Conversation with a Creative
Kristine Potter joined the Department of Media Arts in August as an assistant professor who teaches courses in photography. She has won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as an international competition called 2019 Images Vevey Grand Prix. Her monograph, Manifest, was published by TBW Books in 2018.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in art history, a B.F.A. in photography from the University of Georgia and an M.FA. in photography from Yale.
According to her official bio, her work explores masculine archetypes, the American landscape and cultural tendencies toward mythologizing the past. Her work has appeared in numerous exhibitions across the United States.
She spoke to Beverly Keel about her mentors, influences and the Guggenheim Fellowship.
How did you get interested in photography? When did you decide that you wanted to pursue it as a profession?
I was an art history major at the University of Georgia and had plans to become a museum professional or galley curator. I was required to take a few studio courses for the degree and thought immediately of photography. I had always enjoyed taking photos and sort of thought it would be an easier class for me than say… painting. I ended up in a class with the brilliant Mark Steinmetz. He was only teaching one course that semester, I didn’t know who he was, nor could I have imagined how dramatically he would shift my world. He opened up this whole new language to me. I can’t explain it other than to say, I didn’t want to do anything else after that point. I found my calling, if you will. I did finish my Art History degree, but I stuck around to also get a BFA in photography.
What is your favorite area and/or area of specialty within photography? How and when did that develop?
I’m an artist first. I’m very interested in the nuance of photography, especially as it can function without words or captions. There is something incredibly compelling about a moment torn from its past and future, that allows the viewer to ponder both. I find myself drawn to long-term projects that center on the mythology of America, both its culture and its landscape. I just follow my instincts, that’s how it evolves. The release valve for that is the editorial assignments I take on when offered. I routinely work for The New York Times, The New Yorker magazine, California Sunday Magazine, Bloomberg and others. These assignments pull me into situations I could never access on my own and they present a visual problem that must be solved quickly. I love that kind of challenge and the energy it brings into my world both intellectually and photographically.
You won the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018. Tell us about that experience.
Most of my heroes were awarded a Guggenheim at some point in their careers and I had long desired to win my own. It’s one of those prizes that we admire because it is judged by people from your field, people who understand the medium, its particularities, its history, and its potential. In my mind, I wouldn’t dare apply until I felt ready. That feeling came to me when my husband and I made our move from New York City to Nashville. I was making the leap in part to pursue a project here, and that was stubbornly self-assured and risky. I thought, well if I’m jumping, I’ll jump completely. I applied and was awarded the Guggenheim just eight months after our move. It set me up to really focus on my project for the next year which was probably one of the best creative years of my life.
You also won the 2019 Images Vevey Grand Prix international photography competition. Tell us about that experience.
I don’t apply to many things. I choose the very few that are worth the effort and the Vevey prize is absolutely among the most worthwhile. Winning the prize afforded me another year to work on my project and culminated with a very large solo exhibition in Vevey, Switzerland. It has been a tremendous experience to create this show with the production team there, an effort that was exponentially complicated by COVID. But we got it done, it is up, and its reception has been very good. I’m sad of course to not be there in person, but I am so grateful for the opportunity. It’s been a great couple of years.
You earned an M.F.A. at Yale in 2005. How did your time there shape/influence you?
I’m sure it influenced me in a thousand incalculable ways. The ways I can name have mostly to do with being challenged beyond any reasonable comfort level, learning from and among some of the most brilliant artists of our time, and making the absolute best cohort of lifelong friends I could imagine. Those two years shaped the rest of my life, without a doubt.
What are some recent photography projects that you have created? What are you being drawn to now? Are there common threads in your projects?
I’ve photographed young, male cadets at West Point. I’ve endeavored to re-envision the American West and ponder the notion of Manifest Destiny. I have spent countless late nights in the local music venues around Nashville, photographing the locals who are both die-heartedly sincere and fantastically theatrical at the same time. And most recently, I have endeavored to explore the gothic south and the murder ballads that populate our American Songbook. What’s common about all that is probably best left to an art historian who cares to look, but I often chalk it up to a fascination with the mythology and archetypes of America
What photographers inspire you?
Honestly, there are so many. But If I have to choose, I cannot deny the first three that had an indelible influence on me: Mark Steinmetz, Philip-Lorca divorce, and Diane Arbus. Lately I’ve been looking at a lot of Roy DeCarava and Raymond Meeks... oh and Mimi Plumb. I could go on.
Talk about the joys and difficulties of teaching a student to learn photography? Is there an “a-ha” moment you can share about watching a student when it all clicked and he/she got what you were telling them?
Those “a-ha” moments are what it’s all about. There’s a slog to get there, of course. Photography can be tediously technical. It’s my goal to always connect the technical with the conceptual or expressive. I try to never lose sight of that, and I try to keep my students tuned into the potential meaning behind all of their technical choices. The meaningful “a-ha” moments (for me) are when a student discovers their own world view through the camera and endeavors to join that mysterious dance between intention and chance. It’s an incredible joy to witness.
Talk about balancing teaching and photography? How are you able to do it? Do you have any life hacks you can share that has made the balance easier for you?
My single greatest life hack is having a sense of humor and not being too precious about anything. It can be a hard balance, particularly right now with entering a new tenure-track position during COVID, having the biggest shows of my career so far in Europe, and fielding editorial opportunities for major news outlets. I want to do it all, but I have to choose wisely. I will say though, that having these professional opportunities and being able to bring those experiences back to the classroom, is really inspiring for the students. I can see it. It makes me a better professor. And it gives my students a portal through which they can see possibilities for themselves.
What do you do when you’re not working?
When is that? I’m kidding… I suppose I’m a cultural connoisseur. I want to be looking at art, listening to live music, watching films, reading, or tasting something delicious. In normal times, I want to travel. I find a lot of inspiration in the creativity of others and perhaps even an outlet for my own anxieties. Sometimes it is just good to step away from your own work to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor.