Elizabeth Waterman – The Purpose of Art


Elizabeth Waterman is on the lookout for those moments, places and people, which at first glimpse you walk past, but then you stop and take a few steps back. She is particularly interested in the kind of social gatherings that bring together the creative community of New York such as artists, gallerists, musicians, and performers who all share something in common: “the public dialogue about the purpose of art”.

You say you thought this was supposed to be the era of “entrenched aesthetic malaise and directionlessness”, but the research done through your art has proven different. What have you discovered by photographing and interviewing young artists who are working hard to challenge the game?
I have focused on photographing performers and artists in New York for nearly six years now, and I am constantly inspired by them. It takes enormous conviction to be an artist here and to bring new expression into the world. This is an important contribution to society, and people deserve to be aware of these artists’ lives, their work, and their courage.

Emily Shepard with Feathers, 2015 by Elizabeth Waterman

Emily Shepard with Feathers, 2015 by Elizabeth Waterman

As artists, we tend to battle a constant desire to discover new means of life, to teach and to be taught, to show life in the most unconventional ways. As artists, we find inspiration in places we least expect. We seek wisdom from the most uniquely talented people. And in the end, this work we do “for the people” is the sole proof of the voyage towards self-discovery, an opportunity to reflect with the world we exist in.

Do you ever find yourself in the people you photograph?
All portraits are dual portraits, and all art is marked with the soul of the artist; in fact, finding aspects of myself in my subjects is imperative if I am to do my work properly. My subjects serve as a mirror that unveils my emotions, my dreams, and my desires. When I first began focusing on portraiture, I was so unnerved by the process. There I was, in very intimate circumstances with heavily made-up drag queens, exotic fire-breathers, and long-limbed dancers that took my breath away. It was uncharted territory, and I felt unsure of myself. Where did I stop? Where did they begin? What could we possibly have in common? Experience has shown me that there will always be a place where I overlap with my subjects, and that is the heart of my work.

Work and play tend to mix very well when it comes to making art, which brings me to your latest series, Invictus.

Pony Girl Looking Away, 2015 by Elizabeth Waterman

Pony Girl Looking Away, 2015 by Elizabeth Waterman

This project explores the late-night social life and drag community of New York. Is this work sort of a statement about your stance on gender politics?
I am not a political person, but I live in a political world. I find the transgendered and drag communities to be full of extraordinary and courageous people. They have to work hard to be recognized and to claim their spot in the world, and I can relate to that. I am grateful to promote their stories.

I personally consider drag queens more of performance artists, but a big part of that conversation lies in the topic of gender. What would you say are the common grounds of drag and a visual, or performing, artist?
Drag springs from the evolution of gender, which is such a rich, dynamic theme right now in our culture. But it’s more than that. It’s a performance art, a lifestyle, and a celebration of self-expression. The scene in Brooklyn and Manhattan is a vibrant, thriving community full of artists who embrace multiple art forms.

And having lived in the city for a long time, I can validate that but also add how fearless New Yorkers are in terms of creative practice and working together as a community.

You’ve talked about the uncomfortable feeling when a subject stands before the camera. What would you say are the most common insecurities people deal with in a certain situation?
People tend to avoid being fully present and being fully themselves. Intimacy is frightening, for me especially, and we all want to be safe. Photography finds a way through all of that. My goal is to find the haunting, phenomenal beauty in people just as they are.

Rain Dove, 2015 by Elizabeth Waterman

Rain Dove, 2015 by Elizabeth Waterman

Is body image a common concern with your subjects?

It comes up. Generally performers are at ease with their bodies because they use their bodies as tools. They tend to be responsible for their insecurities. My other subjects tend to be more caught up in their insecurities. Quite a few of them have put off shoots until they “get into shape,” which of course, never happens. People are often terrorized by their own expectations.

All that the body is, is a tool that allows the soul to travel, to experience and to re-create life. And while the camera captures the amazing things our bodies can do, who we truly are, are the impressions we leave behind, the lessons we teach, and the experiences we share with the world.

The true meaning of art defines itself in the spirit of its creator.

“For an artist to be interesting to us he must have been interested to himself. He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound contemplation.”

– Robert Henri

By: GiGi Campos