“Through constructed portraiture I aim to tell a story to impact the outcome for the viewer. I want to make people think and I have to do that by telling my own story.”
Crystal Davis is a visual artist from the USA based in Texas. In this interview she talks about her portrait photography. With her constructed images Crystal Davis wants to move people and raise awareness for the subjects she dealt with in them. For Crystal Davis photography is not only a means to freeze a moment in time and to deeply impact the audience, but also a form a therapy that helps her to deal with difficult situations she’d been through in the past.
Crystal Davis, your portfolio shows a great variety – fine art, still life, landscape and portrait. What does each genre mean to you?
All my work to me is fine art. I haven’t shot commercially in a long time. Each genre has so much to offer and so many different ways for me to express what I have to say. Portrait is my main concentration but every once in a while for a breather I step into still life or landscape. I actually love landscape more so than still life because I can preserve the places I’ve seen. I usually focus on more urban and city type landscapes because I love the city. Fort Worth and Dallas have been a wonderful area to live and I have a deep sense of city pride. Portraiture to me is biographical. I want to take all the negative and positive experiences in my life to help others. My teen suicide series touches upon all the loss I’ve suffered as well as my own depression I suffered as a teenager. The images are shocking and dark, but meant to make people understand the reasons and to quit dismissing the small things that may lead to such a permanent decision.
Your portrait photography is fascinating: You don’t just portray a person; you place that person in a context thus creating a visual story at the same time. Can you please explain your approach?
As I mentioned before, I’m here to change people’s perspectives and to make them feel not to just show them a person. Through constructed portraiture or one of my instructors describe me as tableau vivant, I aim to tell a story to impact the outcome for the viewer. I want to make people think and I have to do that by telling my own story. My approach can be emotionally exhausting but so rewarding when I hear feedback about how it made someone think about it or relate to it. My Patience and Grace series is inspired by a trip I took to Iowa this summer. I am originally from Iowa and all my family still lives there. Before last summer, I didn’t even know my great-grandparents names. A trunk I found at my grandparents and ancestry.com changed my world. I learned so much about a part of my family that I never knew. I relayed this knowledge to my own children and I truly feel celebrating and knowing our ancestors has created a truly positive dynamic to our family. I want to inspire others to do the same.
Those images are bringing to life memories my grandfather shared with me about his mother, Grace. My daughter, Patience, portrays her in these images. I approached this series nervously because I knew the amount of time, work, props and equipment it would take. The series is still in progress but I’m sharing them publicly as they go. I was surprised that many today do not know their family history. Ancestry is becoming forgotten and unimportant in this day and age and younger generations. I discovered this summer that it is truly important. While nervous, I approached this project on a mission. I wanted to spark interest for others in learning about themselves because there is nothing more important in this world than family.
Portraiture is a genre traditionally used to explore issues of identity. Crystal Davis, what do your photographs tell about the persons being portrayed?
Some might say that my images do explore issues of identity. In my series Stop the Sadness, a focus on teen suicide, I touch upon many issues that teens face throughout their daily lives. Life is so much different for my girls than it was for me when I was a teen. Social networking and cellphones have changed the world. These issues of today are issues of identity for them. Socializing, bullying, relationships, peer pressure and abuse are all parts of identity issues. Focusing on Patience and Grace, the issues are still there for my great-grandmother. She had a hard life. She had a rough husband, a prior marriage of abuse and was like many women of the early 20th century, a house slave to her husband. She was there to raise a family and take care of him. Nothing else.
“The series is helping me learn and understand the issues I suffered that helped form who I am today.”
Life was hard back then and I imagine just from my grandfather’s stories of her, suffered many identity issues of her own. The Long Road focuses on my own identity issues. I had an abusive father, a difficult relationship with a half sibling and a mother who had to work all the time to raise us. My story is similar to others. The purpose in this series is to document my life up until I was 15 when I became pregnant with my oldest daughter. The series is helping me learn and understand the issues I suffered that helped form who I am today. I hope it will do the same for others out there.
Crystal Davis, what reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at your photos?
I definitely aim to impact the audience to make them understand an issue or want to learn more if they cannot relate personally. For those that relate personally, I hope to give some peace that they are not alone. In Stopping the Sadness for instance, I would hope a depressed teen might look at these dead girls and really see suicide as a bad and permanent decision. Hoping it would make them evaluate the decision deeper. For a parent, I hope it would make them pay attention to the signs. I’ve seen too many parents with a child being bullied or going through a break-up tell themselves it is normal. Only to see them suffer a loss from suicide. We need to learn to pay attention and get involved.
