Baths, Sharon Springs, NY– Sharon Springs, NY. I travelled north to stay with a friend and co-worker in her abandoned church in upstate New York. The town had a variety of deserted buildings including the revered healing sulfur baths that have been closed for a number of years. You can see a full collection of images at www.rachelbeen.com/sharon-springs (Sharon Springs, NY)
With a varied portfolio featuring sidewalks, abandoned buildings and her own backyard as much as hyperrealist studio settings, New York based portrait photographer Rachel Been shoots day laborers, stoned rappers, Cuban grandpas, Russian models, and Ani Difranco, among others.
“I’ve worked with drug addicts and beauty queens, and the two subjects often have visual similarities.The most beautiful woman I have ever shot was a granny from Valencia, Spain who kept trying to feed me potatoes while hiding her wrinkled hands.”
For this New York special Salon des Beaux Bains ARTLURKER tracked Rachel to a grimy little drive bar on the Lower East Side where she was championing both an arm wrestling tournament and a hurricane sized bottle of Jamesons. After polishing off the hopeful talent and making sweet on her bets the raven-haired beauty beckoned us down into a dark corner (f/2.0) to discuss what form her exposure to soap and water typically takes.
So, Rachel; showers or baths?
SHOWERS. Baths horrify me.
Did you have a bad experience with baths as a child?
I grew up in San Francisco, where it seems like the ant population of the world vacations for the winter. We would consistently have ant colony infestations in the kitchen. I would wake up for breakfast, charge towards the raisin bran, and notice a quivering black line running across the kitchen tiles. Disgusting! One day they apparently mistook mom’s cinnamon potpourri in the bathroom for some sort of delicacy, and bombed the bathroom. The route towards the scented wood was through the bathtub drain… I ran a bath…and finally while the water was settling into its lukewarm phase I realized that the little black specs floating around and on me weren’t remnants of my nail polish!
Pigeons, New York– I worked for TimeOut New York as a photographer, and was travelling on foot across the city daily. I shot this right next to the TimeOut building on 10th Ave as I was coming back from an assignment. The sky was really that stark. (NY)
I often find photographers to be very patient, methodical and reflective people. Does being a photographer not lend itself to an appreciation of the kind of meditative wallowing possible in baths?
I abhor wallowing immensely. I believe that it is another form of stagnation. There is such a drastic difference between wallowing and accepting a troubling situation; perhaps it’s a matter of pessimism vs optimism. But wallowing seems so adverse to melioration that it’s outright oppositional to improvement. I’m talking in circles. What I’m really trying to say, is photographers are usually neurotic and rather impatient, which is how I have always envisioned myself unfortunately. I detest wallowing, and according to my Myers-Briggs personality test I’m 100% emotion instead of thought, so meditating in the delegation and impression sense isn’t my forte. So your statement is partially right, but rather incoherent.
In the context of a sense of accomplishment then, do baths seems like a waste of time to you?
I have always feared the concept of stagnation. My method of improving myself and my work is a consistent growth process requiring frenetic multitasking and production. A bath just seems so indicative of utmost stagnation–a good idea creeping into a cold, uncomfortable and boring one. In a bath, there is an initial phase of comfort that decays, while a shower is a quick renewal and cleanse. I feel like my accomplishment owes much to maximizing opportunities, and not to lazily popping glycerin bubbles.
The one thing I like conceptually about a bath is that you have the opportunity to read while soaking, but it seems like a really inefficient way to soak and to read. The book always gets wet, and the soaking isn’t refreshing, it’s pruney, milky and slightly cold.
Mercedes– I travelled to Valencia, Spain to attend Las Fallas, a massive burning ceremony. We stayed with a friend’s aunt and grandmother. Pictured here is his aunt, who was mentally unstable, but had a youthful sprit. She was obsessed with instant chat over the internet, and kept remarking that go loved to go partying and dancing on her spare time. (Valencia, Spain)
Do you spend much time in darkrooms?
