Welcome to Ways of Seeing, a series in which two creatives sit down to discuss the nuances of their work, trade industry secrets, and fill each other in on their latest projects. The only catch? One of them is on staff at W magazine. In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with the photographer Theo Wenner, who just returned to home base in New York from Los Angeles, where he shot Moncler’s new campaign. But over the course of a year, he spent time outside of the city photographing a very different subject: his own mother. That series will appear in his upcoming book, Jane.
If I’m correct, this new book is not only your first book, but it’s the first time you’re releasing a major personal project?
That is true—this is the first published body of work in a book form. I’ve always wanted to do this, but I was waiting for the right thing to work on. I wanted it to be something that would continue to resonate with me for a long time. I look back at a lot of work and I’m like “Wow, I can’t believe I took that horrible picture.” So I really wanted to think about what I was doing before I committed to it.
Are you now at a point where you like most of your work?
No, I critique my work every day—in fact, I probably do it more now than I did before (Laughs). I’ll always look back at old photographs and not like certain things about them. Always. My taste is constantly evolving. Maybe the day you’re not critical of your work, that’s a bad sign.
How did you arrive on the subject of your mother for this book?
I think it’s really important to photograph what you know, otherwise the work will feel insincere. That philosophy can be applied to anything you’re photographing. Somehow what you’re shooting has to relate back to you for it to work, in my opinion. The more time I’ve spent with my mother over the years, the more complex of a character she’s become for me. She really is one of the most mysterious, surprising people I know. Over time, it just became obvious to me that this was what the book should be about. Once I settled on her as a subject, it became about understanding how I’d shoot it. I could have photographed her anywhere, really, but I realized I wanted to work within stricter boundaries. She had just moved to Amagansett at the time, and was spending all of her time there, so I decided I’d go and photograph her there from New Year’s Day 2017 to the next New Year’s Day 2018. I didn’t want it to span for five years, I wanted it to be her in that time, at that age.
Sometimes giving yourself a cut-off is the only way to finish a project. You might keep going forever if you don’t.
You can just go on forever, and like we said, you’re always going to think you can make a better book.
You’ve always been really good at taking a known face and creating an intimate take on it. Whether it’s a celebrity or a model, your voice shines through when you’re visualizing closeness with someone that you might not even be close with in real life. Considering that, it’s all the more interesting to see your debut book as one in which you photograph someone you’re undoubtedly close with, your mother. What was it like to approach a subject that is, for a lot of us, the paragon of personal?
Everyone’s different—some subjects are really extroverted, but my mother is very introverted and private. She’s the sort of person who’s more about what she doesn’t say, than what she is saying. So with her, in regards to intimacy, visualizing that is so much more than looking at her. It’s more about looking around her and seeing her things: her clothes, her dogs, the way she arranges the things on her desk. It’s sort of weird, though, to go there with your family. You don’t want to be so biased, but of course you are because it’s your family.
There are some moments of melancholy in the book—or at least, they read that way. There’s one photograph in particular of you and your brother, and you’re with your tennis racquets. In regard to mood, it’s really ambiguous: on one hand you don’t look super joyful, but you’re not incredibly upset-looking either. It’s the sort of picture that could exist within the context of having just had a fight with your mother, or maybe not. It’s a grey area that’s loaded, but often that’s how family feels.
It’s interesting to look back on as well, because it’s that entire year. You’re looking back and you’re seeing all the people that came and went, and there is this slight sadness in there. You can’t help but feel like time has passed, and that itself is sort of sad.
The foreword to this book is really powerful. There’s a part of it that reads, “In the years I’ve known Jane, I’ve watched her let go of that external standard of what a successful life should be, and to come to herself.” Would you say your mother has gotten happier as she’s gotten older?
Absolutely. Aatish Taseer, a lifelong friend of my mother’s, wrote the introduction, and he just did it so perfectly. Photographing this project, at this time, was so perfect, because there was this transition once she moved to that house. I wouldn’t call it a new beginning, but something happened around the time she moved out there. There was some sort of release for her emotionally, that I only now realize had happened. It’s sort of this moment where someone makes peace with their situation. What does someone have to go through to get there? I imagine it’s different for everyone, but I think some adversity along the way actually helps.
