunt gave me these photo booth shots made when he was young. And I love that there was this image that my dad decided to have of himself. It was him being him, as this young version of someone I didn't know, from when I didn't yet exist. I’d done some previous photo booth pieces in Dare Alla Luce, thinking about that idea of the absence of the photographer; that we're just looking at ourselves through those photographs.

Afterglow, from the series Dare Alla Luce, 2020-ongoing, by Amy Friend
Craig D'Arville: The expression "Dare Alla Luce" itself, meaning "to bring to the light", is a reference to being born as well as a reference to making photographs. Or in this case, repurposing the subject matter with your interventions. It can be unsettling to a viewer to see work that uses found photographs, but the repurposing of these photographs reinforces the universality of the pieces. It got me to thinking that, as we age and inherit family photo albums, the farther back in time the photos go, they may as well be found photographs, right? There are people, places, contexts that can no longer be placed and there's nobody alive to ask for clarification. So in the found photographs that you're using, everything can seem autobiographical and universal. Am I on the right track with that line of thinking?

Amy Friend: It is. And I think initially the work started when my nonna (there she is again) brought me this photo album when I was a young adult and she said, "Here, this might interest you.” I mean, these are my family members and I had never seen this album in my entire life! I'm thinking, "Why wouldn't we have ever looked at these?" And so we proceeded to go through the book together. She would tell me stories and she would forget, of course, aspects of them, just like you had mentioned that, you know, there's no one to really remember. And, you know, I’d been so embedded in storytelling that is so personal... I didn't want to make work about my family. It was more about the idea of these images, these lost stories, that really fascinated me. So I started buying photos on eBay or at flea markets, I would pick some up. I would often purchase images based on what was written on the back. So some of the Dare Alla Luce titles are directly related to the provenance of what was written.

Ruth, October, 1936, from the series Dare Alla Luce, 2020-ongoing, by Amy Friend
Amy FriendI’ve thought a lot about why I choose certain images. Many of them reminded me of stories I'd heard, my life, people I knew, and I realized I was creating this kind of false album in a way — maybe false isn't the right word, but this album definitely has autobiographical content, but content about other people I know, or knew, or maybe want to know, or I'd be curious to know - just like when you’re people watching; seeing somebody I’d like to meet or talk to. There's a piece I did called “Ruth, October, 1936” (see above), and its source is a photograph with ‘Ruth, October, 1936’ written on it, and she's shooting a gun and she has this long leather coat on. I would loved to have sat down with Ruth and had a conversation. And this is what interests me about photography and how we look at it. I could be grossly disappointed by Ruth if we’d talked. Maybe there was really nothing all that exciting going on, but there's also an intrigue to not knowing. And I think that's what that album my nonna brought me opened up for me. Through the act of collecting, I really realized that my position, my privileged position as, you know, a white woman in this world, in this time, provided me the advantage of being able to go online and collect images that people were getting rid of for whatever reason, which suggest massive volumes of history that are just… missing. And so that kind of leads into some of the work in Multi-Verse — What's worthless? What's valuable? How are they labeled?

Every Night, from the series Dare Alla Luce, 2020-ongoing, by Amy Friend
Amy FriendHere’s another project for another day: I have thousands of screenshots of the way that the internet and sellers have labeled work to redefine sub-subcategories or subsets of images that exist. That’s really interesting to me.

Craig D'Arville: You mean you’re finding a certain lyricism in the uniformity of language that is used to talk about this stuff? Are you noting individual writing styles and how they can differ from website to website?

Amy Friend: Absolutely. Yeah, eBay is fascinating for that. I mean, it's really playing into an algorithm, but it's also an algorithm that's solidified itself because it's become a kind of mainstream way of describing things. I’ve learned a lot through the act of collecting; baptism photos, where people are being baptized in lakes, those are extremely expensive. They're highly collectible. Interestingly, the very first image I ever had for this series was a lake baptism photograph called, “What is done in the darkness has been brought to the light”. I was riffing on biblical scripture, but also the idea of the dark room, so I'm always kind of jabbing a little bit with word play. My work can sometimes reside in a quieter place but I like to poke around and ask a lot of questions through what one may assume as, "Oh, of course it's a religious connection", but no, it actually has to do with the dark room, and magic, and everything that might be the opposite of what religion steeps itself in.

