I Really Want a Picture of Your Lips

by abigailsmithson

Andi Schreiber, a photographer and bookmaker based in Westchester County, NY, discusses family life, her attraction to tiny details and the constant need to photograph where she is, wherever she is. Her work is a good reminder that you don’t always have to leave home to find interesting subject matter, as long as you have the eye for it.

Abigail Smithson: There is grotesqueness to many of your close up shots, a level of closeness that is worthy of a bit of cringing.  Is this your desired effect?

Andi Schreiber: I don’t want to put anyone to sleep, that’s not my goal. If there is something that arouses a reaction in a viewer, I think that’s very good, even if it’s ambiguity, a feeling of abrasiveness or a quality of discomfort. I want a viewer to feel something just as I’m eager to feel something as a photographer. If I don’t feel that spark then I am not going to make the picture. I really do tune into what’s going inside of that moment and when it’s right for me. I’m constantly in search of that feeling and I suspect that’s why I’m motivated to create new photographs. I don’t know if all photographers feel that same way, it’s just how I function. I’m an infatuation junkie.

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© Andi Schreiber “Steve”

AS: Another stylistic choice of yours is zooming in. Cutting out outside context and information, placing emphasis on the meat of the picture. How do you think this makes the images stronger?

AS: I have lots of people’s parts, but rarely a complete portrait of a person. How I wish I could make a decent portrait in the classic sense! Frankly, it’s the details that make me tingle. Getting in close is a real rush and all about attraction for me. In the photograph of my mother’s lips she is wearing a style of lipstick that she’s worn since I was a little girl. I love that about her. It became her trademark. I used to spend hours at our kitchen table watching her apply makeup, totally fascinated. So for me this photo is very charged and significant, as both my mother and I are growing older. It may seem in some ways that it’s unfair but it is taken from a place of love and perhaps longing. It’s something that I wish to remember about her. My mother doesn’t care for this picture but it’s very meaningful to me personally. Sometimes, even making a picture like this is a challenge. Fearing my own disappointment, I was deeply afraid to ask my mother to allow me to make this photograph.  Neither of us could anticipate what it would look like in the end.  We were on a beach for a family vacation to  celebrate her 75th birthday. It was overcast and we were all passing time hoping for the sun to come out. I was looking at her lips, as I had been for the past week, and thinking to myself, “it’s now or never.” So I asked and she agreed, but I was a bundle of nerves. I tend to do better work when I am a little bit on edge. When I’m too comfortable then I’m lazy, nothing good happens.  I prefer there to be an element of risk involved for myself and for the subject so that the energy can really be felt, both in the process of making the photograph and it’s outcome.

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© Andi Schreiber “Lips@75”

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© Andi Schreiber “Incoming”

AS: Many of these photos, while being your art, also document the lives of your sons. Is this what will compile their collection of childhood photographs? How do you differentiate between your art and your personal documentation of your own children’s lives?

AS: I made a Blurb book last year containing all my family photographs from 2011. It was titled Digital Daily 2011. This book contained 586 pictures. It was enormous, totally unwieldy. I would never make a book like this for a client or anyone outside of my own family – it would bore them to tears! What it contained were the birthday party pictures and the seriously goofy things we do as a family. The key to finding my personal work within that mountain of images is in the edit. I edit purposefully and with intention. I spent years working as a magazine and newspaper picture editor where I had to be ruthless in picture selection. I try to apply the same principles when culling down my work, although admittedly it’s harder to do with my photographs. On my blog, WonderLust, I find that I’m posting fewer pictures in recent years but that I feel more strongly about what and when I choose to post.

In many ways I’ve come to understand my children and the nuances of their individual characters because they’ve been preserved in photographs. They’re incredibly generous as subjects. I feel very blessed. They’ve never asked me to put down my camera although I’m waiting for that moment when they’ll pull the plug on me. It’s bound to happen soon. The awkward teenage years are around the corner.

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© Andi Schreiber “Scuba”

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© Andi Schreiber “On Deck”

AS: Are these images particular to your family? Or do you feel that many of the images you take could be documented in another house? Are you telling your own story or a story that you feel is collective throughout family life?

AS: My photographs are about the experience of raising a family and living within the parameters of a domestic structure. My hope is that they’re universally experienced yet still personal. The shot of the fish stuck in the net, seemingly gasping for air, is a small detail of our days. These are the things that surround us and make us happy yet for me that image is symbolic of the claustrophobia that can accompany parenthood. I’m acutely aware of the items we’re drawn to like our beloved personal devices, toys, food, and clothing. The photograph of the red cups of soda on the yellow chair astounds me. We continue to eat carelessly despite the knowledge we have about highly processed food. Yet, the things we love and choose to enjoy are also oddly beautiful and rich, despite or because of their artifice. They attract and repulse me simultaneously. I guess that’s life in the modern world. To answer your question, yes, I do think that my photographs could be made in another house although they would still be my story. Please invite me over! I’d love to be a voyeur in someone else’s home life.