Looking at the your images they seem very complex and must require a lot of pre-production and editing afterwards. How do you go about that?
“It can be quite a process but I really try to set everything up in camera and on set if possible.”
Yes, in the past very much time went into not just the pre-production but post processing too. I can spend hours sometimes editing back and forth in Lightroom and Photoshop just trying to get the right edit. I have a specific aesthetic style that I use and after years of this, that part is easier to get down. Many of my images of today do not have much post processing at all but I still do some that I have to add things like wallpaper and other finishing touches. It can be quite a process but I really try to set everything up in camera and on set if possible.
What does a single photograph need in your opinion in order to stand out and get noticed? Especially keeping in mind the abundance of visual imagery in today’s media?
A photograph has to have presence to me to stand out. It has to pop out at me, scream at me and demand my attention. Presence in my mind is that, a demand for attention. I think in order for an image to have that there has to be an emotional connection that goes three ways, photographer to subject, subject to me. It also has to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
Your use of color and lighting technique is striking. Can you please elaborate a little bit on how you make use of these things to get across your message?
It is all about the color schemes of sets and color temperature of the light and using the strangest things for lights. I’ve used an iPhone flashlight as well as a police flashlight as a fill light. In my image of the girl with the trunk (The Magic Trunk), two tungsten lights were placed inside with one single studio light off to her side to light. For my Patience and Grace images, the color temperature is cooler to set the mood but also tie into that fact that my great-grandmother loved cool blues. I find that when I combine unconventional lighting with professional lighting, the results are so deep and unique. It impacts the narrative every time.
Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
Photography has changed my world completely. Before photography was a professional part of my life, I didn’t much like people. I was scared of them and had trust issues. Photography has given me this new light about them. I’ve had to get to know so many people and have had so many new experiences that people now fascinate me and I’m very social. I love to talk to people and hear their stories as well as find inspiration with them.
“Photography has been my therapy, my healing process and now the world has unlimited beauty even with the darkness we see.”
I was at the grocery store a while back and met a woman from Poland who had survived a concentration camp and married the soldier that rescued her in WWII. Sadly she passed before I had a photo shoot with her but she touched my life in such a way that not a day goes by without thinking about her. I never would have approached her or carried a conversation before. That is how reclusive I was. Photography has been my therapy, my healing process and now the world has unlimited beauty even with the darkness we see. I have learned that I am strong and I am a survivor. I have learned to have confidence in myself and my own life.
Crystal Davis, every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
“I cried through that image even during it’s making. I was forced to pull out things I’d just assumed forget.”
I am lucky to have had some wonderful guidance through my Masters degree program at the Academy of Art University. Three instructors have really helped me through some difficult milestones in my work. My first was my History of Photography professor. My very first class with AAU. He inspired me to look deep within myself and show him something dark. Before this all I had done was commercial portrait work and some landscape, but he saw my potential and forced me to show him. That marked the beginning of my domestic violence series. I’ll never forget how hard that image was to look at for the first year. It was a self-portrait of me at the dining room table holding a gun and a glass of wine. My face is bruised and there is a shadow of a man (my ex husband) screaming at me. I cried through that image even during it’s making. I was forced to pull out things I’d just assumed forget.
My next professor that changed my world was my Nature of Photography instructor. He pushed me to use photography as a healing process. He really made me take that leap. My current professor for “Color and Light” has taken that even further finally giving me to courage to show the world what I have done. Up until a month ago, my work was top-secret. But he showed me that it wasn’t making a difference keeping it myself. He thinks I don’t need his class, but he couldn’t be more wrong. I needed that push and I have learned so much from all my professors. These are just the three that really impacted me the most with their compassion and honesty.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
“I want others to learn from mine. I’ve had a hard life at no one’s fault but my own.”
I think I may have taken some of these questions and went off subject so this one is tough. I guess I would like to share my mental model with others so they can better understand my work. As previously stated, I come from an abusive, broken home. I became pregnant as a child, raised my child, had an abusive marriage and for many years, made all the wrong choices. My photography is really about and inspired by my life motto. Learn from your mistakes. We all make them, but what matters is how you learn from them. I want others to learn from mine. I’ve had a hard life at no one’s fault but my own. I could easily sit here and play victim but what would I learn from that. It took me years to develop into what I am and who I am. I am just grateful to that. I feel it is only getting better from here and it’s because I understand where I’ve been. I hope other’s can learn from that.