Jennifer Long Bio:
Jennifer Long is a Toronto/Tkaronto-based artist, curator and arts administrator. Her practice draws inspiration from the quiet moments and rituals of everyday life in order to explore the complexities of women’s experiences. Long’s artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally at galleries including Harbourfront Centre (CA), Centre Culturel Calouste Gulbenkian (FR), and CICA Museum (SKR). Long’s practice has been included in numerous publications, most recently BlackFlash Magazine (2021), Mothers’ Day (Artist Residency In Motherhood, 2020), and Mothers, Mothering, and Covid-19: Dispatches from a Pandemic (Demeter Press, 2021). In support of her practice, Long has received grants from the Toronto Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council and The Canada Council for The Arts. She is a member of Spilt Milk Gallery and a founding member and co-administrator of Feminist Photography Network, a nexus for research on the relationship between Feminism and lens-based media.
reference: Jennifer Long, https://www.jenniferlong.ca/about
Untitled self-portrait, from the Imminent series (created with the support of the Ontario Arts Council), 2012, archival digital print, edition sizes 24” x 16” & 45” x 30”
Curator: Let’s start our conversation with the Imminent series. What was the initial motive of this five-year series?
Long: The Imminent series originated out of my experiences as a new mother and the research I undertook during my MFA. My thesis, Swallowing Ice (2009), considered my anxiety around having children and the looping conversations I had with myself about venturing into this unknown territory. I wanted a family, but I struggled with the fact that I could not envision how it would impact my identity, happiness, and career. Through my research I felt reasonably prepared for what this next step held, through sources such as Andrea O’Reilly’s work, but I remember a disappointment in the narrowness of how pregnancy and motherhood was depicted in art and spoken about in an art context. I knew the work must be out there, but I was struggling to locate it.
After my eldest child was born, mothering was all-consuming and it took about a year before I could start to put my thoughts into creating work. It was at this point that I realized my past process was filled with obstacles given my new situation. Prior to becoming a mother, I typically worked with a large-format analogue camera and studio lighting and I recognized that I needed to adapt my process in order to move forward without being in a continuous state of frustration. I simplified my process to what was accessible and used myself as a model, natural light, and my digital camera. The results were diaristic, constructed records of my experiences of mothering, and they contrasted to many of the depictions of motherhood I saw at the time. Soon it became easier to step away from family life for a few hours and have time with my friends, many of whom were pregnant or new mothers. This led to profoundly vulnerable conversations about the varied experiences of parenting we were all having. These important conversations were the origin of the Imminent series.
Untitled, from the Imminent series, 2013, archival digital print, edition sizes 24” x 16” & 45” x 30”
Curator: In last few years, you have photographed numerous women. How did you select the subjects? Why did you choose to photograph in their homes? Are the works candid photos or staged?
Long: Throughout my practice, I have always photographed my community and during this time, many of my close friends were having children. Given this and the fact that our conversations were an important part of my research process, it was a logical next step to begin documenting them for this body of work. As my understanding of the project grew, I wanted to expand the series to include individuals beyond my circle. I did this by creating a summary of the project and sharing it with my connections, asking them to forward it on to anyone they thought might be interested.
I imposed certain rules for this project as it progressed. These guidelines helped to carve out space for me as an artist as I began to redefine myself in this dual role. These rules included that I had to be able to get to the location on public transit, finish the shoot in under two hours and that I would work with everyone who reached out. If the model was interested, I also offered to take pregnancy portraits for their personal use after my shoot was finished. I wanted to give something back to these individuals who were willing to invite me into their homes and trusted me to make these portraits. The home backdrop was important because I wanted the image to be taken somewhere the subject was comfortable and a setting that added intimacy and insight to the photograph. I also felt that this environment was significant because my relationship to my home had shifted after having children. It became both a refuge and a place I was tethered to due to my newfound responsibilities. When I arrived, I asked each woman to show me the rooms with the best light and the outfits they had pulled together. From there we would explore different combinations of locations, clothes, and poses, all while casually talking. The position of the subject was a combination of both natural poses and directed movement. I would ask the women to sit or stand in a way that was comfortable to them and I drew their gaze towards me. As they were shifting and getting comfortable, I would often ask them to freeze or recreate a position that they had moved through. Then with minor adjustments, I would photograph them with a deadpan expression, some with eyes locked on the camera, others focused on something or someone out of the frame. I was interested in the power of their gaze and how that defied western expectations of submissive mothers with their dutiful looks of tenderness. I was also thinking a lot about how throughout pregnancy and post-partum, I often didn’t recognize my own body, and yet with each session I saw parts of myself reflected back in these images.
