There’s no better way to describe Jamie Knowlton than a force of nature. An activist, an artist, a photographer, a student; currently an MFA candidate in Visual Studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Her photographs of the body are raw and intimate studies of human relationships that defy traditional gender norms.
Where did you grow up and how did it influence you as an artist?
I grew up in Texas and spent my formative years in Austin. I feel conflicted in general because how I feel about Texas was drilled into everyone at a pretty young age. It was all Texas shaped waffles and The Alamo, that sort of thing. And yet I also love being proud of Texas. Hah!! It’s awful.
Texas can be regionally beautiful and vast. The state gets a bad reputation because of the white, racist oil tycoons who try and run the show. But there's a completely diverse population of people from there, a vivid Latinx culture, important Black history, a history of debtors immigration since it's first occupation in the 1500s (GTT anyone, anyone?), and of course it's own serious fucking issues around colonialism and land occupation not to mention the handling of these important narratives. This rich and mixed culture of people curated good music: garage, zydeco, blues, the True Stories musical film, **Selena,** and it started important conversations about art. San Antonio and Marfa both come to mind when I think of important art towns.
In general, I grew up in an inner-city suburb of Dallas that had a pretty obvious wealth disparity. I, myself, growing up in low-income apartments my entire upbringing as an example of being on the low end of the economic spectrum. That environment, it just made me thirsty. I've always been drawn to "art" even before I knew how to contextualize that. Whether that be learning about Starry Night in 2nd grade or studying endlessly the illustrations in Children's Encyclopedias. Sigh, so that's that.
What first inspired you to pick up a camera and start photographing the people around you?
I took photojournalism in high school, I loved the magic of it. It made me feel in control because I could capture these moments. Also, the dark room was chill. I read a Nan Goldin interview recently and she said that she felt at one point photography could keep people alive (she learned otherwise of course). I feel this way, but more like it keeps elements alive in you or allows for a new form of living for something. I also use it has a way of penetrating space or it helps me to understand my experience in space with other objects, if that makes ANY sense.
A lot of your work centers around the human body and challenging traditional norms. What initially led you to photographing the human form and what do you hope your audience gains from viewing your work?
I feel that I’ve answered this question quite a bit, so I hope to keep it brief and not too redundant (for my friends who are kind enough to read this, lolz). I am drawn to my corporeal flesh sack and other corporeal flesh sacks, because of what we carry inside them and what they’re capable of. In general, right now, I’m trying to level the body with everything else that’s sentient, that exists. Essentially, I think it would be good if people learned to understand their body as being abstract while simultaneously being grounded in that. No easy feat.
Your work also portrays the power of the female gaze. What is your view on femininity in art and photography?
There are a lot of other incredible femme folks that discuss this better than I do. Representation is important, empowerment is important. I work at a Women’s Reproductive Planning clinic and I tell femmes all the time that being in control of their bodies is one of the most radical things women have/can do. It’s important to subvert gender binaries. One way to do this is to subvert the extreme stereotypes. I am not just seen or see myself being seen as some theorists say, I am also my actions. This is one of the ways I act, being a queer femme with a particular lens.
A lot of your images involves being in intimate settings with people you have never met before. How do you go about meeting these people and creating a safe space for a photoshoot?
To be honest, I meet a lot of people on Tinder. I have a couple photo dates in the works now, but they keep getting snowed out. I can only answer the last part of this question via what people have told me, which is that I put people naturally at ease. I ask open ended questions and check-in a lot.
I love your recurring photographs with your partner, Phoebe. How did you first meet and is photography an everyday part of your relationship?
We were both really struck by one another the moment we met. She moved into the shed behind our house. And as time passed it became more and more undeniable that there was magnetism between us. We decided to pursue that truth and there ya have it. We support each other every day in subtle and immense ways. One of the ways she supports me is by encouraging me to do what I love. She is my greatest collaborator and helps me create new visions of things and make ideas into reality, it’s amazing. I’m so grateful for her.
What is something you’ve discovered about yourself while photographing others?
Nothing that blows my guts out, but I guess every time I just get humbled by other people’s rawness and vulnerability in that situation. I also witness myself feeling shit or in a fervor or annoyed with tiny elements. At the same time, I kinda just enter a trance when I’m photographing people so it’s hard to say what the hell is actually going on.
You also experiment with other mediums such as video. Do you have plans on incorporating other forms of media through your photographic works?
Most definitely yes. I’m in an MFA program that has incredible resources I’ve never had available to me before. I’m dabbling with sculpture in various forms, ceramics, and more video. I’m beginning to emphasize deconstructing the display of the photograph and see the photograph itself as an opportunity of sculpture. So, that’s exciting. I’ve seen others do this really remarkably. Re: the video work, I think it’s natural for photographers to flow in and out of the moving image.
Any upcoming projects or collaborations that you’re excited about?
I’m going to be a part of a booth at FOCUS festival in Mumbai. Some of my photos will be shown along with a super 8 short I’m making in collaboration with Aruni Dharmakirthi. We’ll have a digital edit of the film finished soon as well for a possible opening here.
Are there any themes or concepts you are interested in investigating in future work?
Virtual Reality and Survivalism
What’s your favorite Instagram account of the moment?
This changes, literally, every day. Today: @openlygayanimals, @laurie_franck, @secretdollunderworld
One book and one film recommendation?
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde.
Black Girl // Loves of a Blonde (both pretty depressing at moments, it’s Winter!!)