Interview with Patricia Beary — "Return to the Muse"
By Brigid Kapuvari
For the longest time, the main expectation of a photograph was for the image to come out clear and for the subject to be in focus. When Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, French inventor, created the first photographic image back in 1826, he did so with sole intent of preserving a moment because he lacked artistic skill to sketch it. Evidently, we have come a long way from simply wanting to immortalize certain instances in our lives. Now, we take pictures in order to get across a message – to impress upon the viewer a feeling or sensation. In other terms, photography is more than a manner of perpetuation: it is an essential means for expression.
Patricia Beary is a photographer as well as a soon-to-be retired educator. Stationed at Wantagh High School in Long Island, New York, she worked tirelessly to enlighten aspiring creators on various types of art and aid them in their endeavor to hone their skills. Considering that she earned a Bachelor in Fine Arts, her knowledge spans a vast array of mediums, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, print-making, and of course, photography, and she’s absolutely loved the journey of helping students realize their profound talents. However, having taught for 30 years, she now wants to avert her efforts from the academic setting and focus on her fervent passion. “It’s been a great gig,” said Beary, “but it’s time to have more time to make my own artwork.”
Recently, Beary displayed her newest exhibit titled “Return to the Muse” at the Soho Photo Gallery in New York City. A series unlike any other she has done, Beary is ecstatic to commence the next stage of her artistic career, and it starts with showing the world that she is prepared to revitalize the medium of the digital photography so that it’s not so much about acquiring a clear image but putting emphasis on the grace and subtlety of the subject.
MUSÉE: Hello, Patricia. It is a pleasurable to meet you and to witness your exhibit, “Return to the Muse,” in person. The photos are remarkable and dissimilar to anything that I’ve ever seen before. Truly, they are a spectacular contribution to this art gallery and to the field of photography in general. What exactly intrigues you about photography?
PB: The possibilities. I think about the photograph or the capture image that you get in your camera. It’s kind of like the raw materials or the piece of stone to a sculpture – find what’s in there and bring it out. And with digital photography, it’s very much the same because, in the post-processing, there’s so many things that you can do with it. That’s really how these pictures came about.
MUSÉE: And these pictures are simply gorgeous! But anyway, as you say on your website, you created these photographs by shooting them in a slow speed with some additional movement of the camera. Can you delineate what you mean by that? How exactly did you accomplish this photographic style?
PB: Well, there’s many settings on the camera, but the two major settings are shutter speed and aperture. The shutter speed determines how long the shutter stays open to take the picture; the longer it’s open, the more motion blur you will have. If you wanted a crisp image, you would shoot at a very fast shutter speed. To do these pictures, the speed was fairly slow – probably a fifteenth of a second, an eighth of a second. Something in that range. And then, often the models were moving, so there was the movement there. And then, sometimes, I would just literally take the camera and do what you would call a pan – move the camera from left to right. That’s how that happened.
MUSÉE: Well, based on what you just said, it seems like, to take the perfect picture, you need to capture it at the right moment.
PB: Well, I think that, especially with work like this and with the kind of work that I like to do, it’s not overcalculated in the picture-taking. You embrace the serendipity of it. You’re not quite sure what the result is going to be. It’s much less calculated than, let’s say, how a photojournalist would use a camera. With this, I’m just experimenting, trying things, looking and seeing what appeals to me, and making adjustments.
MUSÉE: Considering your style and the way that these photos came about, I’m curious: how many excess photos do you have at the end of the shoot?
PB: Probably about 800. It was a weekend workshop where I had availability to nude models. It was a few photographers sharing models. You got to work with different models, and you could shoot as much as you wanted. You had them for about a half hour time, you shoot a lot, and then more on from there.
MUSÉE: What were you looking to produce with the photos?
PB: I was definitely looking for a blur. I was looking for some sort of sensation of motion. Not just a frozen motion. To be honest, like I said, I just embrace the accidental. Some of the people that I was working with really wanted to do more distinct photos of nudes – very classic – but I knew that I wanted to do something with the motion.
MUSÉE: What inspired you to focus on motion of all things?
PB: I don’t know. I think it just speaks to the kind of photography that appeals to me, and I think I’m very influenced by my drawing background. I like photographs that have a painterly look or drawing quality to them rather than being so straightforward. I can tell you that when I first looked at them, I probably sat with them for almost a year before I did anything with them; I think because the color distracted me. It was an outdoor setting, it was springtime, so most of the backgrounds were a pretty intense greens. With the quality of the flesh tones, there was quite a contrast, and as much as I liked the feeling going on, the overall image wasn’t quite there. That’s why I say I often get that feeling – as most artists do – sometimes you have to do some work, let it be, and then come back to it. And when I did came back to it, I looked at them, decided to make them monotone, and it was like it had unlocked something.
MUSÉE: What do you think the sepia tone did to the photos that color could not?
PB: A) It gives them a drawing-like quality, and B) I think it allows the viewer not to think about the realism of the figure study of a nude but look at the shadow of light and dark and how the edges of the body form against the backgrounds. I think that’s one of things I like most.
MUSÉE: Agreed. Why do you personally believe that exhibiting the female figure through highlights and shadows is more effective in emphasizing its delicacy than through a crisp outline?
PB: Because, you know, women – we often think of our imperfections. But by working in this style, there’s a fluid quality of the gesture, of the person’s curves – anything from the profiles of their faces and their waistlines and their breasts – and that it’s not about anything particular. It’s not details. We don’t need to know that, and to me, it enlivens the sexuality of it.
MUSÉE: Definitely. By making the lines and edges less distinct, the viewer is compelled to pay attention to the general softness of the female figure. Alright, so now, I have a couple more fun questions for you. First off, in three words, describe your particular artistic style.
PB: Inquisitive. Experimental. Thought-provoking.
MUSÉE: And what would you say makes you divergent from other modern photographers?
PB: I think that quality of experimentation and working with different materials. While these happen to be digital images printed in a rather traditional way, I’ve also worked with transfers, some encaustic and other methods of using the images. For example, I just did a workshop here as part of the Image Factory that I’m involved with. We did printing on a velum surface and put gold and silver leaf behind it. I’m looking to almost introduce other artistic mediums to the medium of photography, so it’s not just about the photograph.
MUSÉE: That’s a really innovative mindset and a great strategy for an artist if he or she wants to heighten certain things – certain elements of the photograph – so that it’s more stimulating. A lot of people nowadays, we don’t just want a simple photo, hence the fact that on social media websites like Instagram, we are always adding filters and textures so image is modified to our appeasement. We have an inclination towards a specific look. I admire that you are striving to follow this trend but on another, much more advanced level.
PB: Thank you, and I think – with all arts – there’s that balance between the idea and the technique. You have to be careful to not let the technique take over. You want your idea and your message to come through, and you’re just manipulating the medium to get it there. I also think, especially in digital, images can be overmanipulated. In fact, the response to these pictures is often that they assume that I did it in Photoshop. But other than converting them to sepia tone and working a little bit with lights and darks, there was no changing on the image itself.
MUSÉE : That’s really funny because, when I first found these images on your website and showed to it to a friend of me, she asked me if they were even photography.
PB: That’s good! That tells me that what I wanted to get across happened.
MUSÉE: Okay, so final question: seeing that you are now going into retirement, where are you going from here? What is the next project that you have in mind for the future?
PB: I have a few. I like to work with things that are softly focused. As a matter of fact, when I was going this series, I shot with a specialty kind of lens called a zone plate, and I have a few images that I felt were really successful. I think I’m going to use those for my next project. That’s going to be the starting point, so I have to look for some more models to work with and expand that series. Also, that technique I mentioned before: I’ve been working on some other images – landscapes, actually – that are softly focused and working with the gold and silver leaf behind them. Those are two directions that I have planned at the moment, but you never know. Things come up.
MUSÉE: You think you’re going to be engaging in photography for the rest of your life?
PB: I think so! I mean that’s why, to be honest with you, I am so anxious to retire. You need more time than just the weekend time that I can squeeze in. To be able to do this full-time – to have the support of a gallery with over a hundred and twenty members – there’s such a wonderful thing about being in a cooperative gallery environment. We have salons once a month, so we can bring in our project, put it out and say, “Okay, give me some feedback. What are you thinking? What size should they be? Which ones do you like? Which ones are weaker?” The whole point of being involved in the gallery, it’s not just about showing the work: it’s about having that support system as you’re creating, and it’s really quite special.
Patricia Beary’s series “Return to the Muse” will be shown at the Soho Photo Gallery until June 30, 2018, so make sure to stop by when you have the time. You do not want to miss this enthralling exhibit that highlights the natural fluidity of the human figure and reinforces that the ceaseless merit of photography.