In Conversation: Nydia Blas

Nydia Blas is a visual artist living in Ithaca, New York with her husband and two children. She holds a B.S. from Ithaca College, and received her M.F.A. from Syracuse University in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Blas is one of six selected talents of World Press’ 2018 6×6 Global Talent Program for North and Central America and is a recipient of the 2018 Light Work grant. She taught a course entitled “Photography as a Tool” for the Image Text MFA program at Ithaca College in the summer of 2018 and previously taught photography courses at Syracuse University in the Department of Transmedia. Blas has completed artist residencies at Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts and The Center for Photography at Woodstock, and her work is featured in the book Mfon: A Journal of Women Photographers of the African Diaspora. She has been featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, Dazed and Confused Magazine, Strange Fire Collective, Lenscult, Yogurt Magazine, PDN, Fotografia Magazine, and more.

Nydia Blas uses photography, collage, video, and books to address matters of sexuality, intimacy, and her lived experience as a girl, woman, and mother. Blas delicately weaves stories concerning circumstance, value, and power and uses her work to create a physical and allegorical space presented through a Black feminine lens. The result is an environment that is dependent upon the belief that in order to maintain resiliency, a magical outlook is necessary. In this space, props function as extensions of the body, costumes as markers of identity, and gestures/actions reveal the performance, celebration, discovery, and confrontation involved in reclaiming one’s body for their own exploration and understanding. Blas is recognized for her body of work entitled, The Girls Who Spun Gold, which is a collection of images that are the result of a Girl Empowerment Group that Blas founded after observing a lack of space and community for adolescent girls of color in Ithaca, N.Y. Her goal was to create a space where an amazing group of girls she developed interpersonal relationships with feel valued and supported, which fills in the blanks where their formal education did not serve them. Eventually, their bonds were reproduced visually in the photographs that they worked to make together. Here, an edit of work is pulled together from projects The Girls Who Spun Gold, Whatever You Like, Black Magic, and The Trouble with Being a Mama including collage, found photographs, and original photographs.

J: Thanks for talking with me about your work. Just to start out, where did you grow up and when did you start photographing?

N: I grew up in the small city of Ithaca, NY, where I’ll reside for a few more months. Let’s see; I began making photographs in … middle school. I started making photograms before we graduated to cameras. I was always interested in photo. I gravitated towards making black and white photographs of my family.

J: It’s good to hear about people photographing directly in front of them. I actually didn’t know you grew up where you still live now.

N: Right, I’m going to be moving to Atlanta in a few months. I grew up in Ithaca and I’ve always made all of my work here, so it will be a big change … this is it, this is the last winter!

J: That’s great. That brings me to a question about community; how do you balance taking photographs with the family and community connections you make that seem integral to your work? For example, with The Girls Who Spun Gold, the girls were also part of your Girl Empowerment Group, or possibly with your own family. How do you decide when taking a photograph is right or not?

N: It’s so funny; you just reminded me of how it’s possible to make a photo without even making the photo, if that makes sense. There are always so many moments that can be photographed, and sometimes you have to choose between being in the moment and experiencing the moment, or taking that moment and making it into a photograph. When you think about those kinds of choices, my photographs have always been about and of people who I know and people I’ve loved; it’s interesting when it crosses that line into image-making. It’s always about being with each other and holding space for each other, so you know, somehow photography has just become a part of what that is in a way. Choosing to photograph things that are close to me, it’s always been about multitasking, if I can kind of make everything work at once. The kitchen table is literally also my desk and the studio. All of those things have to work with each other.

J: It’s interesting when you’re part of the same community as the people you’re photographing; you know them so well.

N: Sometimes people are just there, and I’m like ‘oh wait! I have this photograph I want to make. Can we do this real quick?’ Or it would be like, ‘come over and I want to run some ideas by you ideas. I have this outfit, or this thing, and I want to make this photograph, but also, I’ll cook dinner for you. Let’s hang out!’ I think about that a lot too because I’ve always photographed children and been drawn to children; is that about how I missed out on a big chunk of my childhood when I had kids really young? Is it about my kids always being there as great subjects?

J: Right. Thinking about you talking about your children, I’m wondering do you photograph your children often when you talk about motherhood or do you feel like you’re using other metaphors or elements to talk about it?

N: I think I mostly use The Girl Who Spun Gold to talk about motherhood. As that series got further along, I interjected myself into it. It was first just photographing the girls, and then I had a residency where I was alone for the first time in my entire life for a month. It was crazy; I wasn’t allowed to have visitors. It was stepping outside of my normal practice, so I began photographing myself. [I thought], ‘okay, I’ll make myself the subject. I’ll photograph myself the same way I photograph the girls.’ That’s when I think motherhood came into it. I always thought I connected to the girls because in a lot of ways, we’ve lived the same life. We grew up in Ithaca, we understood the nuances of growing up in this predominantly white city that thinks it’s ten square miles surrounded by reality. Then it’s also like themes popped up where Samone got pregnant in her senior year of high school with her son, and I got pregnant my first year out of high school. So motherhood kind of found its way into the mix. I did photograph my kids more when they were younger, and then they were kind of over it for a certain amount of time. My daughter Rosario appears in several photos in The Girls Who Spun Gold. Now she’s moved on; she’s sort of like assisting. My son is away at college. Mostly I photographed them when they were younger with a 4×5 camera which was an interesting experience; it was all about being still and in partnership with them … and being able to control all the elements of the work is really important.

