The Lomography Gallery Store is an amazing place to meet all kinds of creative folks, photographers and artists included. When Nancy Siesel came into the store in New York earlier this year to pick up her Lomo'Instant Automat which she'd purchased on Kickstarter, she told us about this amazing project she was developing as a participant in SU-CASA, a photography class for members at the Council Center for Senior Citizens in Brooklyn, NY. When she was all ready to teach but didn't have any students, she found some willing participants in a nearby poetry class, and the Image and Poetry Project was born!
Nancy borrowed a few Diana F+ cameras for the class, and described them as being very helpful to get her students out to go shooting, because they were so much fun! In the end, Lomography NYC invited Nancy and her students for a special gallery opening event. A great time was had by all, and it was so inspiring to see Lomography as the meeting point for all of this. Learn more in the interview below.
Hi Nancy, welcome to the Lomography Magazine! Can you tell me about yourself as an artist?
I started taking pictures in a serious way during my last year of high school, and kind of knew right away that I wanted to be a documentary photographer. I had a fantastic teacher, who had Robert Frank's "The Americans", Diane Arbus' monograph, Jill Friedman's "Firehouse", Larry Clark's "Tulsa" and Susan Meiselas' "Carnival Strippers" right in his classroom, they were all influential in developing my eye. He was politically active and challenged us to consider what was going on in this country, and the world, which broadened my view.
My first photo essay that began as a high school project, was on a former elementary school classmate, Nicole, who at 17, had dropped out of school and was working as a topless dancer. I photographed her over the course of seven years culminating in an unpublished book "Solitary Dancer". I brought this project to photo editors at The New York Times, began freelancing for the newspaper, and ultimately was hired as a staff photographer.
While working at the Times, I began observing the changes taking place in Times Square and started photographing with the Diana. I always used black and white film at that time (early to mid 90's), but the Diana seemed to give the images a timeless quality. It also looks like a toy, so I was hopeful that while photographing in front of the last remaining peep shows, people wouldn't take me seriously.
After years of photographing and a variety of layouts, the project was published as a full page spread in the Sunday Week in Review Section of the New York Times in 1996. Michelle Bates' book "Plastic Cameras Toying With Creativity" Second Edition, included some of my work and reprinted the spread, noting that this was the first time that non-traditional images were included in a national daily newspaper.
While traveling, over many years, I began an ongoing project "In Search of the Baobab Tree", an exploration of mystical landscapes utilizing vintage Diana cameras.
I hope to have it published one day after I get to Madagascar --which has more Baobab trees than anywhere in the world.
How did you find Lomography?
As a long time user of the Diana camera, I was aware of Lomography, but not the store and gallery. I purchased a Lomo'Instant Automat during the Kickstarter release and needed it right away to use for the class. One of the Kickstarter supporters mentioned the NYC store, and how he wished he was in NYC to pick up his camera. So it was kind of a duh, can't believe I didn't think of that moment. The collaboration with Lomography grew out of that visit to the store.
What made you realize you wanted to teach this class at the Senior Center?
It came about through the Brooklyn Arts Council actually. I have received grant funding before, and am always looking for new opportunities to grow as an artist, and also to share my experiences of being a professional photographer for more than two decades.
I read about the SU CASA program which is an artist residency at senior centers in all five boroughs. I applied last year through the Brooklyn Arts Council (since I live in Brooklyn) and after a successful proposal was an artist-in- residence in 2016 at the Boro Park Senior Center. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, teaching this demographic. I applied again and got my second residency this year at Council Center for Senior Citizens.
Were there any particularly heartwarming moments from this opening?
The total experience was heartwarming. It's one thing for this group to be celebrated at their senior center, but it is quite something to go across the river in a taxi and see their photography exhibited at the Lomography Gallery Store. The people who work at the store, and the photographers who came to see their exhibit, spoke to them about their poetry and photographs, which was rewarding for all of us. In the age of online everything, these human interactions between people of different generations is unusual and I am thankful to Lomography for facilitating this event.
Was there a central theme in the photographs?
There was no central theme other than exploration, in whatever form that took. We were only able to gain permission to photograph individuals in the ballroom dance class at the senior center, so we would go out for walks in the neighborhood, if it wasn't snowing, raining or too windy and cold.
I would point out beautiful afternoon light and encouraged them to look up at the facades of buildings, as well as nature, and people walking down the street. They would ask permission to take a picture because this is a slow, more considered kind of photography. One of the participants Milly who is 86, said "I never took pictures before, and I was very proud of the results.I loved going outside, learning how to point the camera, stopping people on the street to ask if I could take their picture, and seeing their surprised response. Happily, most people agreed, and that's how I created the headless style!"
What inspired you to teach them on film as opposed to digital?
I started with disposable film cameras, and though I liked the results I hated the "disposable" plastic waste. So when given the opportunity to work with colorful Dianas and medium format film, I was excited to bring my love of experimentation with these cameras to the seniors.
Was there anything else you want to share about this experience?
I would just add that with teaching, as with projects, I try to be open and flexible to allow for serendipity, when things don't go according to a plan. The Image and Poetry Project was created when I had no participants for my photography class, and reached out to seniors who were comfortable expressing themselves through poetry.