Creating personal work while working full time with Jenny Papalexandris

Image credit: Jenny Papalexandris

 

Artist and photography educator Jenny Papalexandris is one of this year’s acclaimed Head On Photo Awards judges.  She spans the gamut from industry professional to photographic artist so we inundated her with questions to find out exactly what she does in a normal day, and to hear all about her career and her art.  We thank her for the time she spent on this.  Read on!

Please tell us a bit about yourself - who are you and what do you do? / what is your background and how did you come to photography/art?

I am a Fine Art Photographer and Educator based in Australia. I hold a Master of Art (1997) and a Bachelor of Education (Art) (1987) from the UNSW Art & Design (COFA) in Sydney. I divide my time between working in a Secondary School in NSW, teaching the Visual Arts and Photography and Digital Media Course and working on my personal projects in Photography. Photography has always been there for me in many different forms. I came to it seriously about eight years ago, when my studio was out of action. Originally, I was trained as a sculptor.

Image credit: Jenny Papalexandris

Can you give an overview of one of your typical workdays?

Teaching adolescents at the beginning of their creative life is both an enriching and complex endeavour. I see my role as a facilitator in assisting my students find their personal voice in their artmaking. My typical day involves instructing, critically evaluating projects, assessment and meetings. The challenge of an Arts education program is to engage students as they face a new technological, digital world. At the end of my workday, I then spend time on my own personal work in Photography, usually archiving, editing and preparing submissions.

What skills are required or personal attributes essential for success in your position?

As a practicing artist I feel I can bring the experience ‘from the field’ to the classroom. Teaching demands critical thinking and deep knowledge of your subject, which I have built over my career. Like any professional we need to manage our time, develop keen communication skills and exercise patience!

 

Image credit: Jenny Papalexandris

What parts of your job do you find most challenging? Enjoyable?

The most challenging aspects for me are the time constraints and external structures that limit creativity. The obsessive amount of administrative work, assessment and reporting has increased over the years. By far the most rewarding aspect of what I do is to witness a student’s creative growth over the years. Young people are uniquely expressive as they have not yet been tainted by the imposed standards of the industry. They break the rules because they don’t know them. Their work is often raw and subjective. That is what I work with.

Tell us about your work - what does it aim to say or how does it address contemporary social or political issues?

In terms of my personal work, I explore Photography as a subjective response to the world of light and shadow. My photographs tend to be highly expressive and imbued with a strong sense of poetry, symbolism and metaphor. At times my images reveal a brooding, introspective questioning of my subjects to arrive at a sense of mystery and wonder. I am interested in the metaphysics of time and place and how as humans we negotiate that space, often there is a sense of longing in my work but also what binds us as people. They are personal records tracing universal themes of loss, memory, identity, the body as metaphor and our place in the world. It is in this way that my work connects to wider social issues of how we negotiate the sociotemporal landscape or how we connect material, cultural and social elements over time by investigating the rhythms of living. Mainly I work in black and white, having begun as a film photographer, but more recently I have been building some colour series.

 

Image credit: Jenny Papalexandris

Who or what influences your work?

Like any artist, we develop a sensibility over time towards certain modes of expression. Mainly our senses become attuned to seeing the world of images through a subjective lens. In terms of influences, I have a deep respect for our historical photographers and theorists who paved the way for us to understand the language of Photography. We need to be versed in our own image history and then leave it behind to create from our own experience. I still return to the work of Josef Koudelka, Trent Parke, William Klein, Alex Majoli, Sally Mann, Antoine D’Agata, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Robert Frank, Alexey Titarenko, Saul Leiter, Bill Brandt, Dorothea Lange, Irwin Penn, Sébastien Van Malleghem and Gabriele Croppi to name just a few! Theorists like Sontag, Baudrillard, Derrida and Bachelard have all shaped my thinking. I look to Cinema as a key component in my image building, particularly the films of Béla Tar, Tarkovsky, Wong kar-wai and film noir. Poetry and literature are also a major influence on my work, many times a new project comes from reading Seferis, Neruda, Pessoa, Beckett and Kafka.

How do you know when a body of work is finished?

This is an eternal question in aesthetics which is still difficult to answer. When is a work truly finished? Where does an artwork exist? If you take something away or introduce something new, will it collapse conceptually? Many times, a work of art is completed by the world and the audience. This is the conceptual framework I use to teach as well (artist, artwork, world and audience). A project does not end with the intentions of a photographer, layers of meaning and interpretation are added from the observer/curator/critic which in turn affect and shape the work. But from a practical point of view, I leave my work to rest over time. It is never truly finished. I return to a series and reimagine it, expand on it, until it strikes that elusive balance of conceptual and aesthetic wholeness.

 

Image credit: Jenny Papalexandris

How do you seek out opportunities?

I go through ebbs and flows where I am more and then less active, but mainly I use the common platforms and opportunities open to all artists, grants, exhibitions, awards, photo fairs and festivals. I have a love/ hate relationship with the commodification of art practice and the cult of personality but accept that artists need sustenance and support and am grateful for it. We cannot thrive in a vacuum. New opportunities always provide opportunities for artistic growth. The Arts funding bodies in Australia still resist seeing Photography as a legitimate artform as compared to other parts of the world who have dedicated Photography spaces and programs. This is an unfortunate situation for the cultural landscape of our country. Photography documents our greatest human experiences.

How have you developed your career?

Discipline and hard work come first, there are no short cuts. Failure also, is a great instructor. You need to find your authentic voice and nurture it. Seek out opportunities that reflect your sensibilities. If your work has integrity, you will be able to move forward. Support from your peers, arts organisations and dedicated photography platforms like Head on, are the linchpin to an artist’s career. I have been lucky enough to show my work in various contexts across national and international forums and have published a photobook, Five Bells (2016) with the New Press (NYC) documenting the subjective experience of LGBTIQ people in Australia. But at the end of the day, it’s the work that matters, it begins and ends with that, that is what is real.

If you’ve enjoyed seeing Jenny’s moody but inspirational black and white photographs here on our blog, do head over to her website to see more.

 

And why not consider entering your own images into this year’s Head On Photo Awards?  There’s still time - entries close 31 May.

 

ENTER THE HEAD ON PHOTO AWARDS

 

Image credit: Jenny Papalexandris

 

Category
Festival Year
2021