J: That’s hard to think about photographing children specifically with a 4×5, such a long process. I wanted to go back really quick and talk about you putting yourself in some of the images. Does placing yourself in some of the images change your editing and sequencing process afterward? How does it work for you? Sometimes I think it’s hard to make some of those decisions when your own body is in the work.

N: Turning the camera on myself was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. To think of myself as subject was a stretch. I had to be really real about who that person is and what that person looks like. In certain iterations of The Girls Who Spun Gold, I wanted it to be clear that I was in the photographs because I think that speaks to the collaboration. When I think about that work, I definitely come last. I don’t always include myself if it’s a smaller run of images or smaller exhibition. There are so many others that are more integral to the project. Definitely, I would love to make a book of that work that I will fit in. It speaks not only to the relationship between photographer and subject, but also to the story I am trying to tell in terms of motherhood and dream fantasy world. It’s also about Ithaca and these experiences of full trajectory, being this girl, this adolescent woman, and mother.

J: That makes a lot of sense. A lot of your images obscure eyes, faces, or other identifying features while other parts are vulnerable or overexposed – I was hoping you could talk a bit more about this juxtaposition between the two.

N: It’s really important in a series of photographs to go back and forth and hit many notes. What I’m trying to do is move in and out: to give access, deny access, confront the viewer, deny the viewer. It’s about creating a world for the subjects to reside that implicates the viewer in some way. That’s dependant upon who you are and what you’re bringing to the work. Are you one of the girls in the images? Do you feel connected? Do you look like the girls in the pictures? Do you feel on the periphery? Does the work not speak to you or include you? I really want people to think about that when they look at the work. There’s also things I use in the work that I like to call cultural cues, like the church hat or the baseball bat. For some people, that’s just the baseball bat, but for other people, specifically black folks, it’s the bat behind your door that’s used if someone comes into your house in the middle of the night. There’s some photographs where you’re really confronted and the subject has an agency, and there’s other images where it’s more exposing a body part. I wanted those images to be able to work together. If there’s an image that feels more revealing, there’s also an image that protects that [first] image. Because as girls, we learn our sexuality and bodies are so much about other people enjoying or exploring them. I wanted to speak to that personal or inner work and discovery. I was questioning how you get to that without completely sexualizing your subject, but rather allowing them to reclaim their own sexuality.

J: That’s a generous thing to do, especially with the history and heavy saturation of hypersexualized femmes in photographs. You are able to talk about sensuality and sexuality without much nudity or elements that people traditionally relate to sex. When you’re approaching this, especially with the history we’re talking about, what do you look for?

N: I don’t think I’d ever photograph someone exactly nude or photograph them without any clothes. For me, that’s taking it to some realm that I don’t want to go into. With sexuality, there’s this tension that I want to create where it reveals this stickiness or this pull or this back and forth. I want it to reveal this process of a woman coming into sexuality that can often be sticky or beautiful or painful. I think hitting on all of those things at once is what I aim to do and not to make something so easy, but to complicate it. Really complicating the notions of what it means to be a girl, which is speaking back to the very histories and stereotypes we come to understand ourselves through.

J: You’re talking a lot about power, control, and agency, and text is one of those things that’s imbued with power and an authoritative energy. I noticed you’ve started to use text with some of your photographs – how do you go about deciding when that’s the right element to add? For exhibitions or just for the work in general.

N: Text is definitely a hard thing to use. The way that I’ve liked how I’ve used it in the past best is when I had an exhibition and I used a page from one of the girl’s journals at the time. We projected the page onto the wall and then wrote over it, and it really looked like an actual page. I liked that because the entry that I chose spoke to this back-and-forth from before: who you are and who you’re supposed to be. Those text-images have sort of come after [the exhibition], and I realized that there’s so many ways to interpret my work and so many things I’m touching on. I thought about the way I could be a little more explicit about what I’m trying to say. I’m choosing these words that feel just as complicated as some of the images, but also trying to be honest and a little bit confrontational with the words.

J: With the duality from before laying some things out and keeping others more veiled, text feels like a logical next step for that. I saw that you also have some collage or painted images – how are these similar or different for you from the images you take and leave as is? What made you start altering images?

