Where We Are Closest: A Conversation with Naima Green

Naima Green is an artist and educator interested in reviving the queer and BIPOC archive and reimagining the relationship between the photographer and subject. She works primarily with digital and film photography and short film, and she holds an MFA in Photography from ICP–Bard, an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a BA from Barnard College. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at the Smart Museum of Art, MASS MoCA, International Center of Photography, Houston Center for Photography, Bronx Museum, and many other institutions. Her recent exhibition Brief & Drenching at Fotografiska New York showcased a series of photographs as well as a short film titled The Intimacy of Before. Many photographs were pulled from her project Pur·suit, a reimagining of Catherine Opie’s Dyke Deck consisting of 54 playing cards depicting queer, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. CJLC’s Campbell Campbell and Columbia Undergraduate Journal of Art History editor Lilly Cao interviewed Naima on her artistic intentions and influences. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lilly Cao: Data collections and archives can be dehumanizing—especially in the contemporary digital age, they often commoditize identities in service of profit-seeking institutions and corporations. Pur·suit, itself a kind of archive or data repository, is in contrast radically humanizing: you give your sitters the power to dress and pose how they want, and your pastel fabric set appears soft and welcoming rather than clinical or objective. How do you view this work in conversation with conventional data collections or historical archives? Might it help us reconceptualize what it means to collect data of and about people—or what it means to create an archive at all?

Naima Green: I am thinking about historical archives and modes of data collection, wanting to rethink the ways in which people can participate in their own self fashioning, preservation, archival. With Pur·suit, I was interested in the set design because I wanted people to feel welcomed and comfortable in their bodies and center their embodiment and play. That ranges from someone stepping on a prop to me offering them tea or a soft place to decompress from the day. I asked people to come as they feel most comfortable and confident and in any state of dress or undress in which they feel comfortable. 

This kind of data collection is also in how I assigned the cards and the suits. I created a survey with fifteen to twenty questions that range from “What texture do you identify with?” “What season calls to you right now?” and “If you could choose the number and suit that you could be in the deck, what would you choose?” If people have relationships to a favorite number, I ask that they share that, and I created a key for myself. The card suits, diamonds, spades, clubs, hearts can translate to seasons or earth elements, so I asked expanded questions in case someone wanted a spade and there were no spades left. If someone wanted to be a seven of diamonds, and that was taken, then they could potentially be the two of diamonds because they connected with the two. 

I tried to invite people in the designing and naming of the card suits as well. To further your questions about humanization, it feels very critical to include the names of people who are in the deck. I was thinking about the truth that we do not often know who people are and what their names were, and we often only learn about people after they have died. What does inexpensive and nuanced queer life look like around me between 2018 and 2020? How can I name those people and invite them into my practice? Anyone who is not queer or black or sat for the project can still find an invitation through the different dynamics that they bring into playing with the cards. 

Campbell Campbell: I spent an hour looking through Pur·suit and Catherine Opie’s Dyke Deck. I am curious about what led you to Dyke Deck? How do you see yourself expanding or disrupting the tradition of portraiture? 

NG: I had learned about Catherine Opie’s practice while I was in the school, but I had not heard of this project until I was stumbling through a database in the New York Public Library, and I don’t even remember what I searched to get to the Dyke Deck. But I saw it and realized they didn’t have it in their collection, so I checked and ordered a deck on eBay. When it came, I was excited by the material and the transformation from an everyday object. Most people have a deck of cards in their homes, but how can you take that universal object and insert new communities? Opie’s Dyke Deck felt thrilling, playful, and iconic, but the more I looked at it, I felt like I was missing and many queer people around me were missing. I felt an urgent call to think about the communities around me and celebrate them. I often photograph people I know and love, but it felt important to invite people whom I didn’t know. It was my first time having an open call process, and sixty to seventy percent of the subjects are people whom I was meeting for the first time. That adds a layer of intimacy and trust, since I was getting to know and establish trust in people quickly. I photographed about 106 people over nine days, so most sessions were thirty minutes if you were an individual and forty-five minutes if you were a couple. That is not a long time to build rapport, so I made an effort to listen and ask questions—where are you coming from, what do you want to play, what music do you want to hear, how does the day inform how you show up? I created a space where people can let go of something horrible that might have happened on the train and can bring in something wonderful that they carried from the morning, since all of those things exist in the image making process. 

LC: I love the idea of bringing together narratives into the cracks of everyday life. I am wondering if you could talk about the shift in materials and color and textures that occurred in Pur·suit between 2018 and 2020. What initiated this change? 