Untitled, from the Imminent series, 2013, archival digital print, edition size 24” x 16”
Curator: The women are from different nations/races/background, what do these differences resonate to you? Do their journey of becoming a mother echo with each other’s?
Long: Through the many conversations I had with these women, I appreciated how their experiences overlapped and echoed my own. This realization resonated deeply with me. Perhaps due to where I was in my own journey, I found particular comfort when speaking to women who were pregnant with their second child. Along the way I heard stories of miscarriages, fertility clinics, overbearing relatives, and a lot of anxiety and determination.
After working on this series for a few years, I paused, thinking that maybe I had exhausted the project. But in 2017, a woman who saw my work on exhibition as part of the Feminist Art Conference approached me and asked if I would take her photo. As we spoke, I learned she was a dedicated swimmer and how her time in the water every day was important to her wellbeing. Her confidence in asserting the importance of ensuring she nourished herself always stayed with me. I respected the insightful and firm way she expressed this and her recognition of the importance of maintaining something of her own during pregnancy. I realize it sounds so simple, but as a first-time mother, I wish I had such conviction to put myself first more often. During that photo session, I took images of her floating in a pool. These stills are different from the rest of the series – a public location and contrasty light. Although they don’t fit seamlessly within the series they remain some of my favorite images from that time. That same year, my neighbor was pregnant with her third child. I would marvel as I watched her regularly leave the house and go running. Witnessing a woman in her third trimester running simply wasn’t something I had seen before and I was amazed by her strength and dedication to carve out that time for herself. Right before her child was born, we did two photoshoots together, one of which was organized to occur immediately post-run. Again, those images never made it into the series, but I still find them exceedingly beautiful, filled with openness and vulnerability. By photographing other mothers I saw the possibility of what motherhood could be and how one could remain committed to maintaining a sense of self amid the chaos of rearing children.
Untitled, from the Caesura series (2018-ongoing, Created with support from Canada Council for the arts, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council with funding from the City of Toronto), 2019, archival digital print
Curator: Moving forward to the Caesura series, which is about “moment” and “memory” in an evolving mother-daughter relationship. How did your daughters’ daily activities reflect your girlhood memory? And why does the reflection and recall matter?
Long: Throughout my life, I’ve been endlessly fascinated by family albums. What narratives can we infer from what is documented and the enticing question of what is not captured within the photograph? Can truths or facts about our loved ones be deduced from reading body language, the position of a person and even who is missing from a photograph? What memories were created or altered by the ubiquitous snapshot? Memory is such a fragmented, unstable, and shifting thing, altering with re-telling, reflection and growth. There is a weight to being the person who documents my children’s lives, a creator of a tangible form of their memories.
In the Caesura series, I’m looking for moments and details from our lives that allow room for narratives to flow. Maybe it’s finding slivers of light that illuminate the ordinary into something new or monumental. It can be shadows on a wall that remind you to slow down and breathe. Or when familial bodies entwine which suggests the complexity of intimacy and family dynamics. I sometimes find there is a strangeness that happens while observing children at play, a darkness that can be read into their games or actions that is not intended. Occasionally, I see a heaviness in their bodies that is created by the weight of my presence or requests.
This series began taking shape when my eldest daughter was around the age of ten, the same age where my memories of childhood become more real. Of course I have fleeting recalls from when I was younger, the yellow sneakers I wore to kindergarden or the feeling of shag carpet between my fingers, but my unwavering memories tend to begin when I was around ten. I grew up in a small town on Vancouver Island and before the pandemic, I would bring the girls there once or twice a year. Although the city where I grew up has grown, the sea, forests, and mountains remain the same. I would take my girls to places I frequented and watch them engage with the land, one another and their extended family, and my memories would come flooding back to me. I couldn’t articulate the contexts my memories were extracted from, but it was like watching brief moments of my youth with my siblings and friends be re-enacted in this new generation. From this experience, I felt as though I could connect to my daughters through these shared experiences.
As my children have grown, this recognition of experience has become more frequent – I see parts of my body in theirs or my gestures mirrored by them. While simultaneously seeing this, I also recognize their developing independence. It is unbelievable that although they are unique and separate beings, they also hold pieces of me within them, just as I carry parts of my parents within myself. I can see fragments of history repeating itself as the experiences between generations intertwine.