N: I would say I’m not artistically inclined. The things I’ve been drawn to are making photos and making collages. I think they really relate to each other. The thing I think about with collage the same as a photograph is it living inside four walls. With a collage, you have to compose that. [I] can be really specific and can control those four walls in the same way that I make photographs. I’ve been really drawn to that ability to move back and forth and think about what you’re putting on the page. Also, I’ve always liked to work with my hands. As I step away from a darkroom process – I’ve been a black and white photographer and color printer in the darkroom – there’s still this need sometimes to make things with my hands, an actual messiness. The collage is totally my ability to do that. The process for the collages is that I just collect a bunch of stuff, and then I sometimes sit down and make sense of those collections of stuff. There’s this series where I was really interested in these paint swatches I found… being at the store looking for something, and I started realizing all the brown colors of paint were about food. I started thinking about this consumption of black and brown bodies in white popular culture; I started to play with those in this way. Gold has always been a thing of mine for years; it’s cool to use that in collage and mess around with different types of gold. Gold string, gold foil, gold paint, and other materials. In one, I was using the color red, and I used actual red nail polish to do these nails. There’s something about being able to actually use my hand that’s important … I bust out a series of collages … I sort of geek out and make it. Then, I work backward to understand what that means.

J: That’s the way a lot of photographers describe their photography practice, so it’s interesting that’s the way you work with other mediums and making things too. How do you decide what historical narratives you want to work with when you’re using found images and finding materials? What kinds of narratives are you taking these images out of to put into your own?

N: I talk about this Black feminine lens, this decision to look at the world through a Black feminine lens. It’s this notion that these are my goggles that I choose to put on, and these are issues that are really important to me specifically because of the body I was born into and the experiences I’ve had. So, I am always drawn to the black body, usually the black female body. Definitely, always kids too. I’m starting to incorporate my own photographs into collages too. What I’ve also been doing lately is taking some of my photographs from grad school, like work prints, and I’ve been cutting them up and rephotographing them which has been cool. It’s definitely intuitive, but also within the same wheelhouse as what my interests are based on who I am as a person. I choose to center and focus that in my work.

J: I feel like we’re switching around topics a bit because when I looked through your website, there’s just so much work you’ve made. You talk about magic and performance operating in your work, and I was hoping you could expand on how these operate simultaneously for you.

N: I think the magic comes from a lot of places. The magic in identity formation, the magic in a struggle, the magic in the everyday world that we sort of negate. I just read this book The Children of Blood and Bone; it’s so great. Black people and black women have not been the focus of magical stories in popular culture, so it’s interjecting ourselves into the space of the unknown and fantastical. When I give artist talks, I talk about this book I was given as a child called The People Could Fly, a collection of African-American folklore. The animals can talk and people can fly. It’s this space where you have to figure out are these things really true or is it just a story? I like this in-between space where you can have that ability to dream. Also, magic and struggle. To maintain yourself and be resilient in a struggle, there always has to be some sort of magic path for the person. 

N: The performance was about performing identity and really thinking about how you come to terms with who you are and your understanding of yourself in a world that’s constantly telling you how you should look, behave, act, carry yourself. How those things play on each other and the notion of always putting on, being in the world as a performance itself. That’s where it was fun to play with costumes and what people were wearing; where you could play with expectations. Like girls in the kitchen with honey on their belly in these coats: why are they in this nice house? Why do they have on these sort of clothes on? You’re playing with people’s assumptions because people like to put people in boxes so that we can understand them better so we can dominate and oppress easier. That’s how the performance and costumes have worked together for me.

N: With all this magic and performance too [for me], there always has to be something about Ithaca in there. So, Ithaca is this place that really believes that it is exempt from the problems of the world. Believing that it’s progressive in so many ways, in terms of environmental issues, that we miss the very core of having the same issues that exist everywhere else in the world. We definitely have the same racism, housing, jobs, transportation problems. It was always really important to make work in Ithaca even if it wasn’t obvious the work was being made there. In terms of the magic and performance … this was my way to deal with [the problems]. To add to that, the magic we supposedly have here [in Ithaca] is also in a place that has at times been very violent for me as a predominantly white space. How do we navigate and flourish in that space?

J: That feels like it probably has relationships back to some things being exposed and others covered in your work; this stretch between magic and violence.

N: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to not live here [in Ithaca] anymore, to make work in other places. I’m excited to see what I make and what I’m drawn to, being in new landscapes. What landscapes, outdoor spaces, and green areas. I’ve visited Atlanta a few times and been like ‘wow! Look at those trees, look at those vines..’ so really thinking about how that landscape will change the work is exciting. Atlanta is going to be amazing. I think I will be really inspired, but what will shift is that I don’t have a community there. It will be interesting to see how I create that community with people and my subjects, how that shifts. I definitely can say that I’ve been photographing strangers more as I’ve been doing freelance work, but I still really photograph the people I know. I will be making new friends.

J: It’s definitely a really different experience photographing people you don’t know or just met. And this was great; I feel like I have a lot more things to think about when looking through your work. Thank you!

N: It was nice to speak with you. Thank you!

To view more of Nydia Blas’s work, please visit her website.