Photographer, Videographer, Art Director
Origin: Northern Michigan, Based in NYC
Coming from northern Michigan, Jess Farran takes us behind the camera. We were lucky enough to have a discussion with the radiant photographer about the stories behind her series and plenty more. Check out a snippet on our IGTV / Youtube of the interview or read the full interview below:
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is Jess Farran? I'm Jess. I live in New York, I'm a photographer. I don't really know what else to say. I'm from northern Michigan. I went to SCAD, which is Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. I graduated from there two years ago and then I just moved up to New York and now I just live and work here. I'm a freelance photographer.
When did you start photography and when in life did you really know that's what you wanted to pursue? Honestly, since a really young age. I remember being in third grade and having my teacher ask us what we wanted to do. And it literally just popped in my head and I was like, I want to be a photographer. And then I literally never gave it up. It's just something I've always done. I seriously started shooting when I was 14 or 15, which is really good. We had a really intense publications program in my high school, which is really funny. So I did newspaper and yearbook, but it was, I always say this, it was as serious as doing any varsity sport. It was really intense and it was a lot. I feel like that kind of helps me jumpstart more of my technical abilities. And then I just really went deep into creative aesthetic when I went to college and just figured it all out. But it's something I've been doing since I was a kid, basically.
I think I've read that you shoot digital and you shoot film. Do you have a certain one that you prefer? I learned on film. I learned on my mom's old Minolta camera SR-T 101 and that really helped me see what's going on and helped with the technical ability. But then I just shot. I honestly mainly shoot on digital. I love shooting on film, but it's just professionally, it's too expensive for me and I don't have clients that want to pay for it so digital is more of an upfront investment. It is really expensive but the payback is much higher and it's something that, especially for young photographers, I feel like you need to learn on film because it really lets you figure out what's going on in an image and composition and technically what's going on. I have a lot of friends that are film only photographers and they're amazing artists, truly amazing artists, but they don't get a lot of jobs because they can't shoot digitally, which kind of sucks.
Within your own work, do you have a certain emotion you want people to feel or a certain message you want to display? I feel like overall, in my work, I'm just like trying to be fully myself. I have a lot of inspirations from other artists, but at the end of the day, I don't want my photos to look like their photos. That's something that I'm always working on is trying to have someone see a photo and be like, oh, Jess did that without even knowing who took that. But also in terms of emotions, I feel like a lot of people think my photos are really dreamy and I understand why they would think that cause they're soft, hazy, and ethereal. But I see them more as darker images. I think that's just my personality. I just have these really intense emotions or I'm super happy and a really sweet person, but then I'm also at the same time can get really sad and have a lot of darker emotions. So I think my photos definitely represent that.
An aesthetic that I think a lot of people don't branch out into because you know, there's such a mainstream cookie-cutter image I think in today's age. So seeing people branch out from that and be able to show emotions that people might not want to feel or see in pictures is interesting. Especially in a fashion photo or a photo of someone they know, you know what I mean? A musician or like with Gus, a lot of his stuff is really more like happy and poppy but he does have a darker side of him. So I always like pulling out things in people that they didn't know they had. Photographing them in a way they've never been photographed. If I have any client or any artists that I photograph, I don't really want the photos to look like and they've already done, I want to be totally different. You had said that you are in New York and I think nowadays there's this big tie between Los Angeles and New York. Now was there a reason that you moved to New York over LA or just kind of happened that way? I hate LA. I never want to live there. I don't like it. I think there's a simulation. I feel like people literally can see the glitch in front of me. When I'm in LA, you'll be like, 'hey, what's up?' And they're like, 'this is so weird'. The only thing I liked about it is that it's very natural. I love plants. I love going to the beach. I love going for hikes. I really love that aspect. But I don't like it. New York is more accessible. It just kind of happened. My friends are here. It was more of an easy move. Moving to New York felt like I was like moving home kind of because I had spent time here. It didn't feel like this huge transition, especially cause I'm from a really small town. It didn't feel like I was like, oh my God, I'm moving to New York. I was just like, yeah, I'm moving to New York. I also just love the people here. There's a lot of really beautiful, amazing people. Not that there aren't amazing people in LA, but LA seems like it's always trying to be happy and New York is never trying to be happy.
