She is a first generation American woman, she hates to put a label on her work and she is Gemini. This is New York based photographer Caroline Tompkins, and we talk with her about female sexuality and identity.
Let’s make this interview a challenge and start with the hard questions: how do you get involved in the process of creating images?
Gosh, I feel like a beauty pageant contestant – I would say my individual self is largely steeped in my work so I’ll just talk about me and see if that answers it. I’m a first generation American woman, who grew up in Ohio and now lives in New York. My mother and grandparents escaped communism in Czech Republic and settled in Cincinnati, OH. I come from a long line of strong women who outlive their husbands. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a Gemini, but I always feel like I’m experiencing something on two planes – the woman from Ohio and the woman from New York, the male and the female, the American and the outsider. Maybe everyone feels this way. What I’m saying here is I think empathy is an important element in the work. I don’t think I’m actively trying or too worried about distinguishing myself and my work from others’. It’s more important for me to participate in the photographic conversation and follow my own desires.
Have any particular experiences influenced your work?
Lately, it’s been very important for me to have grown up in Ohio and understand how the rest of the country feels and treats women. It’s easy to get swept up into the NYC liberal fairytale, but I’m grateful to understand the Midwest of the country patriarchy and the generations upon generations of groundwork it has done. I mean, my mom is an immigrant, and she voted for Trump. I truly believe that act was made largely out of sexism. I guess I’m still mad about it (laughs).
Metal Tompkins 07.jpg
Your photographs are so meaningful, and all your subjects seem to have an interesting story behind. Are you friends with the people you photograph or are they complete strangers?
I try to listen to my desires as closely as I can. If I find myself researching something at 3am or bothered by an experience or talking about a certain thing on end, I’ll usually try to pursue it photographically – some things just give you that belly urge, you know? Truth is, if I like looking at you, I’ll probably try to sneak a pic, stranger or not. I’m not sure I’ve ever vocalized this, but I have a secret list of people I want to photograph – people I see on Instagram or acquaintances or whatever. I have a small fear that soon my work will be all the boys I’ve kissed and don’t kiss anymore.
Tell me about your recent work, how the idea came about, and what do you want to express on the pictures.
I pick things up and put them down a lot. I like to think I’m marinating on them, and in turn making them better, but maybe I’m just scattered. Last weekend I went to a town called Caroline in Tompkins County, NY. I found it by googling my name a few years ago, and drove north four hours to make photos that I may never show anyone. I kept telling people, “My name is Caroline Tompkins, get it?” No one seemed to care too much. Two months ago I spent a week’s worth of lunch breaks walking around the financial part of Manhattan photographing men – their impatience, the stale suits, the way they take up space. A week ago I called this flea market in Ohio asking to rent a booth and set up a photo studio in one of them. Almost two years ago I spent two weeks photographing kids at the swim club I grew up swimming for. I saw a Diane Arbus show at SFMoMA a few days ago and kept thinking that maybe all of these little projects will just become ‘my work’ – as in I should focus on the macro and not the micro.
When did you start taking photographs?
You’d think I’d be better at answering this question by now. I think I’ve always viewed picture making as a way to gain access to something. I wasn’t in the bands, but I could photograph the bands. I couldn’t date the boy, but I could photograph the boy. You get it. I think this general view can be the root of a lot of photography’s problems. It’s complicated, obviously. I think I started taking pictures when I realized there were things I wanted to hold onto.
Which are aspects of life that interest you most? Do you try to reflect them in your work?
There’s that Eileen Myles quote, “My dirty secret has been that it's of course all about me”. So anyways, of course it’s all about me. Ideally, I’ll answer this question differently at any given point in my life. When I was in undergrad, I was very interested in place, home, tourism, unlearning everything adolescence had taught me, becoming a human, etc. Right now I think a lot of my interests relate to intimacy, sexuality, what female desire looks like, something that is separate from homoerotic or a re-boxed male gaze, but something that feels truly female. These past few months, and maybe this is the state of the world, I’ve been very interested in destruction – burning cars, fights, broken objects. Ask me again in a year, and we’ll see what that looks like.
Metal Tompkins 09.jpg
Who are your main influences?
Honestly, it’s my friends. Yes, I am always looking to other photographers – people like Torbjorn Rodland, Roe Ethridge, Rineke Dijkstra, etc. – but those people aren’t present in my life. Molly Matalon is one of the most fearless people I know, and trust that she will always give it to me straight. She is at once my biggest supporter and my biggest critic – her work ethic and continual refinement of her craft is a reason I make pictures. Tim Schutsky is not only one of my biggest supports in life, but whose dedication to technicalities is something I’m continually learning from. He helps me solve my problems. Corey Olsen’s brain should be preserved and studied for generations to come. He’s always finding ways to surprise me or make me laugh or think about something differently. I suppose I could write a whole book of testimonials on the ones I love.
I can see that your work is mostly documentary, but I’d like to know: would you give a name or identify with a style to the photography you make?
I think the placement of a label (of a kind) is solely used to commodify the work, to make it easy, which I’m not interested in participating in. I regrettably went to a photo meet up recently where this question kept getting passed around. I watched as men told me they do portraiture and fashion or they do still life. It’s gross. It’s a means to an end.
Sexuality is another theme I can notice in your work, and I’m interested in your view. How do you want sex to be treated and seen?
As I said earlier, I’m interested in what female sexuality physically looks like – something that is categorically different than male. However, I’m not so interested in making what the internet claims as female either. I have no desire in using pink fur or peaches that look like butts or various satins or even my own body. Molly and I have this joke about women who have recently become feminists, and they make it their duty to convince everyone that ‘women have sexualities too’ – as though they’re trying to convince themselves simultaneously. It’s a joke, but I think it’s relevant here. Using sexuality in my work as a way to give others permission while concurrently giving it to myself.
Give me a list of your future plans.
I want get my pilot’s license. I want to complete a triathlon. I want to live on a boat. I want to take blow job class. I want to make really good vegan cheese. I want to ride a motorcycle across the country. I want to get my masters outside of the US. I want to kiss and be kissed. I want to love like a whole lot. I want to make pictures that scare me. I want to make pictures I can’t believe I made. I want those around me to succeed. I want people to feel cared for, listened to, loved. I want it all, baby.
Metal Tompkins 02.jpg
Metal Tompkins 03.jpg
Metal Tompkins 04.jpg
Metal Tompkins 05.jpg
Metal Tompkins 06.jpg
Metal Tompkins 08.jpg
Metal Tompkins 10.jpg