Published in the Day newspaper 28 January 2018 by Mary Biekert
Artists in Motion, an occasional series featuring local visual artists: Michelle Gemma
Now Lives: In a house near the Mystic Seaport where “I’ve been living with my husband Rich Freitas (a local Mystic-based musician) since 1994.”
Her art in a snapshot: Gemma’s black-and-white photographs display a consistent cinematic aesthetic that seeks to portray drama through the use of stylized models.
The concept of time is a major contributing factor that plays through Gemma’s work. She selects her models, most of whom are local, and styles each one before a photo shoot with a personal collection of vintage and antique costuming. Such clothing, she says, helps to give the photographs a sense of timelessness while also paying homage to the past.
“There is this nostalgic point of view, but I’m using a model, which helps me capture the present moment as well. It’s a metaphysical standpoint because I’m not just looking towards the future and I’m not aching for the past. I’m trying to capture the present tense with maybe a look back but while simultaneously not trying to be in the past.”
Gemma is a self-taught photographer who has been seriously pursuing the art form since 2000, though she started experimenting with photography in the early 1990s after becoming involved with and chronicling the Mystic art scene. Her photographs are set within various locations around the area, a certain fascination of hers. Gemma will use three cameras, a Minolta X-700 with 35mm film, a Mamiya 7 with 120mm film and a digital Nikon D3200, throughout her photoshoots.
“I feel like my photographs are always paying homage to where we are, so that’s the depth that can be seen in them. It’s a real feeling that we are doing our best to honor this place. It’s almost a religious experience and it’s sacred. It’s an intense connection made in the photograph.”
Discovering photography/the a-ha moment: “I would attend all these artistic events in Mystic, but I wasn’t an artist myself. I remember at one point in 1992, two years into my relationship with Rich, he had said, ‘Well what are you going to do? We’re not just hanging out here, we are producing art.’ It was serious, and everyone took themselves very seriously. It wasn’t just art for the sake of it, they were all going somewhere.
“I then went to Scotland with a friend, and I brought a camera and a roll of film. I took a couple photos there, and when I got back, I asked my friend Mat, who had a darkroom, to help develop the roll of film. I remember him looking at the negatives and saying, “These are really great.” I felt, in that moment, this spark of enthusiasm from getting this certain praise that artists seek. He told me that he would help me learn, but he also said I needed to take a photography class. Even though I had already graduated from UConn, I took a class at Conn College to learn all the basics. After that, I just set up my own darkroom, and it started from there.”
Crafting her aesthetic: “I found that I was really intrigued by the older charm of Mystic, the Victorian era. I also found that I admired Greek architecture and Victorian architecture and the houses around here. The first time I had ever used a model, I dressed her in a Victorian dressing gown, and later, when I was showing the photographs to a fellow photographer, he said that it looked like Julia Margaret Cameron (a Victorian-era British photographer) and that I should check her out.
“I started looking at her work, and I found it to be dreamy and powerful. She was very dramatic and stylized, and I felt this emotion when I was looking at her work, and it helped me realize that I was really attracted to using models to convey human dramatic emotion.
“Living around here has inspired me to capture what I see as this old glory of Mystic and to continue to use it as a backdrop so that future generations can see it. No matter what happens to those locations, it will be captured in this moment.
“Before a photoshoot I always prepare visually with my models. In the “old days,” once I booked a shoot and had planned around an idea, I would photocopy images from books from the library as inspiration to study and dream about.
“For me personally, Greek mythology is also a huge deal. The concept of the feminine warrior and goddess is intriguing to me.”
Latest Project: “In 2002, I did a series called ‘Personal Universe’ where I photographed 12 models to represent each of the 12 astrological signs. Then it came to me in the beginning of 2017 that I really have a lot of good models right now — I have 12 people that make up my model staple. So I decided to redo the series and, coincidentally, it’s exactly 15 years later after my first series.” The new series will also be called “Personal Universe.”
“Larger influences of the planets and who you are as a person and the many influences that shape us are so interesting to me. I just wanted to represent the twelve signs and use the birth charts for all twelve models to shape the photographs I take.”
