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Stacy Kranitz and the Power of Coming Undone

photography STACY KRANITZ
29 May 2023

Stacy Kranitz's first monograph As It Was Give(n) to Me weaves together photos of Appalachia citizens with self-portraits of Kranitz dressed as the titular character of Christy, the 1967 novel about a young missionary who is "undone" by the people of Appalachia. Blending ideas of past and present, Appalachia, and the stories about the region, Kranitz builds a compendium of work that is both singular and arresting. Throughout the book, the Kentucky-born photographer is in dialogue with the limits of photojournalism itself and, in doing so, rejects simple moralising of her subjects and their surroundings. Regarding her work, Kranitz writes, “Makes photographs that acknowledge the limits of photographic representation. Her images do not tell the ‘truth’ but are honest about their inherent shortcomings, and thus reclaim these failures (exoticism, ambiguity, fetishisation) as sympathetic equivalents in order to forcefully convey the complexity and instability of the lives, places, and moments they depict.”

Rebecca Loftin: I've been such a huge fan of your work for so long. I jumped at the chance to interview you.

Stacy Kranitz: Well, thank you so much. I'm going to try to sound smart (Laughs).

RL: Let’s dive in, how did the reception of As it Was Give(n) to Me inside the Tennessee community differ from those outside of it?

SK: When I first started making this work it was very controversial, and people within Appalachia found it very difficult. But weirdly, by the time the book came out, you know, twelve years later, a lot of people understood what I was trying to do. Or they felt like the best way to show their disdain for my work was to keep silent about it (Laughs).

RL: Why do you think it resonated with people outside the community?

SK: I think when you're doing a review of a book, you're looking at the issues that are raised around that book, and I think many people have a lot to say about photographic representation of poverty. So, I always saw the book as a conversation. It pokes at you in all these different ways and starts a complicated conversation, either internally or with others.

RL: You’ve talked a lot about truth-telling, specifically the emotional truth. I noticed that there was a really big jump in style from Fulcrum of Malice to From the Study on Post-Pubescent Manhood. What was the transition from documentation to emotional storytelling like? 

SK: You know it’s interesting, I finished the Fulcrum of Malice project kind of halfway through the other work. I find my work is both a celebration and a critique of the documentary tradition. I do sometimes feel the need to take up a more formal, social-documentary-oriented approach. But then I quickly become frustrated with myself and abandon ship. But it's important to not be trapped in a certain type of work, a certain style of work. It's a real joy to try new things, even to fail at them. I would say Fulcrum of Malice is a failure.

RL: Really, why was it a failure? 

SK: I was kind of reckoning throughout that project with, you know, being a white photographer in a predominantly African-American community and also being part of the disenfranchisement, in this case, petroleum and plastics. I wanted the work to do something for the community, which I was never really able to achieve. So, I learned a lot by making the work. I think the fact that it is a ‘failure’ makes me like it even more. It stands for something that I didn’t quite get right, that maybe I would like to try again. 

RL: In your work, you critique the documentary tradition. How do you tread the line between legitimate exploitation and commenting on exploitation?

SK: Well, I think a lot of people would say I do exploit, and I'm sure there are just as many people who say I don’t. Sometimes I think there are people who really love my work because they love poverty porn. I'm confident that there are people who don't see the critique at all. And that is okay. Because, you know, I'm putting the work out there. If it's not resonating in the exact way I want it to, that, of course, makes sense.

I think one important part of the work that tries to address these issues is the self-portraits. They encompass me looking at my arrogance and my position of power. In the book, each chapter ends with one of these portraits. So just when you think you might have thought you understood what was going on, I wanted to kind of pull the rug out.

RL: It's interesting, in a lot of the portraits, you are taking photographs of yourself as Christy. Why do you return to her character and narrative throughout your work?

SK: When I was growing up, I didn't really know much about Appalachia. So my first relationship or understanding of the region was through the mini-series based on the book Christy. I watched it as a kid, and I was very enamoured with this woman who goes into the mountains to teach poor children how to read and write (Laughs). Christy was this woman trying to do good and help, but she was also trying to tell people how to live their lives.

RL: Right.

SK: I think the other thing that really captivated me was in the course of the miniseries and book, she becomes undone by the people. They completely change and rearrange her understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. I felt a real connection to that idea of putting myself in a place to become undone. It’s a core principle of my work.

RL: You've talked a lot about the intimate relationships you've formed, like with Derek, who gave you the title As it Was Give(n) to Me. When you're choosing subjects and when you take photographs of people, do you feel like you need their consent? I know that is often a polemical conversation in photojournalism. What is your approach?

SK: I think a lot about consent. I do not do model releases in part because I find them really problematic. Because they are saying that I can do whatever I want with these images, but often when I'm making work, like any other artist, I don't quite know how this work is going to be formed or what it's even really about. I always want to leave that open. I always think people evolve and change. That's just what we do as humans, so it's very likely that I might have caught someone in a very bad place in their life, and they may not want to be reminded of that place. But then in another ten years, they actually may come to feel differently about that image. And I just want to leave open that possibility. I do like to ask for consent, but there are many situations that I shoot where I come upon a scene, and if I were to ask, I would ruin that moment. So I'm always making a calculated decision. And when it backfires, which occasionally it does, where I think it's okay for me to take this image without asking permission because the situation is unfolding in front of me, I make sure to stop, to listen, hear what the person's anger and frustration and hurt is about and then I try to talk it through with them. I'm happy to delete images, it does not bother me. No image is more important than a person's feelings.  

