Interview: Missy Prince

Missy Prince has been making a name for herself through her photography over the past several years. Her Flickr stream is an instruction manual on wandering and learning how to see subtle and and sometimes haunting beauty in the every day. She’s been wandering a lot—through Mississippi, the American Southwest, through Washington and Oregon and back down South again. What she’s seeing feels familiar yet simultaneously fresh way that only comes with an esteemed sense of a personal voice. It’s straight photography done exceedingly and consistently well. There’s something to that consistency in the way she floats between landscapes, people she knows and doesn’t know, still lives, and of course vernacular architecture. I’ve been interested in getting between Missy Prince’s mind’s eye and camera for a while now—her photographs beckon more from me and I was excited to get an opportunity to read her words.

Empty Stretch: Age/Location/Three favorite things in life:

Missy Prince: I’m 42 and I live in Portland, Oregon. I don’t really think in terms of favorites, but I like driving around, records, my dog.

ES: Can you pinpoint a specific photograph or moment in time that got you to start taking pictures for yourself?

MP: It was a slow evolution. I went through a few photography phases, but I was never happy with any photos I took until a few years ago when I started carrying an Olympus XA everywhere. I shot compulsively until it started making sense. I remember getting a roll of film back that had about five better than average photos with a sensibility I could see as my own. It was a small but noticeable turning point.

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ES: How important is making C-prints to your approach?

MP: At this point it’s pretty integral. About a year ago I decided to incorporate the darkroom into my workflow because I like to have prints rather than negative scans, and the average lab print leaves a lot to be desired. The satisfaction of having a physical copy that I printed myself is so great that it is hard to imagine cutting the darkroom out of the equation. I like having control over the final product.

ES: Some of my favorite images of yours evoke religion. Churches, Christ-figures, crosses, and other singage; it spans across your pictures from the South to the Northwest. Can you speak on these? Is it something you’re conscious of in your everyday life or is it something your camera just finds?

MP: I’ve often wondered why a random cross or church can stop me in my tracks. I’m not religious, but I was dragged to church the first twelve or so years of my life. Being there always felt strange to me, I never could relate to the experience. I stared at a lot of crosses as a child, so perhaps photographing them is a way of revisiting my past. But I think it fits within a more general interest in where people find meaning in their lives. Religion is one of the more obvious places, but it is an attractive subject because it’s so loaded. I’m usually drawn to scenes that lean toward the peculiar or askew: a truck stop chapel, a broken steeple lying on a church lawn, a prayer box in a parking lot, a proclamation of faith on a satellite dish. I don’t think about religion in my everyday life and I don’t look for it as a subject but I eventually find it, especially in the South.

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ES: Conversely, how do you deal with the tougher subject matters like adult book stores, bail bonds agencies, liquor stores?

MP: They are just places I’m attracted to. I don’t feel like they are challenging or tough. They are interesting places in interesting parts of towns. I think they fit very well next to the religious imagery. My interest in them is like my interest in, say, Tom Waits’ album Small Change or some old blues lyrics. Hard times are doorways to the unknown. People go to weird places through them, and you wonder how they got there. It’s more interesting than joy or contentment.

ES: What is your relationship to some of the people you photograph? They’re seldom seen in your work but when you make a portrait there’s some intimacy there I’m eager to know about.

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MP: I used to photograph only friends, but lately I’ve become more interested in photographing strangers because it is a different kind of experience. I’ve always been a people watcher but the habit has taken a long time to find its way into my photography, partly because it’s harder to interact with people than with objects. Taking that next step and actually engaging with the people I notice is suddenly exciting. The camera gives me an excuse to enter their lives. I like to spend time with them and hear them talk. Maybe that’s where the sense of intimacy comes through. I get to find things out about them that I might not learn if I just passively observed them. I don’t know the kid with the basketball, but the place is very close to me. It’s the street I grew up on. Last time I went home he and his friends were outside my folks’ house playing basketball every day. The day before I left I went out and got his picture. Right before I snapped it he said he wanted to be a porn star.

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ES: There’s obviously a musical facet to your work, as well, as traveling and walking. I had the opportunity not too long ago to go through a Flickr slideshow of your greatest hits and it felt like reading a short novel to me. No chapters, but a sort of stream-of-consciousness writing that reverts back to previous thoughts and wildly new ones. How much do you feel literature is a part of your process and work (if at all?)

MP: It’s a big part. I think photography and literature are both driven by the impulse to show something about life, to give our observations some kind of form. There was a time when I wanted to write. The desire isn’t so strong now, but I can see a connection between it and the role that photography plays in my life. Both involve imposing a narrative onto experience, noticing details, making connections, figuring out what is important or interesting about a situation and trying to put it into a form that makes you feel something. So much of the literature that moves me has a wandering theme. Stories from the road, people on the move, on the run, or looking for something, the recurrence of the familiar amid uncertainty and change. Such work is reflective of the spirit that made it. It carries the charge of life, always moving, always searching. My process is very much about wandering, being out in the world and coming back with pieces of a story that is hopefully held together by the thread of my own sensibility. I don’t know exactly what I will find when I set out, and that is the point. Photography, like writing, is a means of discovery, a filling in of (or working around) blanks, a fleshing out of ideas or feelings. I imagine that if the urge to write returns it will somehow be informed by what I’ve learned from taking and editing photos.

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ES: What are you currently reading?

MP: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell and Bitter Music by Harry Partch.

ES: Where is your photography headed in 2013?

MP: I hope to get back to Mississippi and continue some work there.

We hope you do, Missy. Thanks! Be sure check out her Flickr stream, Tumblr, and do yourself a favor and purchase an 8×10.

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