Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico is a visual storyteller whose photographs encompass details and abstractions that explore a unique vision of the world. She wants her photographs to engage the viewers and make them think. A BFA honor graduate of Pratt Institute with a concentration in photography, printmaking and bookbinding. Karen was a Photography Scholarship recipient and was published in "Newsweek On Campus" stating her work to be somewhere “Between Painting and Photography” which has become her life long study.
In this interview she shares her photographs from her series 'Music Story'.
Talk to us about this series of photos.
When you think of New Orleans you visualize food, music and a love for art. Arriving in New Orleans I relished in meeting these unique people and their passion for celebrating life. Recommendations abound in this town, but one made me curious, a club that was not to miss for music, off the beaten path, where I would find the “REAL” music of New Orleans, the Maple Leaf Bar. In Pigeon Town, a little neighborhood three blocks from the Mississippi River, the Oak Street neighbors of the bar were setting up buffet tables in their front yards, while smokers were being fired up in the street, welcoming all whom arrived. Headlining was the Rebirth Brass Band, everyone there seemed totally pumped as the bar filled waiting for the band to play late into the night. Obviously not a regular, camera in hand, I made my way to the front of the crowd and stage. The crowd guided me to front row center, welcoming my passing them.
I believe that to be a good photographer it is important to study all the arts. When taking a photograph, I see many different influences and pieces of a puzzle. When the pieces fall together, the shutter is released. I see architecture, geometry, light, color, space, volume, movement, dance, gesture, personality, and humanity, all presented to me through an aperture, in a box. I study dance, I learn physicality and gesture in movement and the stories they tell. When I am in the street shooting or when I was shooting the Rebirth Brass Band, I understood their hand and body movements and how I wished to capture them. Music for me is about the rhythm I see in the World. I think of Steve Reich and his “Music for 18 Musicians”, each instrument having its own rhythm, moving in and out of unison. As I take my photo, all of the chaos becomes synchronized and everything fits, light, shadow, the band on the stage. I’ve found my moment, when I physically feel part of what I am photographing. I don’t need to think about releasing my shutter, it just happens, all is right, my camera and I are one, I am part of the process, thoughtless.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
I was born and grew up in Poughkeepsie New York, in the lower Hudson Valley. I became interested in art before I knew I would become a photographer. While in High School I had the fortunate experience of being guided by my then teacher, and subsequent lifetime dear friend, Maggie Caccamo. Maggie exposed me to numerous mediums and processes, understanding it was process that inspired my creative thought. She exposed me to mediums such as drawing, painting, pastels, batik, quilting, trapunto, jewelry, metal work, welding, woodwork, linoleum and die cuts, silk screening, sculpture, and many more techniques throughout the years. She helped me seek out universities when applying to college, and stood by me through my application process. Being a Pratt Institute graduate herself I decided among the acceptance applications that Pratt would be the school for me. In my freshman year during the Foundation Program at Pratt Institute that I found interest in photography. I was always disappointed in my ability to paint and draw, and realized that in photography and printmaking I was able to transcribe what my minds eye conceptualized, translating it into reality with these mediums.
Pratt brought me great opportunity and exposed me to influential educators, one of whom was William Gedney, who inspired me to find myself and my creative expression through the many photographic technologies at his disposal. Studio work, black and white, 4x5, platinum palladium, and non-silver processes were integrated into my processes. Bill also taught me how to make hand bound books, to display my work in, both photographic and written. He was as process driven as I was, and the connection between us was fuel that fed my fire. There was no turning back for me, the camera became my tool to create, making my imagination reality.
Do you have a favorite quote/lyric/saying that especially resonates with you?
I find it is not usually photographers that come to mind when I think of what resonates with me, rather it is painters. Two painters come to mind who have said things I relate to. Picasso said, “Everything you Imagine is real”, and my favorite Dali quote, “There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he is sane. I know I am mad.”
My interpretation, rules are meant to be broken. I choose to express myself by breaking the rules of photography, expressing myself in different ways, finding my place between painting and photography.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Absolutely anywhere and everywhere. I find some photographers specialize in certain areas of photography; portrait, wedding, street. I am a visual storyteller, I approach all my subject matter the same way looking for those connections and details, so I can tell specific stories. I don’t change what I see, rather, I express through the lens what the stories are telling. I love to explore the same places over and over, looking for new stories to tell, forcing myself to look even harder each time. I also find it exhilarating to photograph something I have never photographed before, learning new things and applying them to my work. I find street photography, nature and abstract photography to be places of constant inspiration, and I access them daily.