What’s next: “A photography book featuring a sequence of photographs taken of model Morgan Vail (a local model who has exclusively photographed for Gemma) from the time she was 12 years old to the present. She is now 31.”
Top five artists: Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Rollie McKenna
You’re locked in a museum for a night — which one? “The Smithsonian (National Portrait Gallery) in Washington D.C., specifically to see the Sylvia Plath exhibit. I love her poetry and her work. ‘The Bell Jar’ is one of the most amazing works ever. I love her biting sarcastic manner.”
Favorite album: “’Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison. A timeless classic.”
Which artist, living or dead, would you most like to hang out with? “Rollie McKenna. She was a Stonington-based photographer that I had the chance to work for towards the end of her life. She photographed poets and writers for 50 years. She photographed artists such as Sylivia Plath, Anne Sexton and Dylan Thomas, among many other accomplishments. She was a force, and in the 50s, there weren’t many female photographers, and she had a way of getting to the most reclusive writers ever and photographed them. She would catch them in their natural habitats.”
Published in the Day Newspaper, 15 January 2018 to promote photography show:
Photographer Michelle Gemma displays works in Mystic
Selected works from Mystic-based photographer Michelle Gemma are currently on display in an exhibition at Wayne’s Barber Shop in downtown Mystic. Gemma, who grew up in the Mystic area, is a self-taught photographer who has been seriously pursuing the art form since 2000. Her black-and-white photographs display a consistent and unique aesthetic shaped by a handful of selected models and the use of antique costuming. A majority of the works on display were developed by Gemma herself, and all are set within vintage frames. The show will run until May 31 and is free and open to the public. Hours are 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.; (860) 245-5245, www.michellegemmaphotography.com.
Published in The Artist Catalogue, Winter 2014, Page 16, One of Twelve featured artists.
…..here is the Interview between The Artist Catalogue (TAC) and myself (MG), published 1 November 2014:
TAC: What draws you to the “nostalgic point of view?”
MG: The awareness of my place in history enforces my
responsibility to the wider ranks of photography. I live in the
historic seacoast town of Mystic, an iconic place, and I have
always felt a sense of pride in living here. I am surrounded by
the titans of the past – the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship,
the Mystic Seaport Museum, the historic houses with their
widows’ walks, and the elm trees and heirloom gardens. In lieu
of photography classes, I volunteered in the photo department
at the Mystic Seaport, and was trained to use a large-format
camera to copy the vintage maritime paintings in its collection,
as well as loading film, and cataloging within the archives.
Later I worked with the Stonington Historical Society for over
twelve years, sorting through reams of old photographs and
glass plates, and printing modern copies from these historic
records. I carefully studied the photographs of our past, and
was intrigued by the clothing, and especially the architecture.
I realized that photography pays homage to the present, yet
preserves the past. I am personally drawn to a historic rendering
within my modern scenario.
TAC: What artists have been your biggest influences and why?
MG: I stumbled across Julia Margaret Cameron when in 1994
a friend looking at my first photographs told me that they
reminded him of JMC, and I became intrigued. And then I
completely fell in love with this seminal British photographer’s
work. Not only did JMC perfectly isolate the beauty of her
sitters, she used myth and poetry to represent her ideals
through photography. She illustrated Lord Alfred Tennyson’s
masterpiece Idylls of the King, which appealed to me in a
modern sense. In my first beginnings as a photographer in the
local art scene in Mystic I worked with local poets and writers to
illustrate their published works.
I worked for Rollie McKenna from 1995 to 1998, the famous
black-and-white portrait photographer of poets and writers –
Dylan Thomas most famously, also Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton,
James Merrill, and many others. It was toward the end of her
life when she hired me to do biographical research for her
work in progress, a timeline of the notable subjects she had
photographed over time. I was a fledging photographer at the
time, and rose to the challenge of working on the book in her
studio, printing photographs for her, organize her vast collection
of archives, preparing a photography exhibit, and even helping
write her speech for a slide show. What completely influenced
me was her careful attention to her archives. Everything was
labeled and numbered, and most importantly could be found
when requests came in from publishers to run a photograph. She
had a charm and ease of manner with all of her subjects, even
the most reclusive writers such as Ezra Pound, that disarmed
them so that she could capture the perfect photograph. After
she passed away in 2003 at the age of eighty-four and there was
some uncertainty as to where her archives would go, I realized
that the book was unfinished. I became more focused about my
own archives, and later realized when I became obsessed about
completing a project of my own that it was thanks to Rollie that
I would try to finish it.