I used to spend hours in my darkroom developing film and staring at solarized nudie pics my father in the sixties. Or sometimes I used it as a jump-off pad to sneak out of the basement when grounded…In my ripe older age, the digital revolution has plopped me down in front of a computer for 12 hours a day, releasing me only for instamatic coffee and goldfish crackers.
The darkroom is one of the only locations where my impatience diminishes. I think the contemporary instamatic nature of image creation, selection, and publication is such that the content doesn’t necessarily need adequate study. I often catch myself in a binge trap of rapid selection and publication, without taking time to think about what I’m actually working with. I read somewhere that the internet is dramatically destroying our attention spans; this sad fact combined with political speeches becoming public-announcement length and the reading level of major newspapers deteriorating, makes me feel like we are becoming junkies needing quick fixes, quick soundbites– a quick google answer. There is something retro-appealing concerning the concept of a darkroom– its seemingly antiquated inefficiencies serve as a mirror to scold us for our haste. So maybe I should spend more time in darkrooms to remind myself that I should slow down and appreciate my pixels.
Chocolate Bar Grid— Shot for the Identification taste test for AOL Food’s viral candy bar quiz. food.aol.com/play-with-your-food/candy-bar-id-quiz/ It was one of the most successful packages that AOL food has ever launched. Also catalyzed a creation of Cross-Sectioning (cross-sectioning.blogspot.com/ )
Before digital technologies had you ever wished for film developing process to be quicker?
Like previously mentioned, developing film is one of the few patient activities that I wouldn’t ask to expedite. I have always doggedly believed that nothing should go unearned, and resigning oneself to a canister and chemicals is a nice pre-cursor to potentially gratifying images. I sometimes bemoan the fact that I can chimp* every image I take; the magic dissipates, the happy surprises disappear, the anal need to hone your ability is less necessary. I still shoot film for fun, but that’s what it has become– a novelty for me, nothing professionally viable; although granted, many professional photographers still use film because certain qualities cannot be digitally replicated. As an editor, hearing that hired freelancers are going to use film for a project inserts an extra step into my thought process– development fees? Processing time? Delivery method? It seems a task instead of a luxury. We will soon revere the vintage aspect of going slower.
Jornaleros– When I lived in Los Angeles, I did a projecting documenting Day Laborers. This was shot in a day laborer center which had recently opened up in downtown Los Angeles. The fixings were sparse– only a television and some white chairs and tables. But the men were thankful for a place to sit, and were usually in very good spirits. (LA)
Do you sing in the shower?
I usually have full on conversations with myself featuring debates, quizzical analysis and even some hysterics. I read in the New Yorker that when in a warm shower the right side of your brain relaxes, allowing epiphanies to arise in the soothing state. I try to catalyze epiphanies through my monologues… but I usually end up slapping myself on the wrist. I do bring out the falsetto on occasion. Happiness is a Warm Gun is one of my favorites, especially the choo-choo section.
Do you own a bidet?
I do not. But when I lived in Spain I had one that I used as a magazine rack.
Would you use one now if you had one?
Probably would stick to magazine storage. It’s a titillating concept, but I feel like it’s so much more pleasant to properly clean the nether regions while in the shower. I guess if you need a quick fix, a bidet would be an appropriate fixture… but in New York space for a bidet in my Lower East Side apartment would be uber-luxurious. I would have to get rid of my bed to fit it in– and I would vote for sleep over well-pampered buttocks any day.
The School Group– Shot on the New York subway; a school group piled into the bus. This was shot during the time when shooting on the subway was becoming illegal, so I submitted it to the Straphangers contest for subway images and won honorable mention. (http://www.straphangers.org/photoban/winnersrelease.html) (NY)
If you didn’t have to bathe at all, would you?
I would never ever bathe if it wasn’t considered socially unappealing and physically revolting. I honestly don’t like self-manicuring, minus the foot massage machines at the nail salon. The only problem I would foresee with not bathing (besides smelling bad and probably acquiring a series of weird rashes) is that my hair would probably become one large dread after three days. It’s just that natty.
