LOS ANGELES – The moment before I met with photographer MJ Katz, I downed two slices of pizza. I was catching up on her latest solo exhibition, So Long : So Far, a self-portrait series dedicated to the memories of loss from when her childhood home sold to a new family.
The exhibition at Infinity on West Adams ran from October 21st – November 5th, and marked MJ’s first solo show and photographic debut since her graduation from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena a year ago, but that’s not to say the photographer hasn’t been busy since obtaining her BFA. She displayed her first sculptural works entitled Precious Metals which included a set of Unwilling Participation Trophies for moments like cyber bullying, lock down drills, and student loan debt for the group show, Party Castle.
In a way, the Infinity exhibition was like an anniversary of accomplishments from where it all began. Obsessed with the feeling that I had pizza crumbs on my face, I grabbed a few napkins and headed over next door to the gallery.
Inside, two girls scribbled their names on paper behind me, where I noticed a lock of neon blonde hair neatly tied in a braid on display. The images on the wall, a mixture of landscapes and closeup portraits, would immediately connect it to be the same hair MJ had during the time the series was made. A now tousled brunette, MJ sat in the heart of her work on a pair of wooden benches where she began to tell me about her photographic process. “All the images were shot in-camera,” she said in reference to the ghostly multiples of herself. Through well composed long exposures and MJ’s performative use of a flashlight, the end result is an eerie ethereal presence of the self.
When speaking about what shaped the series, I understood that formulating questions was the forefront of her process. “I’m interested in personal history,” she went on to explain. “History of place, history of object, of the things that we own and the places we go and the people that we know. What is actually there?
We have these relationships to all these different kinds of things that form our day to day life, but what does it actually look like? For me, I think I’m interested in the challenge of what is no longer there, but you feel like it is. That’s what this body of work is about.
Put a flashlight in MJ’s hand, and she will create a dialogue of presence. “It says how long I was in a certain place, and where I was in this location, and so for two to three nights a week for about three and a half months I was let into the house by the son of the family who bought it, who I’m now dating, but that’s another story,” she smiled. “For whatever reason, I would head straight to my parent’s room first.” There MJ would unload her equipment to set up before gravitating on to the next room.
Depending on the change and unfamiliarity of the rooms, MJ would start there. Objects left behind throughout the new owner’s home renovations suddenly became props for both the photographer and muse to interact with. One of those props ended up being a large mirror and paint bucket in what used to be her brother’s bedroom (pictured above).
I realized I was following things in the house that I knew wouldn’t be there for much longer. So in a way, I was chasing the things in the house that were moving and had the potential to be lost. Those were the things I held on to the most.
One shot in particular happened by chance in her childhood bedroom. During her time running barefoot around the house, painting with light, she noticed the yellow glow of her neighbor’s back light. Not one time during her being there did they keep that light on. “And I knew my neighbors,” she recalled about the happy accident. “I could have been like ‘hey could you keep your light on?’ but I didn’t want to. I wanted to approach the space with some structure.”
Another portion of the work relies heavily on the photographer’s recollection of her parent’s divorce when she was in the 6th grade. “In the beginning of the series, I think it was very important for me to pay tribute to those moments by enacting them by using myself as a figure.”
In the below image, MJ Katz recreated the moment she would cup her hand to the wall to listen in as her parents argued in the next room. “I wanted to know what was going to make them separate. I knew as a child it was going to happen, for whatever reason I had that intuition, but I wanted to know why.” Countless times MJ’s brother would catch sight of her, and MJ’s presence shows that he was accepting of her curiosity, yet remained reluctant.
What makes the series interesting to me is that you find it hard to discern when MJ isn’t performing for the camera. As both photographer and subject, having to portray a character, as well as directing the frame, is remarkable to know just how much presence is required within herself.
Photography can be both hard and easy at the same time to stay in the moment. When you have the ability to look at the screen of the camera, that stops you from being present.
“It’s the most present I’ve ever been while making a body of work,” she says in regard to spending nearly 3 hours each night walking through her childhood home. “But because the experience was so physical, and because I was counting the seconds of the exposure, I was in it. I would leave the house feeling like I had just meditated, and that’s sort of what I was doing.”
Sitting beneath a cardboard frame, MJ wraps herself in light, while illuminating two figures standing at her side. The left sided figure is much different from the one on the right. We can see how the light creates movements encircling the womb, representing her mother, and the figure to the right steps in as her father. Rough traces of the flashlight add to the feeling of movement while an austere hand at the hip, combined with the styrofoam mess in the foreground alludes to the complications as to why we might find the photographer creating a space for herself at the center.
Since the completion of the series MJ still goes to her old house.
“Every Friday for Shabbat,” she laughed.
As if she never even left, MJ visits to see her boyfriend and his family.
“There are these moments that I’m experiencing that are very warm with the sense of family which I had always hoped would exist in the house after I left. It quickly became an experience of immense gratitude and appreciation for me. Right now I think it’s more important for me to live those moments than to photograph them.”
When it comes to creating her next project, MJ remains unsure. “I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to feel so compelled to photograph something at all, because that’s when the best work is made. And it can be scary as a creative person waiting for that moment to happen.” However, she’s confident that the root of her work will be aimed towards memory.”I’m interested in the constructs of memory, how they are formed, and how they affect us.” Much like this series, and the expression of loss, MJ hopes to make work that showcases what is no longer there.
MJ is inspired by the works of Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. “With Diane you see her subjects and you don’t know what the relationship was with them, but when you see Nan Goldin’s, you know and she’s not just participating. That ability to convey relationships in a photograph was really important and inspiring to me.”
Saying goodbye to the symbolic moments of her childhood where they happened was paramount to MJ, to which she says, so long.
To view the entire series So Long : So Far, have a look on the photographer’s website here.
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