Beth Yarnelle Edwards: “Not moving but looking natural is a challenge!”

Beth Y Edwards portrait by Martina Mettner-w

Beth Yearnelle Edwards. © Martina Mettner

It seems like photographing in other people’s houses is becoming a trend. Thanks to you and a few other photographers. What is your story to choosing this topic / method?

I have been fascinated by how others live in their homes since I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico when I was 19 and 20. When I began Suburban Dreams in 1997, I was living in the Silicon Valley suburbs of California. I was bored and longed to live in San Francisco. However, I noticed that the people around me loved this suburban environment. I decided to investigate with my camera.

I began photographing in an environment with which I was intimately familiar. Success led to opportunities to make images in unfamiliar place.

Can you tell us how you proceed when you enter a house: You interview the owners, do a tour of they property… Do you photograph a lot, or just the most precisely staged situations and settings? How do you choose what is worth “clicking”?

Ideally, I make two different visits to a home that I will photograph. The first is to meet the people and explain my project. If they are interested in being photo subjects, I interview and observe them, tour the home, ask lots of questions, etc. Then I return to my studio to think about what we might do together. (I’ll explain more about this in Question 3).

I usually take many shots for a couple reasons. First, it takes time for people to relax and be themselves in front of the camera. Also, using film and continuous lights indoors requires relatively long exposures, which means my subjects can’t move. Not moving but looking natural is a challenge! Another reason to shoot a lot is because we might try several different scenarios. Some of those alternatives might be planned and others might come up as we work together. New ideas might be suggested by me or by my subjects.

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How do you find your subjects? Has anyone said he / she wasn’t comfortable about the pictures that you made?

In California, I began with friends and neighbors. Then the people in my photographs began recommending me to their acquaintances. The result was that the majority of those photos were made with strangers.

In Europe I’ve found subjects in a variety of ways. For my first project in France, a sign-up sheet was placed next to my exhibition. I visited and photographed all who put their names on the list! In the Canary Islands, the staff of an architecture magazine located subjects. Every situation has been different, but just as in California, people I photograph have always sent me on to their friends. By the time I am ready to leave a country, I usually have a much longer list of households than I have had time to visit.

No one has complained about the picture he or she is in. I think this is because consent and understanding are very important to me. Before I will begin photographing, I follow a specific protocol to make sure subjects understand what I’m doing. Below is the list I follow:

  • Meet, interview, and carefully observe the people and their home.

  • Show samples of my work.

  • Explain my interests and intentions.

  • Explain how final photographs are selected.

  • Explain where my photographs may be seen.

  • Explain what subjects receive for their participation.

  • Explain about copyright.

  • Answer questions.

  • Sign model release.

  • In studio, review notes and preview snapshots.

  • Contact subjects with concept/s for their photographs.

  • If subjects agree, plan photo shoot.

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You’ve been creating portraits in different kinds of cultures and countries. Can you tell the highlights – the strongest impression you had while visiting homes & people?

One surprise is that there have been homes in all of the European countries I’ve visited that resemble ones in Silicon Valley. Some of those are included in my monograph Suburban Dreams.

European hospitality has been a delightful experience. Unless we’re already friends, American photo subjects don’t usually offer meals or even coffee. In all five European countries where I’ve worked, people have insisted I come for lunch, stay for dinner, etc. I’ve really enjoyed this.

Another notable difference is concern over “looking good.” Americans will sometimes ask if I can make them look thinner or photograph them on their good side. This has led to my explaining during my initial visit that while I will never deliberately make someone look bad, my purpose is not to make a glamour photo…etc. When I said that during my first visits in France, people looked at me like I was crazy! No one seemed worried about how they would look. They were much more interested in what I what find or discover in their homes. I found this attitude continued in the other countries where I made photographs.

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 As a result of folioPORT.org portfolio reviews, You have been granted invitation for a solo show at B&B gallery in Poland? Any temptation to continue the project with Polish homes and owners?

If I have the opportunity, of course I would love to photograph in Poland.

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 Otherwise, what’s your next project?

I hope to photograph homes in California of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. I also plan to continue Suburban Dreams. After all, it’s almost twenty years since I began photographing in Silicon Valley, and things change. I’m also open to photographing in other countries when there are opportunities.

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www.BethYarnelleEdwards.com

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Posted in folioPORT Mag, Interviews