Written by Daniel Maidman
In her first New York City solo show, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” photographer Savannah Spirit finds inspiration turning the lens on herself.
Artist Savannah Spirit was born in LA in the mid 70’s and has been happily shooting photographs since she was 7 years old. Spirit’s work addresses body positivity, the female/male gaze, and women’s rights. As an activist, Savannah has dedicated her time to photographing important civil rights issues including Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, People’s Climate March, Anti-Trump protests, and the Women’s March. As a curator Spirit produced and mounted NYC’s infamous erotic art show, Hotter Than July, and has lectured at various Apple locations around NYC.
Daniel Maidman: In the past, your photography has often focused on the figure, especially pictures of women. The photographs in “Nevertheless, She Persisted” are exclusively self-portraits. This new body of work seems to me to represent an evolution from your past work in some senses, and a break from it in others. In what ways do you see it as continuing from where you were before, and in what ways does it represent something new? And how did you get from there to here?
Savannah Spirit: From the moment I took photography seriously, the need for a muse became crucial to my photographic practice. It didn’t occur to me to insert myself in those pictures. In looking back, it was training my eye for what I would need to bring to the table artistically when I started the self-portrait work. It all seemed to come to an apex in 2014. The timing was right to explore the things in myself I was eventually reflecting back when photographing these other women. Coming out of a 12-year marriage and redefining myself was the starting point, yet I was still curious about femininity and the female form, so it was natural to continue in this direction. Plus, it was about time I started to feel comfortable in my skin and accept it. Shooting it was easy, but sharing it was the hard part. Showing this project as a serious body of work while posting it on social media gave me heart palpitations because I started showing myself in ways I never had before, scary as hell. I wasn’t sure where it was going, I was really just having fun playing different characters, experimenting, and getting outside of myself. I believe when the work started getting censored, and my social media accounts were also shut down periodically is when the work changed. I was frustrated and angry this was happening, I wanted to somehow address the censorship and poke fun at the same time, so it got more focused for me.
DM: I’d like to get back to the censorship part in a bit, but I’m interested in a series of thoughts you’re expressing here which seem linked to me. You talk about the muse, and then you discuss your own work as a muse in terms of feeling comfortable in your skin, but later in terms of getting outside of yourself. As you know, I have a fair amount of participation in the muse concept of inspiration. I’d love to hear more from you about your idea of the muse and how that idea relates on the one hand to being *in* yourself more completely, and on the other hand to being unusually *out* of yourself. I don’t think there’s a contradiction here, but I’m interested in how you reconcile these facets of the phenomenon.
SS: A muse’s work begins when the artist is inspired. Or perhaps the muse shows up when the artist is truly ready. I believe the job of a muse is to take the artist to places he or she has never thought of. It’s one thing to inspire, but the muse should understand what the artist is aspiring to. It becomes a collaborative way to work. A muse can help the artist figure out the next level or make a breakthrough. It relates because I’m attempting to fulfill both with the self-portraits. As the artist, I’m thinking about what I want to say and how I want to say it. I’m processing the ideas and have my critical thinker hat on. When I’m ready to shoot I let go and let things happen so I’m connected and feeling “in” as you described but at the same time allowing for other ideas or trying new things, so I do get outside of myself.
DM: Your answer reminds me of Stanislavsky’s discussion of learning acting: that because one’s own body is the instrument, one learns a highly critical self-gaze in training, a kind of self-doubling, so that one can both be and watch. But when the training is complete, the watching self is switched off, and the being self loses conscious self-awareness and goes back into full occupation of the self in a very natural way. So it is this trained, heightened naturalness which is the place where talent in acting meets skill, and inspired work is done. I never thought of this answer to the question of acting as one’s own muse before, but it strikes me that, in some profound way, it holds true for all artists. One does not necessarily form one’s own subject matter, but the total commitment of the skill-refined self to the work is the requirement to get in the door of mature art making. I’m just babbling a bit here, but does this make sense to you?
