Jeannie O’Connor’s intricate artwork begins with architecturally precise photographs of industrial sites near her West Oakland studio. She outputs the photos onto clear film and paints the back of each image with acrylics. The film layer is then hinged to printmaking paper, to which she adds pastel and charcoal. This layering gives her work a three-dimensional, luminous sheen.
“The buildings I shoot are often covered with alternate layers of graffiti and paint. This turf war leads to some pretty terrific found paintings,” O’Connor says of her subject matter. “I go out on quiet days, like Sunday, and shoot with tilt-shift lenses. In late afternoon, the west-facing buildings have an added layer of warm light.”
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
Jeannie O’Connor: I’ve been in the art world since 1970. I did jobs along the way (portraits, events) but mostly exhibited and taught. I started doing architectural photography for hire in about 2007.
ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?
JOC: I like that this organization is an advocate for the rights of photographers, and that license forms and pricing guidelines are available.
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
JOC: The experience of other photographers.
ASMP: What has made you stay an ASMP member since 2007?
JOC: It’s a great source of information for photographers.
ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?
JOC: I met some wonderful photographers who were in ASMP, and used to ask them business questions. That got me interested in this organization.
ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful in your day-to-day business?
JOC: The pricing and licensing guidelines.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
JOC: Urban landscape, architecture, portraits.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
JOC: My brain.
ASMP: What is unique about your approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
JOC: I think my interest in the intersection of photography and painting.
ASMP: The processes you employ in much of your work (including your Bay Area Industrial image series) are very painterly. What is your educational background and how did that inspire your work?
JOC: I got a Master of Arts degree in art from UC Berkeley. I’m influenced by abstract expressionism, figurative drawing and composition and sculpture.
ASMP: How did you develop your process of printing photographs on clear film and painting the reverse side? How much time and experimentation did it take to refine this process?
JOC: I wanted to print photographic images on canvas and then paint and sew on them. I started by doing photo silkscreen, but found that process tedious. I worked on silkscreen for about a year. I had a lot of clear film positives around the studio, because they were required in the process of transferring an image to the silkscreen. I saw how layers below the clear film showed through and could be incorporated into the image, so I started working with the film directly.
ASMP: Please describe your current methods for printing your photographs on clear film.
JOC: I work both with digital images and, sometimes, scanned negatives. I do Lightroom adjustments and occasionally I add Photoshop painting or gradations. This is minimal at this point, but an area that interests me. Then I print directly from the computer to an Epson printer on completely transparent film. I have an Epson 4900 printer in my studio and a machine that allows me to print up to 60 inches wide at Berkeley City College.
ASMP: You enhance your photographic image with other media such as acrylic paint, pastel and charcoal and then collage it to a paper layer. Please talk about your working methods for this part of your image making. How much time do you spend on working the image? What type of paper do you use as a base and what adheres it to the film?
JOC: For many years I worked with black-and-white film positives, adding color below the film image (on the reverse side) with acrylic paint. I would hinge the film to a sheet of BFK printmaking paper, to which I would add chalk pastel, magazine rubbings, charcoal or pencil. The film positives were developed in the darkroom.
With the advent of digital photography, the clear film is now coated and can be run through an Epson printer. The film is completely clear, and can be printed in black-and-white or color. I don’t adhere the film layer to the paper, I just hinge it with tape. Then I open and close the layer like the pages of a book, adding paint to the reverse side of the film, and pastel or collage to the paper layer below. Both layers are then framed. If I’m doing a large image, 40 inches or more, I can work on it for over a month. Smaller prints can take a few hours to a few days.
ASMP: Once you’re finished with an image, you scan the original and print it on watercolor paper to produce another version of your final piece. What sizes do you print this version and how large is the edition you make? How does this compare to the original in terms of aesthetics, audience and marketability?
JOC: I scan select images, usually a small percentage of my output. I work with Laser Light in Aptos, California. They use a scanner that moves the art under the scanning device, which scans every square inch of the sandwiched image. What emerges is a high-resolution scan of the two-layered process. Some pigment prints are quite striking, and have a brighter color range than the painted film. What is lost is the experience of looking through the top layer to what comes through from the layer below, which is an experience of three-dimensionality.