NG: The set is related to thinking about the suits and elements and seasons. If the first set is spring, it is light, it is airy, it is mauves, it is mesh, it is iridescent. I built the second set with the set designer for the project, Jessie Levandov, and it was deep, autumn, velvet, dense, and opaque colors. That set was installed in late February 2020, and I had eighty people schedule to sit for Pur·suit in 2020, but that was not possible due to the pandemic. 

We did the first iteration of Pur·suit as a deck of playing cards, but there are only 54 cards in a deck of cards. There were a lot of people who were not in the deck but very much in the project that I wanted to honor. I think about the ways in which a contemporary archive is still emerging and might be the best place to hold stories as they develop, so that is what Pur·suit at recess was going to be, to make more images as they were happening. I interviewed couples who are business partners and asked people to contribute playlists, TV shows, and answer questions about what their lives look like in 2020. The goal, as the project continues, is to think about these subtle shifts in environments and what is the best way to move forward. 

I know for certain that creating this archive feels necessary to the larger project, so that is what I am working on right now. Thinking about how that happens and what that looks like. In a couple of weeks, I will be releasing the first stage of the archive with all of the portraits that I was able to make in 2020. Thinking about how we work now and what 2020 felt like and how we care for each other and ourselves. Thinking about the needs of individuals and communities. 

CC: On the note of safety, could you discuss the role of the home in your photography? Is there a connection between the safety and lack of empty space in your photos? 

NG: For the last six years, I lived in the same apartment and invited everyone to come over. I photographed them and this society that I had, and I was thinking about who came into my space, how they changed the space, and how I changed in the space. There is an element of safety if I am inviting them into my home, but I am also thinking about the homes that we make are mobile or temporary or just a gathering on the beach one day that will be dismantled by the end of the night. I am surrounded by people who think safety and accountability are important: to be able to have honest and difficult conversations with the people who surround you can create more elements of safety and transparency. I am interested in homes as places where we may be the closest to ourselves in some ways, and I mean that I am not thinking just about physical bodies and space, but the things that we keep around us. When I go into someone’s space, I take notice of how they decorate their mantel or what books they show and what spices they have out. This information contributes to the portrait and the life, and that can be more interesting than a static portrait because when you see a beautiful portrait, you see a beautiful person, but do not know anything about what they’re reading, what they’re listening to, what they love. Those points of entry are fascinating. 

LC: Could you talk about the objects in your exhibition at Fotografiska? The furniture and the vanity are items from the home; was this the atmosphere you were trying to evoke in the gallery? 

NG: That second gallery, there is a video playing, the short film called The Intimacy of Before. Jessie Levandov, a designer and filmmaker, and I made that film together a few weeks before I moved out of that long term apartment that I lived in. Of the objects in that gallery, the mirror in particular is important because that is a mirror that used to sit on my desk, and the way it is is how it sat on my desk. Then, there’s a little elongated rectangular card that says, “I Like You,” and there’s an etching tucked into the bottom and a photograph tucked into the bottom. There are a set of polaroids that sit to the left of the mirror; all of those polaroids were made in the “I Like You” mirror. That series started in 2017, where every time I changed clothes in the span of 36 hours, I took a Polaroid, and I was kind of bored at home. I think I had just had dental surgery, and I didn’t want to go anywhere. Usually, up until that point, I mostly worked outside in natural light and in daylight, in the warmth of spring and summer and fall. So, I really was thinking, “What can I make in this space that I spend so much time in?” I didn’t think it would really become anything, but I would make polaroids in that mirror all the time, with people who visited, but still mostly alone. 

Having the mirror in the gallery—having the physical mirror in the gallery—it invites people to make their own selfie in the mirror. If you stand at a certain angle, there is a larger self portrait of me holding a camera that you can see through the mirror behind you. You can see me making a portrait, as you are looking at or making your own portrait in the mirror. It felt important to bring in the actual objects from my space. In the gallery next to that one, there’s a chair in the corner, and under it, it says, “I’m Waiting for a Picture or a Person.” That chair also lived in my apartment for a little while. Another point of invitation is to have something to sit on that actually feels supportive. Looking at the work and actually spending time with it and having something soft that greets you when you’re in a gallery space– that’s so rare. I was thinking, “What does it mean to make an exhibition that considers a few more elements of the experience of the visitor?” That’s what I do in my home space. So, because I’m not there to offer you water or tea or make you a cocktail or give you a snack, here are some wider chairs for you to actually sit and look at the work and experience the work with some time rather than just running through the exhibition because there’s nowhere to sit, or because there’s nowhere to exist for a long time.

CC: Turning to filmmaking, could you talk about what drove your interest from photography to filmmaking? What can you explore in filmmaking that you cannot explore in photography? Could you talk about images of excess and the body?