Taseer’s introduction makes it pretty clear that the divorce your parents went through was one of those trials for your mother. I’m wondering how your own idea of love has evolved after watching your mom go through what she did?
I think it’s made me see life as something where you just have to accept what it is. People will always be who they are, and you just have to accept it and make the best of it (Laughs). If you’re dating someone who has a certain type of personality, don’t fight it, embrace it. It taught me that you have to get to a point where you accept your circumstances, and if you don’t, you’re just swimming upstream.
Have you thought about how different this book would be if you had shot it this year—if you were quarantined with your mother in her house for a year, and shot a book like that?
I’m really glad I didn’t, because it’s the difference between visualizing someone when they are where they’d like to be vs. where they have to be, or where they’re stuck. It would be a very different book and probably not as revealing.
Flipping through the book, I get this impression of your mother that she’s always running around, doing things—she’s never really still. Is that accurate?
That’s a great observation, and I’m surprised you picked that up. You’re completely right. She’s always straightening a chair or closing a door, or fixing a pillow. She just does not sit still, and funnily enough, she does not like having her picture taken. She was so unwilling to let me take her picture, that I even thought about hiring a double of some sort and taking her picture from behind in a striped shirt, and pretending it was her (Laughs). It was honestly a real struggle by the end.
Take us back for a second, how did you get into photography?
As a kid, I was really obsessed with movies. I’d watch lots of movies—all day, all the time. I’ve seen certain movies maybe 200 times. That’s why I wanted a camera, actually; I really wanted to copy the movies that I liked, specifically 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was my favorite, so I got this underwater camera. By the time I went to boarding school, up in Vermont, I got really bored, so I got good at strange novelty sports like foosball, and then I just started taking more pictures too. When it was time to go to college, I was going to go to Cornell or Bard. I’m really happy I didn’t go to Cornell, because at Bard I studied with Stephen Shore. He’s the reason why I went there. The photography program is really strict there, they actually have a cut program. At the end of each semester there’s a posting up on the wall to see who is still in the program and who is not.
What did you learn from Stephen Shore?
He’s a huge believer in understanding the technical side of photography. At first, he wants everyone to know how to perfectly expose an image. But then after that he wants you to break the rules: a picture is a picture, it doesn’t matter how you took it. I’m really glad I have that technical understanding of photography, and I’m glad he demanded it from us.
Besides Stephen Shore, which photographers do you admire most, even if you don’t want your work to look like theirs?
That’s a great way to ask that question (Laughs). I can tell you studied photography, and I’ll have to copy you next time I ask someone that question. I love William Eggleston. I’m not sure who doesn’t, and there’s really nothing worse than someone trying to imitate him, but he doesn’t take a bad picture. I love the parameters of his work, how it’s all sort of in this one world.
Would you ever do a book of photographs on your dad?
It’s funny, he asked me the same question. I have photographed him, and definitely have a lot of photographs of him, but I don’t think I could do that after doing this project. My next book is actually the complete opposite of this project I did with my mom.
If making this book was an investigation of sorts, what did you discover?
You probably could learn more about a person by photographing everything around them than actually photographing them.
What is your favorite photograph in the book?
There is a photograph I took of my mother’s shirt air drying one afternoon. it was so windy and it was flying back and forth on a clothesline. She has been wearing the same style striped shirts for the past 30 years. and I could see it happened to be one her oldest shirts, with lots of mending on it.
What did your mom think of the book when she saw it?
I never showed it to her while I was working on it, but I did when I got the first version of it back from the printer. I don’t like showing people photographs of themselves while editing or in the middle of a project. It’s hard to judge the photo and not the way you look in it. It took her a few days to take it in. I would say she was overwhelmed at first but she told me afterward how beautiful she thought it was.
Are you ever nervous to show your latest work to your family members?
Sometimes. You never know with family.
I end each interview by asking photographers what they’re most proud of, despite all the accolades.
Publishing this book, I mean, not to give you the obvious answer, but it’s true. A book is a book. When you see your book, sitting on your bookshelf, looking at the spine next to other books that are like that. It took so long to get here. Undoubtedly that.