Portfolio: Matthew Swarts, "BETH"

The presentation of Matthew Swarts' BETH is accompanied below by his statement on the work and a short Q&A.

Matthew Swarts' work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Doubletake Magazine, Contact Sheet, Afterimage, Fotophile, In the Loupe and other publications. He attended Princeton University and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and has taught photography at Amherst College, Bowdoin College, Ramapo College, The University of Connecticut, The University of Massachusetts, Boston, Middlesex College, the Community College of Rhode Island, and The Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He is the recipient of a J.William Fulbright Scholar Grant and the Ruttenberg Arts Foundation Award for the best new work nationally in photographic portraiture. His work is in the permanent collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Library of Congress, The deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Princeton University, and Light Work, among others. He lives and works in Somerville, Massachusetts.

BETH is an extended visual and psychological portrait of partnership. In the nearly three years since Beth and I have cohabited, we have become something of a primary family to each other, and watched as our respective birth and adoptive families have either disintegrated or disappeared. (My parents divorced after 43 years of marriage and her parents have not spoken to her for over three years in apparent disapproval of her recent divorce.) This has put an unusual weight to our partnership, and I have been trying to document its complicated arc of loss and sadness in our lives. While BETH is composed of fairly traditional photographic documents, there are also some unique surprises in terms of how the images were made. I have used broken printers, fax, and copy machines to create and complicate the possibilities for how each image looks and feels. I am hopeful that somewhere in these visual 'translations' of our relationship, the viewer will feel the profundity of caring we share for each other, in times of equal parts love, sadness, caring, and laughter.

fototazo: What did creating this project add to your understanding of who Beth is and what your relationship with her is?

Matthew Swarts: It made me realize, fairly quickly, that I was with a woman who truly loved me enough to accept my also profound love for photography. That isn't so common. And in the photographs, I began to recognize over time my own feelings for her put into physical form. It took awhile for pictures to emerge that fit together into something that I could recognize, and what that thing is -- who knows? -- is not necessarily a reflection of our relationship so much as it is a window into how I am currently thinking about photography. We both recognize that, and I think so far it has been healthy. The fact that Beth allowed me to photograph her naturally brought us closer together, and for the most part, when we make pictures it is usually a short and fun affair. I've learned to recognize, through making some obvious mistakes, when it is appropriate to photograph.

f: You talk – in your statement – about attempting to present an "arc of loss and sadness" in your lives that comes from a number of difficult family situations. How did you approach transmitting this idea in visual terms?

MS: The short answer to this is that I didn't. I didn't set out to create a project about Beth and the private tragedies of our lives. Rather, we lived through things together and the photographs emerged as I busied myself with cameras and other equipment in the middle of our loneliness. I didn't think, until long afterwards, that there was a project at all inside any of these images. In fact I was quite depressed about not having a project to sink myself into because of all the distractions of our respective situations. In our coming together as a couple, however, we were unified in sharing deep family tragedies. Perhaps it is projection to think that this particular aspect of our narrative has any edge inside the photographs, but I cannot separate myself from the fact that we bonded over our sadness, and in some way, came out to the other side by leaning into one another. Losing our idea of family, and feeling like tiny islands, is one thing that cemented our caring for each other. Perhaps because she knew I was alone in a different, but somehow connected way, Beth allowed me to experiment broadly with her image. For that I am very grateful.

f: What do the ideas of presenting "visual 'translations'" and using post-production and alternative printing and scanning methods to break the "window" of the photographs of Beth allow you to do with the presentation of the images and themes?

MS: I sometimes get bored with straight photography and my lack of proficiency in making images. One way around this 'sticking point' in the habit of working has been to experiment as much as possible with digital and rudimentary alternatives. I have a history of using low-tech methods and low-tech tools for creating images that I've come to care about. I guess experimenting with some of these tools is just a natural part of my working process. Teaching has something to do with it, too, for in the classroom, I'm always trying to come up with ways to challenge my students and their ideas about photography. I like it very much when other artists have challenged me to rethink what kinds of mark making, for example, can be thought of as either meaningful or beautiful. In this project I have a few examples of my forays into that kind of alternative image making. Hopefully, the presentation of Beth's image from a variety of different mechanical means gives the viewer some freedom to assemble their own meanings for the pictures.

f: Joerg Colberg wrote an essay about your project based around an idea of portraiture (and all photography) as a selfish act of "taking" from the subject that reveals no more about the personality of the subject than a cartoon quality sketch. What do you think about this description of portraiture, particularly as it relates to your project?

MS: First, I would like to say that Joerg Colberg's piece was generous, and, I think, ultimately kind. I can't thank him enough, as I will you, for allowing a space where people could come to the work with thoughtfulness. What he wrote about portraiture being a selfish act, (with the exception of someone needing to, at times, be an "asshole"), is really a truth about representational art in general. You really do have to 'use' someone (in however limited a way) in order to create something representational. You are placing a human being in front of you to mediate your vision and, hopefully, your feelings. What matters is whether or not you harm (or extend) them with your work. This always creates moral residue inside me, no matter whom I photograph. I remember being a student in Emmet Gowin's introductory photography class, and responding quite deeply to Emmet's work concerning his wife, Edith. How could you not? In the retelling of his story about these images, Emmet always made it a point to discuss how this work was about collaboration and trust, and how (ultimately) the photograph was not even a referent to the person depicted. It was a separate, mysterious thing in and of itself, and the best ones were not even remotely connected to the person who made them, but to something inherent in the process. I think Joerg is saying the same thing in perhaps a different way, and I know for certain Beth very much feels that way about the work I have been creating about her. "It's not me," she says, over and over. "It's you and what you want it to be."