What has been the best advice you have ever received in photography?
I had a professor at Pratt, the photographer Arthur Freed, who would have us go out and take ten rolls of film a week, develop and print them for class. He said there was no such thing as serendipity, that lucky shot. He said you must train yourself to have the motor memory skills to call upon when that moment arrives. You pick up your camera and you don’t think about your settings, depth of field, timing, your hands move effortlessly to focus and adjust aperture, you find your frame and how to construct it without thought. It is second nature. I have found this to be true, the more I explore, the more I discover, the more that I understand and can translate to film without thought, it becomes intuitive. When you feel like you and the moment are one, that is when the magic happens.
What is it that you enjoy about street photography. What happens when you walk the streets with your camera? Explain your technique? Have you ever had a negative encounter?
What draws me to street photography is the unpredictability from one second to the next. There is a different story to be told each and every time I walk the same street. Street photography engages all the senses, noises, smells, visuals of light, shadow, color, and the taste for adventure. When I walk the streets, no matter what city in the world, I try to first find my light, my ISO, and general aperture and speed settings. I become very focused, I look everywhere, listen to sounds that may direct me, smells that may lead me in a certain direction. I always with my camera in hand, ready for anything that catches my attention. I specifically look for details, that are unique, maybe out of place, or considered to be not of much interest, so ordinary. But I see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and find these abstractions to inspire. I am obsessed with reflectivity of all kinds, and the city has so many reflective surfaces challenging me to learn new ways of seeing and recording what I see. I enjoy a street empty of people, as much as I enjoy them full and chaotic. I engage someone that catches my eye, most the time I make eye contact a may gesture for approval, but sometimes anonymity is preferred. I try to feel the energy in those moments, and I try to feel like I am part of that energy and go with the flow. When in sync it is a feeling that is hard to describe, it is bigger than just you, an awareness that creates connectivity and an inspired clear vision.
Recently while shooting in London I had a negative encounter, the first time in a very long time. I was walking down a high street when I saw two young men popping wheelies in the middle of the road in traffic. I reached for my camera, pulled it to my eye and turned the camera on. One of the two young men saw me and started cursing at me in a very loud and disrespectful way. Angry that I apparently snapped his photo, he road on. The interesting part, I never got one shot off, the camera never turned on in time. I apologized to the young man despite not having taken his photo simply because I violated his personal space.
Do you have any favorite locations to go photographing? How has the pandemic affected you and your photography?
I adore photographing in any city, New York City it is a constant inspiration. The moment I hit the street it is like a fever that takes over me. Can’t wait, and usually don’t, to engage my camera and the urbanism. I love to see architecture and art, but I am also just as happy taking a stroll down the lower east side of Manhattan. I feel very fortunate to live in New York State. I am a Libra and it balances my scale. A few hours north of the city you can be in the Adirondack Mountains and the high peaks that are
home to unique flora as well as animals. These mountains created by glaciers are the yin to my New Your City yang. My father’s family is from a small town in Northern New York State very close to the Canadian border. I spent my entire youth swimming, skiing, hiking, camping, in this wilderness. During the Pandemic, I isolated in the Adirondacks. My study of the natural world their has influenced the way I see the industrial city landscape. It has helped me find order the the chaos in the metropolis.
Prior to the pandemic I spent much time traveling and photographing urban environments. It had brought my work in a new direction and was a fascinating and supportive venue for my continued study in self portraiture. I was photographing Pride Night at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the New York Gay Hockey Association 48 hours before New York City Lockdown. After the lockdown, I isolated with my family from February through April in the Adirondack Mountain wilderness, where my connection to nature was reawakened. While in isolation, I revisited a study called “Between Painting and Photography” and explored the isolating landscapes and reflections of the mountain estuaries. I created a beautiful body of work, featuring reflected abstracted landscapes.
What do you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
I want to express that things are what you make of them. I want the viewer to participate in the story, engage them to think about what they are seeing. To question is good, and to draw one's own conclusions even better.
I usually shoot with my lens wide open, with as little depth of field as possible. This allows for a focal point even in an abstraction. I do not visualize clarity in my life, it is not how I see my world. What you see in my finished work, is exactly how I saw it in my minds eye through the lens. I do not Photoshop my images, they are all single exposures.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers? Who do you think has mostly influenced your style?
