Studio- Karen Graffeo

Fear Not

by Brett Levine     Photo by Jerry Siegel

Karen Graffeo

“I have always considered photography a collaborative process, but I’ve always also thought that performance and installation are at the core of my work,” says photographer, educator and multi-media installation artist Karen Graffeo. She is best known for her ongoing, 11-year project of documenting Europe’s Roma (the Gypsies).  “Photography is both direct and specific, and it has given me the opportunity to intimately participate in Roma cultural issues,” Graffeo says. Now she is actively engaged in exploring ways to make these issues, and her engagement with them, more participatory.

Graffeo makes these remarks as she outlines a complex new project that blends images, text, composition and technology into what can only be described as an immersive experience.  “I am working with a range of creative artists based in the U.S. and overseas, including the composers Rusty Banks and Giovanni Mazzini, as well as a scratch DJ based in Romania,”  she says. An early manifestation of the work included a series of lenticular images installed in an exhibition space in Italy, with a sound component that was activated by motion sensors when visitors entered the space.

“This process actually began when I asked Rusty Banks if he might be able to place contact microphones in some of the spaces where I was photographing the Roma,” Graffeo says. “I knew that the surroundings were key to their, and my, understandings of space and place, and I wanted to think about how I could add that experience to the works.”  These sounds formed the basis of Graffeo’s expanded approach. “I’ve been thinking of my new work in terms of having the formal structure and components of opera,” she says, laughing.  “I’ve taken the diaries that I’ve written while working with the Roma, and passages from that form the underlying story, or the libretto, of the work.  Now the score to the work includes an aria which a soprano sings, but there are no discernible words.  I’m simply trying to capture the overwhelming space, and soundtrack, of something that simply can’t exist just in photographs, or just in words.  My experience with the Roma has been so expansive, yet so intimate.”

Also unexpected is the access to technology that Graffeo has had overseas.  “My most recent installation works were made possible by 3D scanning and laser-etching technology that was far more accessible in Romania than it has ever been so far here,” she says.  The works, a series of laser-engraved, three-dimensional portraits coupled with text, again drawn from her journals, mark a physical continuation of her ongoing emphasis on the body.  “What I found so unexpected was the willingness there was to simply think of the figure as a subject, rather than an object,” she says.  This openness gave Graffeo simple, unimpeded access to both the technical expertise and the models she needed to make the works.  “What I’ve been discovering during this process is that the types of imaging and modeling technology that I would like to work with are prevalent in science, medicine and engineering, but we haven’t yet really made it accessible or considered its possibilities for anything outside design,” she says.

Graffeo does not regard her explorations of technology as being in any way removed from her love for, and continuation of, her documentary photography.  “You know, of course, that in many ways technology stands in for, and can actually be, intimacy,” she says. “A phone conversation allows you to share an experience with someone who isn’t physically present with you.  I love the idea that I can interpret the human form with a scan, an etching or an engraving in a way that is different from, but integrally linked to, lighting a subject and capturing their image with a camera.”

Ultimately, it is the ability to share experiences and knowledge that drives Graffeo to pursue her passions, whether photographically or through technology or collaboration.  “I try to make all my work focus on dispelling a fear of otherness,” she says. “I want all my art to participate in a social and educational process.”

One Response to “Studio- Karen Graffeo”

  1. Liesa Cole says:

    Verrrrrrrry cool.

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