When Frida Kahlo was asked why she had such a penchant for self-portraits she answered, “I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to and I paint whatever passes through my head without any consideration.” This is a notion that Emma Tillman seems to reflect in the preface to her new photographic self-portrait collection Masterpieces, in which she writes: “This book is a masterpiece. It is also a compilation of scraps and pieces of a life.”
As a writer and director of films she explores the Paul Eluard mantra that “there is another world, but it is inside this one.” That philosophy of finding narrative depth beneath the volatile surface has permeated all of her creative output. As she says about her recent short film, The Wheel: “The writing of the film was born out of a desire to write something that was rooted in the specific wisdom of women, or of the feminine in general.” Her fine art photography seems to focus that scope even sharper with an elucidation of the often-obfuscated wisdom of the self. We might know ourselves better than anyone, but as the book attests, even that takes time, patience and acceptance.
Emma Tillman has been taking self-portraits from a very young age. However, in recent years, living and working creatively alongside her husband Josh, known under his musical moniker of Father John Misty, in Los Angeles, the vision for these passing considerations gathered momentum. Masterpieces is the culminated conclusion of a body of work and a chapter of life. Ahead of the book’s release on Tired Eyes Publishing, we caught up with a chat about her creative process, the thinking behind it and her experience in creating the lauded collection.
Far Out: Naturally, the book seems like one which would be very liberating to publish from the outside looking in, is that how it was for you?
Emma Tillman: “The book was very liberating to publish. Because my work is most frequently viewed on Instagram, the rules of nudity apply. I haven’t shown most of these photographs before for that reason, so it was a thrill to put them all in one place and create a tangible artefact that people could have and hold and come back to.”
Over how many years have you been collating these images?
“I started taking self-portraits when I was 14, and I’m 35 now. It has been a consistent practice for all those years.”
Did you ever intend for them to be part of a published collection initially?
“I have only been thinking about collecting the images into a book for a few years, but it was a natural conclusion. Mostly because the Internet is not a welcome place for nude fine art photography or at least not where I would like these photographs to live. I’d like for them to live in a book. The secretive, intimate nature of the photographs lends itself to the privacy of a book.”
What do you make of the current level of female representation in the arts?
“I don’t think about it too much. There’s an incredible amount of female representation. Whatever you are looking for you can find.”
It is a very brave book, and one that will naturally invite criticism from certain circles, what would you delineate the purpose of it as to any critics?
“I’m sure there will be people who think it’s preposterous. I can’t change their minds. It’s sort of funny to me to think about anyone getting bent out of shape about it though. I like it, and if a few other people do too then that’s enough for me.”
With nudity wrongly or rightly still entwined with intimacy, was there any impacts of the book on your relationship?
“My husband and I have been together for 10 years and have grown and changed so much. Anything that may have bothered us like that in the past has been long since resolved.
“Each of us trusts that the other has good intentions and that it’s all for the art.”
The preface mentions a transition in your photography, what is next for you?
“I have been interested in shooting landscapes and interiors more lately. I have been interested in the absence of a human subject, and how I can subtly communicate the human nurturing of a place without having them in it. I have also been pursuing other interests separate altogether from photography and art. We’ll see where it all leads.”
Masterpieces is currently available to pre-order on Tired Eyes Publishing with a shipping date imminent. You can view more by clicking here.