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At just 30 years old, Boston photographer Alicia Savage possesses remarkable clarity of vision and is earning deserved attention. She recently concluded a one-woman exhibit at the Griffin Museum of Photography (at satellite Digital Silver Imaging gallery, 9.23.13 – 12.3.13), for which an accompanying monograph, “Savage Beauty” was published. Currently, her work can be viewed in a group show at 555 Gallery in South Boston (“Ravishing”, 3.27.14 – 5.3.14) and also at the PRC, in conjunction with the upcoming Flash Forward Festival (“Fall Back, Spring Forward”, 4.29.14 – 5.17.14). Savage has attracted an audience for her surreal and contemplative self-portraits. Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Alicia to talk about her photographic evolution and trajectory.
Elin: I’m interested in how you developed your unique vision. Were you always passionate about photography?
Alicia: It’s actually a pretty circuitous path to where I am right now, but each step has taught me something valuable. I started out interested in Graphic Arts but, due to the condition of the economy while I was an undergraduate at Northeastern University, I switched my major to Business and minored in the Arts. I graduated into a struggling job market, so I was excited to land a position at a highly respected Boston accounting firm. I got a great business perspective there and, with 60-80 hour work weeks, developed a deeply ingrained work ethic. But I had no time for any type of creative outlet, which I missed dearly.
Elin: How did you compensate for the lack of creativity in your life?
Alicia: Well, I couldn’t, there was no time available. And I was also slowly realizing that my strengths were not naturally compatible with the accounting industry, which gradually lead me to a move back into the arts. Although that transition had its difficulties, it gave me a chance to take stock of my life and capitalize on my strengths.
Elin: Was photography somewhere in that calculation?
Alicia: Not right away. I used my Graphic Arts background to get a job doing graphic design work for the Boston commercial photographer, Eric Levin, of Elevin Studios in Fort Point. Then, I started assisting on shoots in the studio and later some event photography. About five months after starting at Elevin Studios, I bought my first digital camera.
Elin: Did the photographers at Elevin Studios teach you photography?
Alicia: Working with the team at Elevin Studios was and continues to be an incredible learning experience. They are now among my closest friends and colleagues. When I first started assisting at Elevin Studios, I was exposed to almost every aspect of the photography industry. But I realized I needed to gain more experience behind the camera, in order to transition from an assistant to a photographer, so I enrolled in the Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts (CDIA) photography program, where I was able to learn more extensively about the technical side while working days as a photographic assistant.
Elin: That sounds like a great position from which to launch a commercial career.
Alicia: It’s true. While at CDIA, I became friends with Randall Armor, who headed up the program at the time; he and I shared common perspectives regarding our work and he became a valuable mentor and friend. I learned to combine my digital photography skills and business background to start my own business. For over two years, I shot weddings, corporate portraits and product photography for Rue La La across the street from Elevin Studios, where I still share space with other photographers.
Elin: How did this lead to the development of your fine art shooting style?
Alicia: Firstly, I realized I needed to start experimenting with my ideas to discover my direction within my work. Secondly, I’m a pretty private person and I felt more creative when working alone. Furthermore, I have complete discretion and control over the photographic process when I’m working by myself. And lastly, photographing myself proved to be very cost effective and efficient at times. My first series, “Grounded”, grew out of these initial studio experiments; some of those photographs are currently in the “Ravishing” show at 555 Gallery.
Elin: Is that why you continued to make self-portraits?
Alicia: Yes, my creative photography evolved generically as a way of following my own artistic growth and philosophical development. As photographers, we’re not usually in our images and this became a way for me to track my progress. Self-portraits allow me to better analyze my motivations; they’ve permitted me to start moving away from trying to fulfill others’ expectations and into my own artistic vision.
Elin: What was the impetus behind your more current bodies of work? Your photographs look pretty different from those first studio shots.
Alicia: It started when I was drawn to a workshop on levitation taught by Brooke Shaden in NYC. That gave me a huge conceptual leap in technique and, combined with my proficiency with Photoshop, it brought me to the realization that I could create any idea, anywhere, which when you think about it is pretty freeing. That workshop led to the creation of “Light Breeze”, still one of my most popular photographs.
Elin: And then your work went from the studio to the great outdoors. Did you develop a case of wanderlust?
Alicia: My primary interest was to invest time in discovering who I am and documenting the process as a photographer. I asked, “what would happen if I followed my curiosity and trusted its path completely?” That became my “Destinations” series. I started taking spontaneous solo road trips, culminating in a 3-week sojourn to my ancestral home in Nova Scotia. I had no idea what I would find there, but I was fascinated by the landscape and the forgotten stories of my maternal grandmother’s family farmhouse. She was only in her 20’s when she moved to Boston – my age at the time – and it was a great revelation to relate to my grandmother as a young woman. My photograph, “Head in the Clouds” reflects that self-exploration and self-discovery. The “Destinations” portfolio is about self-awareness, realizing where my innate interests lie and listening to where that voice inside leads me, even if it initially seems irrational or unexpected.
Elin: But you didn’t limit yourself either to traveling or even to color work.
Alicia: When I found myself burning out from all the computer time spent in post-production, I created my “Still Life” series outside a cottage in Maine. I spent a lot of time there last summer. Each morning I would wake up before dawn, when it was serene and a glow on the horizon was just beginning to appear beyond the lake. I can tell you the water was freezing at times, but I was determined. I shot in B&W in what felt like a simple and balanced process. I found it a useful mental exercise in diverging from the way I normally work, but it was also about self-discipline and taking my job seriously. Realizing I could acclimate to the cold water, that the jolt of it would eventually fade.
Elin: Is that how your “Morning Light” series developed?
Alicia: “Morning Light” is more like a travel journal for me, capturing myself consistently in the morning light in each new space where I awaken. It’s a series that may not hold as much interest for others, but it’s one of my favorites because the images hold the memories of so many experiences for me. My goal is to have it as an ongoing project throughout my lifetime and, one day, put together a collection I can look back on.
Elin: What’s next for you? Do you think you are at a natural turning point in your work?
Alicia: I’m feeling ready and eager to move beyond my current work and discover something new. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into my work and process these past few months. I’m interested in further expanding and developing concepts beyond my usual scope of organically developed, self-reflective focus. I’ll probably still work mostly outdoors in natural light and continue with self-portraits, but in a more structured way. I may be less surrealistic…I’m actually curious, we’ll see!
Elin: Me too! Your work has a consistently spacious feeling, balancing the natural environment with surreal compositions. Color and mood are well matched, notable even in your B&W series, “Still Life”. I think your most successful photographs possess an expansive and contemplate feeling; each one seems to be an open question. Have you noticed any trends in what people are drawn to in your work?
Alicia: I’ve noticed that people seem attracted to my photographs where it’s difficult to tell how it was made. But I think the biggest factor is that everyone can relate to the process of self-discovery.
For information about the current exhibit at 555 Gallery, featuring work from “Grounded” and “Still Life”, go to: http://www.555Gallery.com/exhibitions
For information about the upcoming Flash Forward Festival exhibit at PRC, go to: http://www.FlashForwardFestival.com/exhibition/fall-back-spring-forward/
The monograph “Savage Beauty” is available through the Griffin Museum: http://www.griffinmuseum.org/blog/product/alicia-savage/