by Hannah Bressler
Jenny Hannah Roche is an art photographer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work is feminist educated and often works within fantastical narratives. Roche crafts intimate portraits and magical scenes with elements of mysticism, sensuality, and embracing The Other in oneself. She has a deep reverence for the power of the female form.
As a longtime fan of Jenny’s work, I finally cornered her at a late night Halloween party. We stood in the back of a film room which was silently playing an old Addam's Family episode against one wall. People walked in and out during the conversation. Jenny often stopped to hug friends or take photos of their amazing costumes.
Hannah Bressler: At what age did you decide you were an artist?
Jenny Hannah Roche: When I was like 4 or 5 I told my mom I wanted to be an Astronaut Artist. My mom was like "What does that mean?" and I was like, "Well, they're gonna pay me and I'm gonna paint the planets. In space." (laughs). Yep, that was me when I was really young.
HB: Did you always know it would be photography?
JHR: I tried a lot of different mediums and I enjoyed them all, but it was weird, what happened once the camera came into play. I'm not an inherently mathematical person but I choose a really technical medium then worked in the darkroom for over 10 years. There are things that come naturally to me but understanding this process was a labor of love and a lot of patience.
HB: Let's talk about photographing women, and what that's like. You take a lot of nudes, right?
JHR: I take a lot of portraits. It's so complicated. There's such a great responsibility. There's this part of me drawn to the allure of the surreal or the fantastical worlds of it, but I'm also sort of tethered to this responsibility of what the female image means in the world that we live in. It's undeniable, to talk about the power of the female form in visual art. It’s definitely an important component I think about a lot.
I like to really think about my participation in it when I photograph a woman, about creating a space where I can encourage someone to feel in their body and their power, and to capture it. When that happens something transcends there, something magical happens.
Party person: (enters the room smiling) Are you guys doing fortune telling in here? Oh!! (After some brief hugs, she finishes.)
JHR: --something magical can happen there. That's why the process is so, so, so important. There's a lot that I think about when I think about portraying women. I mean a lot of the times they're already bringing to the table, like, "I'm not photogenic." "I hate having my picture taken." "I don't like the way that I look." So I’m walking into that, and wanting to make beautiful images that they respond to, but also creating a space in which we can kinda dismantle that internal belief. That's a big thing though. It’s hard to do.
Sometimes I just want to shoot fantasy too. Sometimes I just want to do that.
HB: You also shoot something called pillow books too. Can you explain that a bit?
JHR: Yes! I make these books with my subjects. It was inspired by Sei Shōnagon, a Japanese female writer who published a book in the 11 century. She was a lady in waiting to the Empress in Kyoto. It reads like a journal with poems, thoughts, observations and comparisons. This book also inspired the film "The Pillow Book” by Peter Greenaway. He is highly influential in my work. These two pieces of work inspired my projects from the beginning. For me, the erotic began in the written word so the idea of marrying the two in a less homogenized way became of great interest. The erotic and the personal narrative is so wildly varied for everyone that it really spills over in what we call erotic shoots or images. The idea of creating a love letter to oneself, or to another, in images and allowing the subject to explore where that goes, is the core of it. Some people pick more traditional scenarios while with others I draft a specific narrative with direct symbolism. The process of creating it collaboratively becomes as much of a part of it as the final book.
I do think there is a poetry of seduction and strength that is really absent from erotic photo collections of women, or all people, for that matter that I'm looking for.
HB: They’re so beautiful. I like the ones you have up of couples too.
JHR: Thank you. (smiles.)
HB: Can you talk me through your education background with photography?
JHR: I started as a painter. I took a painting class with an amazing teacher who was a tightrope walker . My first class was all black and white, we weren't allowed to use color. And so, I was only 16 or 17, I didn't have a camera yet. He told us, "Once you really understand the language of shadow and contrast, then I'll let you use color."
So we were doing black and white, black and white, every time. Then, responding to a painting of mine, he brought me a photography book about Francesca Woodman. It was amazing. There's a documentary called "The Woodmans" about her. She was really young, with an incredible body of work, and ended up committing suicide. And a lot of her work was about body image, a lot was about sexuality. This was in the 1980s. And that book, I still have it. It's still on my coffee table.