What about a sand scrub?
I have this sea-salt bath stuff that I purchased from Trader Joes that I thought would really give me a coarse rub-down. But I always end up eating the salt that tastes vaguely of lavender oil, getting thirsty, and end up not exfoliating the rest of my body. I like eating in showers but then I get distracted from the cleaning part. Baby carrots are my favorite.
Willy’s Lunch– I worked at the Smithsonian as a studio photographer for a summer. After photographing rubix cubes and suffragette buttons, I began a project documenting the kitchen workers at the American History Museum on the Washington DC Mall. Willy worked in the kitchen, and at the moment of this picture was reacting to hearing one of the daily specials. It was eggplant. (Washington DC)
Blonde Redhead– Shot at the top of the Rockefeller center, the band Blonde Redhead. Getting up to the roof was a labyrinth– we had to weave through Warner Records headquarters and finally found a stairwell that led us to the top. Shot for AOL’s The Interface. (NY)
You obviously enjoy something of the process but hate baths because your experiences of them. It seems logical to assume that you might like them more if those experiences had been better. Rationalizing this, as I am sure you have, it seems as though your opinion of baths is somewhat down to chance. In light of this it seems plausible to me that you might secretly feel as though you’re missing out. As an artist, how do you feel that this loss would affect the way you work? And as a photographer in particular, would you say that the desire to record might stem from a deeper desire to reconcile a specific regret?
‘Tis difficult. I think my incessant need to record stems from a compulsion to have idiosyncratic relics of my life and the weirdness surrounding it, instead of a deep yearning to enjoy buying Costco quantities of Mr. Bubble. I honestly don’t feel like I’m missing out– I hate Popsicles and sometimes popcorn and usually ice cream. I don’t really like the beach. If I was always preoccupied with the reasons why I didn’t like activities or snacks that the majority of Americans enjoy, I would a) be unquestionably insecure b) have to eat more Ramen c) probably own a juicy couture jumpsuit. Therefore, I don’t see the inability to enjoy a bath as a loss or a detriment to my career, but as a devotion to my dichotomous personality. I honestly don’t think it’s in my genetic makeup to value prolonged periods of cleansing; I’m a quick and dirty type.
How then does this ‘dichotomous personality’ inform your work/working methodologies?
I have a severe dislike of baths, which represents a pattern of dichotomous decisions I often make. AMAZING or disgusting. Within photography, making these brash and hasty verdicts is integral to creating a quality product– you don’t question your content, you just subconsciously believe that it is the right thing to shoot. In my life I have often found this attitude to be both a hindrance and a help. A blunt brashness without careful analysis can often come across as rude, emotional, or not well-informed, where reversely it has allowed me to make emphatic decisions that have led to some of the best choices in my life. I’m working on fomenting my gray middle ground, so I can politically maneuver a little more intelligently, but I think I will always be a reactive individual [.]
Rachel Been– just prior to the scream.
Currently working as a photographer and Editor for Stylelist.com and AOL Food, Rachel also blogs for the recently launched photo hub, Pixcetera.com. Her ‘axis of evil-esque’ approach to life – extreme execution without a long thought process – is reflected in her art making and in a character who doesn’t pause or second guess. In photography people like Rachel are good because they don’t hesitate to capture an image. In life, however, this form of bluntness can lead to altercations. Its thankfully then that she also has a softer side. In her spare time, in addition to eating cosmetics and making hasty verdicts, she thoroughly enjoys cheese tastings and painting rasterized portraits. In conclusion, we may never know whether she is in denial about her pining for baths just as the question looming over this column as to whether any of this is even barely applicable remains unanswered. Nevertheless, be sure to tune in to the next Salon des Beaux Bains for more hygiene high-jinks.
*chimping is looking at the LCD view-screen on a digital camera– obviously this peak wasn’t available with film.
For more information please visit: www.rachelbeen.com