When Ilisa Katz Rissman became a mother 18 years ago, she decided to go beyond her photographic comfort zone of still-life imagery and pointed her camera toward her children.
“They were babies when I started photographing them,” she said about her first two children. “So they couldn’t tell me I was messing up. … I was able to use the camera and try to connect with that sense of being a new mother while trying to figure out what I was doing.”
As her children grew (she had a third child later in life), she began to see the work as a way of connecting with her family and as a reflection of different emotions over time. For her series “Suspended,” Katz Rissman concentrated on adolescence, using photos she took of her own children as well as ones she took of children who were part of her family’s friendship circles. Her portraiture is a way of acknowledging the complications and nuances of childhood.
Katz Rissman was influenced by Sally Mann—she wanted to create work about her own children that tapped into the boldness she admired in Mann’s work.
“I wanted to see if I could manage to create a beautiful image but also one that had something more that resonated on a slightly deeper level,” she said. “It’s very honest. I don’t hold back; I want to be there. There is a kind of teenage sensuality mixed in with real vulnerability and I feel it is these contradictions that make it interesting. I feel there is conversation about it’s OK to not always be happy or to feel this way about your body. They’re real conversations.”
Katz Rissman is most comfortable working with a large-format camera and decided to stick with the film camera she loves because it forces a process that requires a lot of observation and examination; you can’t simply pull the camera out of your pocket and take a snapshot.
“You have to be really decisive,” she said. “It’s about capturing a moment, and I like for them to feel like [the portraits are] spontaneous; they’re not, but I like that feeling of capturing a moment, that sense of spontaneity.”
While growing up, Katz Rissman’s children became accustomed to working with their mother on the series, although they weren’t always cooperative.
“My daughter would say, ‘stop looking at me with those camera eyes, I know what you’re thinking.’ ”
Katz Rissman said that working with subjects who were coming of age during the selfie era opened up a different world for them, one that she discussed with the teenagers during a show of the work she exhibited at her children’s school.
“It’s about thinking about your work. What do you want to say about your work? Every image has a point of view. I think that’s a huge thing because kids are not being taught how to think about their work. They’re making cool images but they don’t necessarily mean anything. There is a point of view and a purpose and an intention to the work.”
Katz Rissman was a finalist at this year’s Julia Margaret Cameron Awards. She also does commissioned portraits.