Dona Schwartz is a photographer whose work explores everyday life and culture. She earned her PhD at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in visual communication and ethnographic research. In addition to working as a photographic artist, she is a scholar and an educator. Among her academic publications are two photographic ethnographies, Waucoma Twilight: Generations of the Farm (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) and Contesting the Super Bowl (Routledge, 1997).
Her photographic monograph, In the Kitchen, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2009. Her award-winning photographs have been internationally exhibited and published, and her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Musée de l’Elysée, the George Eastman House, the Harry Ransom Center, the Portland Art Museum, and the Kinsey Institute. Born in Philadelphia, PA, Dona lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is Associate Professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.
Andrea and Colin - 11 Days
Tell me about your work? What are you currently working on? How is this different from past projects?
My current project is called On the Nest. It's a portrait project about two transitional moments in the family life course: the transition to becoming a first time parent with the birth of a first child, and the transition to an empty nest when children have all left home. I find these two moments fascinating because they are filled with changes in identity, daily routines, and social interactions. They are moments when we stand at a threshold of the unknown, bracing for what comes next in our lives. Another thing I find especially interesting is that in our culture we approach these two significant moments in quite different ways. We have invented rituals and routines that mark our transition to parenthood, but we don't formally observe or celebrate the transition to an empty nest. There's no script that helps us make the journey from everyday parenting to the next phase in our lives. And so it's a bumpier, less well-defined passage from one state to the next.
In earlier work, In the Kitchen, for example,I took a more spontaneous "decisive moment" style shooting approach, and that's the way I have photographed most of my life. I have always been extremely interested in human behavior and social interaction, and my approach was well matched to the kinds of questions I was asking.Photographing people in the act of being themselves is a hallmark of my practice. With On the Nest I moved way outside my comfort zone as an image maker. But as with all my projects I choose the approach that fits the ideas I am exploring. I'm not married to particular ways of making pictures--I'm married to visual exploration. InOn the Nest I swapped my 35mm for large format, digital for film, spontaneity for formality. It slowed everything down and it made me very deliberate about constructing visual representations. I've learned a ton about a lot of things doing this work.
Chris and Susan - 7 Months
How did you decide to become an artist?
My mother was an artist and she taught me to draw and paint. But as a teenager I needed to strike out on my own so I swiped her 35mm camera and started making my own kind of pictures. For a while we lived across the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I would make regular pilgrimages to see what photographs they were showing--usually work from the permanent collection. I was particularly inspired by Andre Kertesz, and especially by his visual wit. When I got to college I discovered an interdisciplinary area of study called visual communication. Actually it was such a new approach the scholars involved were pretty much making it up as they went along and that was exciting and seductive. I become so fascinated by studying pictures of all kinds that I chose to become a scholar so I could continue studying images throughout my career. Then I was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, to invent and teach a curriculum in visual communication in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. That was an exhilarating challenge to embrace! My earliest teaching and research focused primarily on photography's history, traditions and uses.
But I couldn't put down my camera! I needed to reintegrate making pictures into my repertoire. So I started doing research with photography, doing ethnographic field studies employing photographic research methods. My first book, Waucoma Twilight: Generations of the Farm, exemplifies the approach I was taking at that time. But I soon became dissatisfied with the way I was working, for two reasons.
First, academics are expected to write about what they research and my pictures were taking a back seat to the writing I produced. They were poorly reproduced and overwhelmed by the written context I needed to provide. It was frustrating because readers were treating my pictures as illustrations of the points I was making in writing, while I saw the pictures as equal players.
Second, I wanted to make more pictures and all that writing was getting in the way. I realized this after my second book, a collaborative project called Contesting the Super Bowl. It was great fun to shoot but when it came time to do a book I was back in the library and at the computer doing the research and writing to "support" the pictures. I completely enjoyed putting it all together, but I wanted to be back in the field shooting long before I got there. That led me to make a change and do my social explorations as a photographic artist--photography first, photographs to tell the story, photographs to create the context, photographs to make the point.
Now my research comes out in pictures and when/if words accompany them the words are the supporting players. My most recent book, In the Kitchen, exemplifies the way I do things now. It's all about the pictures and the ideas they allow me to express. My unusual background and trajectory give me a distinctive voice, and I am as excited as ever to use it!
Kevin and Bobby - Waiting to Adopt
What was the best advice given to you as an artist?
Trust your audience.
Many artists struggle to find ways to sell their art. How do you sell your work? How do you market yourself?
I'm much better at making art than selling or marketing it. I know it's frowned upon to say so, but my job is to make the pictures. That's what I'm good at. I'd prefer to leave the marketing to someone who knows what they're doing, is good at it, and enjoys doing it.
Who are some of the Minnesota artists you enjoy?
JoAnn Verburg's work is very exciting to me. It pushes boundaries and makes me think.
If I were to follow you around to see art in Minnesota, which places would we go? What would we see?
I see art in everyday life. It's not where you go, but how you look at what's right in front of you. I also go to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Weisman, and the Walker to see institutionalized art.
In addition to www.Local-Artist-Interviews.com, where do you go online for good art resources, whether to find a new artist, or to see what is going on in the art world locally and otherwise?
I am a random web searcher/consumer and go many places to look for new work. Galleries, festival announcements, email digests. It varies day by day. I wish I had the time to be more systematic. My strategy has been to sign up for emails from galleries, museums, book and magazine publishers in the US and abroad that present work that interests me. And my Facebook friends keep me apprised of new and interesting work--often it's work they are producing themselves. There's always more than enough to see and read. To give you an idea, some of the emails in my inbox right now are from:
And that's just a sample--a snapshot. My inbox provides a wealth of information and an organizational nightmare. Thank goodness for the search function.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Altered Esthetics "Collecting Evidence" 7/6/12 - 7/26/12 Opening Reception: Friday, July 6th, 7pm-10pm Artists’ Discussion: Saturday, July 21st, 1pm-3pm
Also, I will be finishing On the Nest this coming year. There's still time to participate in the project if you're a recent empty nester (1-5 years) or expecting your first child. Just email me. (Know anyone expecting twins or more? I'd love to include them in the project.)