As far as modern photographers go, I am inspired and
influenced by Sally Mann. Her style has evolved over time from
beautifully capturing her children in their childhood to her
majestic photographs of the southern landscape around her.
She is rugged and tough and lugs around a heavy large-format
camera by herself from field to field, working with wet collodion
8” x 10” glass plate negatives in the back of a darkroom-rigged
truck. I have seen her speak about five times, and have always
been impressed by her intellect and passion. I met her at one of
her artist’s talks at Brown University and managed to strike up
a correspondence with her afterward.
TAC: Tell us about how you compose your images. Are they
more spontaneous or carefully directed?
MG: My photo shoots are carefully directed. I work with models,
and I plan the entire tableaux before the shoot. I am usually
working with a series in mind, so everything is considered. I
pick out all of the clothes and accessories from my personal
vintage collection to articulate the style of the shoot. The
location is preselected as well. Once on set, of course, the ideas
are played out yet moments of inspiration can occur that are
unplanned. But I do think that a level of preparation is essential.
I strive for a style that is unique and personal, within the overall
reaches of my aesthetic.
TAC: What is next for you as an artist?
MG: I alluded to the idea of it earlier while referencing Rollie
McKenna. I started a photo series in 1998 with one particular
model of mine, Morgan Vail, who I met when she was twelve years
old. In an homage to Sally Mann and her series of photographs
of twelve-year-old girls At Twelve, I started photographing
Morgan, and then continued to do so for the next seven years.
I called my series A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl. I had
thirty framed photos, and thought about exhibiting them in a
chronology. Then Morgan moved away, and we lost touch until
personal tragedy in 2012 brought us back in touch. I realized
that we had this great series together, and I thought I should
try to finish it and put it out as a book, and thereby complete
what I had started in honor of Rollie McKenna. Currently I am
working on publishing my book of photographs of Morgan, and
have new work of her to complete the series. The interregnum
will be filled with her artwork – she had since started art school. I
have the introduction written, and am trying to finish scanning
the photographs for both an online and print publication. Stay
tuned, and for a sneak peek, check out the link on my website:
Tell Me Something: Mystic Army Navy Stores owner has a book in the works
“Michelle Gemma grew up in Noank and cut her teeth in the family business: A Stitch In Time Boutique, an institution in Mystic for 27 years. She became interested in black and white photography, and became serious about it in 1997. From working with the photographer Rollie McKenna of Stonington Borough, to archival photography work with the Stonington Historical Society, she realized the importance of time and place. Gemma also became part of the second family business, Mystic Army Navy Stores, and is now owner of the business with storefronts in downtown Mystic and the Olde Mistick Village. She continues to produce art for the local online magazine: www.portfire.org. Gemma is working on her first photography book, called “A Portrait of An Artist as A Young Girl”, which features a timeline of photographs of one of her models from age 12 to age 28. The book will be released online at Portfire, and also in print form, sometime this spring. Gemma lives in Mystic.
Say you have a modern-day high school locker. Whose picture would be hanging in it?
Any photograph by Helmut Newton.
What’s your favorite sandwich?
You’re locked in a museum for a night, which one would it be?
Which photographer would like to spend an hour talking shop with?
What’s your favorite word in a language other than English?
“Gezellig” – it’s Dutch for “convivial”.
What was your first camera?
Minolta X-700 35mm camera with a wide angle lens that I bought off of Shelley Lawrence at BeeBee Dairy one day in 1992.
What’s an album you like, but can’t convince others to like?
Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”.
Where is your favorite location to shoot?
Sorry to have to tell you this, but an asteroid is going to wipe out all humanity next week. So, what’s your last meal and who is coming to dinner?
Brunch, at home with Ellery Twining.
