THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER: Small towns and OCDs with photographer Shelby Skumanich

“I think of my work as an ellipse at the end of a thought, rather than a full, punctuated sentence.” Shelby Skumanich

I come from Wilkes-Barre, an old working class coal mining town in Eastern Pennsylvania. Perhaps it was that feeling of “being home” that drew me to the photography of Shelby Skumanich. Shelby captures beauty in juxtapositions: a public bathroom decorated with fake flowers, an decaying building with a vibrant green floor mimicking plush grass, and meticulously counted vegetables artfully placed in a forest.

Shelby is as well-spoken as she is a wonderful photographer. Please enjoy the INTERVIEW:

Do you have formal training in photography?

I started doing traditional black and white photographs when I was in high school. In 2007, I graduated from the Art Institute of Boston with a BFA in Photography. Art school was like photo boot camp for me and my knowledge of photography runs the gamut of wet lab printing to large format cameras to studio lighting to huge digital printing. Not only did it hone my technical and conceptual skills as a photographer, but it really helped me figure out how integral photographs are in my life.

In the past, I have done personal and studio assisting for several artists and photographers. Currently, I work at Dan’s Camera City as a lab tech. One of my favorite things about photography is the printing process. I love the challenge of going from what an image looked like from the film/camera sensor to a print. Editing and color correcting photographs is like meditation for me.

What was your initial fascination with taking photographs?

I first picked up a camera was I was about 14 and I responded immediately to being able to organize the world inside of the viewfinder. It was really fantastic to have a reason to go out, explore, look around, ask questions and sometimes find answers. I wanted to understand why things were the way they were and be able to look at the fantastic details in the world and share them.

Do you tend to shoot “themes”, or do you randomly shoot when inspired and later find they could fit into a theme?

When I go out to shoot, I always head towards a specific place and have a general idea of what I’ll be looking at to make work. I have the square two block radius rule in a new place, which is that I park my car and walk two blocks in one direction, two blocks in another and so on to make a square so I end up back where I started. It allows me to self edit and not get too lost because I am not paying attention to street signs or roads too often. What actually comes out of those shoots is shaped by what types of things I am reading or thinking about. I do research on the places that I photograph before I even point my camera at them, as it helps me understand the place better and also forces me to look at the details that made that place interesting to me to begin with.

Really, though, I think of myself as a collector. Some people are into stamps, others into pez dispensers. I collect photographs.  I think of my work as an ellipse at the end of a thought, rather than a full, punctuated sentence. I’ve started a thought and I am not sure how it’s going to end right it now.

I‘m very intrigued by your work about OCD and the number six. I likewise have OCD with numbers, in that I prefer even numbers but I absolutely HATE the number six, would rather something in a 5 or 7 than a 6. (We should join forces and our OCD’s could cancel each other out!) Can you tell me about this project, and how the photos in this series relate to that number?

The OCD stuff! That came about from dealing with anxiety issues and ended up manifesting its self as this really labor intensive body of work. OCD is, in so many ways, about control or feeling as if you can control things through these rituals. When I first started having problems with anxiety, around 8 or so, I began to add the numbers that I saw around me to see if they equaled six or not. It was a way for me to exercise control over the environment that I was in, regardless of whatever was going on around me.

In the context of the project, I started doing this really pointless and fruitless labor in order to construct the images because OCD can be about that endless loop of doing without result in order to be in control. So, I peeled 402 potatoes one afternoon and took them out into the world to photograph them. The way the math works is that the numbers in the original grouping have to equal six when they are added all the way down to one number. So, in the body of work, there is a photograph of 177 buttons. 1+7+7=15 and 1+5=6 and so on.

Seriously, we should totally combine our OCD forces. We could take the world by number storm! I also wouldn’t mind canceling out my OCD. I’d have a lot of more time to think about other things besides the number 6.

Do you have favorite photos that you’ve taken?

The body of work that I am most proud of right now is Coal Hunkie, which is the portfolio I put together for my senior thesis. The photographs are about the remains of the anthracite coal industry in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania. I got to spend a lot of time there just wandering around, meeting people and networking. Once I got a chance to talk to people and explain what I was doing, I received a very warm welcome. I was allowed to hang out, follow people around while they worked and lived. It was phenomenal to spend time in a place that I find to be so, so interesting and also get to make pictures of it. I really wanted to honor the place and not let the photographs be a judgment call about it. The other thing is that when I look at some of those pictures, I have a tendency to go “I can’t believe I took that! That’s awesome!”

It became a springboard for new work. How I photographed there and how I started that project is how I photograph anywhere and how I start any project, which is through research, thought and observation. Right now, I am thinking about two different bodies of work. One I am rephotographing my home town as a sort of person archeology project, revisiting my past and the places that shaped it. The other is really just an excuse to spend time at the beach, which is photographing in Asbury Park NJ.

Where did the name for your website “Gods Home Movies” come from?

God’s Home Movies is actually the title of a Jerry Uelsmann photograph of a highway. I’m not really religious but I felt drawn to the idea of what exactly would God make a home movie about. Pretentious, I know, but it became a way of looking at the world and being able to see things most people would overlook or not bother to point a camera at. I love the mundane details of life and being able to make them into a gorgeous photograph is so much fun.

What is it about small towns and rural settings that you find so appealing as subjects?

I grew up in a small town of 3500 people that sits next to the Susquehanna River in Central PA. The majority of my family still lives there. I am perpetually drawn back there because I have seen so much and yet so little change at the same time. I think that it is hard for small towns to exist in 2010 because the economy doesn’t have much to go on. Big box stores and suburbanization have really killed “Main Street.” I have watched the place that I grew up in, that I love, die because there isn’t a whole lot of money moving around.

There is also this weird suspension of time that goes on in a place with little economic growth, like nothing really changes. It creates this darkness and stillness that I am obsessed with photographing.

Can we find your work in galleries or retail shops?

I have had my stuff in some galleries in Boston and Pittsburgh but unfortunately, nothing locally since I’ve been concentrating on being a responsible adult and getting my life together. I would really love a chance to show some of my new work and get it out there.

Also, I am going to take a moment to self-promote. Mounted prints of my work are always available. A simple email inquiry is all it takes!!

What are your sources of inspiration?

I take inspiration from places that have really great words. Even though I am a really visual person, I am such a sucker for good words and ideas. I love the landscape theorists J.B. Jackson and John Stilgoe. I adore the lyrics and music of Bruce Springsteen and The Mountain Goats. Writers like Raymond Carver and Dorothy Allison are fabulous. Photographically, landscape photography giants Frank Gohlke, Alec Soth and Sally Mann are my favorite people to look at.

I also love place. When I go somewhere and it has this uniqueness about it, I just get the itch to make pictures.

Do you have advice for budding photographers or artists in general?

Some of the best advice anyone has ever given me was in a creative writing class and it was “Write what you know”. The ability to look at one’s own past experiences and create from them is so important. It’s taking the idea of the specific and the personal and making it about something others can relate to. It moves the work away from the self and while it’s a loaded word to use, it becomes more universal and starts a dialogue between the images and the viewer.

There is also the eternally true “pictures make pictures”.

Please view Shelby’s WEBSITE to browse her portfolios online: gods home movies

And check her BLOG for new project ideas and thoughts:


Filed under Photography, Visual Art

3 responses to “THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER: Small towns and OCDs with photographer Shelby Skumanich

  1. Pingback: Shelby Car » Blog Archive » THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER: Small towns and OCDs with photographer …

  2. wonderful work! thanks for this.

  3. Amy

    Love her work. She has that rare talent of making every day places worth a second look.

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