Joyce Tenneson - My soul is an artist
About Joyce Tenneson
Tenneson is among the most respected photographers of our time and has been described critically as "one of America's most interesting portrayers of the human character." Her work is a combination of portraiture and mythology-she is interested in discovering the archetypes of our being.
Tenneson's work has been shown in over 150 exhibitions worldwide and is part of numerous private and museum collections. Her photographs have appeared on countless covers for magazines such as: Time, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Premiere, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. She is also a much sought-after portrait photographer with clients in Europe, Japan, and the United States.
Ms. Tenneson is the author of fifteen books. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the International Center of Photography's Infinity Award, for best applied photography, and the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Photographers of America. In addition, she has been named "Photographer of the Year" by the international organization, Women in Photography. A recent poll conducted by American Photo Magazine voted Tenneson among the ten most influential women photographers in the history of photography. Joyce lives and works in Rockport, Maine.
Tenneson's portraits go beyond a surface recording of her subject's likeness. Her signature-style images attempt to show the inner person who hovers behind the facade. Says Tenneson:
"I want to allow others to reveal and celebrate aspects of themselves that are usually hidden. My camera is a witness. It holds a light up for my subjects to help them feel their own essence and gives them the courage to collaborate in the recording of these revelations."
Joyce Tenneson was born in Boston in 1945, and grew up with her two sisters in Weston, Massachusetts where both of her parents worked on the grounds of a convent. In speaking about her early life and its influence on her as an artist, Tenneson said,
There is no question that the convent where my parents worked was the greatest inspiration. For me as a child, it was a mysterious environment...filled with symbolism, ritual, and beauty, and also a disturbing kind of surreal imagery. The nuns lived in a mysterious world of secrets that I longed to penetrate and uncover. So I watched. In a way, I became a voyeur, and this desire to observe everything has stayed with me.
As a child, her favorite book was -The Secret Garden, which is very telling of her interests of finding the hidden inner self and their “incredible secrets” from early on, because to Tenneson, The Secret Garden is “the story of a hidden place where you could make things be the way you want them, if you could only find the key to get inside.”
In high school, Tenneson was hired as a part-time model by Polaroid, which provided her an opportunity to become familiar with the photography business. After college, with a major in literature and a minor in art, she continued on to graduate school at George Washington University where she obtained a master’s degree with a concentration in photography and art history. Immediately after graduating, she began teaching at a community college in Washington D.C., and later as a professor at the Corcoran School of Art and the Smithsonian Institution. During this time in the 1960s and 1970s, Tenneson took black-and-white photographs, and focused her camera on herself. Part of what motivated Tenneson to take self-portraits was that, 1970s was a time of social upheaval and reevaluation.
“It was the 1970s when I was very much an activist. It was a time when the image of women was changing a lot. This sense of claiming your own identity was very new.”
In the exhibition REFLECT, the photograph Self-Portrait with Mask (1977), comes from this period of her life when she was taking self-portraits while working in Washington, D.C. Her portrait appears three times throughout this photograph, but all three are secondary images of her face, while her real face is hidden. The photograph shows Tenneson with her back to the camera looking into a mirror, revealing her face to the viewer through a reflection. The second image is the painted white mask on the back of Tenneson’s head, which presumably is a mold of her own face. Collaged onto this mask is the third image, which is a small photograph of Tenneson. Why is she hiding? Which image is the more authentic Tenneson? She creates a need to see who she is, an impulse to touch her shoulder and turn her around, as if seeing her face may reveal more of a truth about her.
Although the subject and photographic techniques are different during this early period, what Tenneson calls her materials, “the fabric, the skin, and the light, and then the inner person I’m trying to reveal,” remain consistent throughout her career. In Self-Portrait with Mask, these materials are very present, including the invisible “material” of her own inner person. She often uses veils or transparent materials in her portraits and self-portraits. Her interest in self-discovery continues even when she is taking portraits of others and revealing their inner selves, because as she observed, “I look like my work, I take that as a compliment. Metaphorically, I look like my work.”
In 1983, after 15 years of living in Washington, D.C. and recently divorced, Tenneson moved to New York City where she began focusing more intently on her photography and also began photographing other people. She shot her photographs primarily using the Polaroid 20x24 camera, and started using color as well. Her first big success was her photograph of Suzanne in Chair, which first appeared on the cover of American Photo in 1986, and later was in her 1994 book Transformations.