Still Life with Flowers, 2020, from the series Multi-Verse, by Amy Friend
Craig D'Arville: The third series available through FFOTO is Multi-Verse, an ongoing project based mainly on your own photography.

Amy Friend: There's both; it's a mixture of found images and images that I make as well.

Craig D'Arville: At the beginning of the interview you touched on something that I’d been thinking about while looking at the Multi-Verse works, and considering the use of disruptive cuts and flashes of light; about how the act of looking at a photograph alters the potential reality — the “realness” — of the subject matter based on how it's processed by the viewer.

Amy Friend: A photograph is a passageway into a lot of possibilities. And I think that grips me all the time when I'm working with images; the idea that they’re always this weird portal, this opening page of a book. The titles in the series allude to that idea of a multiverse, a repetition of things happening over and over again. There's some of them less so than others, but they're really talking about that repetition of the way the world operates: love and joy and life and war and sorrow and love and life and joy and sorrow and war and and and … history cycles. And then of course there are some pieces that are very timely, or I was responding to what was happening in the immediate moment when I was making the work. “Behind the Curtain” (see below), was made when I was thinking about President Trump and his administration's removal of children from their families, the whole immigration crisis that was going on but also that double meaning of being ‘behind the curtain’, you know, what's really happening behind the scenes, and in our lives, all around us, that we don't know about. The multiverse really treads in-between the known and the unknown but also with a cautionary warning to pay attention. I'm reacting to the images I find and I'm just one voice in that reaction. I find that communication with the image, the intervention in this sense, was in a way a communication with each image. I’m asking the source photographs, “What are you saying to me that I don't yet understand?”

Behind the Curtain, 2018, from the series Multi-Verse, by Amy Friend
Craig D'Arville: You exhibit your work around the world, most recently in Paris. What kind of feedback do you receive from audiences and curators?

Amy Friend: It's been interesting to get feedback and I love the variations. I've had really wonderful conversations with curators who understand my process, and who have read a lot about the work. A response from viewers that I often get is in reaction to the beauty in the work. I have always been intrigued by that pull of a beautiful image. I think sometimes people are afraid of the word Beauty; that beautiful work isn't going to have substance. I obviously disagree. The questions I’m most often asked are, “How did you do this?” or “Why did you do this?” or “Did you really poke holes in the original image?” A lot of questions about intention and process. With the Dare Alla Luce pieces, people ask about the patterns of the lights. And sometimes the patterns do hold information. Like, if I know the date or the location where an image was shot, I will look up the star charts and, you might know they're in there, but that information is embedded in the way I've placed some of the holes. I love secrets in images. With some titles I’ve been asked, “How did you learn that information” and I’ll tell them, “Well, you know, it’s a lie” — and how the asker reacts is important because people are curious about the pictures, or the people in the photos remind them of someone, which is really, really lovely; that idea that an image has passed by their eyes and resurfaced a memory in the same way that that image passed by me and prompted a memory.

Offerings for the Magic of Light and Night, from the series Dare Alla Luce, 2020-ongoing, by Amy Friend
Craig D'Arville: One last question. What’s next for you?

Amy Friend: I’m working on a new series that I’m calling Tiny Tears. I started it during COVID, landlocked, missing the water. The water is really important in my work; you'll see it all the time in my work. I had been collecting bottles of seawater for reasons I don’t yet understand. And so in the midst of being landlocked I went through all of the photographs I could find of water that I had ever shot. I started realizing how many I had actually acquired over the years through different travel opportunities. I began making prints and remembered that I had vials of seawater and I experimented with soaking the prints in seawater. The salt ends up remaining on the surface of the image when the water evaporates. That got me to thinking about a different project I was struggling with related to migration and immigration — I’m not an immigrant but I am the carrier of immigrant stories. My husband is an immigrant, my grandparents were immigrants. And then with covid, we all sort of stepped into the abyss and had to learn how to be in this new world together. Can we say we were collectively experiencing that? We can’t; we’re experiencing it individually in different ways, but that idea of loss is something we all experienced, and that idea of the body’s connection to water — we're really just salt and water, just little oceans, on top of my obsession with tears through my Catholic upbringing and relationship to that iconography, really brought things together. I eventually ran out of seawater and started making my own seawater with salt I’d order from those places. But the project is just about wonder, really. And that's all I know.

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