Genesis Báez On Her Work, Puerto Rico and The Joys and Challenges of “Old School” Photography

Genesis Baez Otra Vida Otra Vez 2

Photograph from “Otra Vida, Otra Vez” Image Courtesy of the Artist.

I met Genesis Báez while working on a story for Take Magazine on analog film and photography in the Boston area. (You can read the story online or by purchasing the magazine at your favorite newsstand).

When we first started exchanging emails, one of the first questions on our mind was “are we related?” Neither one asked it until the day before we met for the interview and as it turned out, we were not related by blood, but shared many mutual art connections in Boston. Upon meeting in person for the first time, we laughed and joked about the possibly thousands of people that have “Báez” as their last name.

Genesis Báez is a recent photography graduate from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and a rising star in the Boston art scene. I sat down with Genesis on Saturday November 28, 2015 at the Boston Public Library to talk about her photography work as well as the joys and challenges of making work in an analog way.

Anulfo Baez: Genesis, I’m delighted to be here at the Boston Public Library to get to know you and your work. Could you tell me about your work and your interest in photography?

Genesis Báez: Thank you, Anulfo. I’m excited to share my work with you.

Lately I’ve been excited about making videos, and making my first performances. I also really like curating. I’m currently in a place where I am interested in approaching my practice from a few different angles. However, photography is at the root of most of my work and has been what I have worked in almost exclusively until the last year or so.

I would say that most of my photography work until now has really revolved around my relationship to Puerto Rico as a person living in diaspora in New England. My parents moved from Puerto Rico to New England in the late 1980s. I was born here in Massachusetts, but have spent my life going back and forth and spending time in both places, which I feel really influenced my work. For me, at a very young age, photography felt like an important tool that could help me navigate that back and forth—that could help me make sense of my identity in the midst of perpetual movement.

I would go to Puerto Rico as a child and teenager, and I felt I did not want to come back. The camera allowed me to move on, in a sense, because it allowed me to record everything. I made a precise catalog of things—the closet, the garden, the fence, the door, my grandmother’s stove. It was a way of holding on to this place that I felt exiled from.

Later on, I attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design and got my BFA in photography. I graduated in 2012, and there I did a bunch of different things, but my work still at the time focused around living in diaspora and making images that reflected what that felt like for me. So there were a lot of images made in interstitial spaces, images of being in transition… images of doorways, windows, airplanes, my mother, the sky.

I’ll show you my first body of work that spanned from 2011-2015ish, although I feel it will always be somewhat ongoing. It’s called Otra Vida, Otra Vez. It’s all film. I’m using color medium-format and large-format (4×5) film. I started using film because the program I was in, in college taught us film and encouraged its use. But as I tried other things, I realized that film really worked for my practice and for the work I was making in Puerto Rico. It forced me to slow down in a way that felt very important in order to be present with my subject, in order to be present with the space that I was in. Also, I don’t have infinite amount of exposures, so I have to be very intentional, very deliberate. It almost became like making a painting, I had to work slowly and forced me to lose some control.  These were all made between 2011 and 2015. I did not live in Puerto Rico, I lived in Boston, but I’d go back whenever I could.

AB: Where in Puerto Rico?

GB: Yabucoa—Southeastern corner of the island.

[Genesis shows me images of her body of work Otra Vida, Otra Vez]

You can already start to see in here, certain motifs, and metaphors for passing through spaces [points at image of doorway]. In this image in particular, I feel that using film was an important choice. I feel like the richness of the colors, the movement, are rendered.

[We both laugh]

Genesis Baez Otra Vida Otra Vez

Photograph from “Otra Vida, Otra Vez.” Image Courtesy of the Artist.

In Otra Vida, Otra Vez I feel I am borrowing certain tropes from documentary photography, but presenting it in a far more subjective manner. However, in another project, Reclamation, I am also using film, but in a different way.  In Reclamation, I am returning to specific places in Puerto Rico where I made landscape photographs and I bury the negatives in the ground. I am returning to the very spot where I made the photograph—after having returned to Boston, developed the negative,  scanning it and seeing the horizon, and the hills and the trees, what have you. And I am returning, burying the negative, and leaving it there for a week, a month, a year. I return once again and dig it up. I make a little map and take pictures with my phone to remember where it is.

AB: What is your goal with burying it and then digging it up?

GB: I have a couple of goals. I would say that one of the goals is to really explore the possibilities that the surface of film can offer us. There’s a really exciting element of surprise there. It’s exciting to lose control. I’m excited about the surface of film as a medium.

