Jennifer Steen Booher
Where are you from originally and where do you live now?
I was born in Brooklyn, NY, but grew up in central Massachusetts. I went to college in Poughkeepsie, NY, spent a year in Japan, and after college lived in Boston, San Francisco, and Charlottesville, Virginia. My husband had grown up in Bar Harbor, and we moved back here in 1997.
Tell us about the "Beachcombing" series.
I live on Mount Desert Island, Maine, and I wander down to the shoreline every chance I get. I've been photographing my finds for almost three years. Each photo in this series documents the things I found beautiful or curious on a particular beach on a particular day, so the title of the photo is the name of the beach and the date. When I finally started doing public shows I realized that for other people, a lot of the Beachcombing series' appeal is nostalgia. When I really do capture the texture of a mussel or the color of a sea urchin, it's a tactile reminder for viewers of their own days on the beach and the things they found. Each person has had their own moment of connection with the objects in the photos, and these photos, which begin as a record of my own exploration, become a vehicle for their memories. I'm still looking for something profound in that.
Are you a photographer by trade?
I'm a professional artist, and photography is the medium I'm using now. I've gotten pretty good at one type of photography because it expresses something I'm trying to capture, but I think of a professional photographer as someone who does everything - weddings, portraits, landscapes, photojournalism - and that isn't me. I just have images in my head and this is the best way I know of getting them out.
I've been a landscape architect for about thirteen years, but about five years ago I sold my practice and took a sabbatical to raise my family. With more time to beachcomb, I became obsessed with documenting these expeditions. My photography skills at the time were rudimentary. Options for studying photography are pretty limited when you live on an island in rural Maine, but I'm stubborn, slightly obsessive, and have had plenty of training in other art forms. I set myself to master what I could through the University of Google, with a lot of tutoring from the amazing community on Flickr. I've documented the learning process on my blog, including all the trials and most of the errors. I bought my DSLR about a year into the project (a Nikon D7000), and I continue to learn more from friends in the real world and online.
Quail eggs from The Common Ground Fair
How long do you play with the various objects you collect before deciding a piece is done.
There are days when I bring home a haul, rinse it, let it dry overnight, and take a photo by the following evening. Usually I pile my finds on dinner plates and put a paper label on each one in case I forget where it came from. The roughed-out composition on the light table right now has been there about a month. I play with it, leave it alone for a while, add a few things, take a few off, make a lot of faces at it. Even after I take a photo I can't always tell if it's good. Six months later I look at something and my opinion is often completely different from when I made it. I guess I never stop editing.
Do you walk the beaches in search of objects year round?
Oh yes! I love the beach in the winter, which is a damn good thing since winter lasts much longer than summer up here. It does get cold, (and by cold I mean serious risk of frostbite and hypothermia) but you see things no one else ever will. For example, when the tide is near dead low and the temperature is around zero, the seawater will freeze as it's ebbing out, and it forms the most amazing shapes and patterns, like Fortuny pleats running down the side of a stone. And sea smoke. To me that's one of the best things about winter! When the air temperature is below freezing and the water is warmer than the air, a beautiful fog hovers over the water. Now see, immediately I want to go look up the technical definition of sea smoke and find more information on condensation of seawater at freezing temperatures, because I'm a total geek about natural history. I take notes at the beach about the weather, the animals, and interesting things that I don't bring home, and I look up things that I don't understand, and then it all goes into the blog post about each photo.
What is your most memorable find?
I once found an entire pseudo-plaster ceiling medallion floating under a wharf. You know the kind that gets stuck on a ceiling with a chandelier hanging below it in the hopes that the room will look high-end Victorian? You see that and wonder how on earth… If something spends enough time in the ocean, it often becomes beautiful. Even plastic, although I've become much less fond of plastic since I started beachcombing. There's just too much of it in the ocean.
I like the things that make me wonder about their owners. I have to confess to a certain amount of amusement when I find a pair of binoculars, or eyeglasses, or a cell phone, because you just know that there was cursing and finger-pointing when those went overboard. I can almost hear the people on the whale watch boat yelling "I told you not to lean over so far!" I'm sure if I knew the people involved I'd be sympathetic, but since I don't, it's like a pratfall in a movie.
P.S. Almost everything I find goes back to the beach, except garbage, obviously. After the first ten years you start to feel like you have enough beautiful stones.
All photos courtesy of Jennifer Steen Booher.
Jennifer blogs on Quercus Design.