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© Andi Schreiber “Caught”

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© Andi Schreiber “Cocktail Hour”

AS: How does your client work (the parties and events) overlap with your personal work?

AS:  It’s such a privilege to be asked to photograph a party, especially when it’s a life cycle event. But to be perfectly honest, I do it primarily because I enjoy the access. I’m uncomfortable photographing on the street and I don’t like to be perceived as a threat because I have a camera. Plus, I’m a terrible sneak. When I am at a party the guests know why I’m there. It’s a free pass for a few hours. While I certainly have moments that need to be covered at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah like a candle lighting ceremony or hora, it’s less stressful than photographing a wedding. It’s such an interesting time in the life of a family. These events are complicated by the fact that these kids are young teenagers. They have so many difficult internal and external issues to sort out. In some ways they seem so confident flaunting their shoes, dresses and skin. They’re all over all over the place, partying like adults yet I see a lot of uncertainty and a lack of confidence that comes through. It’s just amazing to watch the spectacle of adolescence play itself out on a dance floor. Every once in a while a personally felt photograph comes out of an event, which is why I keep going back.

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© Andi Schreiber  “Pink”

AS: How does weather affect your desire to shoot?

AS: A lot of my photographs have been made poolside, on beaches and during vacations. That’s when I seem to have the most time for making photographs and for reading photography books, which I love to do. There’s not much else that I want to do when I’m away. I can’t seem to relax or settle myself if I have a camera with me. I love the warm light and lushness that comes in spring and summer. Everything glows and I can’t help but respond to that viscerally.

It’s definitely more of a challenge to make new work during the winter months. That season just feels psychically heavy. While I’m definitely not in a dormant stage, I tend to hibernate. Without layers of clothing and equipment to weigh me down I feel freer when it’s warmer. A friend recently told me that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. She was referring to apparel and not to camera equipment. I think she’s right. Bad weather can make for great pictures. Maybe I just need to get a warmer coat and a flask.

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© Andi Schreiber “Peace Pop”

AS: You don’t have to leave your home or community to find subject matter that grabs you. How has your subject choice evolved from when you started out?

AS: I’m driven to visualize my life in some tangible way. Because I’m a parent and so attached to where I am, I’ve chosen to make photographs that happen close to our family. In the first few years after we left the city, I wanted to be creating new work but had no subject matter. I was starting to photograph my children as babies but my background as a newspaper photographer kept telling me that I needed to tell a story with a clear narrative. I actually longed to be a landscape photographer since I was surrounded by endless greenery, trees and fields but that didn’t feel right to me.

Eventually I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be creatively; that this space and time were meaningful and worthy as subject matter.  It took years before I realized that a body of work had formed. It evolved for me as I allowed myself to embrace the idea of a looser narrative in my photographs.

Family life, while being a very beautiful place and full of promise can be very suffocating. It’s a push and pull, full of highs and lows. You’re in it and it’s wonderful and then you need air. Finding balance is impossible because life is ever changing and my work has had to evolve along with it. Now that my boys are a little older I’m  able to expand my subject matter in new directions. As they travel farther from home so can I.

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© Andi Schreiber “Rear View”

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© Andi Schreiber “Self Serve”

AS: You have given credit to the tiny details that compile your everyday life (an aspect of photography that is often overlooked as we constantly search for something new, something that has never been done or that we have never seen before). Do you find it easier to pick up on these moments and compositions when you are focused and involved with what is happening right at that second?

AS: Inspiration is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. If I’m in an interesting place emotionally, I can access it, although sometimes it’s elusive. I’m motivated to experience deeply what is here, right now. For that reason it’s become important for me to elevate the everyday to the near sublime. It’s all I have – but it’s quite enough. It’s the mess on the table at the Mexican restaurant, crayons in the guacamole and a melted popsicle. These things are so commonplace yet they’re worthy of our notice. Photographs help us to open up to ideas to which we were previously unaware, like seeing humor in chaos when at the time I remember feeling exhaustion and jet lag.

As I look over my work there seems to be a desire for something that is just out of reach. I think that comes from a sense of being both an insider and an outsider at once – constantly hovering on the periphery. I think that’s where my work comes from, a very in-between place emotionally. It comes from a place of yearning.

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© Andi Schreiber “Bombed”

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© Andi Schreiber “Fast Forward”

To see more of Andi’s work , please click here.  Follow her blog @ Wonderlust and her bookmaking ventures @ Eyecandy Edtions.

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