How were you first introduced to photography? Was it a family member? A class you took? Was it something your sought out or found by accident?
I was one of those kids who was always drawing, and I obsessively copied photographs from magazines. Fortunately, the magazines available in my home showcased some great photography, so my earliest introduction was from Life and Look and of course The Family of Man. From these early images, I absorbed not only strong composition but the emotive power possible in a photograph.
One year, while preparing a portfolio to apply to a Masters of Fine Arts program, I worked in an art studio at MIT; I cleaned the studio in exchange for 24/7 access to the facilities. I spent all my time taking pictures and discovering the magic of creating a narrative with a camera rather than my pencils. I was hooked. But I put my love of photography on hold for about a decade, because I needed to make a living, and I loved graphic design. Over time I learned how to apply many of the principles of strong design to my photo composites.
Which of your images do you consider “breakthrough” images? Why?
I don’t release an image into the world until I’m satisfied, of course, but there are certain images that stay with me over time, requiring few, if any alterations. Perhaps it’s the emotional content of the image, or perhaps more simply just the fact that I labored over that particular image for months. For whatever reason, I do feel confident about certain ones and rarely return to tinker with or alter them (which is easy to do, as the digital ink is never dry). Some images stay with me simply because I’ve incorporated photos of my family.
Among the images that I haven’t altered are: Carousel Escape, Mélies’ Dream, Circus Escape, Old Sun Moon, Cosmic Aria, Innocence Reflected, but there are many others, too.
Well I’m assuming the first image you made was not something you were completely satisfied with- maybe I’m wrong!
Actually, my very first digital photo drawing and composite images made in the late ‘80swere thrilling! I used photos of my daughters, and just looking at their faces, pixel by pixel, on the monitor, placing them into new settings, was thrilling –as an artist and a mom.
Now, of course, I realize how crude my technique was at the time (for goodness sake, it was BEFORE layers! And masking! And a stylus!). Those early images no longer exist, as the files resided on floppy disks which went the way of the dinosaurs, and the paper prints have long since faded (remember the days before archival paper and ink?)
But I was curious if there are images that are “breakthroughs” in the sense that they led you realize something, or come to terms with something- either technically or conceptually- about how and why you are making the images. Or maybe just the first image that made you think, “Whoa, I’m really onto something fun- or challenging, interesting, whatever- and meaningful, that I can spend a lot of time exploring”?
I inherited a treasure trove of old family photos from my mom in the late 1980s, as I was beginning to explore the possibilities of digital photo montage. This exploration offered visual proof of the physical similarities between my daughters and their great- and great-grandmother AND her mother, who had emigrated from Ukraine in the mid-19th century. So the connection between generations and centuries (from the 19th to the 21st) underscored my interest in these relationships and of the connections we all share to other species and the planet.
This may be a cliché question, but I always find people’s answers very interesting and sometimes very surprising. Who are your favorite artists? I imagine your answer is constantly shifting, but are there any, “official favorites”- as I call mine- that you come back to or who had an early and continued influence on your art work?
As I mentioned, I was greatly influenced by the black and white photography of mid-century artists. But I also seem to gravitate to the richly colored and textured works of painters such as Rothko, the precision of light and shadow by Vermeer and early Dutch landscape painters, and the magical narratives of Chagall. There are so many fantastic contemporary photographers whose work stimulate and inspire me, and many I count as my friends. I also return often to the work of Duane Michals, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Rusty Schenck, Sarah Moon, and countless artists who delve into magic realism such as Ilya Zomb and many from the former Soviet Union.
Well, you and I have a lot of favorites in common then! Chagall is actually my “official favorite”, if I’m cornered. Ha ha! All of those are artists I love. I didn’t know Ilya Zomb though. I looked at his work. I can definitely see your attraction. That all makes sense.
I definitely gravitate towards images with a strong narrative, and those that excel in the use of color, bold composition, and the suggestion of magic thrill me beyond words. I clearly prefer figurative works, although color field painters such as Rothko continue to inspire.
The Hand Magazine originated from an interest in the paradox or counter-intuitive phenomena of hand-crafted artworks made with processes that were ostensibly for mechanical reproduction, i.e. photography and printmaking. Your work is mostly done in the computer. How much of your own hand is in your work? I mean, you were one of the earliest practitioners of Photoshoped fine art. How did this come about and how do you ensure that your hand is evident in the images?
Although I primarily work with a camera, scanner, and computer, I feel more like a painter than a photographer. It’s as if my photo elements are dabs of paint on a palette, and my challenge is to consider the relationship of those elements to one another within the larger field (my ‘canvas’). My layers and textures are similar to a painter’s (but less toxic!). I paint with a stylus, which gives me the flexibility not unlike a traditional painter’s. Occasionally I paint the old-fashioned way, which I then photograph and incorporate as textures into my work.
In fact, my work as been described as photo-painting, and I think that’s quite accurate.
There are a lot of articles one can read about your work. Most of these seem to focus on the surreal and fantastic qualities of your work- for obvious reasons- but what about the aspects of your images that are grounded in reality? What kinds of real-life inspirations, events, or people, are you drawn towards when you are creating and thinking about your work?
None of us can work in a vacuum, and I’m an obsessive news and history junkie. The events of the day can’t help but seep into my creations, but it’s never a conscious process. Similarly, the health and welfare of my family play a huge role in the emotional content of my work.
