MFA graduates Jen Frase & Kalyn Hawkins took on a rarely approved subject for their thesis work - their children. Both created thesis portfolios of depth and beauty by opening their lives to critique and showing the strength and vulnerability of motherhood. Now their work is being shown in a Berkeley gallery and we asked them to share some of their process and friendship here.
Where did you meet and why did you decide to work together on an exhibition?
Jen: We’ve never actually met in person but I consider her one of my dear friends! We struck up a friendship in an online class years ago, and kept in touch ever since. It’s amazing how much one person enhanced my graduate school experience. I think it’s so important to find your people!
Kalyn: Jen and I met halfway through the MFA program here at the Academy of Art University. We were both starting to work on our thesis projects and I think having our work share the same themes made us gravitate towards each other. That, and she’s just a wonderful person! She has an incredible balance between melancholy and joy in her images, as well as an unforced, natural feel to her shots that has always inspired me in my own work. She makes it look effortless.
I began thinking about working with her when it became obvious how different our work looks and feels even though we both work with the same themes of motherhood and childhood. Presenting our work side by side is an amazing way to examine the identity of Mother. There is not one cookie cutter experience that we all share. The societal stereotype is that mothers are smiling and cookie-baking, and that raising children is only a joy. The uncanny truth is that there is pain, guilt, and fear mixed inside a mother as well. Childhood is also about skinned knees, tears, and shows us the transience of life—how quickly they grow up! It’s messy, funny, terrible, and joyful. I love that Jen and I approach the same ideas but in totally different ways. Our images look and feel so different, but both approaches are truthful.
When did you start photographing children and why?
Jen: Honestly, I started photographing children when I had my own. I had a demanding corporate career and stopped working when I gave birth to twins. I stayed home with them and took out my camera and my passion started there. I had always loved photography but never like this. I studied and read and practiced all the time. I soon realized I wanted more than just to photograph my kids. I wanted to say more, to do more, to express more, etc, and that’s when I applied to the Academy of Art University.
Kalyn: I started photographing children once I became a mother. I wanted to capture every moment of childhood, and then I realized how much I loved photography (and how much I needed to learn!) Early on, I photographed my children because they were there and beautiful subjects. Much later, my thesis project was more about photographing my children because I was afraid they wouldn’t be there. The images are about life’s fragility but they are also a visual reassurance that life and my children are incredibly strong in spite of how seemingly delicate they appear.
What format/process are you using for shooting and printing and how does this support your project?
Jen: My process isn’t too complex – I use a Canon 5D Mark III and two prime lenses – a 35mm f1.4 and an 85mm f1.2, simply to record the world around me. I use minimal post processing. My work is about my life, my kids, and unremarkable moments so the images don’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) altered too much. I have printed the work on Fuji Deep Matte paper and also Moab Entrada Bright White paper. Both of those papers are matte and rich and real – no luster and no texture. The papers feel like real life to me, so they support my concept. However, the most appropriate method of presentation for this work is a book. It’s essentially a story, and a book allowed me to present many, many images, interspersed with text to help tell my story, in a deeper, more detailed and more intimate way. I designed the book myself, and printed it through Paper Chase press. It is 158 pages long, 7” x 7” – small and beautiful.
Kalyn: I shoot with a Canon Mark II, and create digital negatives with Photoshop. I print with the Vandyke Brown process on a very delicate kozo. The choice to use an alternative process was easy—creating that nostalgic feeling with the brown tones comes across sincerer and even more truthful with the Vandykes. However, actually printing with this process was a challenge with the dark tones of the images and chosen paper. In the end, the earthy tones of the print, creating each print by hand, and the delicate yet strong paper creates even more meaning.
Do you offer limited edition prints? If so, how many prints do you limit your editions to and how did you decide on that number?
Jen: I sell prints but I don’t offer limited edition prints and that is because I see the work primarily as a book and want to focus on selling those. I only had 30 copies of the book printed, so those are technically limited edition. I have submitted the books to some larger publishers in hopes of mass-producing it one day, but even if that happens the original 30 books would still be considered the first run, signed by me, etc. I decided on 30 because it was a good middle ground number – relatively cost-effective, but I still received a significant volume discount. I had enough books to sell but I also didn’t want to have excess inventory. Plus I wanted to have the first run be “limited edition” so I didn’t want to produce too many.
How important was your MFA at the Academy and what did you learn?
Jen: Wow, such a huge question. It was monumental to me. First of all, I learned a ton about photography – the technical side and the visual side. What makes a compelling image, visually, and how do I literally do that with my tools? But then I learned how photography can be so much more – it can be art. It can be my vessel for expressing whatever it is I want to say to the world. The degree was about putting that all together – making technically sound, visually compelling images that also had meaning. I’d also say the program was critical in helping me develop my personal style. With so much access to decent cameras out there, it’s more important than ever to have a personal style and to have something to say. The school encouraged that and taught me how important that will be.
Kalyn: My MFA at the Academy is very important in allowing me to create meaningful images. I began the program creating empty but beautiful shots of my children, and ended the program creating images of my children that hold so much more nuance of emotion and that are actually self-portraits in a way. I learned a lot in the program academically but just as much about myself too.
What steps did you take when approaching the gallery and securing a show?
Jen: I have a long-standing relationship with Rob Reiter, the wonderful owner of the Lightroom Gallery in Berkeley. He’s printed work for me for years, and has taught me so much. We had discussed doing a show with my thesis for a year or two. When I finally graduated, I approached Rob and pitched him the idea of doing a joint show with my work and Kalyn’s thesis. He loved her work and was excited to do a show featuring us both. It makes sense because both of us have the same theme in our work– motherhood and childhood, but the interesting part is that the images are quite different. Not only do they look really different visually, but the entire tone of our bodies of work is vastly different. It’s what I love about Kalyn and what I love about this show – we’re similar people with similar interests, but we balance each other out. I admire the things she does in her work that I don’t do (and can’t) and she’s often told me the same about my work.
What are you creating now?
Jen: I’ve been so busy! I am now working for a prominent San Francisco family photographer – Nicole Paulson Photography. I specialize in in-home storytelling family photo sessions. It’s very much my style and allows me to continue shooting in a way that I love! As for personal work, I have a couple ideas stewing that are quite different from my thesis that I hope to start on this summer. One is a still life project and one is turning some of my photography into greeting cards. I have always had a love for irreverent, random photographs, so along with my odd sense of humor, I’m hoping to create something different!
Finally, I’m also working on teaching! We’re looking into running workshops through Nicole Paulson Photography and I’m also in some discussions to teach and assist with some large online photo communities that offer classes. I’m just trying to gain experience, while keeping my eyes and ears open for opportunities!
Kalyn: Right now, I am chasing inspiration, shooting self-portraits and more still life, and working on the cyanotype process. I’m also building a children’s portraiture portfolio and will start my own portrait business very soon.
You can see Jen & Kalyn's exhibit at the LightRoom Gallery (2263 Fifth Street, Berkeley). The gallery is open Monday - Friday from 9-6 and the show will be up from July 17 - August 17. Come meet Jen in person at the opening reception on July 22 from 2-5!