“I don’t know how to take myself out of my work,” Janna Ireland explains in relationship to her photography. “It’s sort of impossible for me to make work other than the way that I make work: it’s always personal on some level.” Janna’s presence in all of her photos, either physically or mentally, is something somewhat ironic as she–a photographer–is always somehow in her photographs. The insertion of herself into her art isn’t out of egomania or an aspiring modeling career: she is working through place and through relationships and through her aesthetic to better understand them. The presence of herself in her work is a literal representation of this processing. It is a representation of an artist at work.
Janna is a relatively new Angeleno as she relocated to the city to attend UCLA’s prestigious MFA program. She was born and raised in Philadelphia and found photography as a form of expression handed down to her from her father. “My father is a photographer so I grew up around photographers,” she explained, noting high school is when the subject caught her. “When my dad graduated from high school, he joined the Army. This was during the Vietnam War, but he ended up going to the Army’s photography school and becoming a military photographer instead of going into combat. It just became what he did and he loved it–and it became something I loved, too.”
Photography was just a hobby until the latter portion of high school, which is when Janna started to take it seriously and get noticed for her work. “When I was in high school, I attended a Summer program called the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts,” she said (and mentioned that the program has since been defunded by the state). “It was a five week Summer camp for young artists, most of them entering their Senior year of high school. There were photographers, writers, musicians, and more. I was there for photography and that is when I got really, really excited about [the craft]. I used the photographs I took that Summer and that I’d been taking independently to get into the Department of Photography and Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I received my BFA.”
While in New York, Janna met her now-husband Joe who is a writer. The two traded pursuing MFAs, as they moved to Eugene, Oregon for him to get his masters and–once completed–relocated to Los Angeles for her to pursue hers. “I knew graduate school was something that I wanted to do–but for a long time I didn’t know if I wanted to study art or art education,” she said. “Finally, I decided to apply to MFA programs. Before I even thought about location, I thought about professors I wanted to work with. I applied to schools that have outstanding faculty. UCLA was my first choice–I was just lucky enough to get in!”
Janna is very glad to be in Los Angeles as she finds it to be conducive to her work. UCLA specifically is an excellent fit for her because the school’s photography professors are some of the best working artists in the art world. “The biggest draws for me here were the photography professors: Jim Welling and Cathy Opie,” she said.
Beyond Welling and Opie, the program has influenced her in unpredicted ways. You get to do studio visits with all of the professors and, essentially, dip your toes in various disciplines and practices. For Janna, this has resulted in making her work more tactile and physically more accessible. “In the years between college and grad school, I rarely made prints of my work. I would use a digital camera or shoot film and scan it and just look at the files on the computer, without any output. When I got here, I became really interested in making not only prints, but objects. I wanted to make something that was three dimensional and that was interactive. I ended up making the Altars To Southern California, which are meant for people to touch and open and close, to be more of a part of the space they’re in than just a photograph in a frame.”
Janna’s Altars are photographic tabernacles dedicated to Southern California. The exteriors are serene, beautiful distillations of LA iconography framed in soft basic colors: palm trees, a fruiting orange tree, and pool water. When you open an altar, color saturated corresponding photos frame striking, enigmatic self-portraits of Janna in an area related to the iconography that frames her.
Altars are a very complicated self-portrait expression that engage viewers and Janna’s environment–and they are so much more than simple, Southland representations of self. “I’ve done self-portraits for a really long time, on and off since high school. I was in the process of trying to break free of doing that. I didn’t want to be seen as someone who only does self-portraits, but when the idea for the Altars occurred to me I just had to make them. I wanted to use my husband’s grandfather’s house in Encino, which is the house that my mother-in-law and her brother and sisters grew up in. It’s a wonderful, beautiful place and I started to think of ideas for using the space in my photographs. All three of the Altars were shot there. I wanted to make work that was visibly about Southern California but, for me, also about my husband’s family, and becoming a part of my husband’s family. It’s about going to Encino every Sunday morning for brunch and inserting myself into this place.”
“Every time I move somewhere new, it’s important to me to make work about that place,” she says, continuing how Altars is a big representation of her work. “I made work about New York when I moved to New York, I made work about Eugene when I moved there, and I have been making Los Angeles work since I moved here. It’s an important part of processing a new place for me, seeing it through photographs and planning photographs around a specific location.”