New York is so fluid with every emotion. So this is kind of a handful of a question, but what is something people don't know about you? I honestly don't know. I feel like people don't know a lot of stuff about me. I'm really elusive. And even doing this, I was like, I haven't even posted a selfie. I don't think people know what I look like but something people won't know about me... I'm just kind of a very chill person. I don't really get stressed out. I just like being at home really. I'm a huge homebody. I really like cooking. I love cooking. I don't think actually a lot of people know that about me. And I love my plants.
I'm noticing your background. I respect the fact you have it. So when creating The Sex Series, what was your creative process, and what was the message that you wanted people to receive? Because looking at it, it's a very abstract series and I love that about it. So going into it, was there something that you wanted to portray for people who saw it, and what was your process? So when I started the sex series, I was in my junior year of college at SCAD and there's just a weird transitional time for me. I actually transferred to scad, so I came in my sophomore year so it started in my second year there. And at that time I had lived in five cities in three different states within two years. I had just moved so much and I was like, what's going on? And I had felt like I hadn't worked on myself really and actually looked at myself. Then all of a sudden I remember I was in class one day and my professor's showing us a really intimate series that she did when she was basically my age at the time, like probably 21 or 22. And it was talking about how she had been sexually assaulted and how she had eating disorders and all this stuff. All of a sudden, I ran to the bathroom. I had a panic attack and I was like, at this point, I was a virgin and I had never had sex but I've had boyfriends, I dated, all this stuff. I was just like, I am so afraid of seeing myself and seeing what's wrong with me. And then I was like, 'oh wait, a lot is wrong with me'. And at that point, what was wrong is that I didn't want to really have any type of sexual intimacy with anybody. So I dove into that super headstrong. I was taking a large format photography class at the time. That's the big cameras where it's four by five side film you put the dark hood over. So I started the project shooting that way. A lot of those photos took an hour and a half to just composite one image. What I wanted to do was turn the camera onto my friends. I turned onto my friends, then onto other strangers, and just kind of form a more comprehensive and cumulative view of what sex even was and what other people thought it was so then I could see it more in myself. So it started as a study. And I only seen two types of photos when it came to sex; pornography and then really soft, intimate, blurry dreamy photos, movie scenes. I feel like there's nothing in between real people and more of these set up shots. So basically I tried to combine the two where it was real people but shot in a way that's a little more extreme so that's how it started. And then I did my senior thesis project on it and I thought I was always going to keep up and do it, but after it was more of art therapy. And then after I shot it and I graduated and I spent two years working on it and I was kind of done cause I felt that part of myself had healed. And I didn't really need to work on it anymore.
It was interesting to see those two sides. So when I was looking at your series, that was one thing that I took away from it you were kind of capturing both essences of them, but you were kind of showing more of the reality side too. And I liked that because people don't get to see that very often until they're alone with their significant other and they don't ever share that.
