Ten Questions with Liz Chilsen

This week, we are pleased to present to you a fellow Chicago Photographer, Liz Chilsen. 

Liz hails from Wisconsin, but has made roots here in Chicago. Her work has a voice underrepresented in fine art photography- that of the inside looking out. Whether isolationist, voyeuristic or plainly curious, it is a perspective I am particularly familiar with as someone who is stuck indoors for many months of the year. Yet I don’t believe that orientation is required to appreciate her work. She strikes a chord with a very relateable perspective- all of us view the world from a place of our own security, the place of our choosing, and how far we choose to look can alter how we see that which is right in front of us, reflected in her romantic study of depth of field. 

Give us some background about yourself. Where are you from, where are you based, and how long have you been photographing?

I was born in northern Wisconsin and grew up on the outskirts of Wausau, a smallish town that was the main urban scene in an otherwise rural region. It’s a lovely place, more cosmopolitan now, but with a very interesting rural presence. I moved to Chicago about 20 years ago for grad school. I still have a strong identity as a Wisconsinite though, even though Chicago is now my home. I’ve been photographing for most of my life. I got a camera when I was about 10 from my Mom, and started making photobooks with pictures of my cats and my family and my home almost right away. Those themes have pretty much stuck with me, except I don’t make a lot of pictures of cats anymore.

How did you get into photography? Are you a self-taught, or a formally trained photographer?

I’m a little bit self-taught a little bit formal-trained. In my freshman year of college, two friends helped me ramp up what I was doing with photography. One of them helped me get a good deal on my first SLR at the local camera store where he worked. The other had access to the darkroom at the College which was mostly used by the marketing department. I spent many happy hours in there figuring out how to develop and print my work. When I transferred to UW-Madison I started taking photo classes and got a dream job in the Wisconsin Historical Society photographic archives. That job was and is a major influence. I worked every day with great photographs made for a multitude of purposes. It gave me a huge respect for the wild diversity of the medium. Two other major influences were the years I spent working in Nicaragua in the 1980’s and running my photography business. The discipline required in applying your own skills to meet a client’s vision is invaluable.

What is your primary medium? Do you prefer a digital, film, or hybrid workflow? How does your process impact the final product? What is your creative process like? 

Nowadays my work is almost all digital. I love film and alternative processes, but the ready availability of digital really matters to me. That immediacy is both intriguing and a bit of a conundrum. I work with my iPhone a lot. But I recognize in my students a significantly different relationship to the medium than mine. If they ever have the experience of making a bunch of pictures and having to wait to see the result, it’s an exotic, chosen experience. For me, that is embedded in my relationship to the medium and makes an inherent difference I how I work. I approach each image with a different type of consideration and deliberation.

I’m really interested in the profusion of images in our culture. Concern, distain, even fear about this has been a part of photography from its inception. Baudelaire famously distained the photographic industry, and a world with snapchat would most likely blow him away. 

What are you working on now?

I’ve got a number of projects in process at the moment. Two that take most of my attention right now are “View From My Family Home”, which is a long-term investigation of place around the homes of 4 generations of my family, and my blog, “Neighborland” on “ChicagoNow” where I focus on photography, place and architecture.

Ultimately, what do you hope to achieve with your work?

For me, photography is primarily a means of communication. In my images I share my perspective; literally how I see things. One of my early influences is Lee Friedlander. I got so excited when I first saw his “American Monuments” series. It was a complicated way of seeing that was both a critique and a delight in the culture that had created that world. The experience generated a desire in me to try and share my vision too. To notice actively what was going on around me and give a little insight into it to anyone who might be interested. 

Are you involved in other creative endeavors? If so, how do they impact your photographic work?

Teaching is a creative endeavor that has a significant influence on my photography. And writing; the words I put together with my images in Neighborland on ChicagoNow, as well as a book project I’m working on.

What people, photographers or otherwise, significantly influence your photography? 

I’ve mentioned Lee Friedlander. Other influences are film-makers like Peter H. Thompson whose cinematic essays are brilliant.*

I’m also very interested in Fluxus artists lately. I got to see Allison Knowles perform recently, and it rekindled my interest in process art, and creating experiences through art.

Another big influence is people who work in urban design. I have had the opportunity to participate as a photographer in architectural charettes in Chicago and in Birmingham, Alabama. They’ve enriched my view of how individuals use places and how place can define us.

Are there any contemporary, lesser known photographers that you feel deserve some recognition?

I recently published an interview with April Wilkins in Frank Magazine. April is based in Chicago. Her practice spans a wide swath of the medium. (You can download the iPad app for Frank Magazine in the App Store to read the interview.) In it I also mention Sonja Thomsen, from Milwaukee. She’s been getting more well-deserved attention lately. Her work explores photography in a scientific, visual way. The process element of her work intrigues me. And, Chicago-based Kate Joyce has a gentle, compassionate eye for our world that gives me new insight.

How do you feel about the current climate of fine art photography? Are there any trends you find interesting? Any you dislike?

 I think in the US there’s frequently an insularity about photography that is counter-productive. I have been fortunate to travel in Asia a bit in the past 5 years, and what I find among photographers there is that they don’t really think of themselves as photographers. Photography is a means of expression and communication incorporated into the larger folds of their work. It’s one tool in their toolbox. The complexity of this attitude seems more tuned in to contemporary society. 

What drives you to create new work? Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration is a tricky thing. You have to get up in the morning and just work. I feel most inspired when I’m making things and testing my boundaries. It’s the kind of thing you can’t just sit around and wait for. You gotta do stuff to get stuff and the more you make the more you’ll make. That’s just how it is, and it’s a lesson I need to re-learn myself over and over again.

Thank you Liz! We have so enjoyed hearing your perspective and seeing your lovely work!


To learn more about Liz and see more of her work, go here.  For the Neighborland Project, check here. 

Twitter: @lizchilsen

Facebook: facebook.com/liz.chilsen

Frank Magazine: in the App Store

 * Peter Thompson passed away recently, and a new boxed set of his films has been released. All the proceeds go to support scholarships for talented young photographers. 
See more here.