Also, to get into the specifics of the show, there are two distinct bodies of work here. One is the black and white nudes lit by sunlight passing through blinds. The striped lighting heightens form in the same way that a cross-contour line drawing heightens form. One could say that these works are more abstract and appeal to the viewer at the level of delight-in-form, which is fairly intellectual. And, on the other hand, there are the pinups, which have a lot of delicious colors and are much more straightforwardly sexy. Can you talk a bit about the difference in your goals with these two bodies of work, and the differences which were involved in their processes of creation?
SS: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. An “all in” commitment to the art making process. I see how actors have to know their lines inside and out so their discipline is learning the lines, but once they know it by heart they can let go of the intellectual part of the role they’re playing and have fun with the character and just be. I think it’s important when making art to know when to step out of it and let it flow but also with an objective eye. I feel I’m still learning this. In order to make work, one must be disciplined. I found the self-portrait work made me understand the “studio practice” and the discipline artists must have every day. I’ve never worked this way before until I started turning the camera around. Then it took a while to find my own voice, my groove. Which leads to the two bodies of work in the show. The pinups came first. I never really thought about being in front of the camera. That idea terrified me. Then a few years ago something just took over, and I needed to do something for myself that was bold and different. I wanted to feel good about myself after feeling unsexy and divorced. Just took me a few years to get brave enough to do it with myself as subject, in the nude while being erotic. Honestly, making it became fun, so it didn’t feel like work. It was challenging in other ways, and there were times when something wasn’t working, I would become frustrated and walk away. I ended up finishing but maybe with a whole different vision than originally planned. I guess you could say the artist was present, then the muse took over, but then the artist showed up again to finish.
Both bodies of work are inspired by nostalgia, probably because I just tend to operate in that realm so it can’t be helped. But the pin-ups are a nod and a wink to vintage Playboy and Hustler. That kind of dreamy, sun-drenched vibe. One of the most beloved photographers of that 70’s dreamy, vaseline-on-the-lens look was a woman named Suze Randall. She took these gorgeous self-portraits in Playboy 1976, and that became a starting point for me. I looked at her work for reference. Also, Madonna’s SEX book was a huge influence but without the million dollar budget. As I worked through the pin-ups I found myself getting a little bored with props, wigs, and lingerie. I wanted to be less obvious, more mysterious and subdued. It actually happened organically. The work started to shift when censorship became a real big issue. I started to feel angry about covering it up, so I looked for ways to make my body into something abstract. How could I cover up my “unsafe for Internet” parts without having to blur or erase them? This idea ushers in the black and white shadow series. Growing up in the 70’s/80’s I was hyper aware of the “bright sunlight through Venetian blinds” aesthetic. The Cars’ Drive video, Richard Gere on the cover of the American Gigolo poster, and so on. This vibe stuck with me, and I found that patch of sunlight in a guest house I was staying at. I started shooting right then.
DM: This is a rich web of references to pop culture from our formative years. I was only vaguely aware of it at the time – it sounds like it was in much sharper focus for you and had a deep visceral impact. Can you tell me a bit more about the key culture producers or visual influences from that period who inform your outlook, and what they mean to you both emotionally and visually?