I sort of go into a zone while working, I listen to music, and ‘real-life’ situations appear to recede. In fact, this is a great distraction from dealing with the angst that too often envelope us. Not until an image is completed do I step back and try to reflect on the emotional state suggested by that image during its creation, and the creation is an intuitive and almost unconscious process. For example, recently my family has been dealing with a major health crisis, and I see my latest work reflecting this. “We all stand in the shadow of a great fear”, writes Denis Brogan, and this newer work reflects not only a world composed of random events, a too-often illogical world, but also my fears with a touch of hope.
For me, your work is about history and curiosity. All of the artifacts and documents and subject matter seem to reference a sense of history and a curiosity about how that history is connected to the present. How do you relate your work to the present- or do you relate it to the present? Do you feel your work is more rooted in the past, the present, the future, all three? What are the connections there?
The events of today are out-growths of the events of before. I sometimes composite old family photos with images from now, and in fact, we are all composites of those that have come before us as we interact with our environments. Moreover, it’s imperative to understand the past, but it’s apparent that we sometimes seem to be stuck in an endless loop of ignorance, fear, and prejudice.
True enough! I think that’s why your work resonates so much with so many people. We can all relate to family, tragedy, comedy, wanting to escape something or hold onto something...
Definitely. And there’s a reason my book is called “Escape Artist’…
Where do you find magic in your own life?
Family, friends, animals, music, art, books, movies, good TV, warm (but not too hot) weather, walking, food (but not meat), The New Yorker, Bach, Handel, Philip Glass, Dylan, and on and on. And the great distraction called…making art.
How often do you have a chance to work directly on your images?
Sometimes I composite my work with wax and other materials, and I’ve recently begun using gold leaf, wax and paint. But mostly I work on the computer, and it might take days or weeks of working and re-working an image.
I’m sorry, I’m not phrasing things very well! I meant how often do you find time to work on your art- say, in a given week? Ten hours? Thirty? Are you working on it full time and are you able to spend most of your time devoted to your art? As opposed to teaching, other design work, or doing the everyday chores of life, but also as opposed to marketing, preparing for exhibitions, and other art-related things.
I might have misunderstood your question. My bad! I do a fair amount of traveling for work or visiting, but often use that time to augment my arsenal of images which might one day end up in a composited image.
But most of the time, I’m in my studio working. I’m very fortunate, because my very old (and sadly, very drafty) Victorian has several rooms which I have imperialized since the kids moved out. I don’t need to leave the house to work, which is a great benefit, especially in the winters. Despite how much I travel, I’m happiest (and most productive) at home. In the winters, I tend to hibernate and work even longer hours.
We also spend time on Cape Cod, on the Outer Cape, where the light is glorious because, as the peninsula extends into the Atlantic and narrows, water from both the Atlantic and the Bay create a magnificent light.
That sounds beautiful the way you describe it. Do you make other kinds of art that you don't show to anyone?
I have a collection of tiny box assemblages that stay in my studio. Does that count?
Ha ha! Definitely!
My book, ESCAPE ARTIST: The Art of Fran Forman, was released early this year and published by Schiffer Publishing. Although it is NOT a self-published book, I chose to do all the design and page layouts, which took the better part of a year. So I suppose you can say this is another kind of art. I’m not a book designer by training, but I loved the process, and I’m really pleased with how the book looks (available from the publisher, at select bookstores, or on Amazon:
Well, you were a graphic designer, correct? So that seems like a natural thing for you to want to do. Was that difficult to get control of from the publisher? Or did they appreciate you wanting to do that yourself?
Yes, I received an MFA in graphic design and worked for years designing branding, signage, print collateral , then CD-roms and later websites. In the early aughts, I worked for AOL Time Warner, and when our website, Africana.com, was redesigned, I encouraged the inclusion of bold photographic images accompanying every article. Eventually, I began to incorporate photo montage into my personal designs, and from there segued into photo-painting full-time.
Schiffer had seen some of my previous design work and was therefore quite amenable to my design, layout, cmyk conversion, etc. for the book. There was, by necessity, some compromises necessitated by the size/cost/page ratio, but we are all delighted with the final product.
Do you have any rules or things you’ve learned about exhibiting your work?
It’s important to be selective about where you choose to exhibit. Check out the other artists who have exhibited there, as you want to be exhibited among artists whose work you greatly respect. Clarify the shipping and return shipping arrangements, and if you have to do the framing, be clear about being reimbursed for the frame when the image sells. (I rarely frame my images anymore.) I’ve had good relationships with most of my galleries and in fact have developed warm friendships with many of them.
What do you hope the future holds for your work? Any teasers or things you’d like us to know?
Over the next six months, I’ve decided to concentrate primarily on making art – no teaching, limited travel – and I’m preparing for a large exhibit opening in June at my gallery in Boston, Pucker Gallery. I’m also working with another photographer on a book, which is still in the gestation stage. For the summer, I’ve been invited to be an Artist in Residence at a museum in Norway. I’ve never been to Scandinavia, and I’m thrilled to be able to spend a month with two other artists, just doing art, maybe hiking and exploring the fjords, and soaking in the long days of sunlight.
That sounds fantastic! A lot going on, then. That’s great. I’ve never been to Scandinavia either. One day…! Well, thank you, Fran, for talking with me. Your work is beautiful and thought provoking. I appreciate your time with this interview. I look forward to seeing what comes of your adventures!