Community Spotlight: Christine Taylor

Part of an ongoing series highlighting the amazing people in the Portland creative community.

Christine Taylor is a photographer, art director, and curator. Whether she’s shooting for clients, helping to shape the signature look of Hand-Eye Supply, or giving visibility to fashion photography in the Pacific Northwest, her discerning eye has made an impact in Portland. This tweet during the Holly Andres talk caught our attention, so we wanted to shine a light on her great work.

See Ashley Courter’s photos in all their glory on Flickr and check the interview below.

You do a lot of things, from photography to curation to art direction. What’s the throughway in your work?

There’s a natural relationship between photography, art direction and curation because for each I am shaping an environment for others to experience. The only real difference is in how you are engaging your viewers. Ideas can always have a kaleidoscope of objectives. How they are applied is dependent on resources, and where there is flexibility in use of space, light, sound and even scent (if it’s an ultra-immersive installation). Seeing the world through a constant thoughtful visualization has been a part of who I am since I was a little girl so the connection between the three practices – taking/making a photograph, showing a selection of artists work, and directing commercial projects – is to disclose a specific point of view. I’ve observed it’s a certain personality type that obsessively envisions ideas before they exist – ideas that show a specific point of view. It just comes to these kinds of people and I think my family would verify that I’ve always been a little too enthusiastic about making things happen. These three practices combined have given me an outlet for all that energy.

Tell us about the work you’re doing as Art Director at Hand-Eye Supply.

In brief, what I do at HES as Photographic Art Director is oversee photography and contribute to the entire retail branding experience. That translates into a lot of organizing to make things happen smoothly, and in the end, that takes a team of people for success. In addition, my photography is the human personality of what most people see of HES; all of the Quarterlies, ads, and the editorial content. In many ways HES has been the ideal place for me to have landed in Portland, because I come from journalism (since the early 1990’s). From there, I went into editorial shooting, which led me to college to study multidisciplinary design and concept, which somehow took me even deeper into bigger commercial photography projects, and is now steering me into lots more art direction. What an exciting ride that’s been! Being at HES has allowed me to improve that collaboration of courage, envisioning and constancy needed to complete multi-channel personality-driven projects. There are some inspiring design minds working there and that environment has made a sizable impact on my work, much of which seems to have culminated this year. One of my luminaries, Steven Johnson, adamantly tells us that the breakthrough idea has never come in a flash. He states with fact that that theory is a myth. It comes over time and through experience and hard work by trial and error, scrutinizing, and researching. One of my life breakthroughs came this year. So I believe in that!

On a personal level, HES is a great example of my nerdy brainy side, my process obsessed side. My own work motto is, “In my mind everyone is a star!”. I get to apply that ethic at HES. It’s an outlet where I have combined my youthful interest in cultural anthropology, my delight in history and investigation, and a lifetime of experience in pop culture photographing creators, style, and environment while sharing my point of view. It’s simultaneously complex and simple.

Is it challenging to navigate between the commercial and fine art world? Is there a relationship between the work you do in each?

Thank you so much for this question. Like most people with a daytime gig, creatively I have additional interests, so I am 100% committed to exploring those, in part because I honestly cannot help myself, and in part because I completely understand that without exploration, there can be no growth. It is indeed incredibly challenging at times, though. I mean, who has the time? I would like to be much more directly engaged with the art world but along with art, I have been a commercial maker my entire life now, so my knowledge is limited to a very specific point of view that’s highly educated and technical. It’s not all-encompassing like for instance someone like Dave Hickey, or any museum curator, for that matter, or even my partner/boyfriend, the conceptual painter Michael Lazarus. Those people can talk about every nuance of art and then some. I know photography and video, and after that I know what I like and why I like it and how it relates to history vs. present day - but I cannot compare too many artists outside of my own medium and hold face. The name game is definitely not my strength. But the art world plays an enormous part in my life because I choose to be in it for inspiration. The artists know what’s up first. Almost all of my close friends are active artists, serious writers, curators or vigorous designers of some kind and they are also all dedicated educators. You can imagine our conversations: “Did you listen to the In Our Times podcast the other night?” …or else we talk over teaching styles, grants, residencies, public art, art around the world, politics and LOTS of process talk. Boring stuff for most. In general, I am just a dogmatic fan, and like Thomas Edison said, “I am a sponge”. My view on life is that we learn something critical from every person who enters it, and gratitude or failure are what brings those lessons to light.

What is it about fashion that drew you in?

Fashion can be a stage to explore my conceptual ideas that involve the body, movement and expression. It can also be a powerful tool to communicate cultural views using beauty and style. For example, I always choose to portray women as having great strength. At its simplest, fashion photography is predictable; at its worst, the ideas are immature and poorly executed; while at best, it shows flawless creative freedom and diversity in what we find beautiful. All of that, and it changes constantly. To be good at it, you have to change with it. To be great at it, you need a colossal amount of resources integrated with an inherent ability to anticipate lifestyle changes before they take place. See what I mean? Its a great provocation. Not anyone can make something significant and it’s not always in the concept that makes it celebrated, nor is it always in the clothing, nor the model, nor anything one thing - yet it certainly can be.