SS: I feel like I could talk about pop culture all day, truthfully this is where I can completely nerd out. Funny how little details of things stick out in one’s memory but then it creeps back later. Perfect example, the light through the Venetian blinds look that I remembered seeing so many times in the 70’s and 80’s. I didn’t realize how much I sponged in growing up. I’m sure I annoyed my friends because they’d look at me like I was nuts when I would start reciting lines from movies or reference an actress I saw on an episode of Three’s Company or something silly. Looking back, I was collecting images and gathering information. First, it started with Saturday morning cartoons, commercials, sitcoms, and then going to the movies with my big brother. When MTV came out, that was a game changer. Music was already on constantly in my house but then paired with fun, sometimes weird videos. It was another world to escape into. Probably the biggest influence, for me, then, was Madonna. What she brought was confidence, sexiness, and fun, while playing with different looks and surprising us – I was captivated. It was never intellectual or deep, but I wasn’t there yet anyway. It all clicked when she did the SEX book a few years later. Becoming engulfed in her fantasies, showing herself vulnerable, and really pushing the envelope made an impact on me. The timing was perfect. I was 17 and discovering Anaïs Nin and her writing as well. Imagine the combination of those two for a 17-year-old girl. It was intense. I was getting quite an education about sex and sexuality. I was ready to start playing with my own but still timid. That was around the time I started working with a muse. I wanted to project what I was feeling in pictures. I wanted to document it, somehow. Being influenced by Anais Nin’s writing I watched the film Henry and June over and over. It was the first time I photographed two female models, acting as lovers, 1930’s style. The idea of a muse began there. The other thing which was a turning point was when I worked in a video store in Santa Fe in my early 20’s. I would take home stacks and stacks of films to watch through the night. One in particular which has stuck with me throughout these years is The Conformist (1970) by Bertolucci, cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. Every scene a cinematic masterpiece, perfectly lit and filled with symbolism. It’s gorgeous to look at. One scene, in particular, an actress starts dancing in a room which has the shadows of blinds running across, her dress emulates the same pattern, it’s a gorgeous scene and probably the most influential to this series. I get goosebumps talking about it.
DM: I remember the scene you’re talking about! Part of my background is in film, and The Conformist still constitutes a virtual grammar book for young filmmakers. We all had it visually memorized. Thanks for these amazing answers about this project and your history with images. Let’s get back to the topic of censorship. I feel like I should explain where I’m coming from on this because it’s something I’ve had to consider a lot as well. First of all, a few years ago, I wouldn’t have called what Facebook and its subsidiary, Instagram, do with nudes, censorship. Because strictly speaking, you need the threat of force in order to censor, and that means only governments can act as censors. To me, that line has become a little blurred, because Facebook has to some extent deformed the background field of communication itself so that to be off of Facebook (or Instagram or Twitter) is to be substantially silenced. So it becomes more legitimate to frame the question in terms of censorship. Second thing. As you know, I also do a lot of nudes, although I draw and paint. I’m in that narrow sector of drawing and painting that gets booted off social media regularly because what I do is so realistic that it confuses the no-nudity watchdogs inside the companies. So it pisses me off, and I don’t envy the photographers I know who shoot nudes. At the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for Facebook/Instagram on this topic. Why? Because for all the photographers saying, truthfully, “What I shoot isn’t porn,” there are a lot of pornographers saying the same thing, some of them lying but also some convinced they are telling the truth. And the difference is nearly impossible to define. So the question becomes, why we would want to censor anything on social media. And the answer, for me, is Tumblr. Tumblr lets users post porn, and as a result, it’s a cesspool of porn. The porn drove out most of the innocence of artistic nudes. You wouldn’t want kids running around on Tumblr, and most serious artists I know don’t use it either. So it’s a really tricky problem for a company that wants to keep families on, that wants to embrace as much artistic freedom as it can, and that wants to do at least some policing of what gets posted. To me, you and I, but you more than I, kind of fall into an unlucky narrow wedge of the artistic universe in this regard. So that’s my thinking on this. I know it’s an important topic for you, and I’ve been dying to hear your thoughts on this for a long time.
