Lauren Henkin

Lauren Henkin, Visual Artist

Artists in Collaboration

Over the last 2 years, I've unintentionally become an active collaborator.  It started with the publication of my first book and grew from there.  I didn't know, when I started working with John DeMerritt and Inge Bruggeman on Displaced, that the experience would lead to working with other writers, letterpress printers, printmakers, bookbinders and most recently, another visual artist.  I have found the collaborative process so compelling, so challenging, so critical to my individual growth, and so powerful, that I want to share some thoughts on the process. When I was a student in architecture school, I worked side-by-side with about 10 others in an open space.  We worked all the time.  We talked all the time.  We exchanged critical feedback all the time.  We freely offered ideas and took them in return, without the burden of needing to credit one another.  It was natural and expected—the give and take—with an unspoken understanding that this dialog was an absolutely essential component to improving.

The term in-process, which I find so rarely embraced in photography, was all that existed in school for me.  Rarely, if ever, was I done with anything.  It was only the constraint of the end of the semester that defined any boundary to what I was creating. Instead, there were questions like how can I improve this? where does it fail? what am I overlooking? how could I have better communicated my ideas?  I have such difficulty with the expectation for completion—at portfolio reviews, in critique groups, in my own head. I realized a few months ago how far off track I had gotten when, after talking with another artist repeatedly about artistic practice, I returned to the fundamental belief that artistic practice is about exploration not completion. He questioned me, When the hell is anything done?  The conversations that followed were a result of our both being open and willing to share failures in both practice and thinking. And I know they have given me the confidence to set a new course, one that I should have been traveling all along.  I'm grateful.

A few weeks ago, we entered into a formal collaboration, my first with another artist also using the medium of photography.  Richard Benari and I have been communicating for over a year about art and the creative process.  On the surface, we have very different approaches to the making of art. My work begins in narrative, he rejects it entirely. Much of my practice is steeped in printmaking, he questioned my distrust of online viewing.  My work originates as landscapes, his as still lifes. And yet, we found common ground in the importance of composition, in the belief that art is fundamentally about seeing, in the complex geometries found in abstract expressionism and in conveying the full range of experience to a viewer: curiosity, exploration, revelation, and ultimately, introspection.  In the short time we’ve been working together, I’ve learned an incredible amount about communication, composition, editing and building a conceptual foundation.  It has also raised questions for me about my habits (some of which have become too comfortable) and what I hope to achieve; questions that may take time to contemplate, but that I know will lead to stronger work.

An architect friend of mine told me years ago the secret to any great partnership.  I had questioned her about what made her marriage (one of the best I have seen) work.  She said that in most partnerships the formula is:

1 + 1 = 2;

but that in great partnerships, the formula is instead:

1 + 1 = 3.

When I think about collaboration, or a partnership, either professional or personal, I now use this formula as a basis by which to ask some fundamental questions to evaluate whether the relationship will be a healthy one.  Will we each contribute equally?  Can we work together to create something not achieved alone?

I'm not necessarily advocating for collaboration, but certainly for more ongoing, regular dialog and critical feedback.  It takes a level of trust and respect to be able to sustain the tests and challenges of a working partnership.  I have had opportunities for collaboration where the personalities involved didn't click or we had different ideas for what the outcome of the collaboration would be or even what the definition of collaboration is.  It's tricky.  I have forced myself to be patient—to find the right fit—often watching artists work and evolve for months or years before approaching them to work together.  The more research I've done into how they work, how other collaborative efforts have evolved, and who they are as a person, the better the outcomes have been.

Most photographers I know exist in extreme isolation, with little interest in seeking out ongoing commentary or working partnerships.  Maybe it’s that we’re afraid to expose ourselves to critical feedback.  Maybe it’s that we don’t know where to find the people to turn to for this kind of exchange.  Maybe it’s that we feel insecure about our own vocabularies for talking about the work of other artists, especially those in other mediums.  I don’t know the answer.  But I do know that the progress I’ve made, both in my own thinking and approach to creating new images, would not have the strong footing that I feel it now does, had it not been for the critical dialog and collaborations I’ve engaged in the last few years.

In the year ahead I look forward to three active collaborations—one with writer Kirsten Rian, one that I described above with Richard Benari, and a third, with artist and master printer Paul Taylor.

My hope for all of us is to at least consider reaching out to begin conversing with artists of any medium.  We need the communication, we need the feedback, we need each other.