Infatuation with one entity has the ability to breed, expand, grow new limbs. It was a borderline-problematic obsession with model Nettie Harris that introduced us to the portfolio of Jessica Tremp, whose distinctive photography combines elemental textures and patterns with the stark human elements of nudity and malice. We had the opportunity to chat with the photographer about her style, influences and overall beautiful flair.
A number of your photographs tend to be (sometimes distorted) period pieces. Is there a particular time in history that you admire aesthetically? Or do you kind of choose an era that you find interesting at the time?
Not really. In fact, I prefer to aim for a timeless feel, hence nudity in my images, so clothing can’t dictate a certain time. There are however aspects of different eras that I find intriguing and sometimes they work themselves in. I don’t think I would ever shoot a fully and thoroughly designed specific era piece though.
In “Argument With Spring and Gauge”, I see an old standby of photography: the starkly minimal juxtaposed with the ornate qualities of nature. While this is something I like, it tends to come off as a bit easy and forcibly produced when done wrong. You’ve managed to use humanity and softness to create an entirely different blend of the two that breeds uniqueness. Was this an intentional use of that standby? Are you just aware of what’s interesting and able to keep things fresh? These do not have to be mutually exclusive.
I do tend to play around a little with darker and fuller vs. lighter empty backgrounds or spaces. Nature, in some form, always sneaks in to my images. It’s almost unavoidable. I’m not sure whether this follows any sort of trend though… perhaps subconsciously? I know that if I consciously tried to be trendy, I would always miss the boat. I do try to tackle things a little differently from my usual ways from time to time and not get stuck recreating the same thing again and again, while hopefully still maintaining my own personal style.
Speaking of the natural qualities of your work, do you feel more comfortable in nature where anything can happen, or do you like the control of a built set?
I definitely prefer to be somewhat spontaneous and working with what is around me. Nature is my greatest muse and she mostly leads the way for me.
Nudity can make a photo and not in a pornographic way, but more in a, “if there weren’t genitals/nipples in this, I wouldn’t think twice of it” way. However, I tend to not even recognize the nudity in your pieces as a separate entity. Is there a process you use to create a more organic representation of the human body as art?
The reason I like to use a nude figure quite often is because it has a timelessness, warmth and fragility about it that I really dig. To me, it’s never about the ‘bits’ but about skin representing an extension of the nature I like to pair it with.
I’ve seen photographs that tend to manipulate/mimic acrylic painting, pop art, and even street art to some degree, through clothing. Some of your works/collections (a few pieces in “Tierra Negra”, “Them”) have an almost oil-like quality, reminiscent of Victorian era painting. How is that affect achieved, and is it something you attempt to imitate, use, or distort?
No, I never set out wanting to shoot or edit towards mimicking a painting. Images usually lead their own way both during the shoot and at the editing stage. Sometimes this is more minimal and sometimes more involved, but I don’t usually know until I’m at the end of it.
In each photograph, your models tend to seem peaceful to a point that goes beyond staging. Are most of them friends? If not, how do you reach that level of comfort and solace?
Mostly I photograph myself purely so I don’t have to explain what I quite often can’t, but yes, I also am very lucky to have wonderful friends with open minds and adventurous spirits that allow me to play around with them. They understand that sometimes things just work and other times they don’t. That way there is no pressure. This is probably more important for me than for them. With the freedom to be able to fail and not feel like I’m letting anyone down, everyone feels more relaxed and natural.
I find the “Atomic Occasions” collection some of your best work—and I’m not buttering you up, just stating an opinion. It contains the best use of pattern I’ve seen in a long time. Was styling that one a lengthy/difficult process? Did you style it yourself? Do you ever work with outside stylists?
I don’t work with outside stylists, no. Not that I don’t like to occasionally collaborate, but I find if you bake the cake, you should mix the batter yourself. I like to create an image from beginning to end, even if I know that someone else might do a better job designing and propping a scene, otherwise I’d find it very hard to see it as my work at all.