This is a fever for me. Favorite artists are a list so long, a few, William Gedney, Lee Frielander, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier Bresson, Vivian Maier, Cindy Sherman, and I could name so many more, and that is only photographers. Painters such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Rothko, Miro, Matisse, to name a few. Sculptors, Giacometti, Brancusi, Noguchi, Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, Andy Goldsworthy, Dance Companies, Pina Bausch, Bryn Cohn and Artists. For Music, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Mulatu Astatke, Nina Simone, Philip Glass, Steve Reich.
I really enjoy all art, and find it inspirational. A walk through any gallery, and I find something that makes me think, makes me grow as an artist. My style influencers, the abstract expressionists and impressionists. Often, when I am in nature, I think of Van Gogh, texture and sculptural aspect of the landscape painted with a pallet knife, one example of an influence of on the expression of what I see through my lens.
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
Everyone has different ways they approach their art and different inspirations. I find it hard to recommend one book that could cover such a broad audience with different ideologies and ways of seeing photography. People should seek out artists that inspire them, that intrigue them, and find a book they have published.
For me an all time revisit book is “What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney”.
As I previously stated he was a great influence and mentor in my photographic capabilities in technique, formats, printing processes and book binding that allowed me to experience a broad range of photographic mediums. Bill was often in the darkroom at my dormitory, and I would spend hours both in and out of class with him as well time printing in the darkroom together. In my senior year at Pratt, when he was unable to teach class, I would substitute for him, so his book is especially meaningful to me. It is a compilation of his photographs that include profound work in New York, Kentucky, San Francisco and India. Accompanying his photographs are his transcriptions and notes: “Someone Else’s Blood”. What I admire in Bill’s work was his way of being honest with his subjects. He never exploited the sensitive matter he explored such as the coal miners of Kentucky in the summer of 1964, portrayed in his series “Short Distances and Definite Places”. He had a sensitivity to life’s limitations. He saw them in sincerity and with grace. I try to remember this always when I address everything I see and choose to photograph. I look for honest, pure, sincere moments, often expressed through abstractions because that is how I see the world. William Gedney was a great man and an inspirational photographer who reminds us of the humanity in photography.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera/s do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
I have one camera and one lens. I am never without them. I use a Leica, I currently have a Leica M10-P, with a Summicron ASPH 35mm . It fits me like a glove and is an extension of mind and body. It has the capabilities of articulating my abstractions, and is my partner in seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.
When you go out photographing, do you have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both?
Both, if I am heading with my water shoes into the Adirondack’s Mill Creek, I am definitely looking for abstractions in the reflections and layers of the estuary. I become one with the environment that I see and search in great detail for the story that is being told that day. But if I am on the street, It is definitely what comes to me, in the very moment, no intention other than to find the pallets of color and light that create the foundation for my canvas.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
My primary goal as an artist and photographer is to share my work. It is a glorious act to create and I am involved in my work in some way every day of the week. Like a musician playing the scales, I need to photograph or edit every day. But to create and not share is working in a vacuum. As my children have all graduated and moved on, I am no longer a home educator and have the ability to focus on stepping out and engaging platforms and communities to support my work. I see myself immersed in my work and utilizing all outlets available to share and achieve my goal.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
I have begun a hand bound book of platinum palladium prints made from negatives taken from a nude figure class with Bill Gedney in the 1980’s, taken on the roof top of the painting studios at Pratt Institute. This project is in its formative stages but I am looking forward to bringing it to completion. I have also conceptualized a mixed media installation piece, weaving together life size photographs printed on various materials and woven together with actual artifacts of objects seen in the images. I see this project as a natural progression to explore my roots of non-silver printing processes and my love for the different mediums I have engaged with throughout my life. I have been studying self portraiture and reflectivity for over 12 years and believe the layers and abstractions found in the urban landscape would be a wonderful foundation for this project. I am actively working to establish connectivity and a communities to share this work with.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)...
I love to do everything, but I am rarely found without my camera. I have an abundance of energy and physical activity is a must for me. I do yoga daily as well as hike, swim, ski. I also need to see art, so I have memberships to most museums in NYC and throughout New York State. Before the Pandemic I would attend concerts, dance, and opera on a regular basis. I also traveled extensively throughout North America, South America and Europe. I adore food, to cook and eat it, so you will often find me in the kitchen or eating at a favorite restaurant with a nice bottle of wine. I love a four hour dinner. I enjoy people, a conversation, and new connections made. I am a sponge absorbing and photographing everything around me.
All photos © Karen Ghostlaw Pomerico
Rebirth Brass Band: www.rebirthbrassband.com
Support the Maple Leaf Bar COVID19 Relief Fund: www.gofundme.com/f/support-the-maple-leaf-bar-covid19-relief-fund