Christine Osinski is having a moment more than thirty years in the making. The New York-based photographer just published Summer Days Staten Island (Damiani), a collection of work featuring young people on Staten Island made in the summers of ‘83-’84. The Cooper Union professor recently talked with me about via email about her work.
In a few sentences, can you describe the type of photography you do?
So much of what I do as an artist relies upon looking at the real world as the basis for my work. It is not that I’m tied into “realism,” but I’m fascinated in concentrated looking, in using my eyes. The camera and work that stems from it is mysterious, factual, odd and endlessly fascinating. Someone once wrote that Eugene Atget had an “imagination for reality." What lies in front of us on a daily basis is fascinating and odd. I do not feel the need to fictionalize what I see.
What young photographers are you seeing now who you think are great?
The field of photography is so broad, and there are so many people using photography in so many different ways, from camera-based work to digital manipulation, appropriated imagery, internet collections, to sculptural work. It is a complex field to navigate. As a maker of images, it’s important to look at everything possible that’s currently being done. It’s less important whether you like it or not, or whether you yourself would want to work a particular way, it’s more important to understand the current field in which you are operating. There are people doing fascinating things within so many genres today. Because photoshop has enabled everyone to produce decent images, there is such a flood of images. There is a lot of redundancy. I try not to set a hierarchy. By that, I mean that I come across amazing images everywhere — whether in the newspaper, the internet, a gallery, a family album or a museum. The odds of finding a memorable image in any of these locations is about the same, I think. Although I try not to set a hierarchy, photographs do function differently in different places. Their intentions are different.
You moved to NYC in the late '70s after graduating from Yale with a photography MFA. Describe the photo scene at the time, and your place as a young female photographer within it.
NYC in the late 1970s was an interesting place to be for a young artist/photographer. Unlike today, the number of artists, galleries, art reviews was much more limited. I definitely felt there was a shift in how people approached photography. There was still a lot of interesting camera work being done by people whose content relied upon walking around in world — portraits by Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, and other documentary style work, but simultaneously, many of the early Pictures Generation artists were having their first shows in alternative spaces such as Artist’s Space and PS1. At that time, I was photographing Lionel train set ups at Model Train Clubs in New Jersey and Long Island. I printed them as gum bichromates. I spent several years only making gum bichromate prints. As a young artist, it was a struggle to locate myself in my work. Although my early work did get shown, I did not have a game plan in regards to where it fit in or how to get it out in the world.
What feels more valuable to you, the photographing or the photograph?
This is such a complex question. Within art, value is something ascribed to an object after it is made, either because there is a finite number or because an important group of people has deemed certain work to be “of value." There is great pleasure in being an artist, but it is a very tough business. For an artist, the value has got to be in the process of discovery, in doing the work. What the world does with the work is not something the artist can control. Perhaps a better word would be “importance." “Value” slips into the realm of commodities. A photograph definitely is a commodity but that’s not how the maker usually thinks of it. There is only so much time, energy and money for anyone, so if the process is not paramount, then it’s a futile path to pursue. Perhaps it’s better to use your resources another way — travel or fine dining. If you want to be good at something you have to really commit to it. Being an artist or a photographer is not like posting something on Facebook or Snapchat. It’s just not.
Your work Staten Island Summer was made more than 30 years ago and is just now being published. How were you able to keep the images fresh and vital in your mind between the time you made them and their wider release?
When I made the work on Staten Island 1983-1984, it was very difficult for me to look at that work. It caused me enormous problems, not only because of the uncoated lens I used but because through the process of photographing I was tapping into my own biography. The photographs struck a nerve in myself. Perhaps it was a good thing that the uncoated lens produced poor negatives, because I was never able to print them until digital technology ushered in new possibilities. Perhaps it was important for me to have some distance from the work. So, although I was really interested in this body of work, I boxed it up and put it away with great disappointment. With no prints, there was nothing to show. What most people don’t realize is that even after you have taken the pictures, have the negatives, and even after you may have prints that meet your satisfaction, there is still a great deal of work to be done shaping the pictures into something that merits the content. It was critically important to me that these pictures somehow look like what I perceived, but also somehow looked like me as well. I didn’t want the work to just sit there, but I wanted it to have a voice.
What are you working on now?
For the past three years, I have been working on a large portrait project in color. It is about young artists. It’s so nice to be working in color. It’s a complex group of pictures that I am hoping to shape into something that merits the content of the work. Because I still shoot film, the process of putting a project together takes a while.
Do you make pictures every day, or at least think about making pictures every day?
I do not make pictures every day. I do think about pictures every day and perhaps more important than thinking about pictures, I spend time every day really looking at whatever is in front of me. Most of what we know about the world, we experience through sight. There have been times when I’ve seen some pretty amazing things, but did not have a camera, so I had to be satisfied with a prolonged stare in order to burn the image into my brain. The images we have inside of us can be as important as the images we see in front of us. Both inform the work that we do.
Top photo: "Two Girls With Matching Outfits." All photos from Summer Days Staten Island by Christine Osinski.
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Tara Wray was born in Kansas and now lives and works in Vermont. She is the director of the documentary films Manhattan, Kansas (SXSW 2006 Audience Award winner), about family relationships and mental illness, and Cartoon College, about the weird and wonderful world of indie cartoonists. In 2008 she turned her attention to still photography, self-publishing the photobooks "Each One Wonderful" and most recently “Come Again When You Can’t Stay So Long,” a follow-up to Manhattan, Kansas. She also curates an interview series on VICE called Doin' Work: Flash Interviews With Contemporary Photographers. Follow Tara on Instagram.