Shawn Rowe

Today I get to share with you the work by Shawn Rowe and the chat we had about his newest series called, V. Big thanks to him for taking the time to answer my questions in the midst of writing/building his MFA thesis!

Shawn Rowe (b. 1985) is a Chicago based photographer exploring the complexities of gender and social constructs through portraiture.  His long-form approach allows him to embed with his subjects for months or years in order to understand them as complex beings.  Shawn’s work has been exhibited and featured throughout the United States.  Shawn also works as a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Photography where he oversees portfolio reviews and curatorial projects.  He is a 2018 Masters of Fine Arts in Photography candidate at Columbia College Chicago and received a BA in Psychology from Southern New Hampshire University.  

Series Title : “V”

In my work a quiet repose emerges, where moments of introspection grow long while light and atmosphere become tactile.  Landscape imagery punctuates this self-portrait, serving as metaphor to discuss the symbiosis between nature and the body. V characterizes this relationship as both internal and external, with each body leaving marks upon the other.  The power structures that support this dialogue manifest as visual interruptions in the intervening space between reflection and perception.  In this work I create space to discuss a range of definitions of masculinity, sexuality and gender in order to articulate acceptance and resolve.

The title V describes the ambiguity of the project itself.  In ancient times, V was used interchangeably with the letter U.  V is the Roman Numeral for five and embodies a downward pointing arrow. For this work, the two lines that create the letter V intersect where the body and the environment exchange forces. These images represent a visualization of this conversation.  The installation is emblematic of the work in that the scale, distance and dimensions are variable. Like the letter V, I am asking my viewer to bring their own associations and meanings to the images and the body of work as a whole.

KS: You use long-form documentary to really delve deep into your subjects, after amassing so much content how do you edit it down? I am thinking about this project V, and its relative newness in your portfolio in relation to the large amount of beautiful work you already have within the body.

SR: Yeah, thank you. This project started last summer and I’ve been shooting consistently since then. You’re correct in that I am at the point where I’m thinking a lot about a final edit and trying to decide when the project is finished. I have an arbitrary end date coming with my thesis exhibition and graduation from my MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. In the lead up to that, I’ve decided in addition to an installation of the work to also produce a book. There will be a small edition of the book produced hopefully before I graduate. In terms of editing the project, it has been much harder to edit the book, as the exhibition is confined to the amount of space I’m allotted. A big reason I’ve decided to produce the book is because the edit on the wall will only be a small portion of what the series entails. I’ve leaned on my colleagues and advisers for help with editing but since this project is so personal it has been hard to look at it as a whole objectively. However, this is one thing grad school is really good at. More than anything it trains you to see your work for what it is and to be able to know when something just doesn’t fit, no matter how much you want it to.

KS: You have described yourself as an introvert of the strongest kind, how do you come to terms with that in a project that you have also described as being a “self-portrait”? Most of your work focuses on other individuals exploring identity in a similar fashion as you personally, what was the catalyst to do a project that is directly referencing your own experience?

SR: I’ve always been better articulating visually vs. verbally and I am able to say things in these images that even today I’m not really able to say with words. Something the medium photography is really good at is creating visually poetics which I have been able to use in this series by using associations, scale and sequence. This project was initially inspired by an ongoing series, the Sal series, where I’m focusing on the life of Sal, a friend of mine who is South Asian and trans. That is much more of a collaborative project where I am trying to stay true to their agency and represent them in as honest a way as possible. In starting the V series I wanted to be able to blur the lines between fact and fiction and create a body of work that was much more ambiguous, weaving in personal experience and constructed narratives to talk about my own issues around sexuality, gender and the body.

KS: What sort of material/methods have you been using as research for this project?

SR: I’m very much a believer that you need to immerse yourself in the community that you wish to participate in. Living in Chicago there are never any shortages of art events to attend on a given week. I’m also a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) where I have had the privilege of co-curating this past summer’s exhibition re: collection, assisting on other exhibitions and giving tours and print viewings from the museum’s permanent collection. Those experiences have given me a plethora of knowledge and behind the scenes insights into an institution like that. It has influenced my art practice and helped me fit my own work into the current contemporary moment.

With researching for my written thesis and just going out and participating in the art world of Chicago and elsewhere I’m always looking at work. I’m also reading a lot a found that personal memoirs have given me valuable insight into identity and how some individuals articulate issues around sexuality, identity and the body. A book I found to be one of the best at doing that is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a memoir about her partner’s transition and the birth of their first child. The ways she discusses the body and the ambiguity of it really inspired my own practice and picture making with this work.

KS: Coming from a background in psychology have you found that pursuing your MFA has given you all that you were looking for?

Coming out of undergrad I knew that in order to make a bachelor’s degree in psychology worth it I would likely need to pursue a masters degree. By the time I graduated I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to continue on to get a masters in psychology. I’ve found that my photographic practice has been informed heavily by my background in psychology and has influenced the way I approach the human subject and the topics I choose to address. It has also helped in my writing and research practice which I have been able to apply to my written thesis. As far as getting everything I came searching for, I’m very happy with the decision to come to Columbia to get my MFA. It has confirmed a lot things for me as an artist and exposed me to amazing people and work I would never have encountered on my own. I’ve also had the pleasure of working at the Museum of Contemporary Photography as a curatorial assistant during my time at Columbia which has also been invaluable in terms of the knowledge and experience I have gained. I honestly would change anything about my path here as it has given me a wealth of perspective.

KS: How is thesis preparation going? Will you be using this project?

SR: I’m very much in the throws of writing my written thesis, making a book and mounting a thesis exhibition. The exhibition and the book will be made up of work from the V series. The Sal series is still in process, the pace of which is just slower and I didn’t want to try to pull something together with that work that I couldn’t fully stand behind.

I have almost settled on an edit for the exhibition and I’m now exploring installation options as I don’t want the work to be hung in a linear fashion. I’m working with scale and hanging height to create a visual language to support the poetics of the work. I’m also doing a variation of that in the book, using collage and placement of images to create new associations to create a different experience than viewing it in exhibition form. The book will be a loose form book that the viewer will be able to manipulate in terms of the order and layout. It will be produced in a small edition with a print included, the specifics of which are still being worked out.

KS: I would love to know a little more about your use of installation and bookmaking to explore different ways of expressing the narrative of photographic work? This is something I am also obsessed with in my own practice, breaking away from a room full of primarily flat frames in a line on the wall, and curious how you are approaching the solution to that question.

Sure, this is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about for the first year, basically since the project started. This project has developed somewhat organically and I’ve used my intuition more with this series than any other. That has also played into how I’ve installed it up until now. From the start, I never saw this as something that would be hung at the same height with all the images being the same size. While shooting I’m thinking about the current edit and what holes there are that need to be filled. So in those terms, I’ve been making this work as basically one piece and not a collection of single images. However, the dimensions and layout are always in flux. Currently, I’m using four different sizes that are hung in clusters, as diptychs or at different heights to allow the viewer to move through the space, experiencing the work at different distances and perspectives.

KS: Thanks, Shawn!

To view more of Shawn’s work please visit their website.