Photographer Laura Hennessy takes everyday objects and a macro camera lens and turns them into remarkable art. We joined the Tucson newcomer in her own festival of books, and toys… and, um, loofahs. By Gillian Drummond.
Laura Hennessy is many things: a photographer, a graphic designer, a lover of art and architecture, a former flower buyer and a picker-apart of objects. Thanks to the direction her photography has taken her, you can also add thrift shopper and sculptor to that list.
Laura has a fascination with everyday objects and the physics behind them: the thickness and the fanning of the pages of a book; the way flower petals bunch or splay; how the husk of an ear of corn can look like the swirling fabric of a dancer’s dress. She plays with the objects – deconstructing them, spray-painting them, and using duct tape to sculpt them and hold them in certain positions – before turning them into close-up photographs. There is barely any digital trickery involved – a little color enhancement, if anything. She blows them up into still-life essays that are 30 inches tall.
“I strive to surprise, going to great lengths to make the ordinary extraordinary, whimsical, remarkable,” she writes on her website. And the lengths are indeed great. Preparing her subjects for a shoot – whether it be painting them, or manipulating them – can take hours.
And sometimes the search itself is arduous. Once, after discovering color-coded AAA manuals and loving how the colored page edges made for a great photo, she set out to find more. It turned into a goose chase in San Francisco. As she went from one AAA office to the other, she found that their policy had changed and the color-coded manuals were no longer used. They had reverted to plain white.
Growing up the daughter of an architect and the step-daughter of an interior designer, Laura found she had an intrinsic love for materials and detail. When she talks about her working adult life, she is self-deprecating. There was not much direction and there were many different jobs, she says. College didn’t last long; she dropped out. But she always loved photography – initially slide film and, later, digital photography.
After living in and around San Francisco, dabbling in photography and working at a number of “random” jobs, Laura got the career jolt she needed in the form of a move to a tiny town in Pennsylvania. Her then-boyfriend got work there, and Laura decided to join him. In between freelance jobs she devoted a lot of time to her photography, submitting her work to exhibitions, shows and magazines. Her photographs of books, in particular, caught the eye of magazine editors and gallery owners. Her images have appeared in the likes of Creative Quarterly, Communication Arts Magazine and Smithsonian Magazine, in galleries from Los Angeles to New York to Paris, and have earned her numerous awards.
It was a cheap romance novel that led to her book experiments. She was in a thrift store, looking for something inexpensive to take home and photograph, and she picked up a book with red-tipped pages. Back at home, the experimentation began. She took off the cover and started bending the spine and playing with the pages. She wet the pages to make them more malleable. Then she let it dry.
“A book has these natural design elements. You have all these lines that are already there,” she says. The book fest continued. Laura found one of those AAA color-coded manuals. She bought an encyclopedia, its white pages speckled down the outside rim, and added her own spray paint. With others, she painstakingly curled each wet page into itself, and let them dry. The result? Something resembling a plant or sea life.
Laura spent a year in Pennsylvania before splitting with her boyfriend. She’s not sad to have left the “redneck little town” where little happened and friends were sparse. But she’s grateful that she emerged from the experience with a resumé that’s as dazzling as her photos.
When it came time to leave, she realized she didn’t want to return to the Bay Area. Living away for a time had allowed her to breathe, she says. She recalled spending one night in Tucson twelve years earlier, when she had stopped off on a road trip. She had stayed at Hotel Congress and, though downtown was not very happening, took a liking to the city and its “funkiness.”
Four months ago she came back for two nights to check it out again, and shortly afterwards made Tucson home. And although she loves its affordability, its rich arts scene, and historic neighborhoods like Sam Hughes, she’s less keen on its strip malls.
As a fine art photographer, however, nothing is too ordinary for Laura, and no object is off limits – from frozen seaweed, to a cork, to some lichen.
At a community college course in photography, she found herself not only “obsessed” with the macro lens of a camera, but also taking things apart. ‘I was taking apart the flower and trying to find the parts that were odd, to find something that wasn’t recognizable. The interest in abstraction was always there.”
As a flower buyer, she held on to the nets that were used to protect the heads of gerbera daisies. And working as a graphic designer and photographer for Whole Foods for a time led to interesting still life studies of food.
With her book studies, the paper quality is important. Older paper tends to be softer and tears or balls up when it’s wet. She prefers newer books, and larger ones too – encyclopedias and medical journals. Whether ironically or not, Laura is not a book lover or a big reader of the printed page. She prefers online browsing. All the same, she likes that she is re-purposing items that have their own history, that have been valued by people, and that – because of digital technology – are under threat. “There’s some satisfaction in being able to use something like a book. I think people have a connection with a book because it has this history, and you’re bringing to life something that lost so much value and is being tossed aside.”
Why does she photograph the books, as opposed to making sculptures out of them? “I don’t want to do anything crafty,” she states flatly. And the magnification of the books, and other objects, is what sets her work apart, and drives her to keep going. The objects are ordinary. The resulting art is far from it.
* To learn more about Laura Hennessy’s work, visit laurahennessyphotography.com