Which U.S. president, living or deceased, would you like photograph?
The first female U.S. president.
Name an item you can’t live without:
Item you should live without and keep meaning to get rid of:
My Polaroid I-Zone Instant Pocket Camera. They don’t even make film for this camera anymore, which is OK because now we have Instagram, a wonderful invention and essential for all visual artists.
What’s the song have you been listening to on repeat the most?
“Ghosts” by Slander. “It’s not the way it was before” – this particular line hit me after my father passed away suddenly last October, and I had to go to work the morning after, to take care of business, and I realized that nothing was the same anymore.
If you present day you could give advice to younger you, what would it be?
“Your father was right.”
Last book you couldn’t put down:
“Ariel” by Sylvia Plath.
You’re a DJ at a club. What’s the night’s last song?
“New Jersey Deep” by the Black Science Orchestra – always a hit at the Collective dance parties.
You’re going on a road trip. Pick a destination. Pick a vehicle. Now pick a song to start the trip and song to play when you get there.
Provincetown, in our blue high-top van. Start with “Little Fluffy Clouds” by the Orb, and arrive to “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys.
What’s a word you can never spell correctly on the first try:
Sacrilege: it never comes up.
Which is better, coffee or tea?
Colombian Supremo from the Green Marble in downtown Mystic. N-O-B-O-D-Y does it better!
Saturday night or Sunday morning?
Sunday, late mornings
Film or digital?
Film until 14 months ago; now digital.
Anagrams or palindromes?
Palindromes. I remember when I first arrived at the UConn Storrs campus and met a graduate student from India, and she was like, “My name is Naman, the same forward and backward”
What is your pet peeve?
Sneezing onto your hands. I work in retail! Enough said.
What historical event would you like to have been witness to?
Woodstock and hanging out with Dan Curland from Mystic Disc, while listening to Jimi Hendrix that Monday morning…..
What is your favorite place in Connecticut to recharge and/or find serenity?
My teeny cottage with all of our beautiful gardens near the Mystic River. I work a lot at the Army Navy Stores, so being at home is my best energizer.
Whom alive today do you most admire?
–Stephen Chupaska interview, The Day newspaper, Grace magazine for Women, March 17, 2014
“PERSONAL UNIVERSE” is Michelle Gemma’s series of 12 black and white photographs dramatically depicting the 12 astrological signs. The haunting images are portraits of women within landscapes that describe the internal world of the artist and subject.
Michelle Gemma hails from Mystic, Connecticut and is inspired by the evocative terrain of the area. Working in black and white her photographs are reminiscent of Sally Mann’s introspective portraiture. Michelle has exhibited her work in the New England area and this will be her first show in Boston. PERSONAL UNIVERSE is based on astrological research of her subjects and the connection between environment and emotion.”
–Scott Cipolla, gallery director, Space 200, Boston, October 2005
“Dramatic black-and-white portraits by Mystic photographer Michelle Gemma stood out as some of the most provocative pieces at Virtu.”
–The Westerly Sun Newspaper 25 May 2003
“Wafting an aura of melancholy and angst, the powerful show featured in October at the Hygienic Gallery, Equinox, explored the darker aspects of thought and emotion. Infused with the sensibilities of magical realism and German Expressionism, the often beautiful images arranged in this collection are astir with the symbolism of violence, fear, and sadness.
The beauty of those representations and hence the difficulty, is that the traumas explored are not of the physical world, but of the psychological and spiritual.
Michelle Gemma and Jennifer Wolcin’s works, hanging next to each other, explore similar themes related to a woman’s sexuality and self-identity. Inadvertently, or perhaps not, these two highly-talented individuals have managed to pose an epic dilemma: how do you react to an image that is both beautiful and highly disturbing? Gemma’s photographs, composed in an almost Vogue-like way-images of young girls and young women, labeled according to a zodiac theme-fuse as a group into a presentation with now a different subtlety of meaning.
