The Insider

January 14, 2016

Text by Caroline Cunningham

Joyce Tenneson’s photographs, whether of people or the natural world, are an intimate, searing, inward-looking search for meaning. 

The young woman leans forward in her chair and looks out at us with a serene and uncompromising gaze. It would be a mistake to confuse her ethereal beauty with fragility. Although her pose is somewhat guarded, she radiates a quiet confidence. The soft folds of drapery, the graceful tendril of hair that rests against her alabaster shoulder, and the suggestion of a monumental doorway in the muted background introduce elements of a classical world. But, again, there’s a contradiction here. While the image alludes to a mythical narrative, it is also, in its psychological complexity and forthright candor, entirely modern.

Suzanne in Chair first appeared on the cover of American Photo in 1986, and was later included in a book called Transformations, the second of fifteen books that Joyce Tenneson has published over the course of her extraordinary career. The impact of this image when it first appeared would be hard to quantify. As Tenneson has said, “It presented a different aesthetic…it united spirituality and sensuality and explored the delicate edge where that can exist.”

It marked a turning point for Tenneson toward intimate photographic explorations into the lives of others. The photograph also captured the attention of contemporary critics who had been dismissive, if not contemptuous, of work with such lyrical power.

In other words, Transformations was exactly what the title declared—images that defined a transformative moment in both the art world and in Tenneson’s artistic evolution, that drew upon everything that had come before and established the framework for all that was to follow.

Tenneson grew up on the grounds of a convent where her parents worked, in Weston, Massachusetts, and her images are infused with memories of the mysterious rituals that surrounded her childhood. The Polaroid Corporation hired her as a part-time model when she was in high school, but she soon realized that she wanted to be on the other side of the lens, and requested a camera of her own.

She began by taking photographs of herself and her friends; several years later, she earned a master’s in photography at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. While teaching at GW’s Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, Tenneson refined her visual signature by taking thousands of self-portraits. She says that these images—at once exquisite and searing—provided a lifeline at the time, even as they were dismissed as being too feminine and personal. This lack of acceptance, occurring concurrently with the end of her marriage, might have crushed others; instead, it propelled Tenneson forward, to New York.

And it was there that she found Suzanne, along with other models—often in chance encounters in the city—whom she photographed in a studio against enigmatic backdrops of her own creation.

Polaroid provided a grant to use its iconic 20 x 24 camera; Tenneson utilized its idiosyncratic qualities to create a series of images that combine a photograph’s immediacy with the expressionistic qualities of painting. In these portraits, the souls of her subjects are laid bare; they also reflect the soul of the artist herself. “The challenge is to find a way to present the inner journey, the self-discovery,” she says. “It’s something of an impossibility, of course. I’m trying to make visible something which by its nature can’t be seen.”

This challenge has always been central to Tenneson’s work, and it’s one she meets, again and again. The invisible is revealed in her luminous images.

Tenneson relocated to Rockport, Maine, following the sudden loss of her partner, film director David Jones, in 2008. She was searching for a new project when a view of trees outside her window at dawn inspired another series, and another book, called Trees and the Alchemy of Light, in which Tenneson records the spiritual nature of trees in transcendent prints she created by applying gold leaf to wood and then varnishing the photograph to the surface.

She travels the world to lead photography workshops, and her sixteenth book, Grace, Unpublished Polaroids, comes out next summer. She is always on a journey to uncover meaning in this world, and one senses that, for her, this journey is also a destination. •

Editor’s note: Joyce Tenneson is represented in New England by Dowling Walsh Gallery, Rockland, Maine, (207) 596-0084, dowlingwalsh.com. To see more of her work, visit tenneson.com.