A poetic photographer is one who romanticizes photography and immerses themselves in the process of image making. In the case of still-life photographer Dana Stirling, her art is driven by a sincere passion to find her identity through photography, to capture moments in time that express more than meets the eye.
Stirling has always found herself moving between two different worlds. She was born in Israel to English-born parents. While she was growing up Israeli she often faced moments of division: her home came with a deep sense of Europeanness set against the backdrop of the Middle East. For Stirling, finding her identity and connection to the world became the definitive subject she explores through her photographs and diptychs.
“On the larger level, I think identity is something we are all struggling with. My struggle comes from the fact that my family roots back to England and Europe. I was born into an Israeli reality, a culture different from my family. I grew up with a mixed feelings of not belonging anywhere, and not truly understanding what it is to be ‘British,’ as I had no memories of London or my English family, no accent, and no childhood there. Yet, in Israel I was the strange kid that spoke English at home, and who never truly blended into the Israeli culture and mentality. Photography, and found footage allowed me to get to the roots of these issues and find an artistic way to express them,” Stirling says.
Coming of Age
Even as a child, Stirling was someone that would never leave her camera at home. She was inseparable from her Canon point-and-shoot and took it everywhere she went, shooting family gatherings, friends and social gatherings.
Although she was infatuated with shooting, she was more interested in writing and becoming a journalist. Later, she realized photography could help her write narratives in different ways. Stirling followed her love of photography into undergraduate studies in Israel and spent her first year shooting only black and white film on a Bronica 6×4.5—her photography professor insisted that his students learn the craft in the traditional way.
Her understanding of photography became cultivated through her professor’s demand that they only use film. As a result, she learned the importance of light from the beginning. Working always in film taught her how light translated onto the photograph and how integral it is to the practice of photography. It was this period of time that cemented her photographic practice: even today, she continues to only shoot with film, using either a Mamiya RZ 6×7 or a Toyo 4×5 field camera.
“I started working with family footage in my second year of undergrad school. It was the first time I made something truly personal and close to my heart. This project, which I titled ‘Anonymous Family’ was a collection of old black and white images from my family album. I manipulated some of them, added text and created diptychs that allowed me to recreate their context. This project led me to work on my ‘Cache’ project, which in some way does something similar, only that in that project I not only appropriated images, but I used my own photography, trying to blur the lines between them.
“So, although these projects are different, they are all trying to tell a similar story in different visual ways. The subject of family and especially family albums has been a big part of my work since then, and is still a part of my work today,” she says.
Cultivating the Craft
Dana is currently working on an MFA in New York City, where she spends time on several different photography projects that revolve around the idea of family. Her work has been heavily influenced by Japanese still-life photographer Takashi Yasumura, who her teacher recommended. She credits Yasumura’s ‘Domestic Scandals’ project with changing her perception towards her work.
She finds Yasumura’s work significant because it silently fuses two cultures: “Creating a juxtaposition between American objects and the way they affected his parents traditional Japanese home,” Dana says.
Dana considers herself casual in her photographic practice because she doesn’t stage her photos. But, she often finds what she’s seen in her dreams. For example, she found a balloon in a forest in her dream and then found it on a photo excursion.
Writing With Light
The creative processes for photographers varies, especially given that the different genres within photography demand vastly different working methods. Stirling always reflects on what is in her frame before capturing the moment. Nevertheless, just before she shoots, she feels a moment of uncertainty.
“I usually start doubting myself. Sometimes (not in every photo) I have a weird feeling of uncertainty. When I do shoot, the mirror slamming against the camera is a great sound. I usually space out in some way when I photograph, like some kind of out-of-body scenario. The real feeling comes when the film comes back from the developer. That moment is nerve-racking. You always have the feeling that maybe all has been destroyed, that you lost it all. The moment you get the film out and see an image is the happiest and most exciting moment.”
The best way to understand the perspective of an artist is to ask exactly what their work means to them:
“My work is in some way a traditional look at photography. I have a formal feel to my images, they are carefully made and they do resemble an aesthetic of a traditional still-life photographer. Yet I do not see myself as creating traditional work. My visual aesthetics might resemble it, but I feel that my works context and subjects convey a more conceptual, poetic, and enigmatic tone. I think that traditional is never a true word to describe photography. Photography as a medium is the opposite of traditional. Photography is a visual art that broke the rules of art at the time, broke the traditions the western world was used to,” she says.
But there are other moments of serendipity in the photographic process, and this came to Dana during a trip with her husband to upstate New York when she came across a blue water slide. Every image has a story unto itself, and some images are the most memorable to capture.
“We drove down this narrow road; it was all beautiful, green with a vibrant blue sky. I suddenly saw in the corner of my eye, while passing by, a blue water slide. We stopped the car and I got out. The water slide was on a small hill in front of a residential house, so there was no real access without permission. I was debating if I should knock on the door and ask, but then a woman came out from the house and gave me permission. We started walking up the this hill through all the overgrown grass only to arrive on the top and see the most beautiful little pond, with a beautiful blue slide, on a beautiful day,” she says.
Holding Down Tradition
Viewing a still-life is like staring at a painting. The scene is still and immovable, the colors and the subjects coordinated, and their’s a unique story behind every object and subject. Dana’s diptychs and still-life photos dig deep down into her subconscious, and help her create a juxtaposition of two different cultures to tell a story — her story. People connect with her photographs because they make you think about your own identity.
“I am currently working on putting together a book,” she says. “I started my MFA with a vision of creating a new identity, and creating a whole new family history and narrative. But as I started working on my project, I realized my intentions had shifted. I realized that I am more interested in recreating the notion of family histories and identities; the idea of our heritage as some kind of baggage we carry that shapes us and transforms our personalities. My book attempts to understand the idea of family history, crating a connection through unknown people and alternate realities in order to form a new narrative.”
Dana Stirling has just started writing her narrative, and it will be exciting to see how her career progresses. Her work can be seen at www.danastirling.com.
What’s in Dana’s Kit?
Mamiya RZ 67 , Lens f/110
Mamiya Prism Finder
Toyo 45AII Field Camera
Toyo Binocular finder
Rodenstock Grandagon N 75mm f/4.5
Schneider makro symmar HM 120mm f/5.6
Rodenstock Sironar N 135mm f/5.6
Rodenstock Sironar S 150mm f/5.6
Rodenstock Sironar S 210mm f/5.6
Minolta light meter
Sheet film Holders
Ektar 100 120 films
Nikon D300 (expensive digital light meter as she puts it)
PhotoFlex changing room