“It’s definitely something that will grow, too. I always need to be working on more than one project. While I may always be making work that is clearly about Los Angeles, I’ll probably also be doing other things and processing the location in other ways. At Open Studios, for example, I showed a group of portraits which are about processing this community that I am a part of now. They’re of artists I go to school with and friends I have made while out here.”
The portraits she shared at Open Studios–these very intimate looks at friends and fellow artists, Untitled Portraits–were a big step for Janna in communication and representation as she literally pulled herself out of photos and placed in persons very close to her. She finds this to be a welcomed challenge. “Every few years I do a project that takes me out of my comfort zone and makes me interact with people,” she says. “In my last year of college I did a project where I posed in candid shots with strangers. It was really scary but I was happy with the work. The project was about being in the background of other people’s photographs. I would have to approach a person or a group of people and ask if they would be in my photo and then explain the project. That took a lot of courage and really helped me a lot.”
This courage gets at her being able to have people in situations and doing things that she usually stands for in her photos. “I’d like to get to the point where I’m comfortable asking people to do the same kinds of things that I do myself, in my self-portraits. Part of the reason I started doing self-portraits is that I had such a hard time asking people what I wanted.”
Her Open Studio portraits are a step into this direction of using people close to her and beyond as subjects. “I’m trying to learn how to put people at ease and manufacture intimacy. With the portraits, the camera is about a foot and a half from the person’s face. I am trying to get them to really look at me, and give me an opportunity to really look at them. Each session lasts about ten minutes. The trick is figuring out how to make an honest picture of someone right after they sit down–how can we quickly become comfortable with each other, and how do I make a good photograph of that?”
Janna is seeking to answer that question, which is becoming less and less difficult because of the supportive and surrounding community. And, when you zoom out of this specific community, you see that it is the Los Angeles art community, which she very much enjoys. “I think of the art scene here as being much more accessible than the art scene in New York,” she says. “It just seemed too big and closed off. But here, I sort of fell right into knowing people and having different shows to go to. It seems like a place where it is much more possible to become involved in art: there is still work to be done. New York felt so fully formed.”
She also sees people are more active, setting their mind on goals and seeing them through. Students of art in Los Angeles have a bit of an advantage in the local art world, too. “There are people who are students and run their own galleries. Students are always showing work and finding new ways to show work and do collaborative projects with other artists. I didn’t have work in any shows between 2008 and 2012…and now I’m in two shows that opened on the same night! It’s really exciting. That’s another thing about being here: before, I didn’t really understand how people began showing work. I didn’t understand how to make connections with people. Here, people are doing things and ask you to be a part of them.”
“I think it’s something that is possible in other places,” she continues, detailing that the spirit of making may not be unique and confined to Los Angeles only. “It’s possible in New York, but people are being priced out of spaces. In New York, at least as a student, I felt as though no one was interested in helping anyone else out. Everyone was in it for themselves and, here, it’s so much about community, about doing things with your friends and making new friends.”
Janna very much enjoys Los Angeles but, realistically, it is a place she is tied to for school. She is very aware that this place is semi-impermanent for her. “I’d love to stay here,” she explains. “My husband actually wants to go back to school, which means we may be leaving Los Angeles right after I graduate. We hope to stay in California, at least. Wherever I end up, I want to teach. That’s really important to me. Part of UCLA’s graduate program is working as a teaching assistant. I got a chance to teach for the first time this year, and I loved it. I want to be a teacher for the rest of my life.”
“Honestly, I don’t really know a whole lot about what happens when you graduate,” she says, shifting her voice from fine artist to a student who has a tiny ominous cloud above her head, raining questions about the future on her. “People just start looking for studios and continue working, I guess. A few recent UCLA alumni have work in Made in L.A., and others are showing work here and there. I know a few years ago people were graduating and being snatched up by galleries, but with the economy as bad as it is, that’s happening to fewer and fewer people. I have no idea how it’s going to be when I graduate. I hope that I’m able to live a life where I can continue to work as much as I want to, whether or not anyone ever actually looks at my photographs again.”
For more on Janna, take a look at her website as well as her blog. You can catch her work at BOOM as well as GLAMFA at Cal State Long Beach, which opens August 26. Janna is always interested in working with new people on her photographs: feel free to get in touch with her to have a portrait made. You can send her a note here.