I usually do small pigment print editions of the 40-inch work, three to five images, and editions of 10 to 15 of the smaller work. The large painted works are one of a kind. The pigment prints are marketed at a lower price, making them more affordable.
ASMP: After you frame them, your layered images have a three-dimensional quality. What type of framing do you use? Is this integral to the finished piece?
JOC: The images actually have a three-dimensional quality before they are framed. The trick is to frame them without losing that quality. I think a lot about framing. I buy salvaged doors, windows and mirrors to frame large-scale painted images, because the three-dimensionality of the process lends itself to having a frame that projects in front of the picture plane. I have a framer who does most of the other frames.
Each series calls for a different frame. The industrial work needs simple, modern edges, but the Italian work looks great in more painterly profiles like Roma. I used to design my own frames, buying salvaged painted wood that was inlaid into a one-inch wide channel in the clear, wooden frame. Last year I had an artist residency in India. I drew some shapes like the niches I saw in the palaces and mosques, and brought these to a Muslim framer in a nearby village. They cut out the shapes, and I brought them home and sanded and painted them and used them with 6-by-9-inch images. I did a series of miniatures.
ASMP: How long have you been working on your Bay Area Industrial image series? How has this series affected your career to date?
JOC: I moved to my present studio about six years ago, and it is located in an industrial neighborhood in West Oakland. I’ve been doing this series for the past few years. During this time I began working with tilt-shift (TS) lenses and doing architectural photography for clients. The industrial buildings in the neighborhood are often covered with alternate layers of graffiti and paint. This turf war leads to some pretty terrific found paintings. The west-facing buildings have an added layer of warm light in the late afternoons. I go out on quiet days like Sundays or late afternoons to shoot, using the TS lenses.
The industrial series have been well received at the galleries. I won an award at the Emeryville Celebration of the Arts for the “Red Car on Poplar Street.” The architects I shoot for like the industrial images.
ASMP: In another body of your fine art work, you incorporate your painted images on film into salvaged doors, windows and mirrors to recapture architectural framing. How long have you been making these pieces? How does the reception to this work compare with your other fine art series?
JOC: I began in the 1990s after coming back from a series of trips to Italy. The architecture was so stunning there that I wanted to find a way to incorporate it into my imagery. I cut a painted film image that wasn’t working in half and pinned it to my studio doors, and noticed how the image and details of the door panels resonated. Months went by, and I finally took the doors off the hinges and used them in a piece. That piece generated a whole series, which was exhibited, led to a commission from the Bank of America, and the pieces found their way into many collections.
ASMP: According to your bio, your work has been associated with the Michael Shapiro Gallery, the K Kimpton Gallery, the Susan Spiritus Gallery and the SFMOMA Artists Gallery. Please talk about your relationships with these different galleries.
JOC: Both Michael Shapiro and Kimpton Galleries are closed now, but at the time they tolerated each other because Michael’s gallery was strictly photography and Kimpton was painting, sculpture, and prints. SFMOMA has always been fine art, and in recent years carries photography as well. I also work with Kala gallery. They are known for printmaking, but carry other work as well. Susan Spiritus did several shows of the painted film work. They are each in different geographical areas, so there has been no conflict.
ASMP: You’ve taught art and photography at several institutions. Are you currently teaching?
JOC: I loved teaching, and taught for years at CCAC and Berkeley City College, with a one-year appointment at the San Francisco Institute and University of California, Berkeley. I taught painting, drawing, 2-D design and photography. I didn’t have a tenured position; there were none at Berkeley City College when I taught there. I was putting my photographic skills to the test, so I started doing more commissioned work.
ASMP: Do you find that teaching enhances or inspires your own work? What’s the most memorable thing you’ve learned from a student?