He said "Your paintings remind me of her work." I saw them and then that was it for me. That was the last time I painted. I started taking photos and working in the darkroom that same term.
Then--- Oh hey! How you doin'?
Other Party Goer: Honey, you look so cuuuuuuuute!!!
JHR: Aw, so romantic. Huh? Mm? (flirty shoulder shrugs.)
Other Party Goer: Stoooop it!! Just stop it!! (laughing).
JHR: And uh, then I photographed her a lot. (Points to another person across the room.) I've been photographing Haliey since she was like 15 or 16.
(People come into to offer drinks.)
JHR: No, I'm good. But uh--
(More people wander in.)
Party Person: Cigarettes?
JHR: No, I don’t smoke anymore. For real. But hey, I'm getting interviewed right now. Great to see you though! Aww...Hi guys. (laughs and hugs people.) So anyway, I was doing photography stuff in Eugene and started to really get into it. And then one of my teachers pulled me aside, asked for a couple prints of mine for her personal collection and said "I think you should really pursue this. I wouldn't tell you that if I didn't think so. I think you should go to, like an actual art school." I was like 17 or 18 at the time.
(More people wander in. These ones are covered in silver body paint.)
JHR: Hi guys! Oh my GOD! Let me see some of that! Oh my God, you look amazing! Let me get that! (Pulls out her camera and starts shooting.)
Silver Lady: Look at my boyfriend too. Isn't he so cute?
JHR: What?? Ohhh. Amazing. Hold on. (still shooting.) Wait, wait, hold the boobie pastie again. Up close. So good.
Silver Man: Like this?
JHR: That's good. He's in the background. Can you come forward? More, more. Yes. Can you come up. Put this in your teeth?
(Silver Man bites a silver tassel on the pasty.)
JHR: So good. Alright, good to see you!
Anyway, I was a Woman's Studies Major at the time. I was gonna transfer to University of Oregon. This was in about 1999 or 2000. So I put it in the back burner for a while, but I held onto her words. And then I came up to Portland, and was here for like 2 years, and then I went to PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art). Then I met this great Female prophet---
HB: Those come into my life too. (laughs)
JHR: Yeah, they do. So, this prophet was a woman named Sally Schoolmaster. She was the head of the photography department of PNCA. When we met. I came in with all my bravado and all, you know, naked girls in the bathtubs in all, and at my first critique she fucking ripped me to tatters. I was in tears.
HB: What was she ripping you over?
JHR: Practice, and technique. This is the woman that hugged me at graduation and she handed me the photo laureate award for my thesis work. She basically broke me down and then built me back up.
I would bring in an image of girl that's covered in flour in the bathtub, and for me I was purely in love with the imagery without understanding the translation or story. And then she'd hang out with me and she really wailed on me about technique. But you know, that's where I learned my technique, from her.
,HB: And you also were in New York?
JHR: Oh yeah, that was her too. My junior year I had done some projects and gotten recognition in Portland. She made me apply, then I got accepted into The New York Studio program where they pick 17 artists from the United States. I was there for six months. We got a 24-hour access studio in Brooklyn with 17 other artists. Total freedom. You have a studio and get to work on stuff you want to do for six months. Different people from the art world there would come in and do studio critiques. Basically every week it was, "What shows do you want to go to?" And it was all paid for. It was unbelievable. Really one of the best experiences of my life. But it poisoned me, in a sense because I moved back to New York later and was like, "It is fucking hard to just exist here, yet alone make work."
(Other people wander in.)
JHR: I'm getting interviewed right now! Wait, look at that. Little Girl in the corner, hold the Coca-Cola. Yep. Have a lil' sip. Ok, I gotta go close to do this. Excuse me. (She shoots for a while.)
HB: So, when you get an idea for a project, like The Packrat Photo Series, what’s that art process like? How do you fit all the elements together?
JHR: You know, I'm fixated with the narrative. I'm a storyteller. The relationship with photography with me is the written word coming alive in the photography. The story of the Packrat is part abstract and part history. It’s the story of my friend growing up in this moldy, wet, fucking, Pacific Coast, poor kid, hippie hovel where there's like, you know, packrats. So there’s that part, growing up in that environment. And the idea of this creature that has this sort of fantastical obsession with like, ornate, shiny, trash.
