Between Blurs: a conversation with Photographer Catherine Just
What initially attracted me to her works are the depth of her photos that demands your full attention. There’s a lot of blurs. And as an audience, you feel compelled to seek the story, or the soul, or whatever is captured in the smallest fraction of a second from her photos.
I sat down with Catherine over coffee in Los Angeles a few days after meeting her in France. She wears a mostly-black ensemble but radiates an unassuming energy that is light and magnetic.
ABO: What’s your story?
Well the big, dark story is that when I was 18 years old I checked myself in for drug treatment. I had a crystal meth addiction and when I got out I didn’t know what to do with myself.
The only thing I remembered from highschool that I liked doing was drawing and painting so I went to Art School.
And in Art school, they said after 2 years in, “What do you want your major to be?”
And literally in that moment I said Photography out of nowhere.
I remembered being in second grade and taking pictures of my friends before I moved away and how important that was for me; it was literally that split-second decision. So I got into photography on a kind of a whim.
ABO: What inspires you?
Well, a lot of things.
When I first started, I haven’t heard of conceptual photography and my instructor in college introduced me into this world that just blew my mind; of taking an idea, a concept and an emotion and creating something visual out of it.
So I, being newly sober, didn’t know how to actually be here, or show up in the world, or look you in the eyes or have a conversation.
There was just a whole lot of stuff going on.
So I took the emotions around how uncomfortable I was being here and tried to figure out a way to create visually what I couldn’t articulate verbally.
And that was the beginning of it.
I was fascinated with how to take a world or a feeling and make an alternative space that lives in this planet that we’re on that actually doesn’t exist in the world yet.
So that’s been what’s happened for the last 20 something years; along with becoming more comfortable in my own skin and becoming more comfortable with other humans.
A B O: I love that you mention that because it validates the fact that we are using photography as a language. It is a form of language. And you have been using it as your own language. What are your favorite subjects to photograph?
I am actually interested in the space that lives in between the words. I find that it’s hard to capture in a 60th of a second so a lot of my works tends to be in longer exposures.
Because I think there’s something that we can feel; we can experience it, we can't articulate it necessarily in words but it’s somewhere.
So long exposures became a big part of my work because I was fascinated with that.
That topic has been a running theme for me along with everything else I do.
And I also just love photographing people in an authentic way. Capturing who they are actually and not the mask they are wearing inspires me.
A B O: Can you walk us briefly through your process in doing Long Exposure Photographs?
Sure. It started with a 4x5 pinhole camera and I decided to hold it in my hands. I face whatever is in front of me, like a landscape, and I would open the shutter and I listen with my whole being to figure out when I thought the exposure was done. It had nothing to do with the technical aspects of photography.
I was literally listening if that makes sense.
And so that became a kind of spiritual practice for me to really become present so that I can hear and pay attention to the film, to the light and the air and the subject and all the things that make up that one image and I felt like I was capturing my own breath and my heartbeat on that piece of film too. I felt like I was merging with the landscape and it was a marking of the moment of all of the things including myself. In some way, it was a self-portrait.
A B O: It feels like a highly sensory experience.
I am totally turned on by having a full body sensory experience, which demands that I stop thinking and be very present to what’s happening.
It occurs in my life but it occurs even more so if I’m picking up a camera and deciding to pay attention in that way. It’s almost like a catalyst for waking up.
The pinhole was the first and now I’m obsessed with my 4x5 camera. I started a project called Capturing Breath on Film. Which isn’t as much about me as it is about "us".
So I’m facing you, I’m doing a long exposure capturing your breath, your heartbeat your dreams, wishes and desires on that one piece of film. And I happen to be in the room creating the photo with you so I feel like my breath, my heartbeat, and my thoughts are also being recorded, seen or unseen but it is more about connection. You (The person in front of the camera) with yourself. And everything else in the room, city, country, world that's unseen but that connects us. We may all have different beliefs, cultures, experiences, but we all create the pulse of the planet. We all breathe, have a heartbeat and we all have dreams, wishes and desires. When stripped of all of our outer "stuff" we are all connected.
