The Analog Profiles: Katharine Jacobs
By Mary Thomas
The walls of Katharine’s home were carefully but effortlessly curated to display a variety of artwork and nostalgia - from photographs to illustrations to plants, all hanging in just the right places. I recognized some pieces by local artists and friends like Ray Bidegain. One especially large painting I was caught admiring had been created by a student of Katharine’s. The collection of work gave me that distinct feeling you get when you know you are cared about. Each piece held a story of its own and Katharine, the knower of all stories, stood in the center, soaking up the community of feelings spilling out of the frames, while simultaneously pouring a cup of coffee and sweeping her 2 year old into her arms. Coffee poured, we were ready to delve into discussion - of Katharine’s photographic career, her current projects, and how her recent MS diagnosis affects it all.
As we sat down to chat, her daughter took her place on Katharine’s lap and began taking a single bite out of each and every scone on the plate.
Why photography? What role does the practice of photography play in your life?
I started doing photography in high school. I was always artistic and tried a variety of mediums. I chose to attend California College of the Arts because they offered everything from photography to glass blowing and I wasn’t sure that I knew my medium yet. Because of my previous experience I was able to enter into the intermediate darkroom class my first semester and I fell in love with silver gelatin printing, mural printing and large format photography. I kind of made my choice then that I was going to study photography. It’s really only in the past couple years that I have been able to convince myself that I am a photographer. For years I didn’t feel like I fit the mold or qualified enough to claim it as my profession or my identity. Years of teaching and a great community have given me confidence to be the type of photographer I want to be.
How do the processes of photography play a role in your art-making?
I started shooting 4x5 when I was 19; I stuck with it because of the way it engaged subjects and allowed me to create more honest portraits. Shooting large format is a really important part of my portrait-making because it forces both me and my subject to relax, sit with a pose and then make a portrait together. I feel like less of a thief and more of a contributor to the images I make this way. I’ve always photographed friends from the beginning of my photography days and I still do. Working with models is something I have only done in the past year or so but it has opened up a door for me to create images that aren’t always flattering for my subject. When you photograph a friend they want to look good; when you photograph a model they understand a little more about the process and don’t project the same feelings of insecurity or disappointment when they don’t like the way they look.
Can you tell me a bit more about being an artist and mother? How do these work together in your sense of identity as well as inspiration?
I definitely identify as a mother. I’ve been in a parental role since 2011, which was less than a year after I finished undergrad at 23. For years I couldn’t quite figure out the balance. I didn’t feel like I was a photographer for a while after graduating and in an effort to still be creative and make things with my hands I started making dolls. Tedious and intricate dolls that were impractical for children but that I still gave away to kids. As I got better at making them I started to treat them as fine art pieces, even showed a few of them. Nowadays many of our Christmas ornaments are repurposed mermaid dolls. Sewing dolls was driven by my innate desire to make but it was all inspired by being around children and my navigation of parenthood.
Motherhood - and parenthood in general - is difficult. It’s this constant struggle for me of not quite knowing how to be away. Currently, motherhood has helped motivate me to move my darkroom into my home which has inspired me to be more productive than I ever was when I had a studio away from home. It’s still really hard to find thirty minutes to process film sometimes and not being able to get away has inspired me to work in alt-process rather that silver gelatin
As a photographer, I sometimes photograph my children. For years I have been inspired by Sally Mann and wish in a lot of ways that I could make lovely and powerful images like she makes of my kids but there is a lot that gets tangled up when photographing children. I have had an image of my stepdaughter at age 5 shirtless rejected from several shows because it was the safer choice for the gallery to just not show it. Not because the work was inappropriate but because the fear that someone somewhere just might deem it inappropriate was too great. Selling and submitting images of children is difficult too; my husband doesn’t like the idea of me selling photos of my step daughter and I respect that. It may be different as my biological daughter gets older and is able to sit still to model. For now, I still make pictures of them often and hope to continue to do so throughout their lives, however it is not my main source of inspiration for the majority of my photography.
You previously mentioned that you’ve been diagnosed with MS; can you speak on that experience and how it has shaped your current works?
In September 2017 I was seven months postpartum, seeing a naturopath and just trying to feel healthy. I woke up one morning and both my feet were completely numb, I went to a chiropractor who thought it was a bulging disc and ordered x-rays. Within two weeks the numbness had spread all the way up my torso and up my left side to my neck. I went in to urgent care and they ordered a ton of blood work and my spine MRI was reordered as a brain MRI. Technically, I was diagnosed with MS right after Christmas, but I didn’t like the advice I was getting from that neurologist so I sought a second and third opinion, had several more MRIs and a spinal tap and was more officially diagnosed with Remitting and Relapsing Multiple Sclerosis in March of this year. Today the numbness in my feet is gone but I have chronic numbness in both hands which limits my strength and fine motor skills. My legs spontaneously go weak and numb and I am unable to confidently and comfortably walk more than a block. I have extremely low energy and bouts of brain fog. Nearly everything I took for granted before is a challenge in one way or another now.
During the entire process I was working with The Lyceum Portland and shooting at the open studios and on my own, all the while processing what I was going through and using photography as my outlet and coping mechanism. Since my diagnosis that work has progressed and is more specifically about when our bodies fail us and living with a disability. My work is about limitations put on us by others, limitations we put on ourselves, and mostly fear. The way that MS manifests is very different for everyone but there are looming threats of immobility and blindness that scare me most as a mother and a visual artist. It’s not just about my diagnosis but more about how our bodies can fail us at any time and I think that is something that most people can’t empathize until it happens to them. I’m not trying to make work about MS specifically, but I am making work about the challenges, changes, and fear that I face in my disability that I hope can resonate with people both with and without disabilities.
Why cyanotypes for this specific project?
Cyanotypes are something that have been on my mind for a long time. I am a traditional silver gelatin printer and I have been teaching technical printing for years. I’d say silver printing is something I have worked hard at for years and nearly mastered. Once you get to a point of mastery it makes you long for a way to manipulate and alter. I don’t feel that silver gelatin is the right application for me to find that sense of freedom so I started thinking about other alternative processes. Cyanotypes have been great for me because they can be made on a variety of materials and they don’t always read as a “photograph”. There is a connection between MS and vitamin D deficiency; cyanotypes are often referred to as sun prints and need UV light to be exposed. It seemed like the obvious next step for my project about the diagnosis.
On my way home I thought about what she’d said and imagined a negative sitting in the sun pressed to a sheet of paper. Each second sees more light soaking into the chemicals she’d painted on by hand before her hand went numb; ridden with inconsistencies, translucent shapes take on a deep shade of blue. Time is up, she can tell by the color (it’s on the verge of green) and the burn her unsheltered shoulders are beginning to feel; the paper is warm to the touch and begs for a drink - answer with a rinse, hang to dry, go back outside for more.