Chelsea, Manhattan, NYC
Andrea Tese is a particular breed of New York native. When you ask her where she's from, she causally says "Manhattan" with a sensibility that makes you feel like you should have known without asking. She is tall, striking, composed, and on a brilliant artistic trajectory, earning a range of distinctions in the past few years including a 2009 Young Innovative Award from the National Arts Club- needless to say, she's a little bit intimidating. I had the opportunity to sit down with Andrea earlier this year in her charming West Side studio and learn a little more about the morbid undertones that pervade her stunning photographs.
Where are you from?
I’m originally From Manhattan and went to school at Georgetown. I really liked it as a kid when I visited, really liked the town, thought the architecture was really interesting. I think I ultimately ended up at Georgetown because it was a really good school, and it didn’t have Greek life- I really didn’t want to be part of a sorority, I didn’t want a school that even had it. Also it was close enough to New York that I could come back whenever I wanted.
Did you study photography as an undergrad?
I wanted to go to art school instead of Georgetown originally, but my parents wouldn’t let me, they wanted me to have a traditional college education. My other interest was genetics, so I went into Georgetown studying science, basically doing pre-med classes. Very quickly, because all the classes were at eight in the morning, or earlier, I changed my major to art. The art classes were a little later in the afternoon. They were two big passions, but I was always going to choose art, it was just accelerated by the fact that I couldn’t get up in the morning.
How did you land on photography as your medium?
I’ve always wanted to do something artistic. I’ve drawn and painted since I can remember. I remember being in high school here in New York, there was a point where you could choose which art class you wanted to take when you were in eighth grade, so I chose photography randomly- I think a friend of mine was doing it and we wanted to be in the same class. It was the darkroom, printing, that really took me. I thought it was magic. Putting the paper into solution, watching the image come up- it’s insane. I had never seen anything like it.
Do you develop your own photos now?
I used to- I used to be really into it. I was like the lab geek at Georgetown, the ones that mixes all the chemicals and was there like 24 hours a day, now I just don’t have time, and I don’t shoot black and white that much any more. I shoot mostly color. Color is totally different, it’s not as enjoyable to me to print, you don’t get to spend the same amount of time in the lab, it goes through a machine.
There seems to be a kind of morbidity to a lot of your work, where does the content and themes come from?
I have a fascination with death- at the risk of sounding corny or vague. Everything I do has to somehow relate back to that.
I went to SVA to get a Masters, and the first big project I saw to fruition there was something called “After”, and it was about the aftermath of experience. A lot of it ended up being about death. After someone or something dies, after a big loss.
Then I did this project “What’s Left Behind”. My grandmother died, so I went and found everyone in the world that had her blood, they were all spread out then, and there were over 50 people that were her progeny. I found them all, and photographed them. That was one way of finding out what was left behind, sort of legacy, mortality. Then my grandfather died, and inspired this project, “Inheritance”- instead, its whats left behind in terms of possessions, what are the things that you accumulate in a lifetime? Another way of looking at a legacy. So I guess mortality, legacy very much drive my work and what I’m interested in. Even with the hunting project, because I’m also interested in death and survival and those themes.
I know you also do some editorial photograpahy, some of which we have on Artsicle. Do you make a distinction between what you do as your fine art photography and what you do as editorial work?
Yes. It’s definitely different. But, at the same time, if I don’t like the picture, I’m not going to do it.
I need the picture to be interesting in some way, even if its a subject that I would normally never take a picture of. So, I do obviously apply my own aesthetic and way of seeing to my editorial work, but it’s very different. I don’t usually take a picture of a girl in a haute couture dress looking beautiful on a beach, like Byrdie Bell, for example. I would usually try to find something more sinister than that. In that particular shoot she was in a really nice dress and we were on the boardwalk, and I really just wasn’t feeling it. Of course, beautiful girl, beautiful background of sea and sand- it’s too nice for me. I made her take off her heels and go in the sand, and she still had on these black tights, and I asked her to go down by the water and sort of play in the water’s edge. She was getting her tights wet, and sand all over her feet, I told her to start dancing and she got kind of into it but at the same time was like “what am I doing?”, and it just turned out that there was a picture that I just really liked. It wasn’t so proper any more, something was off about it.
So “Inheritance” is headed for a book and probably a show, are you looking down the road towards your next project yet?
I am. I started doing my current project, kind of stumbled upon it, while I was doing my hunting project, but I’m really into it. Basically, I was in the Rockies and I was on this property where I had been commissioned to do large format black and white landscape of someones property. The whole time I was there they were always talking about this plane crash, so I really wanted to see it. It was over 11,000 feet, very high elevation, you couldn’t get there except for summer when the snow had melted, and it was a big hike because the roads weren’t very good. I kept on hearing about it, and I really wanted to see it. I was there in the summer doing a four seasons project of the ranch, the snow melted and we were able to drive close-ish, but it was still a whole day hike to go there and back. So we got to the crash site, and basically they hadn’t cleaned it up because it was too hard to get to and it just wasn’t worth it. The story is that there was a blizzard, and something failed, and they didn’t make the cliff, but only by about 100 feet. They were gone and nobody knew where they were because there was this blizzard that covered the plane until the summer, and there were some Boy Scouts hiking and they found the plane with the bodies in it. So anyways, someone from the Aviation Authority came and took the black box, and then painted a big red X on the major pieces so that if you’re flying over you know that its already been reported.
I got there, finally, and the plane was not a plane at all- it was scattered all over this mountain ridge and valley, hundreds of pieces, and I decided I wanted to put it back together. It took me two full days, three people each day, because the air is so thin up there, and we had to find all the pieces, drag them all down into this valley, and put it all back together, I don’t even know what the plane was supposed to look like. We found every piece we could and put it all back together into a sculpture, and that was my first piece. It’s called “Things Fall Apart”. I want to find more crash sites, and put them all back together. Starting with “Inheritance”, and now with this project, the work feels a little bit more like performance almost.
You’ve had some great accolades recently- what are you most proud of at this point in your career?
2011 was a really good year for me, I’m hoping 2012 is going to be as good. American Photography puts out a book of the best photographs of the year, and they chose two of my photographs for that book. I know its alphabetical, but I was right after Juergen Teller so that felt pretty good. He had this photo of Helen Mirren in a bathtub, and then right after was my photographs from the hunting series. It’s also really exciting that Radius is interested in publishing my “Inhertience” series. It’s really hard to get someone interested in publishing, and whether it happens or not, the fact that they’re interested in it made me feel good about the project.
What is the most rewarding part about your work as a photographer?
I guess the most rewarding thing is when you can see that someone really enjoys your work, or really connects with it. It actually feels like you’re doing something for someone, speaking to them.
What are your ambitions for 2012?
I need to wrap up inheritance, get that book published, get a show. Once everything starts thawing out I want to continue doing “Things Fall Apart”, go to a few more crash sites once everything starts melting in the Spring and Summer so that I have at least a handful of them. It’s very time intensive, and expensive, so I’d like to do a few and use them to start applying for grants.