Home Unbound

Fine-art photographer Jennifer Garza-Cuen looks inside American cities to explore the notion of home.

The idea of "home" and more specifically, the question, "where are you from?" can be complicated for some. There are those who don’t identify with a singular place, those who’ve moved too many times to define a hometown, and those who’ve lived away from "home" for so long, they no longer want to claim it.

There’s another idea too, though. That where you’re from can be based on a conglomeration of life, memories and feelings. "Home" is relative, varied and perhaps chosen instead of assigned. Photographer Jennifer Garza-Cuen explores that interpretation in her series "IMAG[IN]ING AMERICA." The title is a play on words; the photos, a collection of still lifes and portraits highlighting specific aspects of cities in America.

In Rabun, Georgia, Garza-Cuen captures an unmade, sunflower-adorned bed, a gun rack, and a young girl stoically holding a live snake.

In Eden, Vermont, she documents a 1918 Masonic Hall temple log, modestly dressed women by a river and aged wallpaper depicting Victorian-era life.

To describe a mobile society’s experience with home, Garza-Cuen references curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of the Radicant. "We are more like the ivy plant than the ancestral home, enrooting as we move," she says.

The work itself has legs. "IMAG[IN] ING AMERICA" has been featured in exhibitions at Photo London, the Center for Photography at Woodstock, Site: Brooklyn, the Art Museum of South Texas, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, to name a few.

Garza-Cuen was named a PDN’s 30 photographer in 2018, and her work has been published in journals like Dear Dave, Der Greif, The Photo Review, and Conveyor Magazine. As a 2019 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, this is a year that Garza-Cuen is certainly one to watch.

When asked how she chooses the locations she photographs, Garza-Cuen says, "I am trying to locate my ‘Americanness’ through its mythology, so I begin by selecting a place or a region, and then look for loose family connections. A sister or brother who relocated to Reno, an uncle or cousin who lived in Detroit, a partner who grew up in the deep south."

"We are more like the ivy plant than the ancestral home, rooting as we move."

Of her subjects, Garza-Cuen says she’s attracted to photographing people as "representatives of our notions of place."

The idea of home as being murky is one Garza-Cuen has personally experienced. Born in Seattle, Washington and raised in Los Gatos, California, her family was comprised of travelers, starting with a father who worked in the Peace Corps. Her parents hosted multiple exchange students throughout her childhood, introducing Garza-Cuen and her siblings to global community from a young age.

Garza-Cuen followed in her family’s footsteps, visiting older brothers and sisters abroad during high school, and taking art classes in Mexico after graduation—all with a camera in tow.

"I was an obsessive photographer in high school but completely untrained," she says. When it came time for college, Garza-Cuen chose American University in Cairo, earning a BA in comparative literature.

After graduation, she moved to London and found work assisting fashion and advertising photographers.

"London made me realize that there are so many areas of photography," she says. "The photographers I worked for were successful and very good at what they did, but it wasn’t what inspired me—I was interested in photography as a way to fill us with wonder, make us think, question or open a dialogue. I am interested in images that can exist as a counterpoint to consumer culture."

The idea of art school was something Garza-Cuen "just couldn’t shake," so after working abroad, she applied and was accepted to RISD—a school she’d always known would off er the kind of arts education she needed. Graduating in 2012 with an MFA in photography and an MA in the History of Art and Visual Culture, Garza-Cuen’s desire to make art is stronger than ever.

In PDN’s 2019 fine-art issue, she said that to make it as a fine-art photographer, "Consistency of vision is important. If you come out with one look and then the next day come out with something completely different, people often think: This person’s all over the place, they don’t know what they’re doing."

Her look? Photographs marked by a sense of gravity, stillness and often muted color, and usually captured with a large format, Deardorff Special 4×5 Field camera—requiring an extra layer of patience and technique.

Garza-Cuen is also an Assistant Professor of Photography in the Department of Art+Design at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. For her students who are working digitally, she recommends Nikon gear, especially NIKKOR lenses, which she’s always found to be incredibly sharp.

Her advice to students is to simply do the work of getting up every single day, lugging your camera and being present enough to find the right images. "There’s a line between being stubborn and persistent, and also being open to what might happen," Garza-Cuen says. "I’ve almost missed images because it took me one or two seconds too long to realize there wasn’t something invading my image, but actually something arriving for my image…It’s the unexpected moment that we hope for in imagery. Often, it’s difficult to be tight and loose at the same time, and that is pretty much what’s required."


Photo © by Jennifer Garza-Cuen