Jennifer Bishop snapped her first photo in 1965, when she was eight, using a Kodak Instamatic she’d received for her birthday – a shot of her doll, housed protectively in the mailbox during an Ohio snowstorm. Though I’ve not seen this early image, the child’s-game composition seems distantly to foretell Jennifer’s trademark documentary style — quirky and deeply humanistic — her compassionate knack for capturing people, often moms and children, in character- and circumstance-revealing moments. Take “South Baltimore,” for instance, the photo on our main page, in which a serious-looking little girl wearing dark nail polish presents her baby doll to the camera, as if it’s a real child, a small boy two steps behind clutches a toy pistol, and a grown woman seen through the banister looks on expressively, holding her own real live baby.
I’ve been a fan of Jennifer’s photography since I discovered it a few years ago, but of course she’s been working as a photojournalist in Baltimore since 1975.
One of several Hopkins students who started Baltimore’s City Paper, she published a weekly stand alone photo in every issue for 17 years (1977-1994). These photos were comprised of “small, revelatory moments that define the strangeness of everyday life…and seek to chronicle the soul of Baltimore,” wrote Glenn McNatt in The Baltimore Sun. She also worked as a staff photographer for The News American, and since 1981 has freelanced, shooting pictures for a variety of magazines, agencies, and institutions all over the world. In 2006, she started Maryland’s first Heart Gallery, a photo exhibit to promote the adoption of children with special needs. Recently, she has focused on projects that advocate for better lives for people with disabilities, such as the award-winning “What’s Possible.”
Photographer Henry Horenstein notes, “Jennifer Bishop’s beautifully crafted photographs manage to blend sympathy, optimism, and even humor while describing everyday events and critical conditions. She is one of my favorite photographers.”
Tour 27 of Jennifer’s favorite images up close and personal starting this week. From November 14 through January 6, “30 Years of Photographs by Jennifer Bishop” hangs at the Chesapeake Gallery at Harford Community College in Bel Air. Don’t miss the reception and talk (including Powerpoint presentation) this Wednesday, November 16, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
We talked to the artist about her photo show, her philosophy, and what’s she working on lately.
Fells Pt. Mother, 1981
How would you describe your eye, your best strength?
I’m good at spotting unlikely beauty and moments that have some element of quiet drama or suspense, but I can’t conceptualize or make those things up. I look for them in real, ordinary life, documentary style. I love pictures that make you want to look twice, because they’re more than the sum of their parts. Sometimes there’s a little uneasiness to the scene. I often don’t know if I captured that until later when I have more time to look at what I got. I’m working in the realm of photos that are journalistic, not fantastic or surreal or digitally manipulated.
What made you want to keep taking photos after your age-eight doll composition?
Well, I’ve long since lost the doll, but I still have her photo. And nosiness drives me. I’d like to see everything, especially the things I’m not invited to. My camera is my ticket to many sights, and it can shield me and help me endure scenes that are intense, and let me hold onto moments, places and people I love. So how could I not keep taking photos? Specifically the street photos are so fun for me. On a hot summer’s day, there is a lot of life to be seen out on a Baltimore street. I love driving around not knowing what I’ll find.
Teenaged Mother, 1992
Which are some favorite images from each of the three decades you’ve been working?
In the early 80’s I took a picture of a mother dangling her baby across her lap which I affectionately refer to as the Fell’s Point Pieta. The look on the mother’s face, the turned away man, the half-hidden sibling, and the stain on the wall…all hint at a darker side to a sacred kind of love. As do two other similar images from the next two decades: a teenaged mother lying on her bed in an embrace that almost crushes her son…and a Remington “Pieta” from 2011, of a mother holding her daughter in a wading pool. I like the intricate mother/child dynamic in each of these.
How has your POV or way of making photos changed over time, if at all?
Always, I’ve felt affection for my subjects, but I think my earlier photos were more cynical, funny one-liners, and now they are warmer, sadder and/or more hopeful. The older I get, the more I see people as complicated and sympathetic.
What is the most challenging thing about being a photographer, technically and emotionally?
Technically: There are endless mistakes to be made, and I’m still discovering new ones. I refuse to carry heavy equipment, so my photos are never as perfect as they might be. Emotionally: Behind the camera, I get to be a silent, detached witness. But getting in the habit of splitting consciousness that way, I miss being fully present. I can shoot it, or I can experience it, but I can’t do both at the same time. For that reason, it’s most challenging to photograph my own children.
What are you shooting now?
Incongruous, man-made Baltimore landscapes for www.whoweam.com.