Fashion photography is remarkably intricate. Fashion takes more than a village, it takes a world, and in that world, every single person has to be great at what they do. If one tiny thing is off – say, the makeup is too heavy, the hair is not on style, the image only shows one foot where there should be two, or a hand is hiding and looks weird, the clothing lacks a consistent overarching statement, there’s a wrinkle in the wrong place on the fabric, or the model is too thin and poorly cast - each can ruin the final images. Then time passes, and what you created isn’t even pertinent any longer. It takes a very good eye to see these seemingly minuscule things and untrained eyes will easily overlook them. In addition, what you show to the public is susceptible to anyone who has an opinion, and because fashion is a part of pop culture - everyone has one based on what they have seen in their everyday lives, which often means very unchallenging images. Ideas around beauty run deep and differ culturally as well. All of these factors make it a constant challenge. That difficulty is what keeps me intermeshed with fashion photography in my freelance life as either a shooter, a director, or an educator. Of course, for my commercial work – which is what most people see – it must meet industry standards so that it’s well received. But the avant garde I love, and it informs my commercial fashion work.

You pioneered the Fashion Photography course at the Art Institute. What was your goal with the curriculum?

Yes, to my knowledge I did, but I am not teaching right now. The goal with the curriculum was to offer an immersive experience to inspire the students to push themselves so that they have a better understanding of what is expected of a shooter in the real world of professional commercial photography. I want them to get what their competition is. Being good isn’t enough. I do this by instructing in a contemporary style, that which utilizes a bit of performance. I was not actually performing like an actor or musician, but the idea is to keep everything in class at a high level of enthusiasm using real people, real community members, multimedia and modern ways of sharing and receiving information that include things like fashion video karaoke, TED talks, music and slideshows to help train and expose students to ways of seeing and thinking about fashion imagery. I do that along with more traditional forms of teaching using written essays by international writers such as Gilles Lipovetsky and local writers like our own Lisa Radon (whom I read out loud on the first day). Through that first interaction they know the class is going to be distinctive.

It’s all designed to get them to think about what fashion photography is built upon: individuality. They need to find that in their own opinions and knowledge in order to apply it to their imagery. I want them to be able to change and shift and redefine, not just say, “Yes, I can do that.” Anyone can be technical. Not just anyone can have ideas. So I am teaching them how to have ideas, communicate them, then follow them through. In my class they learn how to properly produce a shoot. Great shooters are cultural sponges. They experience everything.

With students I am transparent and honest about my own numerous failures in New York, Chicago, Seattle, etc. I am also transparent about budgeting and etiquette. We have 3 in-person talks in class with a mix of impressive producers, designers, art directors and photographers who come to discuss what they do and what they look for in a shooter. They are expected to create call sheets, creative briefings, budgets and find their talent. They communicate and organize while they produce one fashion test shoot on their own with my direction, then they are broken into groups to collaborate with each other to produce another smaller-sized studio shoot with my direction, and lastly they form groups again to collaborate to produce one commercial location shoot portraying their own ideas. I also offer to help find internships with photographers for anyone who wants one. Oh yes, we also do critiques on all of the projects. Without non-opinion-based criticism there can be no progression as a maker.

What inspired the Notions of Beauty show?

The ‘Notions of Beauty: NW FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY NOW’ exhibit was directly inspired by the Museum of Contemporary Craft’s recent exhibition ‘Fashioning Cascadia’ curated by Sarah Margolis-Pineo. During her research she had me come in to talk with her about fashion in Portland which led to a dinner and some great conversations about manufacturing, designers and resources. It also led to the discussion of Northwest fashion photography. It is on the rise, but because Portland is mostly new to this, professionalism, originality and taste are works-in-progress. There wasn’t space or time for Sarah to take on the photo monster so with MOCC’s support, they introduced me to Annin Barrett, and what an enlightening meeting that was. Annin is the Art Institute’s astounding brainiac gallery director and she loved the idea I had to do a survey exhibition showing the work of many of Cascadia’s fashion photographers. She approved my curatorial approach, keeping the focus on the conceptual side; to show how NW fashion photographers think, so-to-speak. We hung large-format prints, and the entire space was incorporated into creating an immersive experience that I designed based on my respect for the process of the printed magazine. Included in that spacial design were sculptures, jewelry, animated gifs, a section for art directors, and publication viewing station. An entire wall was for projections of videos. The prints wrapped around the space, and it was a real joy to see a white box come to life. Included were six Northwest fashion publications that had been made in the past 5 years, and lastly Art Director Willyum Beck created a handmade catalog as documentation of the exhibit and its participants. Some of those participants included Charlie Schuck, Holly Andres, and Rafael Astorga, mixed in with more unknowns such as Bryan Kyckelhahn and BriAnne Wills. Together we proved that Northwest fashion photography is alive and well, and ready for the task in all its variety. Luckily it was a great success, but I’d like to do it even better next year.

You’ve been to quite a few of our events. Were there one or two talks that made the biggest impression?

This is true. Its early, so that means I can attend and still get to work later in the day! There are so many that inspire… but most recently, Anna Telcs was great because I have followed her work for 5 years now. Her talk taught me new things about her - that is very cool. Then, as a photographer, Holly Andres’ talk was memorable. She is a guiding light in so many ways. Her transparency and passion for her art is without parallel. She has had this experience so different from my own and yet as people we are not so unalike. Her story is really interesting and it’s awesome to have the juxtaposition of being a fan before we knew one another back when I lived in New York and saw her first exhibit there, and now to have met and know her. I find her work developing in a direction that is only more and more gripping. That’s the kind of artist I wish I had become. That’s why I photograph makers… because I wish I could do what each of them does. Its a kind of love.