“Atomic Occasions” was pretty simple though and certainly not a lengthy process. I found a few old dresses, ran around checking my cupboards for tablecloths or sheets, and picked some flora immediately around where I shot.
Have you done collaborations with other photographers? Your approach to themes leads me to believe that you’d work well with a group.
Years ago, when I became more seriously passionate about photography, I teamed up with a group of people that became close friends. We had all just either left a long-term partner, were about to or just generally going through a big life change. This shared interest became a little life raft. We would see each other most days a week and push each other’s boundaries, model for each other, and generally drink a lot of wine. Over time though, we all stood on our own feet again and mostly went our own ways.
Nowadays, I find it much harder to work well in a group. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, I don’t know. I just enjoy thinking something up, playing it out and chipping away at the final image without taking too much note of what anyone else thinks. It’s quite a luxury, really. That said, I also love planning extravaganzas with friends and discussing grand ideas animatedly with my husband. Maybe I don’t really know what I want at all.
The shots that have a high level of difference in color also have varying textures and patterns, but you’ve managed to bring them together into a portrait that seems one. Do some of the images just flow together naturally?
It either just works naturally and I like what I see, or it doesn’t.
A lot of the images in your collections have a macabre nature, yet there is almost a total lack of violence or malice. Are you not interested in those aspects and merely having fun with the creepiness of things? Is it something you’d consider in the future?
Melancholy is a minx and I love sifting through the grubby depths of her. To me though, it’s just a different form of beautiful, I don’t really see it as macabre, though I understand that it can come across that way. Violence and malice is intrinsically linked with being human I’m afraid, and this may very well be something exciting to explore down the track. So far it hasn’t really been at the forefront of why I like to create and what moves me.
I’m most interested in your approach towards each image you create. I can’t tell if you’re spontaneous, meticulous, rabid, or calm. Basically, what’s your general demeanor and does it change as you begin the photographing process?
Rabid and spontaneous. Definitely. I’ve bitten people on the shoulder with excitement before when a shoot has been going really well.
How much of your current work is fine art, and how much is commissioned? When and if you do commercial work, does the approach differ?
I feel like I’m starting to really get the hang of separating these two successfully this year, and it is something I did struggle with a before. At the moment it’s probably a healthy 50/50 [personal verses commercial]. I’m starting to make a part time living, mostly with weddings, and I still have the time and passion to create on my own terms. Because I have no control over the set up of a wedding, it has a certain freedom to it, where I have to activate a different approach to shooting. More secret-squirrel-editorial, find-a-new way-to-frame-it scenario, versus my personal work where it’s more about create, explain myself, think-about-it-for-a-minute kind of work.
I never intentionally set out to make a living with photography. I enjoyed it solely as a hobby. It has just slowly but surely developed into work as well as play. I feel very lucky that I haven’t had to force anything to get to where I am and that it was a very natural and therefore genuine progression and that the hard work has been mostly a great pleasure.
Do your influences stem more from your mind, your surroundings, or your predecessors? Speaking of which, who are some of your photographer crushes, work-wise?
I’d love to say entirely from my mind, but I think it’s impossible not to be influenced by other photographers. After all, every image we see (and nowadays, there are countless) imbeds itself somewhere in our brain and whether it’s a conscious effort or not, will somehow be recalled or reformed. But I don’t think it’s all about images. Music is very inspiring, as well of course as are many other things: uncomfortable social situations, sharing a bowl of pasta and conversation with someone you love, human destruction, the animal kingdom, the list goes on.
I still try to be original to some extent though and shoot from what triggers things inside for me. Being a copycat would be denying myself the pleasure to ever be proud of what I do. There are many photographers I truly admire. One image specifically, by Petrina Hicks of a budgie in a girl’s mouth. She constantly gets that slightly uneasy feeling of both discomfort and comfort in one for me. Gosh, she’s clever.
Interview by Cameron Patton