So we have the story of this horrible rodent transforming its world by building these nests or altars of beautiful garbage. Making art starts to seed community and true friendship. The girl loses her path and is living in a cold, sterile, urban space and has a primal memory, or these visions or dreams and then goes back to the beginning.
She’s become really clean and sterile. While the Packrat is something sort of dirty and mangy, but it’s about all the rat collections and it’s about embracing this otherness. So she starts to have these visions...
HB: The Packrat is a part of her?
JHR: Yeah, the part of her that is the Packrat is the part that can find others and community. She goes on this adventure where she has to enact a ritual that’s outside of her more sterile life, and she does that and it starts, like a time machine that takes her back into a place where she can connect to others again. It’s the opposite of a princess story, it’s the story of the princess who turns back into the rat or toad. Then she’s with her Rat-party-people and embracing all their “errrhhh.” (Jenny makes a rat noise.)
It’s greatly informed by my relationships with my life long friends and people like that who all grew up in similar environments, a feeling like.. a bit like ‘the dirty kid’ like, ‘the hippy kid’. So this story embraces ‘The Other’ part of us. And there’s something about The Packrat that celebrates that connected part of us, connected to each other through magic and art and experience. My work is fully and directly inspired by many of my life long friends.
HB: You also, along with a lot of other photographers, make money shooting weddings. And you’re also telling a story as a wedding photographer. Tell me what that process is like.
JHR: Yeah, it’s strange because it’s not just photography. The culture that we live in says that an event is not important unless it’s documented, that’s our life. So our documented life becomes birthday parties, weddings, etc. So, being part of that, [as a photographer] you’re not just showing up to take pictures, you’re showing up to this event that has been built up in people’s minds as epic. My point of entry is trying to tell a story about the day, and that means immersing myself in the space with everyone. I try to be choosy about who I do that with. Because when I’m in it I feel a lot of what’s going on with everybody. I did a couple weddings this summer where I-- totally got high off it, the energy of the people I was around, they’re amazing, I’m just riding on that wave of ‘they love each other, their families are so excited, they’re all happy.’ Awww...
HB: What kind of projects have you done more recently and what are you excited about in the future?
JHR: The big project that I’m working on right now is about the history of women in my family and how we came West. It’s a big part of my personal identity, these stories that I’ve been given about the women that came before me. The woman I was named after, Jenny Hannah, played piano in silent movies and had a fiery personality. There was a big energy in my family about these powerful women, and the stories of these matriarchs. I don’t have a whole lot of images of them but I’ve been told these stories over and over again.
HB: It get the feeling there’s a lot of grandeur in these stories.
JHR: Oh yes. The only picture my mother has in her dining room is a giant picture of Nettie Hollinger, which is my great, great, grandmother, and she got married…
She was 17 and got married off to this big, lavish, drunken lout who owned a big ranch. She had six of his kids. He was a drunk and he was bad to her and he beat her. And she had enough one night, she hit him over the head with a cast iron pan. It knocked him unconscious. She loaded up almost all of his stock, all of his cows and half his stable of horses, and all her children too, and left him. All this when she was still really young. She rode from where she was to further west, and set up a separate business and flourished.
This is how we review women in my family. There’s this undercurrent. People hear it and are all like, “That’s where you get all your…” Well, you know. There’s a lineage of this power. And she only lives through stories, and there’s just one image of her. That was the first one I wanted to started working with. I want to take pictures of me reviving the female ancestors in my family and dress in period clothing and have me with my cast iron pan, and five kids and the horses and all that, and tell the story.
The cast iron pan starts to get tied into things as the story evolves. My mom has this really intense relationship with her cast irons, well, ALL the women in my family have a really intense relationship with their cast iron pans. They’re all really weird about it. I didn’t really get it when I was a kid. But now I’m starting to see why.
For instance, when we moved my grandmother out of the house when my grandfather died and we’re packing everything up, we were in the car, she said, “Hold on, hold on.” She was, you know, experiencing some heartache and dementia then, and then she had to go back in the house. She said, “I need my pans.” “But we have pans where we’re going, Mom!” But she said, “No.” And she went in and got her cast iron. That’s what she takes with her.
I liked the idea of this particular cast iron but also, I’m fascinated by what cast iron really is, which is seasoned. The pan is built with layers and layers and layers of seasoning, of history and the DNA of our stories.