RL: Brutality and violence are really big components in your work, what drew you to those themes? And what drew you to the region of Appalachia? 

SK: Well, I grew up in a really violent home, so violence was something that I felt, in some ways, comfortable around. I think when people move away from violence when it unfolds, I move towards it. The work, of course, is a great way to reckon with that. That's the way I started making work—violence, violence as catharsis, trying to understand violence better. And what initially brought me to Appalachia was this dystopian compound for people to come together and behave violently. For fun (Laughs).

RL: But there is a lack of judgment in that work, which I really resonated with.

SK: I really appreciate that. I think I always wanted to try to understand violence with a deep amount of empathy. I will say it's not that I'm above judgment. It's that I'm hyperaware of when I'm judging people, especially when I'm photographing. When I take up the camera, when I go out and experience life in that way, I'm attempting to practice non-judgment. And failing.

RL: Do you have any artists you find inspirational? Or even who you just really love?

SK: I love Ke$ha, and she has a new album out (Laughs).

RL: I love that.

SK: It's very good. She’s amazing.

RL: Were there any photographers, at least when you were starting out, that you were inspired by?

SK: I think a photographer that first interested me was Niki S. Lee. I also really loved Catherine Opie's work and Nan Goldin. And Leni Riefenstahl. I talk about her so much.

RL: The photographs are amazing! They're so provocative. 

SK: I'll finish work like Fulcrum of Malice, and then I’ll immediately need to do a project like that. I’m constantly battling my deep interest and desire for social documentary work and my complete disdain for it.

RL: I'm a filmmaker, and The Blue Light, I mean -

SK: - We're like two of the only people probably to have ever seen The Blue Light.

RL: (Laughs) Probably. It's so interesting. How do you think about artists with problematic viewpoints or histories? The Blue Light is a prime example of that.

SK: I love problematic artists. I'm definitely drawn to problematic heroes. In part because I believe that heroes are villains and villains are heroes.

RL: How do you feel about depicting people with problematic viewpoints? Do you ever feel repulsed or drawn back? Has there ever been a time where you think, oh, this is hard, even for me?

SK: I think that's what I like about the work. Putting myself in positions where a person that I'm spending time with and getting close to is really fucked up. They are doing harmful things to themselves and to people that I care about. I hear people say things, refer to people in ways that make me uncomfortable all the time. Friends, subjects, anything. 

RL: It's hard to make art if you're not in a good place. How do you care for yourself?  Or is that not a priority for you? 

SK: Oh, it's very necessary. I used to sit in the Walmart parking lot and cry, but that was never  productive. I think that it took me a really long time to find a way to create a space for myself to rest and feel inspired. Then, I bought a house in the woods. I pay very small amounts of money for mortgage, insurance, property tax, and utilities. I feel a sense of safety in being able to cover those things, especially when things are hard and I'm struggling. And in that space, I keep a lot of my favourite things, things that keep me calm. Keep me centred. And there's my dog. I can just think about my dog and feel calmer.

RL: What's the dog's name?

SK: Moonshine.

RL: Moonshine! What a great name.

SK: He's normally on my lap, but I'm not home. The things in the house are very stable. I return to the same food on my shelf, the same way of looking out the window, and a bed that's exactly the way I want. Those kinds of things really help me. And of course, meditation and exercise. 

RL: And Ke$ha.

SK: And Ke$ha! Pop music in general, by women. 

RL: I feel like women who make really sad art listen to really inspiring pop music. 

SK: Yes! She's always surprising to me. She's a bit of a chameleon, so she's doing all kinds of things. I like Taylor Swift, too. I like them all.

RL: Me, too. I'll take some Britney -

SK: - Oh, Britney's great!

RL: So what's next for you? What are you working on right now?

SK: I'm in the mountains right now working on a fellowship about post-coal Appalachia. It's a social documentary, but every day I'm working on it, I feel very frustrated. I want to go and do something very dark and fucked up. I like that tension, though. It really challenges me. I'm working on a piece for the environmental issues after coal mining. And at the same time, I'm working on a book about poverty, photography, and eugenics.

RL: Wow.

SK: So that's really dark. [I’m] sort of shifting back and forth between those two things. It's maybe the scariest project because I don't even understand what I'm trying to say. I'm just trying to present relationships between images and ideas, which is what an artist does. 

RL: It was so lovely to talk to you. Thank you so much for hopping on. I really appreciate it. I'm usually writing essays. 

SK: Oh! What if you interview Ke$ha? 'Cause you're in LA, isn't she in LA?

RL: You know, that's a great idea. I'll get in touch with her people (Laughs).

SK: Tell her I say hi!

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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