I feel like our society as humans we've gone through a lot of different renaissances of sexuality in general, right now we're in one. I think we're removing the shame from it. And mine was more attached to the fact that I was afraid of having sex, which I still do not think that enough. I just watched euphoria and that's an amazing show. I love that show. But you see all these other shows that revolve around teens, and it's always this 16, 17, 18-year-olds having sex, which is totally fine but there's also this other side of it where a lot of people and especially a lot of girls do not feel comfortable having sex at that age. And that is totally fine. And there's not really that many outlets within movies or books or whatever that show this healthy progression of wanting to stay a virgin until you're married or maybe not wanting to have sex at all or being asexual and there's not really that many characters that do that. It's all about the spectrum and it's all about showing all sides of it. But I had never felt like my side of the story was represented. I didn't lose my virginity till I was 22 and people could not believe that. And they're just like, what? Because in their eyes they see a pretty girl that's had boyfriends and doesn't have any problem dating. But they don't see that I had huge intimacy problems, stemmed from all these little traumas combined throughout the majority of my years as a teenager and I really don't trust anyone. So definitely don't want to have sex with anyone. And I felt like making this series really helped. And then just talking about it helps. I met all these amazing people through it. I started photographing my friends and then turned out to be more photographing strangers and all sexualities, genders, races. The only thing I never truly bridged was age. I feel like everyone was much younger. I was talking about it and then also talking about it with partners. The person I lost my virginity to was really good about it. We'd have really open conversations, but it's something that still affects relationships. I feel like I know my boundaries, I know when someone's pushing them and then I can give myself self this space to heal.
I feel like that is something that society needs to realize is that you're not pressured to do anything. Take your time and figure stuff out regardless of any topic. So regarding your other series, which was Meateater, it's different photographs and it's a whole compilation of different things. Was it supposed to be a compilation of photos or did you have a certain idea or theme behind that you wanted to go for? Yes. Every time I feel I start a new series, it's more art therapy for myself. I don't really know what they're about until I start them. So that one I was really inspired. I went to see Stephen Shore's exhibit at the Moma and he had this one series that he did, "All the Meat You Can Eat", and it was found objects, found photographs and he compiled them. I just thought it was interesting. The name really stuck with me and how it was just kind of about all these photos that we see every day that we don't even realize that we see. And he just compiled them, random stuff. It's like an airline brochure or a menu or all of these things. So I started thinking about that in more of an internalized scale. That's why it's called Meateater because there's taking from Stephen Shore's "All the Meat You Can Eat". And Meateater was more about me ingesting my own photographs that I had never really looked at before. When I was 22, I had literally the worst year of my life. My dad left our family in the most dramatic way possible. Both my grandparents died, which was really hard for me. And I was also cheated on by my boyfriend. All of this stuff. I felt like I didn't really have any friends. I was going to this really hard school. I only had a few close people that I really had. So during that time, I was just honestly really depressed. I was obviously still shooting, but I never looked at the photos. And then I did Meateater right when I moved to New York City, probably at winter of 2017. I basically looked at all those photos I had taken two years prior that I had never gone through. I was obsessed with the color of red at this time. And it's weird because if you go back and look at my photos, at the time I was going into this really dark phase, but they are so happy, you would not think that one thing was wrong in my life. They're extremely colorful. They're really bright, really vivid. I had traveled to Hawaii with my family and I was so obsessed with all the colors that I was seeing and like I needed to ingest all that color Palette into my work. Fast forward a couple of years and I was a lot better than I was. I was the happiest I'd been in a few years. And then I hated all of the colors. I just wanted really dark things. I just wanted to give myself time to feel the trauma. So everything got really dark. It got really vivid and red. And it was fun taking all of those photos that I had taken within two years time and just seeing how they work together and I didn't even realize that they were intertwined. It's ingestion of my own work and laying it all on the table and then eating it again.
What we said earlier about how people portray your work as like dreamy and colorful, has that always been creatively something that you always yourself as an artist wanted to go for, or was that just a result of experimentation? I have always just loved color. I think when people say color, they think of primary bright colors. But it's more of the nuanced shades and how they work together when they're toned down and really subtle. I probably wasn't too concerned about it in my early stages of shooting when I was a teenager. And I also went to a community college and got a degree from there, but I never talk about that because I don't know why. So I was also shooting and it wasn't that colorful. It's also all in the editing process. As soon as my technical skills of being able to edit color started progressing, that's when I was like, oh, I can really do some fun stuff. So now to me it's one of the most important things in my work. It's probably lighting first and then number two is color.
