Interview: Jennifer Loeber

April 05 2015

A universal theme of Jennifer Loeber’s work is acceptance: acceptance amongst one’s peers, acceptance of oneself, acceptance of loss. Much of the Brooklyn-based photographer’s recent work—a return to the summer camp she went to as a teen, following an old friend as she transitions from male to female, creating a visual inventory of her mother’s belongings soon after her death—is a profound document of coming to terms with change.

In recording the seemingly banal details of life (her mother’s everyday lipstick, her friend at a barbecue, campers dyeing each other’s hair), the projects draw forth an intense feeling of intimacy and nostalgia familiar to all of us.

Featured here are images from Gyrle, Jennifer’s documentation of her friend Lorelai’s metamorphosis. 

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You grew up in Brooklyn, right? 

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for over a decade, but I was born in Manhattan and grew up in Queens. So I have the Bronx and Staten Island left for upcoming major life events!

How long have you been taking photos/making films? 

I started thinking seriously about photography in high school. My homeroom class was also the school darkroom so I was literally surrounded by it every day. It was a very seductive atmosphere to an awkward 14 year old. The red lights, the mysterious chemicals, the moody punk rock boys who seemed to hang around a lot… I took a Super 8 class in college and made a few short films but it wasn’t until I co-directed my feature length documentary, “Fish Kill Flea,” in 2007 that I really became interested in filmmaking as a medium. I’m now working on incorporating film into my photographic bodies of work as well.

Did anyone show you how to take photos (before you took classes)? 

I didn’t take a formal photography class until high school but I had learned a little bit about shooting and using the darkroom at the summer camp I was going to. They had a wet darkroom the campers could use, so I gleaned a lot of the basics of shooting and printing there right before I started high school. Up until that point I was using whatever point-and-shoot camera my parents had, or drugstore disposables. I recently found a box of photos in my parents’ storage, and apparently between the ages of 11 and 13 I really really loved taking photos of my bedroom. Just tons of photos of my Tiger Beat posters and dresser drawers. 

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What were you into growing up?

My parents exposed me to art and film very early on so I spent a lot of weekends in Soho with my Dad as a kid walking around the galleries and looking at street art. I took fashion drawing classes at FIT (I briefly wanted to be a fashion designer) and spent a lot of time sitting on the floor of the Museum of Natural History sketching the dinosaurs. Art and film and dance were always a big part of my childhood and teenage years. I was a very good student in general but art classes seemed to be where I excelled and was clearly most happy. Thankfully my parents indulged me in almost every creative endeavor I was interested in. I remember my Dad taking me to the abandoned 1964 World’s Fair buildings in Queens because he thought maybe it would be an interesting location to shoot. He was right. 

Who are your favorite photographers and artists who have influenced your work?

My first photographic influences were Nan Goldin, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Just like 99.9% of all photography students! I then spent most of undergrad desperately trying to emulate them like everyone else. Once I got that out of my system and started shooting in color in my senior year of college (I had photographed exclusively in black and white until then), I discovered people like William Eggleston, Rineke Dijkstra, and Helen Levitt. I also started looking at film more closely and remember being really excited about the movie “Romper Stomper”. It felt like a Nan Goldin photo series come to life and I started to more fully understand and appreciate how photography and film informed each other. 

Most of your work is documentary in nature, where you take on what seems to be the role of “watcher.” Are you in conversation much with the subject(s) when you’re photographing them, or do you try to be as unobtrusive as possible? 

While I don’t think you necessarily need to have a long history with a subject to build intimacy or even trust, I do think you have to connect with each other on some level in order to make an interesting photograph. It could be years of shared history or a five-minute conversation about a common interest. My practice involves equal amounts of talking and hanging out, with quiet observation while shooting. There have definitely been times while photographing where I’ve thought to myself “shut your pie-hole!” as I yabber on and on but it’s just in my nature to want to talk and connect with people. I think for the most part I have a good sense of when a moment is quiet or still. 

How did your biggest projects (“Fish Kill Flea,” “Cruel Story of Youth,” “Left Behind,” and “Gyrle”) come about? 

Each project came about very organically, which is I think the best way for anything to happen. With my film, “Fish Kill Flea” it was happenstance during a trip upstate to go apple picking with my husband and good friend. Our friend took us to this crazy flea market he had grown up with and within a few hours of visiting it we had hashed out the idea for the film. 

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“Cruel Story of Youth” and “Gyrle” are almost like part one and part two of a larger idea. I attended a very bohemian and atypical summer camp as a teenager and decided to go back to live there for a summer and photograph it in “Cruel Story of Youth.” Through that series I ended up reconnecting with Lorelei, the subject of my newest body of work, “Gyrle” [who was also] a camper from my time there as a teen. So both series are documentary in nature and explore ideas about gender and sexuality while also both being tied very closely to my own past. 

“Left Behind” is my most conceptual work and came about as a way to deal with my grief after my Mom died in 2013. My intention with that series was really to heal myself first and foremost; it was only when I put it on Instagram and people starting noticing it that I realized how affecting it could be for anyone dealing with a loss.

How important is it to you that there be a personal relationship to the people and objects you’re documenting? Does it appeal to you to document a situation that you have little prior knowledge of? 

Several of my projects involve subjects I have personal history with but I am equally as interested in photographing situations or stories in which I have no prior connection. I find it totally thrilling to meet a stranger or go someplace unknown and work out an idea through photography. I think that is what attracted me to being a photographer to begin with. It gives you license to explore. 

What projects are you working on right now?

I’m going to be shooting (and filming) a project in France during the Cannes film festival centered the teenage and young adult population that lives there. I don’t want to say too much but I’m very very excited about it and its possibilities. 

 Laura Casey is a journalist and photographer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram