Tuesday, April 8, 2008

interview • terttu uibopuu

i heart photograph: i'm wondering if you could first describe your subtopia project and how this image, blowdry, fits into the series.

terttu uibopuu: subtopia is project about women in the chicago suburbs. when i started this series last fall i really intended to make this into a "straight documentary" project but ended up just focusing on the portraits and some of the landscape of suburbia. i was moreover telling my own story and showing my own experience of life in the 'burbs. showing what it was like for me to move to cary, illinois five years ago from estonia. because i was kind of in a shock and felt really out of place at that time. but now i really feel it's time to get over myself and learn something from other people's experiences. thanks to my teacher paul d'amato, i started to ask the question "what do these women do?" and focus on their stories and just let things happen. i got really excited about the picture of a girl under the blow-drier, and i knew that this was a breakthrough for me and a direction i wanted to take with subtopia. now i really love exploring different environments other than the homes of these women. it's intriguing for me to try to tell a story of a very mundane activity, like sitting and waiting for your hair to dry.

i.h.p.: at first glance this looks like a straightforward image of a beauty parlor but several details make it start to seem much more complex. i'm thinking of the fact that the room doesn't really resemble my idea of a beauty parlor, that the woman seems far to young to use that kind of equipment, and the mysterious piece of paper she's holding. could you talk a bit about the question of how much visual information you want the viewer to have available when they see the picture?

t.u.: in this case, i was just so amazed by that darth vader looking blow-drier and that was it for me. i really didn't want to have any specific environment nor other details in this picture, i wanted it to be tight. i just loved the fact that she really didn't seem to fit in to this place. the piece of paper just has a print out of a celebrity's hair style that she wanted. and her expression kind of reminded me of avedon's shot of marilyn monroe where for that split second she just let her guard down and wasn't aware of the camera, i just love that.

i.h.p.: i'm also not quite sure whether this image might be a documentary image of a stranger or a carefully-arranged portrait of someone you know. is "documentary reality" something important to you in this image?

t.u.: i've had many battles with this word documentary, but actually this image is probably far more true to "the truth" or real life than any of the others from subtopia. i went to this beauty salon in the north shore suburbs of chicago to take pictures of all the elderly ladies who go there every week, but stumbled upon her. she and her girlfriends were getting ready for a high school dance in the same salon. and because she had very long and thick hair she had to be under that hot heat helmet for a very long time, which was perfect for me to set up a 4-x-5 camera. all of those things are not really evident in the picture which does make me question the documentary aspect of it. but i think documentary work doesn't always have to have the whole truth just a sliver of truth is often enough. in the end it's always just the picture itself that matters the most to me.

i.h.p.: could you explain what you mean when say you have problems with documentary?

t.u.: it's like philosophy, you'll never get to the real truth, but it's just important to keep trying. in the end i think that the true documentary happens only when the camera is not present, because the presence of a camera always either exaggerates the truth or doesn't show it at all.

i.h.p.: knowing that you used a 4-x-5, how does the process of using a large-format camera affect what and where you choose to shoot?

t.u.: i only used to shoot with a medium format camera, and not too long ago switched to a larger format. using a 4-x-5 really hasn't stopped me from going into places, i always try to ask permission and usually get it. when i shoot i just get very excited and kind of giddy, which might help to ease off some of the seriousness that the presence of the 4-x-5 has. by the time i'm ready to shoot, hopefully the person has become less self-aware. but i really love the slowness of this camera and how it pushes me to try to make each negative precious.
[photo: blowdry by terttu uibopuu. 2008. see more of terttu's work here.]

interview is a weekly column by nicholas grider that appears each tuesday on i heart photograph.