What I noticed is you bring a physical aspect to what colors can trigger in people. So since we do a lot with music, what are you currently listening to? I've been listening to this Arabic playlist that I really liked. I like parts of my heritage within food especially. And I'm trying to expand more into music. I really also loved Willow Smith's new album. That album is really good. The song "Female Energy, Pt. 2". It's just like high vibrational and transcending, which I really liked. Recently, I've honestly haven't been listening to music because Gus, my boyfriend, just been making new songs and I always like keeping music off and like listening to him. Right now just anything that's putting me in more of meditative, happy emotional state. When you're taking photos, do you listen to music or is there a certain art medium that you pull the most inspiration? When I do photoshoots, I have a few playlists. One is called "Buki" and it's spooky songs that are kind of synthy indecent type. I don't even know how to describe it. But if you're watching the movie "IT". And then I have another one that's called "Baby Girl" and that song is like all female musicians. I really love like ABRA, Tommy Genesis, and SZA. It gives you a little funk but also clears your headspace, but you know some of them but you don't know all of them, I've noticed like with models on set.
Nowadays art has become very abstract and more free, since there aren't as many barriers as years prior. As an artist yourself, do you look to spark that feeling of discomfort and oddity when you take pictures for people? I do. I really like when I take a photo of someone and they're like, Whoa, like they've never seen themselves like that before, but they like it. I feel like everyone has a weird side and I only feel like we're finally comfortable embracing it. People are finally like I'm kind of weird and like not going to like hide it. I don't really think photography is like there are some photographers and just like photos in general I think they are really great. But I think right now actually charters are getting a little like stagnant. But I think who's really having the biggest type of renaissance from there. We now have stylists and makeup artists, and I feel like they are just having so much fun and so much like giving so much freedom to like implore their own like freakiness and then like to me that's why I thrive off of it. Cause then it just makes the photos. I feel like surrounding yourself around people too, that don't care. Like for me, like that was mainly going to school and also like entering into a relationship with my current boyfriend where I just don't feel judged at all and keeping friends around that I don't feel judged by and time to be on your own.
I guess another thing people don't know about me is I considered myself an environmentalist. I'm really concerned with the way that our world is working in terms of our behavior and how it's impacting the earth. But one shot I did was photographing all of the food waste that I had over a course of a couple of weeks and what that actually looked when it was condensed. Because a lot of times we throw things out and don't really realize. But if you let it condense for a couple of weeks and then take it out and look at it, it just makes you sick because you realize how much money you're spending on it, how many resources, especially natural resources, the amount of energy it takes, and then, you think of all the people that don't even have food.
We're headed in a very risky direction and times are getting shorter and shorter. The thing is people don't think about where it goes. No they don't. I'm from northern Michigan, so I consider it sacred and a really beautiful natural space where you think about nature every single day when you wake up and being in the city, people do not think like that. Some people are raised like that and that's not their fault. We are at a huge lack of education on what it takes. What we physically take from the earth every day when we live and it's just crazy. So it's really hard. I tried to incorporate that into my work and positive things come from that. After I did that, I started getting really serious about composting and now we compost.
I get what you mean about Michigan. My mom grew up in western PA, so it was in the middle bumblefuck nowhere. And being out there, coming from a place that's so condensed with and it just worries me thinking of buildings being built on country roads. And it's weird to think that one day I might not be able to go there to escape anymore. So what is next for you? Do you have any exciting news to talk about or that you can talk about? I do have exciting news and I can't tell you about it just yet, but you will find out very shortly. Basically, I'm trying to expand projects and do bigger projects. Right now, I'm trying to get more into video directing and do more video stuff. But I have a lot of really exciting things coming out but I don't like teasing because I feel like we're a society where everyone wants to tease. And I don't like teasing anything. I just like letting it drop and having it be a bomb and then having everyone be really excited.
Don't forget to check out Jess Farran on Instagram and more of her work here.
Photography by Gus Dapperton.
Interview by Madison Everett.