In Conversation: Lindley Warren Mickunas

Lindley Warren Mickunas is a photographer based in Iowa and a Curatorial Assistant at the Stanley Museum of Art. She is the founder of various publications including The Ones We Love and The Reservoir, a collective editorial project with Romke Hoogwaerts of Mossless and Jack Harries of The Heavy Collective. Warren Mickunas has curated international exhibitions and self-published books and magazines. At the end of summer, she will relocate to Chicago to attend the MFA Photography program at Columbia College Chicago, and during this time, she will also be a Curatorial Assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

J: Thanks for talking with me! The new work you’re making from Maternal Sheet, included with this piece, is very personal yet you mention being inspired by dealing with collective trauma and trying to grapple with violence against women. How do you bridge the gap between the individual and collective?

L: I don’t believe that there is actually a gap between the individual and the collective. We often feel that there is, but that is just our perception. The feminist activist Carol Hanisch talks about how the personal is political in her memo originally titled “Some Thoughts in Response to Dottie’s Thoughts on a Women’s Liberation Movement” in which she speaks about how what women face in their private lives must be faced communally, because again, they are not merely personal issues they are collective issues. Hanisch was thinking about consciousness-raising and “the need to fight male supremacy as a movement instead of blaming the individual woman for her oppression.” Many women have lived through what I have. We’re all swimming in the same pool. 

J: I’m excited about how you think about personal and collective overlap; the specificity of personal can be a good entry point even for those who haven’t experienced what you’re making work about. Still thinking about ties between the personal and collective, do you make your work with an audience in mind or is it a solitary process more for yourself? How does thinking about where the work is situated in a larger social or art context influence your process, if at all?

L: The work is very cathartic for me, but art is nothing without a viewer … Throughout history, society has looked to artists to shed light on contemporary life. I do consider the present moment, very much so. I exist in 2019, and I feel that it is my responsibility to be informed and aware both in a social/political sense and in my field. If I see that the work I am making is in conversation with that of others and reflects what is happening in our world, I know that I am touching on things that are significant.

J: What are some of these things mentioned happening right now that influence your practice? I appreciate your willingness to engage with the current moment and think that when we are able, being specific about what events/violences/moments we are talking about is important.

L: There are many ways in which women’s bodies are under attack in our society. Look at what is happening with abortion in our country, beyond the obvious problem of not allowing a woman the right to choose there are countless other related issues. Additionally, over 20 women have come forward accusing the U.S. president of sexual misconduct. This didn’t once come up in the recent democratic debates. Beyond this, there are major issues of domestic violence towards women and often there are children that witness this abuse who go on to be at a greater risk for mental and physical health problems.

J: That’s all true. Thinking about bodies in this way, how does your own body fit in, either as a subject or the photographer? Especially thinking about how you mention carrying on what your mother’s body carried?

L: When I photograph an individual, I am keenly aware of the fact that they know what it feels like to be someone’s child. Everyone to some capacity internalizes the choices that their mother and father made, even if they’ve never met their parent(s) and has only heard stories about them. With this in mind, it is easy for me to see my subject’s body as one that can empathize with my own. I’ll very frequently go in front of the camera to feel out the pose that I want my subject to take on and once I find it I’ll ask them to copy it.

L: Not only is there an internal carrying but an external one. There are parts of my body that are nearly identical to my mother’s, especially as I get older. Talking about this reminds me of an excerpt from a poem by Ellen Bass titled For My Mother:

“Our bodies—we have the same full breasts, the same well-shaped legs, even at sixty you have well-shaped legs.

The same potbelly, small hips, pelvis tilted back, protecting our sex.

Every morning I do yoga now. I do back bends. I rotate my hips, listening to the bones crack into unfamiliar positions.

I am trying to break our structure, to stop walking with my chin thrust forward, my shoulders hunched up to my ears—how you always admired long graceful necks.

Is it possible? Is it possible that years from now my body will look less like yours?

How much leeway do I have to become myself?”

J: I respond to that text too as someone who grew up as a femme. Could you expand on how text interacts with images in your work, or if it rarely does, where you look for inspiration within writing? Even just the title Maternal Sheet uses language that’s specific to domestic space, medical arenas, and familial lineage all at once.

L: Literature has been very helpful in my life and work. I have my own experiences but some of them are not shared with people that I often surround myself with. Through reading, I am able to see how my life connects to others and that puts greater significance on what I am working through. It is also powerful to know that I am not alone. I read quite a bit of poetry (Sharon Olds and Anne Sexton are two I refer to a lot in addition to other confessional poets) and essays on psychology and nontraditional therapies.

J: I’ll have to look into those poets. Jumping back to what you were saying about being aware everyone is someone’s child, I appreciate what you’re saying about empathy — the history of photo often leaves this bodily experience of making the photograph out. Despite your embracing of this subjectivity, the photos from Maternal Sheet often have a slightly objective ‘straight-on’ gaze towards the subject in terms of formal composition. I’m interested in how you decide to compose these moments, even as you’re in front of the lens deciding a pose. Are they highly constructed or do you rely more on elements you find in a space?

L: It depends. When I started making these photographs, I was using a 4×5 and standing lights. Now I am working with a digital camera and mounted flash. This has really opened up the process for me. Previously, I was constructing the images prior to shooting and staying quite true to that vision apart from perhaps some minor adjustments. Now, however, I have opened up to various methods. A meditative state of mind whether in the planning or shooting process is very helpful. If I work intuitively, then the subjects are also able to naturally tap into a calm and instinctive space and that helps everything.

J: How does time play into this method of shooting, thinking about meditative states? Do you shoot with your subjects for a long time or is it very momentary, and do you shoot with the same people time and time again or is it with new individuals? Does one way work better than another for you? I’m also interested in thinking about time in the context of your work referencing multiple generations of women, moving slowly, growing up and growing old together — it feels like your process may reference this experience of time.

L: When I stop thinking about time and become completely locked into the moment, it is a good signifier that I’ve reached a fruitful headspace. Because of this, I usually shoot for a long time so it’s important that the people who are in front of the camera are invested in my work, trust me, and/or like to be photographed. I prefer to work with the same people over and over but part of that is because I’m lucky to have people in my life that are truly generous. I really open myself up when I shoot so it’s crucial that I feel comfortable with whom I’m photographing and that they feel comfortable with me … I’ve always been a slow and intuitive photographer, even with other subject matter. However, within this work, I am certainly thinking about the women within my family who have come before me.

J: Makes sense. Thanks for talking with me; looking forward to seeing Maternal Sheet continue!

L: Thank you, J! It’s been a pleasure.

To view more of Lindley Warren Mickunas’s work please visit her website.