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Photographer Jen Davis’ Intimate Self-Portraits

Fantasy No. 2. by Jen Davis. 2004 Chromogenic Print 20x24 inches. Davis' work...

Above: Fantasy No. 2. by Jen Davis. 2004 Chromogenic Print 20x24 inches. Davis' work is currently on view at the University Art Gallery on the campus of San Diego State University.


Jen Davis takes self-portraits as a way to understand her body in relationship to cultural standards of beauty. Her images are quiet, intimate portraits of a woman exploring ideas of body image, domesticity, and desire.

Jen Davis takes self-portraits as a way to understand her body in relationship to cultural standards of beauty. Her images are quiet, intimate portraits of a woman exploring ideas of body image, domesticity, and desire.


Jen Davis is a fine art photographer. She has an MFA from Yale and her work is currently on view in the exhibit "She in Her Teens and Twenties" at the SDSU University Art Gallery.

Jen Davis will present an illustrated public lecture TONIGHT (11/9) at 7:00 p.m. in Room 412 of the School of Art, Design and Art History. She: In Her Teens and Twenties continues through December 4 at the University Art Gallery.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Artists frequently use images that do not fit the conventional standard of beauty in America, many works challenge that standard by presenting faces and bodies that make us reevaluate inventions. But not many of the artists involved in that sort of work use their own face and body. Jen Davis is a photographer whose series of self portraits examines her place in society as an over weight young woman. But the photos also bring us into a world of form, color, and clarities we discover a new dimension of beauty. I'd like to welcome my guest, Jen Davis, her photographs are currently on view in the exhibit She in her Teens and Twenties at the SDSU art gallery. And Jen, welcome to These Days.

JEN DAVIS: Thank you so much for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, have you always done self portraits.

JEn DAVIS: No, I started doing self portraits in 2002. And prior to that, I was making pictures. I was an under grad at Columbia college in Chicago at the time. And I was working on bodies of work but they were never on myself directly. I was using a model for me, calling them ambiguous narratives, self portraits without me in them. But it wasn't until my last semester in college that I turned the camera on myself.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you were actually trying to do self portraits using a model.

JEN DAVIS: I was using the model as a stand in for myself. Because I wasn't ready to turn the camera on myself and to start to talk about these ideas of body image and beauty that I was working with another purpose. And it turns out that person was the exact opposite of what my body was. So I was putting them into these different kinds of scenarios, for instance in a diner or these really kind of empty spaces and the only words I had at that time were ambiguous narratives because I didn't know what the work was about. I knew it was about myself but I wasn't ready to delve into it at that moment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So what made you ready to start putting yourself in front of the camera?

JEN DAVIS: I think it was the pressure of finishing college, and leaving and have the road ending and figuring out what was next. And for the last year and a half, I had been working with another person and talking about them as myself. And I took a break, you upon, winter break between semesters, I reflected and looked through journals, and it seems apparent that everything was the same, talking about myself, and talking about issues about my body, and how I felt I was judged in society, and at that point, reading those things it was clear to me that I had to -- if I wanted to start talking about the idea of body image and the idea of societal standards of beauty, that I was gonna have to use myself as the model.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what were some of your early self portraits like when you were using yourself as a model.

JEN DAVIS: Well, the first ones, the easiest way to kind of approach it was a comparison. I was comparing myself and my body with other people's. Making kind of very direct self portraits of myself and other people.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And other people with different body types issue thinner body types, and you also put yourself in situations that are a challenge and where food is being sold, various types of -- in a diner. What do those images mean?

JEN DAVIS: Well, in the instance that you're talking about, with the hot dog stand, that picture was something that I would -- that place I would go to. And that place was something -- some place I would go to with friends at night. It was, you know, a hot dog stand off the side of the highway in Chicago. And I went there one night, and I was like, oh, this would be great to make a photograph here, about the light of the place and how it emulated and the color of it, I was interested in at that moment. So a lot of the pictures are based on personal experiences that I reconstruct into a photograph. And about when you said about the body types, they were, you know, it wasn't deliberate they was picking people that were smaller than me issue it was just who I was with, and who I was friends with at that point.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with photographer Jen Davis, her photographs are currently on view in the exhibit she in her teens and twenties be at SDSU university art gallery. I'm wondering, was it easy for you to show this work?

