Smith Galtney – Alumnus GS 14 – United States
The project you developed while at ICP was called “Being Boring.” Tell me how that came about.
I’m in my mid-40s, which is a good deal older than most of my classmates. Some of them would go off and photograph their crazy weekends, or they’d get naked in empty studios and take self-portraits of themselves all tied up. And here I was, showing pictures of my dog and my partner picking out leeks at the farmer’s market. I felt very self-conscious, like maybe my life lacked any necessary friction to create good work. But I’ve always hated the myth that you need to live in chaos in order to be worthy artist, and the idea of trying to present a content, settled life in a way that was interesting and not sentimental seemed like the right challenge.
How did text become a part of the project?
Honestly? Because my pictures weren’t very good! I’d been a working journalist for over 20 years, yet I’d only been at this photography thing for three. So my approach to making images was extremely, almost embarrassingly literal. Darin Mickey once told me, “Take a picture of your dog, without the dog in it.” And I had no idea how to do that. But, if wrote about the dog, everybody seemed really moved. It wasn’t until Martine Fougeron flat-out said, “The writing is better than the pictures,” that I decided text would be a major element of what I hung in the graduation show. Whatever it took to support the pictures, since they weren’t quite strong enough yet to stand on their own.
You framed three letters along with three pictures. Why letters?
I needed a way to acknowledge the past. My life used to be very Nan Goldin in certain ways – drugs, rehab, relapse – only I didn’t carry a camera around then. So the letters were the most obvious way of suggesting a troubled history, one that would hopefully give the photos some bite. I’m actually very proud and a little defensive of how domesticated my life is now. If you spend enough time in drug dens, doing normal things like cooking and maintaining a house feel pretty radical.
David was a guy I dated in the mid-90s. I was just out of college and he was 45, and we had this ridiculously tempestuous relationship. He wanted me to settle down, but I just wanted to get wasted, and after a very on-again/-off-again few years, we finally broke up. He died from AIDS-related illness in 2002.
While at ICP, I’d pass by his old apartment anytime I walked to K&H for supplies. It was weird to realize I was his age now, and that somehow I managed to become a relatively responsible middle-aged person. So I started writing these letters to him, letting him know how I was doing and how much the world had changed for gay men.
How has marriage influenced your work?
Well, considering that my partner was the one who suggested I take up photography, I’d say entirely. Gay marriage is often portrayed in a very inspirational light – a triumph over adversity, a tale of love conquering all, etc. And it’s a subject that people take way too seriously. Yes, I was overwhelmed by the Supreme Court decision in June. I was aware of the history being made. But otherwise, in my day-to-day, everything feels so average and unremarkable. I do laundry. I bake. I look after a dog with persistent eye and skin issues. I’ve basically become my mother.
What have you been up to since graduating last year?
Shortly after moving back to Maine, where we live, I was commissioned by a foundation in Portland to do a series of portraits of all the people who make up Maine’s HIV/AIDS community. The show got lots of attention in the local press, which was really cool. Other than that, I’m constantly working on Being Boring – shooting, editing, sequencing – and I keep in regular touch with classmates and teachers. In fact, in July, I attended a photography retreat in the south of France. It was hosted by Martine Fougeron, and I’m pleased to report that not once did she say my pictures needed the help of my writing!