Cover Artist Gallery: Joanne Ratajczak

An interview with the creator of The Walrus’s March 2011 cover
March 2011

SubjectThe Long Goodbye” by Katherine Ashenburg
Artist ’s portfolioJoanne Ratajczak

As with any present-day cultural medium, there are many paths through the zeitgeist of photography at the moment. One of the many high roads is a post-German School interest in frankness and the abject, but also in emotion and memory. Wolfgang Tillmans comes immediately to mind in this regard.

Joanne Ratajczak has a subtle take on these themes. I first came across her via the artists’ collective she is a part of, Stash. She has an interest in colour and the physics of light reminiscent of the Technicolor age of motion pictures. There is a subtle and poetic feeling to her work — its things-as-they-are nature resonates across many emotional chords.

Some covers go smoothly. Others throw up all sorts of difficulties as their stories move through the editorial cycle. Here, the initial brief was simple: Joanne was to do two shoots, both based firmly on Katherine Ashenburg’s reporting. In our discussions, Joanne was full of good ideas. It seemed that this would be an exceptionally easy project.

It is my belief that, under most circumstances, the less art direction the better. I genuinely prefer when, if the situation permits, the artist can react to the assigned topic with as few constraints as possible. I think this approach offers the best possibility for the best work to be generated. Obviously there has to be an initial conversation, but as I see it, the whole point of commissioning images is to be surprised and delighted by the reactions and creations of intelligent people. However, such an approach is virtually impossible to implement for a cover, where the creative environment is more overtly collaborative across many different disciplines.

For a complicated set of reasons, even meeting and shooting the actual subjects of Katherine’s piece — the husband and wife whom she calls Henry and Anne — turned out to be unworkable. Joanne’s photos could have no element of happy accident or surprise. What she did instead was pull a rabbit from the proverbial hat: first she found an elderly (and very wonderful) couple who agreed to be photographed for the cover; then she staged the shoot for the interior photo, with its packing cases and boxes signalling the disruption that has entered Henry and Anne’s lives together.

The resulting shots are really beautiful and they serve the story faithfully. Next time, I only hope that the logistics will be easier for Joanne to manage.

Brian Morgan: After we spoke about this commission, what were your initial thoughts about the story?

Joanne Ratajczak: Once the excitement wore off, I thought about how the passage of time inevitably affects all of us. It is the one constant in our lives that changes everything. Coming to terms with the many things we cannot control can sometimes be very difficult.

After exhausting all of their options, this couple reached a point where they were unable to care for each other anymore. Their courage and determination to stay in their home through so many obstacles is very admirable. You and I originally spoke about portraying this story in the spirit of optimism, and their enthusiasm for life called for exactly that feeling.

I also couldn’t help but think of my own grandmother, who at eighty-nine, with very little help, manages to take care of herself and stay in her fourth-floor walk-up apartment. Watching her face the challenges of everyday life is both heartening and saddening. She is a real inspiration to me.

Brian Morgan: How did you first approach this assignment?

Joanne Ratajczak: Originally, I wanted to spend some time with [Henry and Anne] and just let things happen. Unfortunately, this was not possible. Due to unpredictable circumstances, we had to change our whole approach. Changing directions is something that happens quite often, and you just have to go with the flow. You have to learn to improvise and adapt quickly.

Brian Morgan: What is your typical process for generating ideas?

Joanne Ratajczak: It usually starts with a lot of thinking about the subject. Then some doodling. Then more thinking. Then writing ideas on random scraps of paper. Then some Googling and doodling. Then collecting the scraps and trying to make sense of it all. This cycle repeats over and over again. If it’s an editorial project, I try to really understand the story and how the art director or photo editor visualize it. Researching the subject helps a great deal too. If I’m able to connect to something and understand it better, this allows for a much more organic process to happen during the photo shoot.

Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work?

Joanne Ratajczak: After the initial research stages, the next natural step is to let myself wander. A lot of my work is made this way, reacting to what’s in front of me. With assignment work I do this when I can, but if the situation doesn’t allow for it — which is usually the case — having a variety of references and ideas going into the shoot is essential.

I always try to work with natural light. It has a beautiful quality that is hard to replicate, and allows for a certain freedom to move around without much gear. My ideal situation is having only my camera and tripod. To me, making pictures is like this great adventure — and the less baggage I have, the more enjoyable it is. It lets me concentrate on what I really want to.

In both picture-making and editing, time is so important. The more time I give things, the easier it is to refine and improve an idea. I really value this part of the process. I edit, then wait. Then edit again. Then wait. With my personal work I love to leave months between edits. It really gives me time to live with the content and understand it better.

I do minimal work in Photoshop. Mostly colour corrections and tonal/contrast adjustments.

Brian Morgan: What was your inspiration for this final image?

Joanne Ratajczak: A snapshot I have of my grandmother’s hands. During one of our first conversations, when you and I spoke of the possibility of photographing hands, this image instantly entered my mind. In this picture, her hands are placed against the pattern of her flowered housedress. This image stayed with me. Once we were left with limited options, approaching [the cover] this way seemed like the best idea.

Brian Morgan: I find your work has a very painterly approach to colour. When you are presented with a given physical scene, how do you think about light and colour? Is it your aim to emphasize what you see? Or what the camera records?

Joanne Ratajczak: I came to photography through painting. I’m sure this has an effect on the way I see light and colour. When I look at a physical scene, it’s the subtle way that light renders colour that interests me. I usually want to emphasize what I see by leading the colour to that ideal place in Photoshop. Although sometimes I think I have some kind of cyan filter, because all my images always feel better with some added cyan.

Brian Morgan: Do you find yourself falling in colour ruts, favouring certain palettes, and if so, how do you shake yourself out of these?

Joanne Ratajczak: Colour ruts and ruts in general happen. Lately I have been looking at and shooting more black and white [photography] to get away from colour a little. I think breaking away from the familiar and comfortable can lead to good things. I feel like I’m always taking things apart and then putting them back together. It lets new directions take form, and really allows for exploration.

It’s too easy to get stuck in a rut. That’s when the work starts looking like a formula. There’s a balance that needs to be maintained between honing your craft and staying innovative. The ability to grow and change in so many ways is one of the best parts of being an artist.

Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.

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