Frances F. Denny (b. 1984) is an artist based in Brooklyn, New York, whose work investigates the development of female selfhood and identity. She holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BA from the Gallatin School at New York University. Her project ‘Let Virtue Be Your Guide’ explores the idea of feminine “virtue” and examines the artist’s family and their deeply rooted history as early settlers. These photos were taken between 2011-14 in nine private residences located in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island.
Frances has won numerous awards including Magenta Foundation Flash Forward 2015, LensCulture Emerging Talent 2015, Photolucida 2014 Critical Mass Top 50, and First Prize in Fine Art at the International Photography Awards 2015 besides many features in print and online publications. Her first monograph, ‘Let Virtue Be Your Guide; has just been published by Radius Books and an exhibition at ClampArt in New York City coincides with its release. This is Frances’s first solo show: it is on view until the 30th of December, 2015. A short Q&A with Frances about her work is below:
I began photography in high school, and continued working in the darkroom through college. But I realized I needed much better digital skills post-college once I began pursuing photography seriously as a career. So for me, the International Center of Photography’s one year program made sense– it gave me the technical know-how I sought, plus a lot more. I met a wonderful community of other photographers/artists, and even started a magazine with a few friends I met there. I spent a few years assisting afterwards, and then applied to MFA programs. ICP was good preparation for my critiques at RISD. My class in the photo MFA program was just seven people, so the critiques became very intimate. That was valuable to me- I felt able to take a lot of risks with my work, while being expected to work very hard to produce new work constantly. I was also invited to teach my first class during my second year, an experience I found challenging and extremely rewarding. The graduate thesis is taken very seriously at RISD, and there’s a great deal of writing involved in it. You essentially self-publish a photography book of your work, with about 10,000 words of your own writing included. Writing effectively and expressively is an essential tool for an artist, and RISD certainly stressed that.
What were your earliest photo projects like; and why/how did you shift your focus to the theme of female image and identity? What are your opinions about or objections with the portrayal of women in contemporary photography?
In many ways, my work has consistently been about the lived female experience, for as early as I can remember taking pictures. My earliest images were portraits of female friends of mine (usually wrapped up in a bedsheet or piece of tulle for dramatic effect!), and I definitely went through a Francesca Woodman-inspired self-portrait phase. It was always about the expression of what it means to be female in some way. I also began photographing my mother pretty early on, and haven’t really stopped. My academic concentration in college was in the representation of women in art history and literature, so thinking about the ways in which women grow into themselves as women–and the various factors that affect that development–has long been my preoccupation. I’m very careful about how I photograph people both in my art work and in my freelance work. A photograph is by nature a representation–a stand-in–for something or someone. The photographer wields a lot of power with her camera and how she chooses to render her subject in two dimensions. There are a lot of subtle choices that happen as a result of that responsibility.
“Let Virtue Be Your Guide” is one of your projects that I like most for its visual appeal and its core idea. How did you conceive of this project? Do you feel that the idea of feminine “virtue” will hold any water in time to come?
The Project Statement : Let Virtue Be Your Guide examines the author’s family, and their deeply rooted history as early settlers of New England (one ancestor, John Howland, was a deckhand aboard The Mayflower). Unearthing the idea of feminine “virtue” from the confines of its historical meaning, Denny’s photographs of the women in her family have a watchful quality, as if she is defining for herself what it means to be a woman. Her subjects, and the domestic spaces they inhabit, together evoke a distinct and well-worn privilege. But Denny finds the places where seams pull apart, exposing the shifts occurring across generations of women. The resulting collection of images becomes a search for meaning in heritage, a challenge to the notion of legacy, and the artist’s reckoning with a traditional version of American femininity.
I began Let Virtue Be Your Guide in 2011 with the aim of capturing the particular New England culture my family comes from. But as the project evolved, I became more interested in thinking specifically about the women in that world, and their particular embodiment of femininity. The resulting series is a mixture of portraits and interiors of homes scattered up the east coast, and juxtaposes women of my generation with my mother’s (while earlier generations also look on from oil paintings/photographs). The title of the series was inspired by the name of a 1982 exhibition of colonial girls embroidery samplers at the Rhode Island Historical Society. The word “virtue” traditionally is connected to female virginity and morality, but in my work I question what “virtue” means to the modern woman– with so many influences, factors, and standards that affect our development as women, what does it mean to be a virtuous woman nowadays? Let Virtue Be Your Guide is my attempt to shed some light on that search from the standpoint of my own upbringing.
After close to 5 years of work on the series, I’m so excited to have the final copy of my monograph, Let Virtue Be Your Guide, in my hands– it ships in early 2016 from Radius Books and is available for pre-order now. The book’s afterword, by writer Lisa Locascio, is uniquely special. Lisa’s words are so poignant and in such dialogue with the photos, I feel lucky to have found such a great collaborator in her. I’ve been working on my exhibitions and shows for so many months now, I’m looking forward to getting back in touch with my camera in the new year!
I saved this quote from an interview with Aline Smithson (for New York Photo Festival):
It is not always easy to lead the life of a photographic artist. Being an artist means periods of self-doubt, rejection, lack of inspiration, and simply having to step away from photography when life gets in the way. As Keith Carter says, “You have to make uncertainty your friend.” The irony of success is that it never feels like what you think it will feel like. You still have to get back on the horse and ride to the next destination. Focus on making the best work possible, not on the awards and the accolades. Find your joy in the journey. – Aline Smithson