Secondly, I felt that the landscapes I was making before—descriptions of the horizon, the trees, the roads—were merely illustrating the land and not really showing what it felt like to be displaced from this place.  I feel like these landscapes begin to describe an internal place [in her body of work Reclamation], like my memories of Puerto Rico, they’re also changing with time. In my mind, Puerto Rico does not feel like hills and oceans and palm trees. It has become bits of color, light, bits of images here and there. Not something linear. Lately, and this feels like a different project, I have been submersing negatives of landscape images in containers of Atlantic ocean water for varying amounts of time (usually weeks or months).

AB: I’m sure you know about Luther Price’s work. Hearing you talk about film reminds me of the surfaces of his films in the sense that he often scratches the film, paints it and alters it chemically and what you get is something so beautiful that you can really feeI it.

GB: Yes, yes. I love Luther Price’s work. He is also a MassArt alumni.

Reclamation

Mountains dividing Yabucoa and Maunabo, Yabucoa Puerto Rico Photographed June 12, 2012|| Negative buried in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico on January 16, 2014|| Negative dug up on January 30, 2014. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

AB: Where do you develop your work?

GB: So I would photograph everything in Puerto Rico, return to Boston, but I would send [the film] out to a place in Portland, Oregon called Citizen Photo.

I would ship it, and they’d mail it back to me. Then to make prints, I’d do few different things, such as trades with people who have printers, or scan negatives and print at the Aviary Gallery in Jamaica Plain. There are places that make prints for you, but I’d do whatever I can to make my own prints. Having control over what they look like is important to me. Plus, it’s fun for me too. Because it’s film, folks often ask if I make analog prints. I almost exclusively print digitally (as of now.) C-printing is not as accessible, and I like having more control over what my print looks like, which digital offers. In the past, however, silver printing and c-printing have both been parts of my practice.

Going back to thinking about where my film gets developed, I’m fascinated by this sort of journey that the film and images take… they are flown everywhere… I order the film from New York, it ships to Boston, I take it to Puerto Rico, I bring it back to Boston, ship it to Oregon. It flies back to me in Boston.

AB: It’s like a multi-national film basically.

[We both break into laughter]

GB: Yeah, which is interesting because I feel like it relates to the content of my work —this back and forth—this journey .The film also takes many journeys in order for my images to be actualized.

AB: It is really expensive to really work in analog. What are some of the challenges that you see that are currently going on in analog film? What has been the hardest thing for you as an artist?

GB: Sometimes it feels inaccessible. It’s hard and it is definitely a commitment. At first, in school, I was learning on it, it was what I was presented with. Later it became a deliberate choice, a tool that worked for my work and its content. However, it depends on the project. It’s a different tool for a different kind of picture. It feels like a different process. When I left college—I didn’t have access to equipment. I didn’t know about Aviary yet, so I didn’t know where to make prints, didn’t know where to scan my film, and the place I would get my film processed at an affordable rate in Boston closed down the summer after I graduated. I had one hundred bucks in my bank account and I had no idea how I would keep photographing in the same way. You know what I mean? I just wanted to make pictures, and I needed to be able to see it in a reasonable amount of time, so I could continue projects, but also, so I could continue to grow as an artist. That is when I started to incorporate digital into my work. I could more easily play, experiment, and shoot endlessly, picking up on patterns and quickly developing new ideas into projects. It helped keep the ball rolling in a time when I didn’t have access to the right equipment to work in analog. Currently, I work with both. Like I mentioned- they just feel like different tools for making different kinds of pictures. They are both great, just depends on what you are trying to achieve.

AB: What attracts you the most about film? You obviously have the option to abandon film, but you haven’t.

GB: The very thing that I just complained about, about it sometimes feeling too slow!

[We both laugh simultaneously]

GB: The slowness of it also feels important. It’s all about a balance. Too much slowness, and I didn’t feel like I’m progressing or growing. But the right amount of slowness to me feels good. It allows me to be present in a way that I can’t quite achieve when I photograph with a digital camera. I also like being able to touch the film, especially in other projects such as Reclamation. It feels important to be able to touch objects and materials and relate to them in a physical way, living in a digital age.

AB: What is that feeling you’re referring to like?

GB: It’s meditative. Also, not being able to go back and see what I just made right away feels very important. I let go of control a bit and just focus on making instead of analyzing what I just made. That is freeing and feels healthy. There’s also, of course, the element of surprise that feels healthy to me- we live in a world where we’re so saturated with images.  We are accustomed to immediacy. An analog practice instills a sense of patience in me that I feel like I lose these days because I’m so used to having images fed to me so quickly.

AB: We all are actually.

Since the interview, Genesis has embarked on another journey that is resulting in a new body of work. This journey has led her to Toronto, Canada for the next two months and will continue throughout Europe. Best of luck to Genesis on this new journey.

We have decided to omit some of the quotes published in Take Magazine from this version of the interview, in order to give readers of The Evolving Critic an opportunity to read the feature in Take on the artists and collectives who are keeping analog photography alive in the Boston area.

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