JEN DAVIS: Yeah, in the beginning stages it was. Because I was still in school, so I was in a supportive community. And it was easy for me to kind of put them up on the wall and have them looked at and critiqued. And I didn't really know what the work was about at that moment or how it was going to progress and transcend into something else. And as I kept making the pictures and at this point, being out of school, I wasn't showing it to -- you know, I was showing it to my peers and professors that I kept in contact with, but I was never considering an audience, and I was never thinking about where the pictures would end up. So it didn't stop me from making certain ones that might not have been made if I was showing them in school or if the public was seeing them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you a little bit more about where this series of self portraits ended up. But first, what are the challenges of actually being the photographer and the model at the same time?

JEN DAVIS: I guess I've worked out a system of figuring how the how to do it. My upbringing our my foundation in photography was so that it was very formal and very technical, so I knew how to use the camera, I knew how to use lighting. I knew how to expose film. So was able to kind of take these techniques that I had learned at that point and put them on myself. I mean, I would use a tripod for a distance, for height or like a bag on a seat if I was photographing sitting down to kind of hook through the frame in that way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 'Cause I would imagine, I mean, just setting up some of these shots must have taken quite some time.

JEN DAVIS: They -- in the beginning they took a lot longer than they did towards the end. But it was always -- I mean, I was waiting. The beauty of it was that I wasn't working with someone else. It was by myself. So I wasn't concerned about someone else's time or taking too much of their time or inconveniencing them in any way. So luckily for me, I could stop and evaluate, come back to it and shoot, wait for the light to change.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so these -- this series of self portraits using yourself as a model, came from your studying of your journals and seeing that your identity, your body image and so forth was something that I was on your mind all the time. And it was something that you had to express in your art. But I want you to tell us how that developed because these images transcend, I think, simply trying to make -- to expose the public to a different body type. I mean, these become very personal, some are sexual, in a mild sort of way, but -- and you explore various parts of your body and the text of your skin, and those -- how did that all develop?

JEN DAVIS: It developed over -- just over the time. And as the years grew, I became more risky in the pictures and revealed more of myself physically, and my skin. Also, I think that was -- how I was able to propel it also was that it was a side of myself that I wasn't showing, that I wasn't projecting to the world, like, it was this private intimate side of myself that the outside world didn't see. It was just like the camera, it was a performance for the camera, that I was able to let these dramas unfold. I think about it a lot as when the camera was set up, it was a stage. And I would have my frame, and within that, things would upon ha. So a lot of the things, the ideas I set out to do would transform into something else. Because it wasn't necessarily so strict and rudimentary of what I was trying to reveal, and within the process, too, from start to now, it was this progression of learning about myself, and talking about myself, and my insecurities. And this was something that I was never able to verbally talk about. The only way of articulating it was through the camera, and articulating, you know, the insecurities and the vulnerabilities that I had associated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Describe for us, Jen, one of the photographs that either means a lot to you or you can get a lot of comment on.

JEN DAVIS: Well, the first one, pressure point at the beach, that was -- means a lot to me since it was the first one that I had made, and it was a time in my life when, you know, I was just -- I wanted to take this, to go down this road, and I was trying to figure it out. And it's only -- it's the only one that has more than two people in it as well. Most of the other groupings are just with one other person and that was, more like, in the world. So that means a lot for this propelling point, I guess, from, like, showing myself within there, and being in a bathing suit and having that pressure of being looked at wearing few clothes. So I guess in some ways I started off strong, and showing my body in that way, but then it was sort of teetering on something that was easy or something within a group.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you say you get a lot of feed back from people who call your work brave. Do you feel that you are brave to expose yourself in this way.

