Interview: Molly Landreth and Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America

I met Molly Landreth at a small workshop with photographer Jonas Bendiksen at Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle in January 2007. There was a mix of aspiring photographers as well as amateurs, some great work and some that wasn’t going anywhere. There was no doubt about Landreth though; she was showing the first wonderful portraits from a series that was to become Embodiment. Since then I’ve been following her work and the creative ways that she has been taking to develop, fund and show her project. This Spring I was reading about her latest push to raise money via which coincided with a number of awards and exhibitions of the project. We’ve been overdue for featuring Landreth’s work and insights so we invited her for a dvafoto interview. We hope you enjoy and consider supporting her project, and then be inspired to find innovative funding for your own work.

how did you decide to focus on one project for such a length of time?
Embodiment began as a purely photographic endeavor in 2005-2008, as I photographed friends and acquaintances to better understand my own place within the queer community as well as a chance to create beautiful representations of people I loved and respected. I had no idea that I would be starting in on a five year (or more!?) project that would one day include subjects from all over the country, an international collaborator, in depth video interviews and a innovative multi-platform outreach plan. I would have been terrified to even begin!

how is the work completed? how are you finding subjects?
I use a 4×5” camera to set up my photographs, Myspace + hundreds of key word searches to find project participants and a lot of deep breathing to work up the courage to barge into peoples lives and ask them to be open, honest and beautiful in front of my camera. It is a totally strange and insanely rewarding thing to do. My collaborator, Australian video artist Amelia Tovey, captures not only the story behind each portrait, but the process of creating the portrait itself; revealing the way a photograph and a personal history can unfold. Last June we went on a month long trip around the country to gather new footage; it was one of the most inspiring and rewarding adventures I’ve even been on. New work from Embodiment includes multi-media portraits of: a transsexual woman (who, before transitioning) served as a special units paratrooper during the Vietnam War, a gay evangelical preacher in Garland Texas, a bi-racial lesbian couple in Mississippi, a young Hollywood personality in Los Angeles, a teenage transgender boy living and transitioning in rural Wisconsin, and self-proclaimed Hillbillies living deep in the Ozark Mountains. It’s really exciting.

do you have concurrent projects going on? do you show other work or is your emphasis solely on Embodiment?
Right now Embodiment is a full time job so the only other shooting I’m doing is freelance & commercial work. However…I’m really excited about the day where I can finish this project and starting something completely different and new. I have three other concepts which are in the development and research stages that I’m super excited about digging into.

are you working editorially at all, outside of this work?
For outside work, I do a lot of commissioned portraits as well as some consulting with other art photographers to assist them with their project development. I would love the chance to work editorially as well but I think being in Seattle is a little limiting in terms of those opportunities. …prove me wrong someone!

where are these images being seen?
Photographs and video installations from Embodiment are currently being exhibited in New York, Portland, Germany and Italy, with more multi-media exhibitions and artist talks in Los Angeles, England, and Australia later this year. Reaching the widest audience possible, including the vastly spread out community that Embodiment seeks to represent, is a fundamental value of this project. We understand that many of our subjects and our audience live in under-served communities who do not have access to these traditional exhibition spaces but for whom the Internet is widely available. So, with help from the money that we raise from our current fundraiser on, Amelia and I will reinterpret this vast body of work into an intimate and widely accessible on-line experience with portraits and stories released as weekly episodes. We aim to launch the website in late 2011.

what has the reaction been from the queer community, from your subjects or anything more organized, about your project? what is your goal, your mission statement, if any?
Our goal for this project is really basic. Explore what it means to be queer in America today and make complex and beautiful portraits in the process. The reaction from LGBTQ communities and allies has been incredible. I get letters all the time, especially teenagers from non-typically “gay friendly” areas, thanking us for making the work. Many people say that it’s the first time they’ve seen representations of queers that they can relate to and be proud of. It’s really amazing to be a part of that.

where does this fit on a continuum of ‘journalism/art/advocacy’, and what are your thoughts on these labels? I’m seeing a lot more projects that blur these lines, and often it is the more interesting work that does it. Is it important to you, or your subjects, or your audience (do you think), how you contextualize these photos?
I want this work to be a part of all of that! By creating work that would only fit into one of those categories I would really put constraints on what is possible. It’s a blend of lots of different methods of working…which in itself is a little queer. It’s not about defining or explaining one thing or another but rather it’s about raising questions and opening up new opportunities of expression.

what has been your strategy for funding this work, and how has it changed over time? What is the next step in this process, what more do you need to ‘finish’ the work, and what form do you think that will take?
To date, this project has been made possible with the support from The School of Visual Arts (New York, NY) and with grants from The American Consulate (Germany), Humble Art Foundation (New York, NY), and Artist Trust (Seattle, WA). I am also a recent recipient of a Kodak Film Grant through the fantastic blog “Too Much Chocolate” (Portland, OR) and we have recently been granted fiscal sponsorship from Seattle based “Three Dollar Bill Cinema.” Right now Amelia and I are attempting to raise $10,000 dollars (and beyond!) with the help of the fundraising site We have 65 days left to raise the money and have already reached 77% of our goal. (Update: Since this interview Landreth and Tovey’s project has reached their original goal and they’ve readjusted their sights for 200% of their original funding). For each level of sponsorship (even just a $5 donation) you can get prizes in return like signed prints, road trip mixes, homemade postcards, etc. It’s a great way for friends and project supporters to make a big difference in the success of the project. Most of our project backers are queer youth from all over the world who just totally understand the need for this type of work and are willing to give what little money they have to support it. It’s pretty awesome. With the 100% that we’ve raised we’re going to hire a website designer to create the site which will host the project and the weekly “episodes” and it will also pay for the time we need to take to edit all of the footage. If we raise 200% (which we really want to do!!) we will be able to head back out on the road and create more work to share with all of you; including a gay/lesbian rodeo in Colorado, a lesbian sorority in Memphis, and many more really interesting communities and individuals.
To see our promotional video, donate or learn more about the future of this project please visit our page on Kickstarter.

Thanks to Molly and Amelia for showing the work, I look forward to posting updates on the project from here. It will be great to see the final website presentation with their combined efforts.

3 Responses to “Interview: Molly Landreth and Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America”

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