Woman Crush Wednesday: Eryn Shaffer
Interview by Mariajosé Fernández-Plenge
Light Blue and the Same Red tells the story of Adeline and Madeleine, two girls in their twenties who share an apartment in West Harlem, New York City. Eryn Shaffer records their daily lives full of art, romance, friendship, and the constant exploration of growing up.
Light Blue and the Same Red is a phrase from Objects (“A Substance In A Cushion”) in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons book. Why did you choose this title?
The girls surrounded themselves with art and literature. They had old museum posters and paintings from their friends hanging on the walls. Madeleine’s raw, observational poetry echoed Bukowski tones, and the altars she built around the apartment full of hair, jewelry and fabric so strongly resembled something Bruce Conner may have put together in the sixties. Adeline’s sporadic, sexual drawings everywhere reminded me of Tracey Emin's diaristic work. In their apartment, I felt like I was inside a humble art studio where the girls haphazardly and naturally saluted the art of their era, from Picasso, to their best friends. This reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s relationship with art in a way.
I chose “Tender Buttons” as a reference, because its nonsensical nature reminded me of the girls. It’s just a book I could see the girls appreciating.
To choose which phrase, I looked for words with specific connections to the “object” of the photographs. The photos are so saturated, so color words stuck out to me. Light Blue and the Same Red came to signify elements that change or stay the same as we grow up.
You are a 23-year-old woman who moved to the city to pursue photography and you also live in West Harlem. Would you consider this project a way to portray yourself as well?
I wouldn’t say to portray myself, or show myself in any way. I didn’t really notice my similarity to them until after I’d been photographing them a while. However, the more I reflected on the project, the more I realized it in some way was an exploration of myself as well. All three of us were floating somewhere in that intersection between girlhood and womanhood and it became special and personal to photograph that almost mystical and already nostalgic world.
Having many things in common with the people you choose to photograph helps to create a bond and have a good relationship with them. Do you become friends with your subjects? How do you deal with this?
It definitely helped! I could relate to every moment I photographed, and their knowledge of that really eliminated a barrier for us. I became friends with the girls as I photographed them, but I feel like their perception of me during the bulk of my work was limited since I was always behind the camera.
Most of my work so far has been on my family and on communities and individuals I have been close to for a long time. So far, the relationship has come first for me. Then the photography.
I know that you care to include contemporary elements of this generation in your photographs. A good example is the image of Adeline and her boyfriend kissing in bed while Family Guy is playing on the computer. Why is this important to you and to the project itself?
I like to include gestures to the time, specifically technology, because it has had such an effect on us, especially this generation: how we communicate, how we view ourselves, how we date, how we grow up. While the elements are important, I want them to be subtle, like a nostalgic little bookmark tucked into the specific time in history we’re living in.
You have been photographing these girls for a year. It is hard to accomplish a level of comfort for both sides: the photographer and the photographed. How has this process been for you?
Phew! It is a process, that’s for sure. It’s had its up’s and down’s. It took a lot of transparent conversations about the work. Luckily, the girls are so honest and confrontational, so any time there was an issue like feeling insecure, or feeling misrepresented, they would tell me immediately and we would sit down and talk about it. Each talk always ended positively and opened up even more transparency and trust between us. And in the end, created a more pure result.
I love the fact that you started this project photographing in film and when I saw you switched to digital I thought the images would lose a certain feeling. But they didn’t. Did you think of this when you switched? Do you believe there is a difference in the final image, or is it just a matter of the process for the photographer: slowing down to film?
If I could only shoot film, I would. I love that it slows me down, and there is just a spirit to it that I prefer. I think the reason is different for each photographer. To be honest, I switched to digital for this project because I was on a strict timeline and a tight budget. The bigger change was that I was going from black and white to color. The feeling wasn’t lost, but it did change a little bit. For the girls, it opened up more layers. I noticed elements that opened my eyes to the story a little more: The blue haze of a colored lightbulb, the rainbow air balloon mobile in the mirror’s reflection, the soft purple sheets - All representing feelings in that intersection of girlhood and womanhood. The story became more tactile, emotional, raw.
The WCW Questionnaire
How would you describe your creative process in one word?
If you could teach one, one-hour class on anything, what would it be?
Either a class on layers, meaning, and composition, or a class on the power of good sequencing. But I would come up with more creative titles…
What was the last book you read or film you saw that inspired you?
My Ántonia, Willa Cather.
What is the most played song in your iTunes Library?
These days, it’s You Turn Me On I’m A Radio by Joni Mitchell.
How do you take your coffee?
No sugar, a little bit of milk :)