JOC: I think teaching is great for the teacher. You can test out ideas and assignments. The students always surprise you. Instead of having one memorable student, I had different populations: I taught in the art schools and had young students, then taught through the California Arts Council where I was an artist in residence in a Senior Center, a high school, and an elementary school. I was an artist in residence in those situations, and found the different groups to be fascinating. I have many portraits from those situations that I’m revisiting.
ASMP: When you were a young photographer in San Francisco, you photographed Imogen Cunningham and she was very encouraging to you. What was the most important thing she taught you about being a photographer? Please talk about being a fly on the wall during her conversations with Lisette Model in 1973.
JOC: Imogen was such fun. She said being a portrait photographer was a dog’s life because people, especially women, don’t like the way that they look. Imogen was wry and had a way of telling us that life was tough for a woman photographer in her day. The opportunities were rare, and family obligations made it hard. I met Imogen through the filmmaker Donna Deitch. We were in our 20’s, and Imogen took an interest in us. I remember that Imogen and Lisette laughed a lot. It was just a year or two after Diane Arbus’s death, and Lisette had been her teacher. She told us that the work Diane did kept her alive longer than she would have lived without that focus. It was assumed that the work was so edgy that it led to her death, but Lisette said it was the other way around.
ASMP: Your work has been extensively exhibited in solo and group shows and you have work included in many corporate collections and museums. What advice or strategies do you have for others about how to cultivate opportunities related to exhibiting and collections?
JOC: Do your work and get to know other artists. So much happens through your contacts. Follow a couple of listings for calls for entry to competitions and grants. Make appointments and show your work to photography curators. Have a Web presence and send out an image when you’re exhibiting.
The truth is I am not very organized and tend to work intensely, and then take some time to research competitions, galleries and so on. It is hard to do both at the same time. Keeping a calendar for deadlines is a good idea.
As for collections, it is good to take the initiative and contact some organizations directly. Portfolio reviews are a great way to see lots of people in a concentrated way. It’s also a great way to check your ego, because you’ll find some enthusiastic fans and get some lukewarm responses. Biggest reminder to self: don’t take it personally. Try to become at ease about rejections.
ASMP: You’ve received several awards for your work. How much of your time is dedicated to pursuing awards, fellowships and exhibitions? What kinds of criteria do you use in identifying which grants, competitions or calls to submit your projects?
JOC: You can’t win if you don’t apply. Read listings (Art Deadlines List, Art Opportunities Monthly) and talk to friends. The Internet makes it easy to research opportunities. A lot of my friends have a studio assistant to help them do these things. There is a great site for artist residencies that lists all kinds of international residencies.
ASMP: Do you use any particular method to track your entries or analyze how your work holds up against awarded projects?
JOC: I don’t really track in an organized way, but it is a good idea to look at the winners. Sometimes you think they deserved it, other times you scratch your head. But be realistic about your own strengths and weaknesses, and try to work within your own parameters.
ASMP: What one opportunity or award you’ve received to date has had the most affect on your career? Are there particular awards you’ve not yet received that top your list of future goals?
JOC: The Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) award is given at SFMOMA and includes an exhibit at the museum. This award led to some gallery affiliations. But, in general, it has not been any one exhibition or award that turned things around as much as persistent, hard work.
ASMP: In 2012, you had a month-long artist residency in India. How did that opportunity come about and what did you accomplish in India?
JOC: Some artists I know had gone and suggested I apply. The residency is in Delhi, India. I went with my husband, who is a painter, and met another painter from Boston. Together we travelled south to Bundi, which had a palace full of wall paintings that were quite beautiful. This led to some photographic constructions, which I did when I got home and exhibited last year. I also travelled to Dharmasala and photographed the Dolma Ling Nunnery. A writer friend had preceded me and had interviewed the founders of the Tibetan Nun’s Project. We submitted the work to Tricycle Magazine and they published the article with my photographs.
ASMP: You’ve also been awarded several public art commissions. Please talk about the process of submitting to and landing these opportunities.
JOC: There are calls for Public Art to which I applied. The best one was through the Alameda Arts Commission, which hired three photographers to do a photographic survey of Alameda County. I did portraits and some location shots on immigration. Fremont, California has a large Afghani and Indian population. The photographs are installed in Highland Hospital in Oakland.
