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Connections: Wandering and Discovering

For today’s post, student docent Anna Rogulina interviewed Katherine Newbegin, whose work is  featured in the Art Center’s current exhibition, 150 Years Later: New Photography by Tina Barney, Tim Davis, and Katherine Newbegin.

Katherine Newbegin at the opening of “150 Years Later” with some of her photographs© Vassar College / Dmitri Kasterine

Anna Rogulina: What were some of your ideas about Vassar before coming here? Did anything surprise you about what you found after you arrived?
Katherine Newbegin: Both of my older brothers went to Vassar in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I am from the West Coast, so I had visited the campus for graduation and one or two other times to see them. However, this did not influence my ideas about how I wanted to represent Vassar.  I did have a nostalgic feeling while visiting the campus when I began photographing, but after the first visit this dissipated and I was interested in finding the hidden spaces.  I think I was continually surprised by what I found.  That was part of the curiosity or impulse with this project, I wanted to discover secret spaces that no one else knew about, so there were, in fact, a lot of surprises.

AR: Did you approach this project with any specific goals in mind?
KN: My process is very much about wandering and discovering and allowing the photographs to shape themselves.  So I did not have a specific agenda in mind when I started shooting. The campus is so pristine and beautiful, that in the beginning I was panicked I would not be able to find what I wanted to photograph.  It took several visits to Vassar before I was able to finally get under the skin and discover the stranger spaces with the history that I was looking for.  The only exception was the Chapel, which I photographed and loved on one of the first days, thanks to Mary-Kay Lombino’s suggestion.

Katherine Newbegin (American, b. 1976) Tower, 2010, C-Print, Courtesy of the artist

AR: Can you talk a little bit about the “detective work” that that went into discovering the hidden places of Vassar? How did you know where to begin?
KN: I was overwhelmed in the beginning, I did not know where to start and on the first day I mostly just wandered around and tried to open doors.  It was frustrating as most of the doors were locked. But then I met Mike Bernard, the Key Master, who was incredibly generous with his knowledge of the school.  He told me about some great spaces and he really opened up all the possibilities for me (literally).  He gave me keys to the basement of Main Building.  And it was a great space. I think at some ineffable level the hidden areas interested me because I wanted to unearth parts of Vassar that are not known to the students who live there everyday, but mostly I was curious to see what I could find. It was a dream to have the complete permission to go anywhere on such a huge campus.

AR: With virtually unlimited access to the grounds, what drew you to the particular locations and buildings you chose to photograph?
KN: I was searching for something a little creepy maybe.  There is a certain amount of excitement involved in having access to places not often seen by other people.  Mostly I wanted to find the spaces that inspired me, and for some reason or another, these darker realms, or what is hidden under the beautiful pristine surface, really engaged me, as it does in much of my other work. I have a secret passion for horror films and I love the work Dario Argento.  My hope is that viewing the work about Vassar on the Vassar campus will create the uncanny sensation of making the familiar feel unfamiliar and disorienting. As the project evolved, I realized I was more and more compelled by the dichotomy of the energetic world of the students on the surface, and what existed below that, the silent word of the basements and attics.

As an unintended result, I feel that I am depicting a version of Vassar that is unrecognizable, and this excites me.  But overall, I wanted to find traces of the history of Vassar as well as strange places where someone might have kept a dog or where a club might have met in secret many years ago.

AR: How did you determine if something was worthy of being photographed?
KN: I think it is an indescribable feeling of being pulled towards something.  My eye just reacts and sees something it recognizes and then I know.

Katherine Newbegin (American b. 1976)The Basement of Josselyn (Please Baby Please), 2010, C-Print, Courtesy of the artist

AR: How did you go about deciding which photographs would make it into the exhibition? Ultimately, how do you judge the success of a photograph?
KN: There was a series of photographs from the basement of Josselyn that I just absolutely fell in love with and it was so hard to edit this work down, because I wanted to put all 40 of them in the show, and it would have dominated the whole experience.  The editing was brutal.  I had to separate myself from this particular group of images and the experience of that day.  I had to be more objective about it.  For weeks, I had them on the wall in my studio and then slowly, through looking at them, putting them away, and then looking at them again, I started to be able to edit down.  Mary-Kay was an invaluable help in this arena, she was able to ask me the questions and separate the work into different types and it allowed me to see the work as a whole. She has an exceptional eye.  But, I think there is no way to judge the success of a photograph, because I am too close to the work.  Although, after looking at them for these last few months, I do have a few favorites.

Katherine Newbegin (American, b. 1976) Storage, 2010, C-Print, Courtesy of the artist.

AR: Is there a photograph that was particularly challenging to shoot, or perhaps one that you are most proud of?
KN: From the beginning, I just loved the photograph of the lamps, which ended up becoming the cover of the catalogue.

AR: If you had to offer once piece of advice to aspiring photographers, what would it be?
KN: There is a great story by Annie Dillard where she discovers an eagle with the skull of a weasel still attached around its neck.  In that story she talks about the weasel clinging for his life beyond his death.  She goes on to say that life is about finding that one necessity that you will cling to, the thing that is your life’s blood, that you can never release, to be willing to “dangle from it limp…seize it and let it seize you.”  So my advice would be to find that thing and never let it go.
(Quote Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Living Like Weasels)

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