Interviews, Places, Storytelling

A Sense of Place: Jenn Ackerman

Rear Curtain recently sat down with Minneapolis photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber to talk about their personal projects. This husband and wife team was recognized in PDN’s 2013 Photo Annual for their projects and was also selected by the American Society of Media Photographers in their Best of ASMP 2012 list. In Part I, we speak with Jenn Ackerman about her project “Frozen”. Part II can be seen here.


How do you recognize a narrative before you begin your work?

As still photographers we strive to have as much information as possible in one single image but we find it important to show many aspects of a single story therefore spending time making multiple images and finding multiple things to speak to one idea is important to us. Starting out, Frozen was this idea of a sense of place, a sense of feeling, the people, the feeling you get living in the north. With all of these ideas, I wanted to come to some multiple perspectives with multiple portraits from multiple places. One image would not be able to speak to that so multiple images tend to be my approach to a story.

For some, a story changes as it unfolds. Did this happen when you photographed Frozen?

Frozen was really a personal exploration, my excuse to explore visually Minnesota. Before I moved here, people said if you are going to live here, you are really going to have to embrace winter and do things that get you outside. This was my excuse to be out there on those really cold days when I wanted to be inside. The story unfolded as I explored what it means to be in the middle of winter, to be outside, and what it looks like when you start driving far and going deep inside of it. And within that, it took on a life of its own, focusing on the intimacy and isolation of that space.

© Jenn Ackerman

© Jenn Ackerman

What was the most difficult aspect of documenting a place?

As a photographer going to different places, we are explorers but to really understand a place as you are photographing is quite difficult—not understand it as a local would but to understand what the place is or means to people or to yourself. You need to learn what a place is and how to photograph it in a way that speaks to the reality of it and not just what you see visually. It shifts too. This project was photographed over a period of three years. In the first year, it was a personal essay for me. I wanted to go out and make sense of this place I had moved to. By the second and third year, especially the third year, I knew what I was trying to say. It became almost nostalgic to me and honestly, more fun. I was able to go back to places and see those that had become a part of me and my winter, and not merely as a new place.

Some places I photographed in the first year, I returned to in the second and third year to perfect them. Some of them I never could because in that first year, I was a blank slate and saw this new place I was exploring. The first impression speaks to what you are seeing visually and then the second or third pass, you can go a little deeper and take more chances.

© Jenn Ackerman

© Jenn Ackerman

How did using a 4×5 camera force you to settle into the place?

I wanted to use the 4×5 because it allowed me to just be still but it did make it a lot harder. It’s really cold and your fingers are frozen and it takes ten times longer to take one photograph than it would with a 35 mm film or digital camera. In the summer, you can use a 4×5 and it’s enjoyable but in winter it takes a lot of commitment and patience, not only you as the photographer also the person you are photographing. They had to give a lot standing in the snow in negative degree weather and there’s an interesting relationship that developed because of that.

© Jenn Ackerman

© Jenn Ackerman

Do you feel a place makes its people or do the people make a place?

I think a place makes people. It is cold here and winter is winter. It’s kind of like growing up on the east coast where there are lots of hurricanes. There’s something that happens after a hurricane that brings people together and changes you after a storm like that. There is something that happens here every winter that changes people and makes them the way they are. People are heartier; they are connected in a way you would not be without that kind of weather.

© Jenn Ackerman

© Jenn Ackerman

Although you worked by yourself on Frozen, how does being part of a team affect your work or the way in which you work on an essay?

Tim and I always travel together so when I was working on this, we were working on another project together and he was always there with me when I was photographing. There may have been three times when I went out by myself. For the most part, it was both of us exploring this space together and enjoying it. We didn’t always go out just to photograph it but most of the time I had my camera in the car or we’d bring the 4×5. It became a little more intense in the third year. I knew what I wanted to say and I wanted to finish the project. Because I work with a partner, I am much more engaged in what I am doing, not as a photographer but as a person. Not matter what we are doing we are always talking to other people and they are getting to know us, not as photographers but as people because they want to know a part of our life which is the other person. We know that is a big part of photography, having that relationship with the people and places we photograph.

Working as a team has had a huge impact not only on this project, but on all of our projects. When I am with Tim, I am living in those spaces not just photographing them. I wouldn’t have worked as hard on this project. We were spending a lot of time on the road and I don’t think I would have made as much of a commitment to it had we not done it together. That goes for all projects. It would be harder doing it all alone, missing the other person. When you are together, you are actually making memories not just making photographs. That definitely changes it.

Note: This interview has been edited for length.

You can find more of Jenn Ackerman’s work here.

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