SS: Censorship, especially in art, is nothing new. Anything which speaks the truth or calls out hypocrisy or lies is always silenced because the agenda is to keep the status quo. Nudity, whether it’s a photograph or a drawing, is only sexualized if the oppressor says so. Most people don’t believe the human body is dirty. Most people understand the difference between porn and art. The lines seem to blur when even a drawing can get flagged and taken down. No one knows what the rules are, and the fine print remains vague. Why? Why has this not been addressed? This is the frustrating part. The real story about censorship on social media really stems from Apple. They are, in a sense, more powerful than the government because they have more money. But that’s not the issue. I find that in order to be available on iTunes these platforms have to comply with rules set up by Apple as “community friendly.” Now that Facebook owns Instagram, it’s the same thing. Ello is the only social media site I know of that doesn’t censor but I haven’t been on since it first launched. Tumblr was also great, but like you said porn infiltrated the feed, drowning out artists’ voices. For years I had a profile on there, mostly using it for reference material, and then all of a sudden my feed was filled with pornography. Which was so odd because I thought Yahoo bought it and was “cleaning it up,” making it less artistic and more cookie cutter, but it wasn’t. It seemed to get worse. I ended up shutting my account down. In regards to my work, I’m not sure I would call where I fall on the edge of social media’s standards, unlucky. I feel it’s unfortunate that people will miss out on so many great posts from artists working in the same vein because for them, keeping it hidden is far too important than having an open dialogue about it. I understand the need to protect kids and keep them innocent as long as possible, but let’s face it, sex, nudity, and porn will always be hidden because half the fun is discovering it in the first place. On the other hand, our responsibility as artists is to report what we see in the world and comment about it. If it’s about our current state of affairs, I’m going to say something. If it’s about censorship, I’m going to make noise. Not everyone will agree with me, and that’s fine. I just happen to feel that corporations are wrong, and artists are right on this one, but that’s because I’m stubborn. Quite frankly, the issue of censorship will always be a hot topic and won’t be solved anytime soon.
DM: I think you’re right. It feels like this leads into the overall social or political set of ideas that informs your work. You’ve identified your art with fourth wave feminism. Apart from the rough timeline, there’s a good deal of disagreement about the defining ideas and attitudes of fourth wave feminism. Can you describe what it means to you and how your work contributes to it?
SS: Perhaps the Internet has opened the floodgates for conflicting ideas. Too many opinions floating around, so the meanings get muddied perpetuating confusion about the original ideas behind the movement. Yet, at the same time, the Internet and social media have become a tool for its message, like hashtagging. After all, I did get the title of my show from a sound byte spoken by Mitch McConnell to Elizabeth Warren to shut her up, it became an immediate hashtag. I also feel the 4th wave solidifies the LGBTQ community as a voice and also supports the inclusion of men in the conversation. Look at all the men who walked alongside us at the Women’s March. I feel like the idea isn’t just about female empowerment. It’s about the empowerment of people, men supporting women, women supporting women, and women supporting men. The Women’s March was HUGE, the biggest march for women’s rights in history. With social media as a way to gather people and uprise you saw many more bodies as well. It’s odd to say, but I see “body” or “bodies” describe 4th wave feminism from an artist’s perspective. For friends and colleagues who are a part of the 4th wave, they are using themselves and their own body to make powerful statements about politics, religion, race, gender and sex and body-positivity. This is where my work takes an active role in the movement by turning the camera around with the intention of saying, “Be you, be strong, stand up, feel whatever you want to feel. It’s not wrong. It’s so right.” I say these things because it’s what I’m telling myself so I can feel better. This is where my voice hangs out so I can survive the bullshit. It’s my own form of therapy which brings back the idea of I am my own muse.
With all this said, the only problem I have is that I’m afraid hardcore feminism has made it ok for men to be blatant misogynists because it has also emasculated them. There’s been a backlash as well. Now it’s coming up in ways like conservative men wanting to make decisions for our bodies or electing a president who has absolutely no respect for women. It’s definitely a dilemma. Hopefully by including men it balances things out. For as much as women want power we should want men to have their power too.
Savannah Spirit online: https://savannahspirit.photography/
Savannah Spirit’s first New York City solo show, Nevertheless, She Persisted, is at Mulherin New York through August 13th: http://katharinemulherin.com/upcoming-30/
The pinup section of the show will remain on display at the rear of the gallery until August 31.