Intimate encounters: a conversation with Arthur Meehan
Acclaimed photographer Arthur Meehan has been capturing the female, as well as the floral, form in its many nuances for a number of years. Inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculptures and Edward Weston’s snapshots, the SVA alumnus shares his thoughts on photography, the woman’s body and the art world with Michele Tufigno.
When did you start out? What prompted you to turn to photography?
I started taking pictures when I was 19. I was going to a county college and taking classes just to pass the time when a friend of mine who was printing in the darkroom told me to come by and have a look. I was amazed by it and I took a photo class the next semester and loved it. After that I somehow was able to enrol at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York through a friend of a friend who pulled some strings. I hated going to Art School. Everybody was walking around in this frame of mind that they were all artists and that was so foreign to a kid from Jersey; I just wanted to do commercial photography and make money. I ran out of money after the first year and a teacher there was able to get me a job as a photo assistant in a catalogue house and it was there that I learned everything about commercial photography. I never wanted to be an artist; I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the term. I grew up in a working class family without art; the wind just sort of blew me in its direction. I discovered Edward Weston and the sculptor Rodin. When I was 26 I had a Danish girlfriend who was a model and we would meet in Paris and I would spend hours at the Rodin Museum just fascinated by his work. We would then go back and shoot nudes all day until the sun went down. That was when I had to realize that my love for the female form was the only way to go.
Which media do you prefer to work with and why?
I always shoot on film and then hand print the photos. I am not a fan of digital photography or Photoshop: I’m not against the digital medium and I do feel that it has its place, but in my opinion it all starts to look the same. That said, I do make digital prints because the digital medium does allow to make very large images and sometimes collectors want that. I will have a photo hand printed and then I will have it scanned in and printed to match the hand print. I don’t retouch the prints.
I also use digital to print the many Polaroids that I have from the past. It’s a shame how much of the analogue world in photography is dying. I think the best thing about analogue is that it allows for mistakes which you can then use to your advantage to create a style of your own, after learning how to reproduce your mistake and then fine tune it. You can’t just press a button on the screen.
How would you describe your art?
I never really know how to describe my work. I see what I see and then you see what I see in my photographs. I have always been attracted to shapes and shadows. Less is more. I don’t use titles because I want the viewer to make up their own interpretation of the image, form their own opinion. Looking at my work should be the viewer’s own experience, free from my interpretation. I usually don’t show the faces in my nudes: quite often, a visible face focuses the viewer upon the model, especially if they are famous, making it a photo of a famous person rather than a work of art. In this time of too much information, I think it is so important to think for yourself and have your own experience when looking at any type of art. Your experience is yours and it’s not right or wrong: it’s just yours and that’s how it should be. Too many artists today want to tell you what to think through a work’s title or the three page explanation that seems to come alongside every image you see in galleries today. I think photographers are visual creatures, they are not writers so one should be able to look at the photos without words and have an experience all of their own.
The female body features widely in your work: why?
I have always loved the female form. It’s endless and each person is a different canvas. I see flowers the same way I see women; to me they are the same subject matter. I think it was Sally Mann who said “If you don’t love what you photograph, you really won’t be any good at it”, and I think it’s true. I have had too many people telling me to stop photographing women and start photographing cars or nature as it would sell better, but I love women so why bother? I hate cars! I was never in it for the money, I just love taking pictures and wanted to somehow make a living of it.
I have always wanted my work to be about what you don’t see, about what is hidden in the shadows, for the viewer to imagine. I have always liked the moment in-between the pose, that quiet second before a pose. I think my photos are very quiet and soft: it is all too easy to have a girl act sexy with hair and makeup and spread her legs for all to see. That’s a teenager’s photography; I want more than that. I want people to look at my work and view women in a different light; I want them to see what I see. There is so much beauty in the female form. It’s endless.
Photography was long considered to be a ‘minor art’; what are your thoughts on this? What is the role of photography in the art world? Photography’s status as an art form has always been a discussion that I feel is a waste of time. One can make art with anything. You can be an artist at trimming the bushes or while cooking, for that matter. People are always comparing photography to painting and asking if it’s really art; no one questions if being a chef is a work of art and they don’t compare it to painting in order to come to that conclusion. Most believe that chefs have brought cooking to an art form, so why is it so hard to believe that photography is an art form? I do believe it is art, just as many other things in life are and I don’t see any reason to compare them to each other.
As for the role of photography in the art world? Good question. I really don’t give it much thought because with or without the art world, I will continue to photograph and create what I consider art for myself without worrying where it might fit in with the art world. I don’t think that we need the typical white wall galleries today: with the internet artists can now sell their work online and reach a worldwide audience, something that could not have happened before. I no longer do just gallery shows: I now do collaborations with other designers and have the exhibitions in their showrooms or homes. It’s a far more personal experience while viewing the work.
I am currently exploring platinum printing for an upcoming show in Belgium with a designer named Patrick Ponseele. The show will be curated by Henri Bolsius at Bolsius.be. I am also returning to a previous project of photographing pregnant women. I have been receiving calls lately from women who would like me to document this time in their lives so in an unexpected way, it’s starting to become a portrait business of its own.