Jo Ann Callis’s images tend to linger in your mind long after you’ve seen them. She’s been making enigmatic, highly sensual photographs since the 1970s. Her images often evoke disquieting aspects of everyday life.
Callis moved to Southern California from Ohio in 1961 and started a family before enrolling at UCLA. Juggling motherhood and work, she began teaching at California Institute of the Arts in 1976, where she still advises students, and continues to make suggestive and unsettling photographs.
During the pandemic I’ve been working from home, and her disquieting images of interior spaces have felt especially resonant. They’ve had me looking at the things around me more carefully. Her work manages to bring a sense of mystery, of narrative potential, to even the most mundane of familiar objects: tissue boxes, eggs, bedding, a bathtub. She’s able to channel a sense of heightened emotional intensity in her photographs, and while I’ve always appreciated that quality of her work, it feels all the more powerful in this time of isolation.
Callis has also turned to art amidst the pandemic. “You realize what art means to you,” she said. “It’s like falling in love, a certain kind of connection. It’s just immediate. That saved my life. That makes me feel whole. That makes me excited. That makes me feel like living is worth it.”
I recently spoke with Callis about some of her past work and how she’s channeling her creativity.
Mazie Harris: I’ve been thinking about your pictures of everyday objects, super banal things. There’s something about the way you put them together. You’re photographing simple commonplace objects, but the juxtaposition is important. It’s powerful thing to put incongruous things side by side because our brain wants to make connections and create a story behind them.
Jo Ann Callis: I was always interested in still life and setting them up, but even just saying the words “still life,” I sometimes think, “Oh, that’s so boring.”
MH: It’s a boring phrase, but the concept of stilling life is something that we can all understand.
JAC: I used to think, “Oh, there is a pitcher, and there’s the cup.” And I was like, “Oh, yawn yawn. Why is this interesting?” So I thought, what if I took each of the objects in the still life and focused on them individually. And then let the viewer put them together in whatever way, because usually in normal still life with perspective, something in the foreground is usually more important or in focus.
In this group I was thinking first of all about textures. It doesn’t matter what it is. It just had those little hairs that stick out. And then the sexuality in it. Coin purses, or women’s purses have some kind of a sexual connotation if you want to look at them that way. It’s a loose association. There’s nothing specific, it’s just together, they could create some kind of a feeling.
I had been at Cal Arts since ‘76. Conceptual art reigned supreme. My work was very emotional and I just felt, maybe I could do something that looked a little less emotional, a little cooler. So that’s when I made these. I also thought black and white could be beautiful. Everyone was doing color, I was doing color. It was nice to switch back and forth and to luxuriate in a single object in the middle.
MH: Photography has this incredible power, the power of attention. Every moment we’re taking in so much visual information. It’s nice to focus on things in isolation.
MH: Is this Woman with Blond Hair the type of work that you were talking about, the more emotional work that you were making?
JAC: Yes. I hadn’t looked at this negative in many, many years, and then in the past five years, I printed this image of the woman with her hair spilling over the pillow for the first time. I’d taken it on the same roll of film with a similar image, with the woman’s hair up. Small visual changes in one idea make a big difference in how the picture affects the viewer. One is more about the line and the other is more about the hair almost being like a creature of some kind. A thing in itself almost.
In the picture with her hair up, I like the shape and the way the shoulders are pressed, this shadow that the head is making as it sinks into the pillow.
I was thinking about what it would feel like to have a pencil drawn from the top of your head, completely down the middle of the back. And that feeling when somebody scratches your back. The sensation when they start at the top and draw their hands down.
A lot of images were about how something feels, the tactility of an action. It also visually makes a nice line. And then of course the hair, which I don’t even know if I knew that when I photographed it, but it’s sort of vaginal-shaped, like a clamshell.
MH: There’s a delicacy or fragility in the shoulders. I don’t think of your work as fragile, but a lot of the people in your photographs look fragile.
JAC: But isn’t that what we all are? You don’t have to look very far. Even the toughest people are just human beings. Whether you show it or not, there’s stuff going on inside. And I just want to talk about it. Many people don’t want to look at it. And I can’t help but look at it.
MH: I’ve been returning in my mind to this image lately, when I feel like crawling in bed and pulling the covers over my head. We’re becoming one with our furniture these days and the claustrophobia of the encroaching walls in this picture feels very appropriate for quarantine.
JAC: She’s one with the bed. It’s about the body and sexuality. The bed is such an intimate place. Sometimes I think of it as an island in the middle of all this sea of complexity and you climb into bed and you feel that you’re on your island now and you’re safe.
It’s safety and it’s warmth, but then there’s anxiety and stress about being trapped in there or held down—those opposites. If something’s really beautiful, I want to put something in there that’s a little stressful, anxiety-producing because that’s how I experience life. There’s always some anxiety about something, for me. It’s just part of living. It’s not all one thing, it’s not all bad either. But there’s always the other side.
MH: That takes us to the difficulties of this lockdown that we’re in and how hard it can be to focus on work. How are you finding an outlet for things that interest you?
JAC: The problem with making photographs for me now is that I don’t take to the digital. It’s very convenient and I love that part of it, that you can see what you’re getting. But I don’t feel connected as much and it’s not as satisfying right now. So I’m painting. Making small paintings does feel immediate, you put down something and it’s there, and you can look at it and think about it. That’s very satisfying. I like working with my hands. My painting is very influenced by photography, how could it not be? I’m trying to paint more loosely. I’m working at it, but I’m definitely tied to photography and I have to accept that’s what it is.
MH: It must feel good to have a project that feels engaging and focusing. You can’t be multitasking.
JAC: You’re thinking about it intensely. You don’t have time to think about too many other things.
MH: That’s a gift we can give ourselves.
JAC: I know, I’m so lucky that we have it. I painted a series of clouds because I was thinking about looking at everything in front of me. I’m looking out of a big window right now and I see the neighbor’s houses and leaves, landscapes. But then all you have to do is look up about four inches and you get the sky. The two realities are right next to each other. And the experience internally is so different. It’s a wonderful phenomenon. So I was thinking of my paintings as portraits of clouds. They were portraits of different kinds of clouds.
MH: We so often are so immersed in our lives and our phones and our computers.
JAC: Look up at the sky more often. It puts things into perspective.