"Every so often an artist comes along who defies the easy labeling that curators and critics feel obliged to stick on everything under their rapacious gaze. In spite of lacking obvious inspirations and role models, these artists manage to create deeply felt, radical works that an extraordinary number of viewers respond to with fervor and pleasure."
Karl-Peter Gottschalk, photography critic, on Joyce Tenneson Internationally lauded as one of the leading photographers of her generation, Joyce Tenneson’s work has been published in books and major magazines, and exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. Her portraits have appeared on covers for magazines such as: Time, Life, Newsweek, Premiere, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. Vicki Goldberg, critic and author, writes of Tenneson: “Tenneson possesses a unique vision which makes her photographs immediately recognizable. She creates enigmatic and sensuous images that are timeless and haunting.
Tenneson is the author of sixteen books including the best seller, Wise Women, which was featured in a six-part Today Show series. She is the recipient of many awards, including Fine Art Photographer of the Year in 2005 (Lucie Awards), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Photographers of America in 2012. In a poll conducted by American Photo Magazine, readers voted Tenneson among the ten most influential women in the history of photography. In the Fall of 2014, Fotografiska Museum, in Stockholm, Sweden, mounted a large retrospective of her work which was seen by approximately 30,000 people. Tenneson’s work has been exhibited in museums around the globe and is part of many private and public collections. In addition to her photography exhibits and books, Tenneson has taught master photography classes in the U.S. and Europe for over 40 years.
“If I had to pick a single word to describe what my pictures are all about, I would say ‘secrets.’ As a child, I always had a secret world and my favorite book was “A Secret Garden.” –Joyce Tenneson
Since her move, Joyce Tenneson has become a legend. Celebrity clients number Jodie Foster, Demi Moor, Patrick Stewart, Sir Ben Kingsley, Ed Harris and Susan Sarandon to mention merely a few. She worked assignments for numerous magazines — Time, Esquire, Live, Premiere and the New York Times Magazine.
Joyce Tenneson is considered among the ten most influential women photographers in the history of photography. Her luminous and unique 20x24 inch Polaroid, Ilfochrome and vintage gelatin silver prints emanate a poignant mystical sensibility. Her signature-style images aim to show the inner person hovering behind the facade: "I want to allow others to reveal and celebrate aspects of themselves that are usually hidden. My camera is a witness. It holds a light up for my subjects to help them feel their own essence, and gives them the courage to collaborate in recording these revelations," says Tenneson.
In her 20s, Tenneson explored the autobiographical aspects of her photography by taking hundreds of self-portraits. Since then, her work has beome more metaphoral, reflecting her inner journey. The first fifteen years of this journey was spent as an art school instructor in Washington D.C., during which time she published two books and had many international exhibitions. In the mid-1980s, Tenneson moved from Washington D.C. to New York and launched a highly renowned career.
Tenneson's photography has been shown in over 150 exhibitions worldwide, and is included in numerous private and museum collections. She is the recipient of many awards, including the International Center of Photography's Infinity Award for best applied photography. In addition, she has been named "Photographer of the Year" by the international organization, Women in Photography. Her photographs have appeared on countess magazine covers, including Time, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Premiere, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. She is the author of thirteen books, her latest, entitled "Joyce Tenneson: A Life in Photography," was published in 2008. Joyce lives and works in New York City.
"People are the center of my work and I'll always be interested in their inner life. It's what's below the surface that continues to fascinate me." - Joyce Tenneson.
But before the book must come the idea. Many photographers find this a stumbling block, shooting loads of images in hopes of a theme somehow materializing. This has never been a problem for Tenneson, whose ideas derive from a deeply felt internal imperative. “They’ve all been very organic and autobiographical, somehow mirroring what I’ve been going through at that time in my life,” she explains.
Similarly, Tenneson trusts her intuition to tell her when a particular project has run its course. “That’s when I do a book on it,” she states. “It completes the cycle. I recommend to my workshop students that they not sit on projects for ten years. You need to wind them up. It allows you to move on psychologically. It puts closure on a project and a time in your life and it frees you to the unknown, to move forward in your work and in your life. That’s why I’ve always been very book-driven. I love that feeling of completion. I love moving on. One of the most important things in my life is continuing to live and grow. To me Hell would be retirement. Artists never do retire.”
Tenneson’s thorough concentration on her inner psychological terrain marks her as one of the first photographers to systematically use the medium in such a consistently self-reflective and referential manner. Her work, largely portrait-based, is simultaneously probing, haunting and enigmatic, and transcends traditional notions of what portraiture can be. Even when she’s pointing her camera at others, her work is always about her own ongoing dance with identity.
Her visual signature is equally innovatory in its ethereal tonalities, delicate atmospherics and mythological overtones. Countless photographers have tried to conjure similar effects both thematically and visually, a testament to her pervasive and ongoing influence. In fact, an American Photo poll placed her among the ten most influential women photographers in the history of the medium.
Before Tenneson began publishing books of her own photography, she conceived and edited In/Sights: Self-Portraits of Women (Godine 1978) at a time when many women were making the self-portrait a major part of their output. “It was the 1970s, a time of social upheaval and reevaluation,” she recalls. “I was very much an activist. It was a time when the image of women was changing a lot this sense of claiming your own identity was very new.”
Tenneson feels that women have more of a tendency toward exploration of the self-portrait than their male counterparts, more acceptance and ease with revealing their inner selves. In Sights not only tapped the feminist-empowerment zeitgeist of the era, but had a profound impact on the direction of Tenneson’s own work and launched her into a great love of what books can do.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s her primary focus had been on the self-portrait, but from the early 1980s she concentrated on photographing others. Her first major series, “Transformations,” was begun in 1983, the year she received a grant to work with Polaroid’s 20×24 camera. An image from this series, “Suzanne in Chair,” brought her widespread renown when American Photo ran it on its cover in 1986.
“People went nuts about that picture,” Tenneson recalls. “It presented a different aesthetic, a different feeling. It united spirituality and sensuality and explored the delicate edge where that can exist. That had not been done before. That was a peak moment for me. The book sold out immediately, and I suddenly found myself in demand.”
Tenneson had moved to New York in 1983, and was struggling with her identity at that time. She recalls, “It was very much reflective of my leaving my teaching job at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington for New York, getting divorced, and launching my vulnerable self into a whole new world. I was in my late thirties by then. When I look at those pictures they feel very autobiographical. Beauty and pain all together. Basically my life at the time. People have said, especially when I was younger, that I have an ethereal look. It’s part of my personality. When people do their best work it does look like them, perhaps not physically but spiritually. That was the series that was the most ‘channeled’ in a sense.”
The book Transformations (published in 1994) was followed by Illuminations (1998) and Light Warriors (2000), each project defined by the unique visual and emotional qualities Tenneson is able to import into each image. People often ask if she has some secret, specialized technique to create her prints, but Tenneson insists they are straightforward studio shots with strobes. She credits their otherworldly quality to a combination of lighting, the people she photographs, and her selection of props and fabric.
More germane to an appreciation of the work is the interior journey she undertakes, both with herself and her subjects, who are often her friends. This was particularly true of the “Light Warriors” series.
“I see my life as a spiritual journey, and I was wondering at that time if young women felt that way,” she explains. “I photographed them and asked, ‘What is your journey like?’ When I say spiritual I do not mean religious; I’m not religious. It’s more a sense of being authentic to your own journey, to unfold or unravel your own authentic self.”
For Light Warriors Tenneson sought an earthier palette by using the 20×24 camera with a brown-toned Polaroid film that no longer exists. All the women in the book were chosen because they seemed to Tenneson to be on some sort of a spiritual journey.
The subjects hailed from all over the world—including Russia, Finland, Australia, Canada, Israel and Slovenia—underscoring the universality of Tenneson’s theme. A particularly striking image from this series of a young woman with a pair of doves balanced on her shoulders resulted from the kind of serendipity Tenneson often elicits.
“I met Dasha at an art opening in New York, and asked if she wanted to be a part of my project. I asked if she had any recurring dreams and she said, ‘I have this dream of a white bird coming out of my heart. I always wake up when it’s flying out.’ I had a similar dream about white birds, and I set out to find some white birds we could use for the shoot. I tried to reenact them coming out of Dasha’s heart, but it looked contrived. So we took a break, and at that point the birds landed on her shoulders. I had one sheet of film, which I immediately exposed. ‘That’s it! That’s a wrap!’ I cried.
