Disco Ball Soul: ArtAttack Interviews Emma Elizabeth Tillman

Opening on 11 August 2017 is photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman’s debut solo show entitled Disco Ball Soul. The exhibition, consisting of more than 90 collages created over a ten-year period, is an accumulation of photographs and texts taken from her new book of the same title. Tillman began this body of work in 2007, recording precious moments, including her meeting of her now husband Josh.

1. Louisville, Kentucky, 2012 © Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist.jpg
Louisville, Kentucky, 2012 © Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist

ArtAttack caught up with Emma to find out more about her thoughts on film, travel and making the private public.

AA: What led you to the conception of Disco Ball Soul? Throughout those 10 years from which the photographs are taken you endured many different emotional and physical landscapes; what inspired you to collect these moments into a book?

EET: Despite the fact that the people and places of the book vary so vastly, it is a vision seen from a singular perspective. The images and words blend into a seamless story because I am the link between them, and I capture them in a particular way.

A decade, no matter where it begins is a significant amount of time and I wanted to make a book out of this chapter of my life to finalize it and move on.

AA: Your debut as a director was released back in 2013 in the form of History of Caves, a short film about a bewitching family in the Hollywood Hills. How does, if indeed they can, being a director and a photographer compare?

EET: What film does for me, is take the incomparable mystery of the photograph and fill in the details your imagination craves knowing.

I think the mystery of photography is why the medium endures, and at the very least why I am interested in it. There’s a story inside of a photograph that the viewer is just dying to know, but can never grasp fully. I have always wanted to tell stories, and photography is a restrictive way for me to tell a story. I like the limitations on it but sometimes need a more fully realized narrative. I go back and forth between the two!

2. In the bath at the Chiltern Firehouse, February 2016 © Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist.jpg
In the bath at the Chiltern Firehouse, February 2016 © Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist

AA: The raw quality of your photographs reminds me of photographers like Nan Goldin and Stephen Shore due to their snapshot aesthetic. What is it about this style of photography that draws you to it?

EET: I am interested in real life captured in an unreal way. Francis Bacon said artists  “construct an artificial structure by which one can trap the reality of the subject-matter” and I agree.

I think the photographers you mentioned are masters of this in their medium. The intimacy is true, the but the moment they choose to reveal is one heightened and dreamlike. This style brings submerged beauty to the surface for air and creates a mood that captures the imagination of the viewer. If it was any other way, artists capturing their real lives would be so incredibly boring!

AA: Many of your photographs are taken capturing intimate moments between yourself and your husband Josh (seen in Louisville, Kentucky, 2012 and Somewhere in Germany, 2012) – what is it like for you as an artist to make the private sphere of your lives together public?

EET: I used to think nothing of sharing intimacy through my work, but I often take pause now and have even contemplated shifting the focus of my photography away from such personal images.

People feel a false sense of familiarity now through so much exposure to other people’s lives and at times it doesn’t seem worth it to put so much of my own life into that version of the world.

I like the idea of the viewer being the voyeur, but sometimes it feels as if the voyeur has come into your room and wants to climb in your bed!

That being said, there are other times when I feel invulnerable to that kind of exposure and want to keep making work others can relate to in their own lives.

7. Los Angeles, May 2012 © Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist.jpg
Los Angeles, May 2012 © Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist

AA: Which of your photographs in Disco Ball Soul mean the most to you and why?

EET: The photographs of my time spent living in rural France mean the most to me as an artist, because they mark the start of something. I can see myself learning how to take my feelings and put them into the image.  

The pictures of my husband are also incredibly dear to me for obvious reasons. I watch our relationship grow within them.

 AA: Having travelled and photographed subjects and locations all over the world, where has been your favourite place to shoot?  

EET: I recently went to Mexico City and I must say, that has to be one of the most inspiring places I’ve ever been. I think I shot 35 rolls of film in 5 days and still felt like I wasn’t getting enough.

AA: My favourite photographs are your self-portraits in Disco Ball Soul and your take on the female nude, subverting the male gaze by turning the camera on yourself for your own photographs as well as regularly photographing your female friends. How do you think your work, as a female photographer, reacts to the idea of the male gaze and what draws you to photographing the female form?

EET: I have always had a complex relationship to the gaze of others. I think my nature is in fact very secretive and private, while at the same time having a terrible exhibitionist streak. There is something about taking my own portrait and attempting to control my own image that appeases these two aspects. I like to be seen, but only how I want to be seen. What probably makes the pictures interesting, however  is that I am still surprised by what appears on film. I can try to control my own image but it remains wildly out of my grasp. This is what keeps me coming back to self portraiture again and again.

Regarding the male gaze, it’s not something I think about too much when I take a photograph of myself or other women. I love women’s bodies; the shapes are more interesting than the bodies of men. I’m just drawn to them.

3. Big Sur on my Wedding Day, 2013 © Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist.jpg
Big Sur on my Wedding Day, 2013 © Emma Elizabeth Tillman, by courtesy of the artist

AA: The physicality of your work, as seen in your opting for 35mm film rather than digital photographs, gives it a unique quality in a contemporary world of screens and social media. What draws you to this and do you see yourself working with film throughout your career?

EET: Never say never, but I don’t see myself working digitally.

Most practically, I am hopeless with technology and have no idea how to properly work a digital camera. Also, I like (as many others do) the warmth and mystery film has, it sees as much as the eye sees and no more. Lastly, I like the idea that if a negative is lost, you can never replace it. How nice that something must be treasured and treated with care in such a disposable world?

AA: How does the photography sit within your diary making and collage work?  What specifically draws you to these mediums?

EET: When I was a little girl I used to pour over a book of Peter Beard’s collages in our house. I couldn’t get enough of them. Beard used to use absolutely anything for the text of those collages; telephone numbers, advertisements he was watching on TV, whatever he came in contact with.

I wanted to dive further into them, and wished that the text was more personal. Later, in my own work, I used my diaries to similar effect. I have religiously kept a diary since I was about 20 years old, so it made sense to marry the two. Why not let someone else know the things I always wanted to know about the artists I admired, and set the work into the context of a life being lived? I wanted to give away the secrets I always wanted to know.

AA: What are your next projects, I understand you are working on a new film?  Can you tell us a bit about that?

EET: I’ve just written a feature length film set in France which is being translated into French as we speak. The story centers around a young wife’s relationship with her husband and another man. The narrative flips forward and backward in time, and spans many locations in France, the U.K, and Italy.

It’s quite a story, I look forward to sharing it.

 Disco Ball Soul opens 11 August at GALLERY46, Whitechapel. The PV takes place Thursday 10 August, 5 – 9pm.

46 Ashfield Street, London, E1 2AJ




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s