Photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman finds beauty in small moments. Here, she talks with Casey Ireland about intimacy and the role of the muse (including one of her own—her husband Father John Misty).
Looking at Emma Elizabeth Tillman’s photography is a lot like being a tourist in the life you wish you had—lots of travel, hot people surrounding you, with an eye for extreme beauty in small moments. Tillman is a multimedia artist whose work includes the short film History of Caves, and a book, soon to be released, of diary entries and photographs. She’s also one half of a creative power couple with musician Father John Misty.
Beyond taking careful shots of interiors and operatic photographs of buildings and landscapes, Tillman’s work features a lot of soft-focused, athletic pictures of female bodies (her own included). Tillman’s women make eye contact better than Manet’s Olympia; even when lounging on red velvet or draped over a chair, the women she photographs seem ready to get up and party. They’re active subjects, present muses. The physicality of her portraiture, and the way she manipulates viewer/subject divisions, made for worthwhile conversations about memory, femininity, and representation.
Casey: What’s your relationship to the position of the muse? In a recent Instagram post, you refer to artist Amanda Charchian as your muse; as part of a creative couple, you’re often cited as your husband’s major inspiration. Do you have a preference for being either the embodiment or the projector of a muse role?
Emma: I have special relationships to certain faces in my life. Faces captivate me on different levels and represent different things to me. Certain faces evoke comfort, some evoke a feeling of difficulty or impenetrability. And then there are some who have a special mystery that bring me back to them again and again. I am sometimes surprised by how many faces someone has when you are truly intimate with them, and trying to capture them all is thrilling. Amanda has become that for me.
As far as the concept of the muse, I have never asked to be a muse or asked someone to be mine. It’s the kind of thing that just happens. I think one must simply be grateful for the opportunity to experience it and know it brings you infinitely closer to whomever you are engaged with in that relationship.
What role does intimacy play in your portraiture? You have a book coming out soon that features diary entries and selected photographs—what was the process of selecting how and what to publish? Your husband, friends, and repeat places are frequent subjects—do you prefer to shoot subjects you already know? How do you encounter new landscapes or people through your work?
It is, above all things, about intimacy. I don’t have an interest otherwise. I like taking pictures of people and places—I love to grab a feeling from it, hold onto it, look at it and get high from it. I think the viewing of photographs is not necessarily a visual experience, although it is triggered through the eyes. Photography is about evoking something deeply felt in a moment, and the success is in whether or not the viewer of the photograph feels that moment and how much the photographer loved it.
Familiarity is important when it comes to photographing people, but I can get the spirit of a place pretty quickly. Interiors and landscapes have a personality that I can understand. There are more visible ghosts in landscapes than in people.
You have an amazing variety of self-portraits—the series of nudes on the table at the Chateau Marmont and the rouging-up series in the pink coat are both beautiful and really physical. Can you tell me a little bit about your particular interests in self-portraiture? How do you use or see yourself as a subject?
There are two reasons I usually tell people. The first is practical. I can take a picture of myself whenever I want. I know exactly what I want from the picture and I have ultimate the rights to it. I don’t have to worry that someone else won’t like the picture or prefer that I not publish it.
The second is that I have always been mysterious to myself in some way and taking my own picture is a way of showing myself something I was looking for. I like secrets. And looking at a picture I’ve taken of myself is like telling myself a secret.
How does femininity as an aesthetic or construct factor into your work?
I think it’s an unavoidable idea. Advertisements, movies, and art of all kinds work their way in our psyches and are expressed in the way we want to be perceived, and I am not exempt from this. I see those ideas emerge in my own work mostly as something playful but sometimes the tone of the story is dark or licentious for whatever reason.
Some of my photography is an extreme projection of composed femininity, designed in my own mind to release myself from anxieties about beauty. The dark or erotic pictures are a different kind of release, a tidal wave of sensual energy hidden from view most of the time.
As someone who collaborates frequently with other artists of different media, you’ve got a varied portfolio of work yourself. Is there a particular medium in which you feel most comfortable? How do text and image work together in Born With a Disco Ball Soul?
I have an obsession with memories and stories. Over time I’ve developed different deranged methods of synthesizing these ideas into my art. Born With a Disco Ball Soul came over time from noticing a congruity with my photographs and my diary, which I’ve kept every day since I was a teenager. I write almost everything that happens to me, an absolute fixation with holding onto my memories and keeping my private thoughts in order. I also obsessively take photographs. I have 10 years worth of material at this point, so I started to put it all together in these big notebooks before I even knew it would work as an actual book. I hope people like it, everything is in there.
Born With a Disco Ball Soul comes out in spring; it’s currently available for pre-order on Emma’s website, emmaelizabethtillman.bigcartel.com.
Casey Ireland is a 26-year-old writer, currently getting her PhD in English.