A B O: Don’t you get the feeling that when you photograph somebody it is also a reflection of the photographer (yourself) as much as a reflection of your subject? Isn’t that interesting?
Yes. I also think that when somebody comes to a photoshoot for their website or their book launch or whatever, which is a little bit different than this kind of work, it is about the connection. It has nothing to do with how well I pose people and the lighting, I mean I can get that down but then really how do you find those moments that actually express the essence of somebody?
A B O: You are capturing the soul. That’s what I love about your work. What I love about your work is that when you look at it, you see something that you don’t usually see in the photograph. There’s blurs but there’s a lot of in-betweens and it makes you really look at it for a long, long time.
Speaking of long exposures, I remember our conversation in France and how you told me that there are some people who commented about your blurred photos and that you don’t know how to photograph. Tell me more about it.
I had an experience when I was taking a workshop in Italy and there’s somebody from The Getty there and he wanted to see my portfolio and he took a look and he said:
“You know, looking at your work I can’t really tell if you know how to use a camera.”
And I had to think about it. I understood where he was coming from. Because my work isn’t consistent as far as exposure goes. Some of it is blown out. Some of it is dark.
I think if he would’ve said that to me when I was in my 20’s, I would’ve maybe shut my shop down and pick another thing. I would’ve taken it personally. But I didn’t I really was just hearing where he is standing from- From a point of perfection and technical standpoint.
It encouraged me to think about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and to back it up and know why it looks this way.
And it’s okay that he has that opinion of me and my work and that it doesn’t mean that it is right or wrong.
A B O: For you, what’s a good photograph?
I see a lot of photos being technically sound but lacking a point of view. I think that’s the difference. It is having something to say. It is having some emotion to back it up. It's more than just technical.
People often come to me and ask what camera should I pick, a Canon or a Nikon and I say, which one feels better in your hand? Which one is easier and intuitive for you to take the lenses off quickly if you need to? And Nikon is that for me so I stayed with it. And it has nothing to do with whether or not my images are better because of my camera. It really has to do with having a point of view.
A B O: So moving on, a few years from now, where do you see yourself as an artist? Do you have any upcoming workshop/shows?
I’ve been running workshops internationally for a couple of years now and I am really excited about how they transform and evolve as I continue to grow and evolve and watch how people respond to the retreats that I do. Whatever I do I don’t have a system necessarily. It’s like opening my shutter and listening, you know what I mean?
I feel like we don’t give ourselves enough permission to have space to make our work. We don’t give it much attention as we are all so busy. So it really is about focusing on our work again and getting back to ourselves and what’s really true for us.
A B O: If you can be a book, what kind of book will you be?
A pop-up book? I don’t know. It is a great question. Okay, I have a thing about beauty. Like all the way down to the kind of mug that I’m sipping my espresso out of. It affects me deeply- The environment that I’m in.
I wanna go to coffee in a beautiful space, I wanna eat food with humans that are authentic, you know all of that . It seems superficial but it is actually deeper than that.
Well it would be a beautiful Coffee Table Book with an intention behind it.
A B O: you had me at intention. That is your keyword. What is your intention behind it? What is your motivation behind it? You can just be shooting and shooting but if you can’t answer your intention behind photographing then it’s futile.
I think we can get stuck in what works and what we’re getting praised for and that becomes a formula and we’re not pushing ourselves further and I think there’s so much more to be seen or expressed if we don’t get stuck in needing validation but really having an intention. That isn’t always the prettiest at first, but I feel like once you take pictures outside of your comfort zone, and that work has something to tell you, that can lead you on a new path if you’re willing to step out of that place.
A B O: it is like riding a wave. And the path opens up itself.
You’re looking at the wrong thing if you’re looking outside for approval, really. And then you’re not taking any steps forward based on a fear that you have of an assumption that you’re making.
I think you have to be willing to make the so called “BAD WORK”
Yeah, I feel like it leads you to the next photo. It's an opportunity. It opens up the portal of creativity which holds unlimited potential if we are willing to jump in.