JEN DAVIS: That was not what I set out to do. I can see how people can see it as bravery or that I'm brave in doing this. But honestly it was just something that I had to do. It was something that I had to do at the time. Just to understand myself and understand my place in the world and, you know, to just see the beauty within myself. And so I don't want -- I mean, I can see the brave, how people would comment on this. But it's not -- it wasn't my intention. It's not my intention to be a poster child or to be, like, the voice of obesity of or over weight people and how they respond in the world. Because I think with any body type, with any body size, it's a universal thing, this uncomfort with one's body. So I was just trying to figure it out at a really young age, 22, 23, when I started making the work, and feeling sheltered, like I didn't know myself and like I didn't know where I stood in the world. And just this kind of overarching judgment that I fell was placed upon me by people's eyes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And do you get the feeling that your work transcends this hitching point that you are a larger woman exposing yourself, that the work itself, the entirety, the totality of it gives more than simply that one idea to people?

JEN DAVIS: I would hope so, yeah. And I think within the development and how I've approached different subjects in other bodies of work and other people that, you know, work with me or collaborate with me with making pictures that it's helped, I guess.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You have another body of work that's not self portraiture, that's called I ask in exchange. It features portraits of men. Tell us about that series.

JEN DAVIS: I started that work after I finished under grad. And I had four years, and I was making pictures and working on the project of self portraits. I went to grad school at that point. And I was still photographing myself, and trying to figure out how to photograph other people. Failing, making really bad work, you know, just trying to figure out how I can not use myself as a subject and how I can use someone else. And so one summer between my first and second year, I went on a road trip and I had this agenda just to photograph men. And I was -- within that year, leading up to the summer, there was many different kind of forms of sexuality that I was playing around with my work, and sexuality and desire was a theme that I had been interested in throughout, you know, since I started making these pictures. And so I was trying to figure out how I could photograph someone else and have this kind of sexual exchange happen between the two of us. So I just started off on that trip and photographed men. And I was just interested in this kind of relationship that happens between the maker and the subject and what can unfold within that time of anything from the people that I will approach to ask to photograph, ten minutes to 2 hours, or however long it was. And what I could get them to do, and the performance that happened on the other side of the camera.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And indeed, these men are strangers to you, and many of them you photograph without a shirt on. I would imagine they had their shirt on when you first shot them, at least many of them. And some of them are actually 234 bed. So how did this very short relationship you had with your subjects actually result in these photographs?

JEN DAVIS: Well, there was many different approaches taken to find them. And when I was traveling, like, for instance New Orleans, like the one with his shirt off that maybe -- there's a couple, so it's not just one. Just finding him and asking him to do that, there was -- that was just something that happened organically, and happened naturally, and some of the other ones when I was in school when I found traveling and trying to find people, I would still try to find people in new haven or friend's of a friend who I didn't really know, but I would go, and so it was kind anonymous in a way. So I would kind of come up with ideas, the one with the man in the bed, like, I wanted to be the voyeur in the room. So I arranged to get into his apartment, then set up my camera then woke him up. So it was kind of that being a part of that, and being a part of that world. And when women are in the picture, the woman's legs that's in that, I wanted that to be anonymous, and not have an identity of that woman, so it's like this insertion of myself. It's just a figure to illustrate the female role.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It sounds as if you are really evolving as an artist, as a photographer, and do you feel that you will continue your self portraiture, or is this something that's now behind you.

JEN DAVIS: Well, I've still been continuing it, there have been times, years that I haven't been pursuing it as actively. But I think it will be something that I will continue to do, as things happen in my life, and there will be times when I'm more productive in making the work and other times when I'm not.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is this something that's very easy for you now, to show yourself as an image in your own photographs or is it still something that challenges you?

JEN DAVIS: I think it's still something that challenges me because I don't want to make the same picture over and over. It's the same person reappearing but if there's a different setting and how I can just kind of, you know, try new things or have new ideas or how I can approach myself differently besides age being what separates from start to finish. And how other people enter it into the photograph as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for speaking with us today. Thanks so much, Jen.

JEN DAVIS: Thank you for having me, it's been a lovely time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with photographer Jen Davis, she's going to be presenting an illustrated public lecture tomorrow night at 7:00 PM in room 412 of the school of art design and art history. The exhibit, She, in her teens in twenties, continues through December 4th at the SDSU art gallery. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days.

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