Through this body of work, I’m finding ways to connect and learn from my daughters while also reminding myself of the challenges of adolescence. Together we are entering a period of life in which it is important that they are given the support to transform, to branch away from their dependency on me, and find others who fulfill them. I think this project is about discovery and understanding. About learning who my children are and offering opportunities for us to work and learn from one another, while also exploring what it must have been like for my mother and her mother to raise their children.
Observations from Isolation: Day 226, from the Caesura series, 2020, archival digital print
Curator: How has the pandemic shaped/reshaped your domestic relations and your own feelings about motherhood, about the dual role of mother-artist?
Long: I think the early days of mothering prepared me for life in lockdown, a situation we are still dealing with in Toronto. There is often an eerie familiarity in my pandemic experience – the limited contact to others, blurring of days, heightened anxiety, and constant interruptions to my thought process. I have returned to being overjoyed when visiting the grocery store alone and slowly walking down every aisle. Currently, I’m focused on getting through the daily demands of online schooling and I feel I am too stuck in the middle of the situation to have a distanced perspective on the pandemic experience.
That said, I do feel that I have to proactively engage in my work to ensure my daughters see some of the labour behind parenting and my practice. I want them to understand that it’s not my job as a mother to do everything and be constantly available to them. It’s not what I want from motherhood, nor is it what I want them to think a mother should be. I also try to articulate the invisible part of my artistic process, verbalizing why I’m photographing a scene or how lighting can change the way something looks. I want them to know that just because something is invisible to them or difficult to see, that it does not mean it isn’t important.
Untitled, from the Caesura series, 2009, archival digital print
Curator: Despite the photographs only captured the very moment, I feel there are continuous narratives implicitly floating behind the tranquil scene. We would love to know more about your experience of becoming a photographer/photography artist. How does the language of photography make sense for the feminism view?
Long: From when I first picked up a camera, I was enthralled by how a narrative could dramatically be altered by what is kept in and cut from the scene. In high school I was fortunate to have a teacher, Brent Reid, who fostered my interest in photography and went out of his way to create opportunities for me to grow as an artist. He taught me to scan a room and divert my attention from the main event and look at what was occurring in the background – to pull out details and put them together to tell a story. In addition to this mentorship, I also had parents who instilled in me the importance of having a career that fulfilled me.
There is a fluency in photography that I am attracted to. I am constantly engulfed by lens-based imagery – it tells me the news, sells me goods, and bombards my daily life with its skilled communication. Because of this, it’s a language I, and so many others, are fluent in. It is approachable and easy to comprehend, relatable. Photographs trigger thought and I’m interested in using that device to draw attention to things often overlooked or considered unworthy of momentalizing. These hundreds of objects, scenes and moments that make up our days are important to me and it feels appropriate to use a medium that is commonplace in our lives.
Through my feminist lens I find there is a way of drawing attention to details that, I feel, are often more telling or tell a different story than seeing the whole situation. I regularly struggle to articulate how something affects me or why, but by drawing attention to it through a still image, I can give a weight to it. With strategic lighting, print scale, perspective and focus, I can make a scene monumental. I often find myself capturing similar moments, for me the repetition is a way of giving it significance and also seeing how my connection to those experiences or settings change over time.
Lately, Long has been reflecting a lot on sustainability, and how an artist can maintain an artistic practice post graduation. She says: “Throughout my career, I have been surrounded by a generous group of mentors and friends who have supported me in a wide variety of ways and I’m curious to see if there are ways I can help replicate a similar experience for others. I think of how impactful Lenka Clayton’s open-sourced Artist Residency in Motherhood was for me and I would like to be part of making such a contribution. I find art administration a very rewarding experience and I’ve been working with Clare Samuel on using grassroots strategies in Feminist Photography Network to try to do some of that work such as building a database of Feminist-minded artists on our instagram feed, curating exhibitions, and running free online residencies. There are so many important organizations and initiatives that are changing the landscape of art. In Toronto (Tkaronto) I’m thinking of NIA Centre for the Arts, Sketch, and MOTHRA, or internationally Artist Parent Index, Strange Fire Collective, Women Photographers International Archive, Fast Forward – Women in Photography, and Birth Rites Collection to name just a few. It’s exciting to see history being rewritten and a shift towards a more inclusive future”.