Julie Renee Jones holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She currently lives and works in Chicago.
Tell me about your project Umbra.
‘In Umbra I seek to explore the collapse of reality into the fantastic. I use a set cast of characters, my family, which repeat and become confused with one another throughout the series. This creates the idea that the events and people that are in the photographs are part of a specific Midwestern neighborhood or subdivision, and that what is taking place is part of a parallel reality and alternate universe.
‘In pursing all of this my photographs begin to reveal a psychological level to growing up in the predominately white, middle-class environment of Midwestern suburbia. The photographs are based on my personal childhood memories of growing up there and they directly speak to the slippages between actual events and the exaggerated recollection of childhood. Some of the most mundane moments are elevated to the point of extreme significance through my usage of light and shadow to create a sense of magic, unease, and drama.
‘I’m also interested in the way people get confused in our memories or how their roles shift, and that they are recalled as otherworldly caricatures of themselves. I think the most defining aspect of the work that has revealed itself as I have worked on Umbra is the exploration of the borderland between innocence and experience. This particular aspect is most evident with the children in the photographs but I believe that it is also present with the adults. With the children there is a conflict between the youthfulness of their physical form and the evolving understanding and awareness of the world around them.’
There is something painfully “ordinary” or white middle class about the clothing your characters wear and the environments they inhabit. What I find interesting is the way you use those ubiquitous objects to create a sense of uncanniness. What interests you in these symbols of middle class America?
‘I think that my interest comes from my own personal experience. I grew up in the painful ordinariness of middle class American suburbia. As a child I used my imagination to try and create a sense of fantasy and drama into my everyday routine and now I use photography to contrast those same banal symbols, events, and interactions against strange and surreal interactions between the people and their environments.
‘I use the ordinary clothing and environments of middle class America because I think my work revolves around the uncanny interaction between what is familiar and unfamiliar, and those symbols are achingly familiar to me.’
What draws you to photograph your family?
‘I think part of it has to do with familiarity too. I can take these people who I know better than anyone else in this world and recast them as something strange, but still reminiscent of the way I understand them.
‘I also use them because there is a level of intimacy and comfort and I have with them that is then transferred to the photographs. They are more willing to let go and reveal something deeper to me that I believe makes for a more powerful portrait.
‘Lastly because I largely draw from my own personal experiences and, especially in Umbra, childhood memory it made sense for me to use them. They’re available and willing, and the complexities of personal psychology and emotion that can and do come to the surface from the act of me photographing them, make the resulting photographs more profound and revealing.’
Some of the photographs, like The Lonely Fen and Sharon, are very uncomfortable because the interaction before the lens is voyeuristic and obscure. I feel like I am watching something that I shouldn’t be. Can you talk a little about the ambiguity in your photographs?
‘I think that ambiguity is very important to the work. I’ve had instances when working on Umbra where I have been too specific and defined about what is actually taking place in front of the camera or what someone is doing and that is when a lot of the photographs have failed for me. There is a thin line that I tread when working on Umbra that can easily fall into the cliché or contrived.
‘I’m interested in working with cliché and spinning a clichéd idea, moment, or object in an unexpected way, but allowing for an ambiguity of action, place, persona, and/or interaction lets the photographs remain powerful while exploring this. I am drawn to feelings of unease and tension and creating a sense of suspense in my work that is best described by photographing ambiguous situations and interactions.
‘I think it’s important that the viewer is given the chance to use their own imagination, much like my subjects and I use it when we’re making photographs. By using ambiguity and implying a sense of unease through camera angle, light and shadow, gesture, etc. I am inviting the viewer to take these obscure scenes and decode them for themselves, and relate it back to their own experiences.’
What inspires and influences your work?
‘A lot of what inspires and influences my work, and especially Umbra, is in literature and film. Directors like David Lynch and John Carpenter are a huge influence, as well as writers such as Lewis Carroll, Frank L Baum, and Neil Gaiman.
‘I grew up in the age of suburban horror, where movies such as Halloween and Poltergeist explore the banality of everyday domestic suburbia and challenge notions of comfort and safety that are associated with this demographic and living situation. I found this idea to be very fascinating, that underneath all the normalcy there existed this level of the strange and the dangerous.
‘Simultaneously I was reading Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, where the main protagonist was a girl who was transported to a world that was both familiar and strange. So it was these types of stories that got me interested in the uncanny and nonsensical as a way of traversing and describing the psychological journey of childhood and transition.
‘I am constantly watching movies and reading books and continuously find inspiration there. The movie that has most recently inspired me is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Tree of Life. I am really interested in the way that both directors juxtaposed the trials and tribulations of one single family against universal events on a cosmic scale.
‘As for artist influences I take a lot from art history, especially Renaissance period allegorical painting and sculpture. I am continually inspired by painters working with Magic Realism and Surrealism as well as the work of artists such as Sally Mann, Viviane Sassen, Tierney Gearon, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.’