Woman Crush Wednesday: Isabel Magowan

Woman Crush Wednesday: Isabel Magowan

© Isabel Magowan,  A Sort of Poise

© Isabel Magowan, A Sort of Poise

Interview by Mamie Heldman

Isabel Magowan turned from dance to photography at the age of 17, when she was training to be a professional ballerina. In her work we catch glimpses of the same drama and performance one might expect to appear on stage. Her observations of that moment in adolescence when identity begins to tilt and lines are blurred between innocence and self-awareness are captured in her project Cygnets. Not only that, her photographs make hints toward the societal pressures that are inevitable with growing up.

Your work is very personal as you turn the camera on yourself as well as your family. Can you talk about the level of trust that goes into your process?

I have always felt separate to a certain extent from my family (although I adore them) and critical of where I grew up. The camera was almost like a friend that would defend me, that gave a sense of place. It allowed me to step back and just look. As time went on, frustrations grew from constantly carrying my camera around. It can be invasive and uncomfortable. The more I shot however, the less self conscious friends and family became. I really dislike when people pose, so having them lose that hyper awareness of being photographed allowed for more honest images. Sometimes I didn't know what or who to photograph so I would use myself. When I photographed myself I wasn't motivated by a desire to speak to who I am as Isabel, I was simply a stand in, hoping I could somehow reveal something. Sometimes the images would suggest a story, at once truthful to my family and simultaneously completely inaccurate. Over time I became frustrated and to a certain extent they did to. "So your career will be making work of us?" That didn't seem sustainable or rewarding and I disliked feeling these images were somehow not fully created on my own terms. Eventually I got the courage to look elsewhere and that has been a great relief. My friends and family are simply friends and family. It was not fair to ask them to surprise me or act or behave as someone else just for the sake of my pictures. I continue to photograph them but now I understand the larger reason for doing so. It's a side thing that one day will hold more truth than I could hope to find by actively going out and looking for it.

Would you ever compare ballet to photography? How do the challenges overlap or differ?

Ballet is ultimately a psychical art form; the body as the vehicle for expression is the medium. It also depends on a large degree of luck too. Can your body withstand such rigorous demands? Were you born with natural turn out? Flexibility? Commitment and hard work are critical, and they contribute to a great dancer, but they on their own are not enough to make one. Ballet, in its traditional form, calls for a certain type of consistent practice and conditioning. Here is the step, now execute it. You are either right or wrong and generally there is a specific look to what is right and very little room for deviation. My exposure to photography emphasized personal vision over technique. There was no incentive to do it as shown, because, it was all relative to what you wanted the world to see. That feels incredibly different from dance, especially because in dance you often can't control your limitations. I could not control having hip surgery when I was 15 and I could not control not being born with the natural ability of a good turner. Dance became about being the best, and anything less was simply not enough. At times I get confused with photography and I drive myself crazy. But then I remember, it asks me not to compare myself to others, for when I do, I loose sight of my authenticity. I never want photography to be about being the best- the moment that happens the joy and freedom in the ability for self expression is snuffed out.

© Isabel Magowan,  Reverie

© Isabel Magowan, Reverie

How do you prepare for a performance piece in comparison to a photo project? Would you say your video work is more spontaneous?

Both are pretty spontaneous. I never worked with the idea of photo projects prior to “Cygnets”, I just simply shot and then tried to identify images. My newer work may suggest the trying on of different versions of oneself. The subjects are older, they have more agency in deciding what sort of person they become. I am never sure what I am looking for, but put faith in the fact that the subjects, my interaction with them, the setting, and everything else will somehow come together. I have found sometimes that video work has helped me make sense of my images and become more clear on what I'm after. Almost every video I have made was unplanned. I did not know what I was making, only that I was gathering material to be used. While in graduate school I had access to a black box room with cameras. I would sign up for time, grab several props, and then go in and film. I think one of my strongest traits is my capacity for improvisation and yet at times it feels like my downfall. The editing process of film footage is enjoyable for me. It actually does feel like a form of dance, one based on instinct and feeling. Feeling the music, the footage, looking for the cut, sewing it together, composing. Unlike the photographs, I can have a variety of images and none of them exist alone. The photography sometimes feels incredibly restrictive. I really enjoy elements that combine structure that “set the stage” so to speak, but allows for anything to happen. 

© Isabel Magowan,  Teen Lovers

© Isabel Magowan, Teen Lovers

Do you ever find it difficult to represent something as broad and multifaceted as identity? 

It is impossible. I cannot in any way, even with the most sincere and hungry desire, capture or speak to the multitude of lives out there. There was a time where this left me feeling shameful and defensive. I wanted everyone to feel they had they had a space and were represented in my work. 

How do you overcome that?

I learned my best work was done when I stopped trying to represent things for the sake of wanting to feel I was being inclusive. For me, the best work is work that makes me feel. As long as it could leave me curious, make me wonder, make me feel, I had found some sort of identification with the work. My goal though isn't to represent identity, so much as to point to the things that might impact our perception of self. The boy in the frame might be in an opulent setting, he may have blue eyes, he may be fourteen and skinny- all these things may be worlds apart from our lives or anything we have even seen and yet there he is in his vulnerability, and we the viewer hopefully recognize and relate through the interpretation of an emotional state of being. And from there we make stories, recall something deep in our memory now passed, and we connect because the boy who we do not know, who we may even judge, made us feel for a moment. I can't overcome the representation of identity, but I can hopefully, look at the the ways in which each of us is susceptible to cultural expectations, ideals, and pressures and their internalization.

© Isabel Magowan,  Through the Car Window

© Isabel Magowan, Through the Car Window


How would you describe your creative process in one word?
Genuine? Contradictory.
If you could teach one, one-hour class on anything, what would it be?
Maybe I would construct some sort of bizarre interactive performance and take stock of the human instinct to do what a teacher asks. Perhaps I would ask them questions and place them in a dark room under the guise that they are learning something else. The class title would have to be honest, although open to interpretation: something like, “Redefining the Self and Expectation in Video in One Hour.” I would want them to walk away feeling excited by the fact that they walked into one experience assuming x,y,z would happen, but something completely unknown to them took place and manifested simply by their being open.
What was the last book you read of film you saw that inspired you?
Me and You and Everyone We Know by Miranda July
What is the most played song in your music library?
Fourth of July by Sufjan Stevens
How do you take your coffee?
However you want me to take it...

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