ASMP: In addition to your fine art work, you have a thriving architectural photography career. How and when did that come about?
JOC: It was an offshoot of my fine art work, because I was already photographing architecture. Some woodworkers who worked next door to my studio asked me to take some shots of the job that they had done at a very large house in Piedmont. The contractor met us and asked us to do the house. Then the architect bought the images and hired us for other projects, and it went from there.
ASMP: What type of equipment do you shoot with for architectural work? Does this differ from the gear you use for your fine art work?
JOC: I use Canon TS lenses (45v and 24) and some regular lenses: a 24-105, 70-200 and 17-40. I also have a view camera but haven’t used it on the job.
ASMP: Your architectural Web site mentions that you work with an assistant. Please talk about this relationship.
JOC: I have a regular assistant for architecture who started on the first job. He is both a photographer and a Web designer and is terrific. For portrait or event shoots, I occasionally work with other assistants. For fine art, I am about to work with an assistant to organize my archive. There is a program for fine artists called GettingYourSh*tTogether, which is terrific.
ASMP: Do you work with a rep, advisor and any other consultants for either your fine art work or your architectural photography assignment work?
JOC: I work with gallery dealers and art consultants. Some I approached, and some called me. I haven’t worked with a photo rep, although I would be interested in seeing how that works. I have published some, so I have worked with editors too.
ASMP: Do you have a marketing strategy in terms of building exposure for your architectural and fine art work?
JOC: I like how easy it is to send out images when announcing exhibits or events. I design my own announcements. I use LinkedIn and a bit of Facebook, but I still think that person-to-person contacts and recommendations have been the source of most opportunities.
ASMP: Please talk about how you balance your time in terms of your commercial work, fine art projects, exhibitions, commissions, teaching, etc.
JOC: Most of my time is spent on fine art. I had a lot of jobs this summer, which required attention away from my fine art and I really missed my studio time. It’s always a balancing act. I do like the challenge of assignments, because some of that problem solving spills over into fine art. It works in reverse too: Issues I am thinking about in my own work can apply to assignments. In the art world, students are asked to consider these categories: You have to make a living, do your studio work, work on your career and have a personal life. I was telling this to one of my assistants this summer, and she said, “Yeah, and go to the gym.” Which is true, too.
ASMP: Which photographers, artists, writers or works of art inspire you the most?
JOC: I like some of the photographers who think about photography in new ways, such as Idris Kahn, Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, David Hockney, Vic Muniz. I also love the feelers: Diane Arbus, Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, Tina Modotti, Henri Cartier Bresson, Lee Miller. I like Kathy Grannon, LIFE magazine photographers. Daguerreotypes. Walker Evans. I love literature (William Trevor, Pat Barker, Penelope Lively, Alice Munroe), and film, and have been influenced by so many painters.
There are so many images etched in my mind: Imogen Cunningham’s “Unmade Bed,” Eugene Smith’s black tones, and the Japanese mother bathing her deformed son, daguerreotypes of slaves, portraits of Abraham Lincoln, etc. I think the inspiration for the industrial images came from painting — abstract painting, Edward Hopper, and from Walker Evans and Paul Strand.
ASMP: What’s in your future in terms of exhibitions, public art commissions and other opportunities for the next year?
JOC: I have upcoming exhibitions in local galleries and want to do more residencies abroad. I also want to pursue publishing.
ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?
JOC: Keep your day job.
ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?
JOC: To get my first camera.
ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in five years time? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for the years ahead?
JOC: Publishing a book and placing work in more museum and library collections.
ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?
JOC: Look at the history of photography, art and film, and read literature. The avalanche of images falling on the heads of young photographers is really overwhelming. Know the sources as well as you can — there are so many knock-offs. On the other hand, the Internet makes it so easy to research photographers and artists: Look at lots of different work. Then, go to museums and galleries, plays and films, readings, because the in-person experience is best. Fine art sites like Squarecylinder, Art Info, Painter’s Table and Blouin.