Gemma’s eye – the camera’s eye – seems to be searching for herself, or the image of herself. The subjects stare into the camera: a brazen toddler in a bikini, one young woman in a black evening gown staring hesitantly, another woman staring ethereally upward. One of her more unsettling, yet beautifully evocative, images, entitled, Sun in virgo and virgo rising,intelligence, captures a young woman in a white evening dress standing in front of the pedestal of a tombstone angel, the angel angled above her. Here the combination of the girl/woman, posed in her gauzy and seductive white prom dress, standing beneath a similarly dressed monument to death is nothing less than eerie.
..the artists featured in Equinox each command enough presence to hold their own as solo shows..”
–by Ann Reardon, The Scope 21 November 2002
“Michelle Gemma and Mark Wallace, both affiliated with Hozomeen Press, have presented a collection of photographs large in scale and artistic intent.
Nestled into a well lighted and breezy corner room of the quizzical store, crossing the threshold into Gemma’s exhibition is much like stepping through a looking glass. It is the small touches that lend the most interesting aspect to Gemma’s first show in the newly opened Emporium Gallery. The tiny buttons that tack the frameless images to the wall, small silver frames of curious dark images lend to a feeling that you’ve stumbled into an eccentric aunt’s bedroom full of treasures and surprises. It’s an intimate presentation with an ethereal touch- lily petals spread along the mantel and the lady’s scarf draped on the table.”
–By Becca Shea, Mystic River Press 14 July 1994
“The abstract photography of Michelle Gemma and Mark Wallace is well known in the area, thanks to last summer’s exhibit at Mystic’s Emporium and their illustration of books by Hozomeen Press. But Merge, their new show at the Emporium is one of the best I’ve seen this year.
The scale of the Merge exhibit is striking. Few of us have seen Gemma’s and Wallace’s work displayed so enormously, and those who don’t love Gemma’s postmodern pastorals will find no new love for them here.”
–By Scott Timberg, the Day 15 October 1995
…My first bad review…
“One room is taken over by a photo-installation by Mystic’s Michelle Gemma. This series of 29 prints, with the exception of 3 figure shots and few photos of children, is entirely made up of muddy black-and whites of dyspeptic young women staring into space with gauzy drapery over the scenery. The prints are a morass of mid-tones, and the subject matter mawkish and self-conscious. Combined with the installation in the room- a tape loop of rain and thunder playing, white sheets draped over furniture the whole effect is that of Addams Family characters posing for badly lit Calvin Klein ads.”
–By Milton Moore, the Day 23 May 1997
And my response to Mr. Moore- a photograph of my models, entitled, Nothing Comes Between Us, to hang in the next Emporium group show with this press release:
“When we last saw Gemma, she had just completed her latest shoot for Calvin Klein, chez Mystic. We arrived just in time for a little apres-gig cocktail, with our notebooks in hand, only to find Gemma in a state of disentanglement. It appears that one of the models got a little naughty and decided to unroll yards and yards of some sort of gauzy material (it was Victorian mesh-ed.) and play a bit. What a scene! The girls were attempting to change clothes quickly for the next fashion layout, and the tres bad boy kept running about them, unfurling the gauze, and going on about his grandmother’s wedding dress. The poor girls. They just wanted to finish the shoot so they could all go out to dinner as promised (on Calvin, of course ed.)But they stared into the camera beautifully, and from the looks of it, Gemma got some transcendent shots, nonetheless. We had just warmed up to the vibe, sipping our old-fashioneds, ready to ask her the really hard questions–Why all the appeal to the emotions? Why the undue consciousness of oneself as an object of notice?– et cetera Just then, an enormous bus pulled up, an airplane landed in the backyard, and the radio turned itself up in volume. The official art press had arrived. Well, we smiled to each other, I think we know what all the fuss is about.”
–By Michelle Gemma 12 June 1997
And in response to the piece in question…
“The always atmospheric Gemma contributes a stylized, vaguely surreal black and white photograph. Her piece, Nothing Comes Between Us, chronicles a kind of wedding-gone-bad, with bored,restlessmodels in suits and antique dresses. A faux-wedding shot seems inevitable for Gemma; part of what gives her photographs their power is their reconfiguring of ancient and ritualized icons like crosses, Victorian dresses and old gravestones.”
–By Scott Timberg, the Day 13 June 1997