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Courtesy of Moyra Davey
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New York based photographer Moyra Davey is one of 51 artists chosen to show in this years Whitney Biennial—opening tomorrow. In her most recent project she folds her photographs, mails them, collects them again, and exhibits the results. Last year she showed in MoMA’s “New Photography 2011” exhibition and her works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim. The Eye sat down with Davey to discuss the Biennial, working alone, and her favorite photograph.
What subject matter were you initially drawn to when you first got into photography?
Well, I was a teenager, so I just took pictures of my friends. When you’re just starting out, you often photograph everything. That’s what I was doing. I was doing some self-portraits, some interiors—really kind of a bit of everything. Night photography was something that I really had a lot of fun experimenting with.
You were one of 51 artists selected to show your work at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. What do you have to do to prepare?
I’m showing a video and two pieces that I made for the biennial. Essentially, I just had to make the new work. It’s mail art, so I had to fold up my photographs and mail them to individuals and then collect them. Those constitute the two pieces. And you just have to give them your files because everything is digital and copied onto the computer.
You live and work in New York, a place known for its fast pace and high energy. Yet your photos have a sense of quietness. Does something draw you to simplicity?
Yeah. I prefer to work when I’m not exposed, so I’m not very good at taking photographs in public. I do it sometimes, but it’s almost kind of stressful. So I tend to work in situations where it’s very controlled and I don’t have to deal with people [laughs].
Why? Would you say that they inhibit the process?
They can. A lot of photographers love to work with people. That interaction is what inspires them. But in my case, I kind of like to work slowly. When you work with people, you kind of have to be quick. I’m not fast. I never developed the habit of having a trigger finger and focusing quickly. I never developed that skill, and that’s what you need if you’re working with live subjects.
Your pictures also present a tension between human presence and abandonment. I’m thinking particularly of your “The coffee shop, the library” photographs. Do these pictures of objects say more about a person than a portrait?
I think they can say a lot about an individual. It’s funny, I got an email recently from a friend. I took a lot of portraits of friends in the 1980s, and they’re in the Whitney. She said, “I usually think that portraits don’t say much about a person, but in your case, they did communicate something.” I mean, it’s really debatable. Whether or not you can get to the truth of a person through a photograph is highly contingent and subjective. I think sometimes you can, but it’s so easy to get the picture that you want. But that’s not necessarily reflecting the subject, so in a way, I do think that objects are more reliable as traces, indicators of a human presence.
When you take these photos is it a conscious decision, or is it more of a spur-of-the-moment type of thing?
It’s planned. For instance, I really like taking photographs at the WFMU Record Fair. I’ve done that numerous times. For the works for the biennial, I went to the Pforzheimer Collection at the New York Public Library. It’s a fantastic collection. There’s a show there called “Shelley and His Circle,” so I was photographing letters that Mary Shelley and her sisters had written and first editions of Mary Wollstonecraft’s books and wonderful stuff like that. The photographs at the Whitney are almost all photos I took from there.
Do you have a favorite photograph, one that made you really feel like you hit the nail on the head?
That’s a hard question. There is one that’s going to be in the biennial that is a photograph I took around 1982 of two pinball tables, and they each have a little hole worn in the rug in front of them. One of the holes is a lot bigger, which is indicative of which is the more popular. I made it in 1982, but I reprised it for the biennial, so maybe that one.
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