“It was a gift. The birds were like sentinels. I think that’s why she was dreaming them: she wanted protection, spiritual protection perhaps. She had come from another country to New York, and I’m sure she was feeling the vulnerability I had felt when I moved there as a younger woman. For anybody going to a new place there are inner expectations and also fear. I’ve said many times that my best work happens through grace. Luck favors those who are prepared. You set the stage, you’re present, you prepare, then you have to let go.”
This approach proved successful once again with Wise Women, which became the best-selling photography book of 2002. “I was in my fifties and I didn’t have any role models ahead of me,” Tenneson says. “I thought, What’s it going to be like for me when I’m in my sixties, seventies and eighties? I asked friends and colleagues to recommend women aged 65 to 100 who were unusual in some way. Twenty percent were celebrities and eighty percent were ‘real women.’ In addition to photographing them, I asked what they had learned from their long lives and what advice they would give younger people.”
Wise Women was followed a couple years later by Amazing Men, a less delicate, more straightforward look at men aged 60 and older from diverse walks of life. With this project she was able to transcend masculine stereotypes, as in the portrait of a bare-chested Ben Kingsley, which powerfully mingles strength and vulnerability. It’s all part of the rapport she establishes regardless of her subjects’ gender.
“I love being completely there with my subjects. Honing in on that moment that is going to reveal something deeper than just the surface. There’s the mystery. There’s no formula for that.”
Trees of Life, Tenneson’s latest book, is partly the result of asking herself some fundamental questions when her partner passed away nearly six years ago.
“Who am I? What do I regret? What has meaning? As part of the healing process I moved to Maine to be nearer my son. I woke up one morning here and it was foggy outside. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, so I grabbed my camera and went out. Some spark lit inside me; I was on a wavelength that made me feel like it was part of my destiny to be doing this series. Trees are living things, so you can do portraits of them. And they have different times in their lifecycles. The older ones are very much like the subjects in my “Wise Women” series. I’m still asking questions, like who will I be in 25 years?”
But if Tenneson is still given to asking herself questions, she’s reached the point where she has found some answers.
“I am by nature somebody who’s a giver. I like mentoring younger artists. I enjoy getting to know people, understanding what makes them tick, how we’re all the same, and how we’re all different. I’m a student of human nature and always have been. And I reveal myself to my subjects; it’s not a one-way street. For people to give to you, you have to give to them. I enjoy that sharing.”
She has had over 100 exhibitions of her work worldwide. Her work is in museum and private collections. She has written 12 books. Unfortunately, not all of them are still in print. Wise Women was the best selling photography book of 2002.
- In/Sights (1978)
- Joyce Tenneson Photographs (1984)
- Au-Dela (1989)
- Transformations (1993)
- Illuminations (1997)
- Light Warriors (2000)
- Wise Women (2002)
- Flower Portraits (2003)
- Intimacy (2004)
- Amazing Men (2004)
- A Life in Photography (2008)
- Shells: Nature’s Exquisite Creations (2011)
“As a portraitist, I’m the opposite of the kind of photographer who stands back and says, ‘Let the person reveal himself.’ When I know there’s something inside, I try to bring it out. People tell me incredible secrets.” – Joyce Tenneson
Awards & workshops
Tenneson has been recognized by the International Center of Photography (Infinity Award), Professional Photographers of America (Photographer of the Year 2012) and American Photographer magazine named her one of the 10 most influential women photographers.
She is on the faculty of Maine Media Workshops, Santa Fe Workshops and Palm Beach Photographic Centre Workshops. She is a Canon Explorer of Light.
Throughout Tenneson’s career, her photographs have appeared on the covers of many magazines, including Time, Life, and Entertainment Weekly. Her portraits include notable figures such as Nancy Reagan and Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as the New York Yankees baseball team. She has published over 16 books of photography, and her 2002 book Wise Women was the New York Times best-selling photography book of the year. Tenneson currently resides in Maine, and continues to give lectures and teach workshops.
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For a deeper view of Tenneson’s work, and to experience the full tonal range of her vision, visit www.joycetenneson.com.