Photographer Grace Weston
Based in Portland, Oregon, Grace Weston has spent the last twenty-plus years photographing small worlds. Her artwork has been recognized internationally with numerous exhibitions, publications, and awards. Grace has also created work in her unique style for the editorial market.
SS // Grace - so lovely to be able to chat with you. Your work is delicious. Let’s kick off with the basics… How did you get into photography?
GW // I took art classes in junior college, including basic black and white photography and darkroom. Painting was torture, but photography was magical and came easy to me. I loved it, and I became the darkroom assistant.
SS // Well, your distinctive style is clearly striking. How did you stumble upon your present aesthetic?
GW // Even before I applied this sensibility in my photography, a vintage look appealed to me: old movies, illustrations, TV shows, advertisements, and clothes. I had a ton of my parents’ old Life magazines that I used to cut up for collages.
I also have a strong sense of color, and I enjoy the control I have in setting up my scenes, choosing the palette and composition as if for an illustration or painting.
SS // You use a lot of dark humour in your work - where does it stem from?
GW // I grew up in a working class family in New Jersey. Both of my folks were very smart and witty. We experienced some heavy hardships, and the way we survived life’s ups and downs was with dark humor. It can function as coping mechanism for issues that may be depressing or demoralizing. To hit those issues head on with humor deflates their power to overwhelm. It can work as a survival tactic, or just as a reminder to not take oneself too seriously.
SS // How long does it take you to build a mini set? What is your favourite part of the process?
GW // It varies widely. Once I have an idea for an image, I have to source, alter, or make the items to complete the staging in scale. This can take from a few days to 3 or 4 weeks depending how elaborate the scene is.
My favorite part of the entire process is the moment when I look through the lens, and the set and the lighting begin to work together to bring forth the scene as imagined in my head. There can be a lot of trial and error, but when it starts to align, it is thrilling, and I am the only person who sees it come to life right then.
SS // What were you striving to depict in your Neo Noir + The Long Night series? What motivated your shift in approaches between those darker images and Short Stories/Tall Tales?
GW // The Neo Noir series was created in between Short Stories/Tall Tales and The Long Night, and it was the transition between these two approaches.
The “Neo Noir” images are mysterious and foggy, offering very little information. This change was prompted by my move to a new city after enjoying the comfort and familiarity of twenty-two years living in Portland, Oregon. Suddenly, I was the stranger, daily milling through the sea of unfamiliar faces and places. I needed to work my way through my feelings of disorientation and alienation, continuing to function effectively, while keeping my thoughts private. My small daily problems represented not only the mundane tasks at hand, but also, the deeper, existential questions as well.
I returned to Portland after four years, and wanted to continue in the direction of the dark and mysterious, but with more narrative. I wanted to keep the sense of intrigue, and leave questions unanswered. I also was experimenting using different lighting sources to achieve the very minimally lit look of nighttime that I wanted. Politically, things have become darker, so this turn in my work feels very appropriate. The Long Night harkens to the 60’s – spy movies, the Cold War, suburbia - and adults who had cocktails, cigarettes, secrets, and lives that they did not share with their kids.
"I wanted to keep the sense of intrigue, and leave questions unanswered."
SS // Many of your shots are set in 1950s. What is the intention behind that?
GW // I certainly have an attraction to the fashions and furnishings of the era. In addition, the period is so familiar yet far enough removed from us now that the characters and settings have become almost archetypical. And, for better or worse, we can still see the reflection of our society and ourselves.
SS // Why this medium? What can this medium do that others cant?
GW // Photography tends to be accepted as portraying something real (despite the advent of Photoshop). There is an irony in depicting my scenes with material props and sets rather than painting or illustrating them, as if the fantasy from my imagination really happened. Of course, it clearly didn’t, but it is a way of messing with the notion of reality.
I also love to tackle larger issues, universal questions, dilemmas, and weightier concerns of life through miniaturization, and that is more evident in photography than it would be in a painting. It allows for literally cutting them down to size. To me, it is a way to reconsider our assumptions, to reduce our fears and laugh them off, or recognize the illusion in feeling helpless, or in feeling all-powerful. In many ways, life is so illusionary and art can be so truthful.
SS // The names you give your pieces are fantastic - they are so above and beyond. Are there narratives behind the dolls you select or stories you paint? How do those stories come to you?
GW // Sometimes a character or a prop prompts an idea, other times a title or phrase comes to me first. I keep a small sketchbook where I write down ideas – often in the middle of the night!
In the Short Stories/Tall Tales series, each image is it’s own story. Many of those ideas came from the fears, anxieties, and idiosyncrasies I see in us as humans struggling through life, dragging along our big egos, which I find amusing.
With The Long Night series, there is an overarching story about one night in some unnamed suburbia. The approach is much more cinematic. Choosing an overall mood and theme set me in the direction. It was fun and freeing for me to work in this way, creating images that connected with a through line, while leaving questions unanswered.
"[dark humor] can function as coping mechanism for issues that may be depressing or demoralizing. To hit those issues head on with humor deflates their power to overwhelm. It can work as a survival tactic, or just as a reminder to not take oneself too seriously."
SS // What kind of people do you find most interesting?
GW // Smart people with an edge, who can tell a good story, especially with humor.
SS // What do you want people to take away from your work?
GW // I want them to think, recognize themselves, and/or sometimes have a little laugh at the foibles of this human race.
SS // What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned through your creative work?
GW // I would have to say there are two: Persistence and being true to myself. It takes a long time to develop a style of one’s own and the skills to realize it.
SS // Do you think you need to see a career as “forever” to make an impact?
GW // To me, the reasons to pursue art are to grow and evolve, to better understand oneself, and to communicate. I think of it as a continuous pursuit, and there would be no reason to stop. (It could change forms.) The impact is on the artist and hopefully the audience.