NG: Filmmaking is a very new way of making for me. I feel like I had never really been drawn to film or video simply because I always felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. That feeling stopped me, and now I feel like isn’t that the beauty of it? So often you don’t know what you’re doing until you try and you try again and you just continue working at it. I could have said that 20 years ago, I didn’t know how to make images, but I still was making them. So, I’m trying not to hinder my own practice and process in that way. About the film, I made a sketch film with some of these ideas right after the election in 2016. I was getting my MFA at the time and didn’t know anything really about making a video; it was just me and a tripod, but I was interested in this idea of consumption to the point where it might break you in some way. I was also interested in ideas of shedding and ideas of releasing. 

Those are some of the elements that were brought into The Intimacy of Before, which was really interesting to make in quarantine, thinking about touch, and about how so many people have been deprived of touch and deprived of intimate contact. All of the audio that you hear is voice notes or recordings from a sound library that I’ve been maintaining for probably three or four years. I record all sorts of things, like my dreams in the morning, when I wake up. There are some frogs croaking that you hear in one moment in the film, and that was over the summer in the woods in Connecticut. There are also the sounds of water pumping that are from Oaxaca in December of 2019. I was thinking about the way that I can trace how sounds become a map and also about a way of remembering and being able to drop into such specific moments that I probably wouldn’t be able to recount without the sound. 

Going back to how I came to making a film, I think I’m interested in bringing more life in, and I think that the video allows for that in a very specific way. It also was a way for me to create some sort of time capsule of what my space used to be like and what it meant to live in a place for so long. And also, what it meant to leave that place and to recognize how much I grew and how much I stretched and then how much I outgrew that space. I was thinking about all the ways that that happens throughout life all the time—the ways that we, in friendships or in partnerships, think at some points that the relationships might be nurturing and supportive, but in other moments, you realize that you outgrow it are you realize that it’s become stale or that you’re no longer being nurtured or nourished. So, you let go and release those things, and maybe you see how to have fun in the process of that even through very real and difficult challenges. There’s no one narrative around that film. I can’t say, “It’s about X.” It’s about so many things. The more that I think about it and the more that I watch it, I think it can become about so much more than what I was even initially thinking about.

CC: Looking at your work chronologically, it seems as though you can trace an increasing focus of movement and time in your work. Could you discuss how you’re incorporating these more in your portraiture?

NG: In my earlier portraits, I was thinking about stillness and distilling the portrait down to a breath. I was thinking about the way that the landscape and the figure might be interwoven or situated. I work in a lot of different modes and ways and wanted to think more about the spilling out of life. There’s so much messiness in thinking about portraiture and homemaking, about friendship and community, and just the way we live. I want to look less at a very still portrait where someone might be confronting me, or the camera or the viewer, and instead give more space for interior life in personal reflection, in the turning away to the camera to create blocks and to create questions and points of curiosity where you don’t need to know what this person’s face might look like. Where you don’t need to know how they might hold their hands. Then, you can see a little bit of what they’re looking out at, or get the feel for how they might be moving in space, or in a hot tub, or on a roof in the middle of summer or at a quarantine birthday party, sitting six feet away from friends. I am just thinking about more places of movement, and also of living in a different way.

LC: On the notion of process, how is your artwork in conversation with the literature that you’re reading or the music that you’re consuming?

NG: The current show, Brief & Drenching, at Fotografiska, has its title from one of the last lines from Zami, a book by Audre Lorde. I started reading that text at the beginning of 2019 when I moved to Mexico City, and I didn’t want that book to end, so I read it really slowly. I would just read a page then put it down, then I would come back to it a week later and read a chapter and still think, “Oh gosh, you’re moving too fast.” I finally finished that book at the beginning of 2020. I read it over the course of a year. I learned so much—I didn’t know that she lived in Mexico, and so I felt like it was such an important period of my life to read that book and to also sit with what a page was giving me and opening up for me. I feel like a lot of my exhibition titles come from text or things that I’ve read or excerpts. Last year, I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House really slowly, and that was so important for where I was in my life, too. It’s important to be a reader as an image maker. I think about some of the books that indirectly have changed the way I think about image making and the way that text comes into that process. [Maggie Nelson’s] Bluets, I love that book. I love short stories. When I first read Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You maybe eight or ten years ago, I thought it was hilarious. I tried to pick it up again recently, and I didn’t connect with it. I’m honoring what the text and the books and the writing and the literature might do for you in a very specific time, and not expecting to have that same relationship with the book for your whole life.

For more of Naima Green’s work, visit http://www.naimagreen.com/.