Photography: Emma Elizabeth Tillman

October 05 2014

A well constructed photograph is one that may take you minutes, hours, even days, to figure out and fully decipher. Photographer Emma Tillman (Garr) is a master of these deep reads—her photos are raw, deep and plenty mysterious on their own. They’re also rather unashamed of their genuine intimacy, and include everything from nude self portraits to sentimental shots of her husband, Josh Tillman of Father John Misty and Fleet Foxes.

We caught up with Emma to discuss photography, the mystery, and being a muse.

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Who is Emma Tillman? Where did you grow up and where have you been?
I grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. My family lived in the harbor there on a sailboat until I was 5 and then moved into a one room house where we stayed until I was 13. Not surprisingly, I have found myself in a lot of small spaces since then.

What’s a typical Tuesday like for you?
Josh and I wake up either at 8AM or 1PM depending on if we’ve gone nocturnal. We stay in bed for at least an hour. We tell each other our dreams. Josh makes a pot of green tea and chlorophyll water with lemon for us and I make us some elaborate green smoothie. From there, Tuesday always seems to turn most atypical…

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Your photographs are incredibly personal and often flirt with an element of darkness. Is this something you seek out, or just a natural touch?
It is something I seek out when I’m in a bad way, personally. I gravitate toward the gruesome, strange, or superstitious mostly because it scares me and I intrinsically feel value in ideas and representations that scare me. That being said, my work comes from a much deeper place than just interest. I let my subconscious do the work and don’t let articulations get in the way. I have always had an idea about art that if you say to yourself, “You know what would make a really great project?” You are already on the road to making something absolutely horrible and worthless.

Josh is often the subject of your work, what has it been like documenting his growth into a solo artist?
Well, Josh has always been a solo artist so on that front I don’t have too much to say. But documenting our love is something I have been doing since our second date. It is precious to me. It is a compulsion and a wringing out of time. I can’t tell you how often we are on an airplane, or eating dinner in a strange city, or waiting for a taxi together, talking about something we’ve done in the past. It feels good and keeps our little world intact. Taking photographs of our life is a clear and easy pleasure to accommodate that measure of time and take the essence of it.

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It seems like you are often on the road, either touring or traveling. How has this somewhat-nomadic lifestyle been a source of creativity?
I think anyone likes to be in a new place for a time, and I am no different. What I find most interesting about it though, is that traveling condenses experience. You can feel either the most isolated you’ve ever felt or the most elated, joyful and free. Both can be direct lines to creativity.
You both seem intertwined in one another’s work, you appear in his music videos and he in your photographs. Tell us about your creative partnership.
It is able to exist only because we work constantly to provide a safe and imaginative world to explore our deepest, strangest, and most beautiful ideas. Our love is true and we strive to keep it that way.

What are you listening to these days?
Diamanda Galas and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.

Some of your more interesting shots are when you are your own muse. Why do you believe this creative process works so well for you?
I’m an only child and I spent an unhealthy amount of time alone while growing up. I created whole worlds in my mind and kept them cloaked in extreme secrecy. Taking self portraits as an adult is like taking that version of myself and exposing it. It is like showing myself a secret.

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You recently had your directorial debut in the short film The History of Caves. Did you bring over the same photographer’s eye, or did you have to alter your approach?
I am not visual in the way one would imagine me to be as a photographer. I think storytelling is the most important thing. The actors have to be good and the story has to be good. Film is ruthless in this way. No amount of beautiful light and dreamy, perfectly composed sequences are going to save you if your story sucks.

Do you see your work in film continuing? What’s next for you?
Yes, I am working on a film I wrote this winter. It touches on themes of family, sadomasochism, innocence. You know, my regular themes! I am casting right now but production is about a year off. So much patience required in film! In the meantime I will be making smoothies and drinking green tea..

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You can see more of Emma’s work here.