Right now I’ve got four or five film stills I’d like to make. My mom is in there too. I have this flannel shirt I keep in the closet. I have a picture of her breastfeeding me with it. I can’t really fit in it because her boobs were small, but I keep it because I want to immortalize her in a picture too. It’s like getting to step back in time and sit with my great-grandmother, and my great-great grandmother and say, “Given the freedoms that I have now, I’m gonna do you justice. And thank you and honor you, thanks for providing me the path for me here to express myself, and I want to give a fucking shoutout, because you were awesome and so brave in a time that was really fucking hard for women .”
HB: I want to talk a little bit about artist anxiety. When you get excited about a project and start working on it, what hits you? Is it like, “Crap, I don’t know if I can pull this off?” or is it more “This is gonna take a shit-ton of work.” Walk me through.
JHR: Oh, I mostly get really excited. I have a lot of ideas, I have hard time boiling it down sometimes because I get lots of different projects and a lot of different ideas spinning at the same time. Generally I make something, I am so excited and obsessive, and then it’s done. And then give me eight hours with it and then I might hate it. I mean, I question it a lot. And then I’m on to the next thing. It’s always a thought that it could be better. Which I think is not a bad thing to do. Because I look at work now that I loved, and I’m not ashamed of, but a part of me is like, “Oh god.” This also makes me feel good actually, because my standards are raising. Always.
HB: Who are you learning from a lot right now? The artists you’re absorbing things from?
JHR: That’s hard. Well, Marina Abramovic, she’s a big one. She’s amazing.
HB: Yeah, I love her. Worship her.
JHR: And Jeanette Winterson novels. A lot of female writers. Sally Mann is, beginning to end, my artist crush. I want her life. She lives on this farm and makes these glass negatives that are incredible. And the way she talks about art and tell stories about her history and space, wow.
Her book, “Immediate Family”, really caused a stir with the religious right in America, but it is just a book, an incredible book of beautiful photographs about her children and the land. They are some of the most stunning compositions I have ever seen and they emote a emotional quality that's really otherwordly. I can feel the temperature and hear the sounds of her world when I get lost in her images. I’m reading her autobiography right now, “Hold Still” and can’t say enough about how she inspires me. There was an NPR interview with her recently that I really loved.
HB: I do want to ask you about nudity in your shots and how you see pornography. I wonder if you would ever shoot porn? I could see you doing that, because of your photographic eye, and also because you also understand sensuality and people’s humanity in it.
JHR: I love that and I kinda want that too, but I feel like the responsibility is so huge. I feel like we’re at a really weird place with porn. We’re at an adolescence in the age of media where we’re in an engaging, exciting, amazing place with the internet, and we have access to everything we want. It becomes like a moral question of how much is too much? There’s such an abundance of visual information about sexuality and every fetish or kink imaginable is available at your fingertips on your smartphone. As human beings, we should almost work through that a little bit slower than what we have access to, especially with adolescents. I think all this abundance of sexual info is so heavy and confusing for so many people, for how our brains perceive reality and fiction. And with pornography, as a culture we are just so fucked up about it. The idea of me doing my own? I’m not sure yet. There’s a lot of shit we gotta rewrite. It’s gotten weird.
HB: Do you think we’re, as a culture, pornographically overstimulated?
JHR: We’re just overstimulated in general.
HB: Are you thinking, “How could we even engage with porn in a meaningful way?”
JHR: Well, we’ve had so much shame, as a culture, about it. So, marrying that shame with access to unlimited imagery about our shame… It’s a really weird thing. And all of us have gotten junked out on the fact that we can have access to this stuff, all the time, whenever we want. It’s just too much, I think.
HB: So you’re not thinking of making porn?
JHR: No, I want to. But I think that this is actually practice for the big conversation that I’m terrified of having. If I make porn I have to be really conscious about a bunch of things. I’m not there yet.
HB: Any advice you would go back and give to your younger self?
JHR: Don’t question yourself so much. You're gonna be fabulous. That’s it.
HB: Thank you so much. I can’t wait to show your work. Your eye is a gift to the world.
Find more of Jenny’s work at www.jennyhannahroche.com
Or write to her at email@example.com
All of these photos were used with the artist’s permission.