Natalie Jenks is a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is projected to complete her BFA with a concentration in Photography in 2020. Her images embody a feminist perspective, often incorporating a vernacular comprised of food, specifically curated props, and fabrics to speak to the experiences of womanhood.
Jenks largely uses analog photographic equipment to create her images, including large format and 35 mm cameras, instant film, darkroom processes, as well as digital Imacon scanners. The physicality of these processes creates a rich, intimate relationship between artist and artwork that Jenks values as highly as the concepts behind her imagery.
Women are, and have always been, at the center of my world. I am one of five daughters birthed from my single mother. The majority of my family and people that I was surrounded by in my youth were women. This has largely impacted my practice as an artist in the way in which I think and create. In light of our current political situation in the United States, I have been gearing myself towards celebrating women, feminine intimacy, and the strength there is in interconnectedness. Through curating props and precisely putting together scenes, I create narratives exploring these feminist threads. The soft violence that finds its way into many of these images represents the larger whole of male-dominated societal bounds that suppress many of the people that I love most.
My imagery utilizes the visual and conceptual vernacular of surrealism modified through a contemporary feminist lens. Food is particularly important in my work as an indicator of these concepts of gender and sensuality. Eggs are a recurring motif throughout my work due to the multitudes of meaning that they hold; from fertility to fragility, from birth to gender and to edibility, these small objects hold great significance in both my life and work. From eggs to supple fruits, the fleshiness of these foods is a constant, overwhelming excitement for me in my practice. Like the concept of girlhood, they go from staggeringly sensual to rotting away through the passage of time. Precious fragility is lost and one is left with the remains of a fabricated idealization of the young girl, or the memory of what the fruit once was.
Below, Natalie answered a few questions about her series and photography practice!
Why did you choose photography over other artistic mediums?
I started out my artistic career dabbling quite a bit between mediums: painting, fibers, installation, the list goes on. Slowly, they all fell away and photography rose to the forefront of my practice. I found that I could directly convey the messages I wanted to through staging scenes and curating props. I have the ability to create dynamics of absurdity that would really only make sense in a photographic format. People inherently want to believe in the truth of a photograph; my job is to make the viewer step out of that mindset with subtle cues and make them think, “Wait, what’s really going on here?” The physicality and performativity of using analog photographic equipment and processes also creates a deep connection between myself and my artwork that has been lacking in other mediums of creation that I have utilized in the past.
How did this series start for you creatively?
This series of Polaroids was actually made in conjunction with a 4x5 color film series, so there are two versions of each image on both film types, which hold different quality thresholds. Conceptually, I began this series a couple of months after moving in with three of my best friends. I was raised in a household of five daughters and a single mother, so female relationships have always been extremely important to me. Given our current political climate, I decided to create a series revolving around my intimate, platonic relationships with my three roommates. The goal was to celebrate the lives we led together and to document the growth of the bonds of sisterhood that we began to share. Creating these scenes for all of us to interact with was an exercise in putting away our days work and taking time to foster a nurturing environment, if even just until the aperture blades closed.
What reflections have you come to after finishing this series? If you are still working on the series, what revelations have come up while creating the series?
I am not sure if I would quite put this series on the shelf and mark it as closed, but it is definitely on standby while I work on my current series exploring female desire. Looking back at the images I have managed to create, I can’t help but smile knowing that I have not only grown my relationships with these three incredible women, but also that I have contributed in creating a positive environment for other female-identifying people to look to, and hopefully, draw inspiration from. I have nothing but love for this child that I have brought into the world, and I can only hope that others take something from it as I have, even if that’s just to have a simple conversation with an important woman in their lives. Say hello to her; let her know how much she means to you. We need each other, for support and contact, now more than ever.
Do you ever get in creative slumps? If you do, how do you get out of them? If not, what methods have you created not to get into a slump?
Breaks between semesters are my weakness. If I’m not totally, overwhelmingly busy, I generally am doing nothing. Deadlines are definitely a main motivator, but coming up with compelling compositions and concepts can still become difficult if I’m in a creative slump. My go to is to get into a meditative headspace. If that’s listening to quiet music and concentrating on what I really want to say with my art, or watching experimental films (I recommend Ana Mendieta’s, if you can get a hold of them) in a dim room, I find that ideas will come to me when there aren’t a million other stimuli coming at me from every angle. Take a shower, lay in bed, and right before coming to terms with sleep, if you’re anything like me, the right ideas will come to you. Even if they seem terrible at first, write them down! A start is a start, and it’s always something you can come back to and really flesh out after letting it steep in your brain for a while.
Are there any books, movies, magazines or podcasts that you would recommend people to check out?
In terms of books, it is difficult for me to recommend just one, so here are a few from spanning categories: Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl, White Oleander, To the Lighthouse, and last but by no means least, Call Me by Your Name. Theory of the Young-Girl is a great resource for research and theory for anyone interested in the concept of the young-girl as driven by culture and capitalism. As for the others, they are novels that have truly impacted me as a person, as a daughter, and as a lover. If you have not already, definitely check out the film adaptation of Call Me by Your Name as well.
Lastly, what artists are currently inspiring you?
Anna Gaskell, Ana Mendieta, Laura Letinsky, Patty Carroll, and Gregory Crewdson are currently my top five, though not necessarily in that order.