Southern Gothic Meets The Southwest
By James Kezman for Galerie Minimal Magazin #1
When looking at Natalie Christensen’s photographs, the viewer is struck by the impression that something isn’t quite right. I’m not speaking about the photos themselves — they are beautiful and they certainly succeed on aesthetic level. Rich colors, strong contrast and shadow play and excellent composition make for very eye-pleasing pictures.
Natalie Christensen Partly Sunny
In a word, beautiful. But look again.
But if we linger for as moment on one of her images, another level of meaning seeps into our consciousness. Consider the image on the right. As mentioned above, it is aesthetically pleasing image. The shadow of the tree has abundant detail for the eye and the strong shadow that bifurcates the image creates a pleasing contrast barrier and two different hues of blue — in a word, beautiful.
But look again. This is really two images in one and the two halves make for a slightly disconcerting whole.
On the right side of the image, the strong shadow of the tree floats, seemingly serene, over a cerulean wall. However, lurking behind the primary shadow the slightly sinister shade of a second tree and the primary shadow is leaning away causing is to ask ourselves, “What is that second tree up to?”
And then we have the door on the left. It’s just a door.
But what exactly is happening behind that door? We don’t know, but we have the vague sense that whatever is happening might not be so good.
American Southern Gothic
The overall effect is akin to that of American Southern Gothic writers of the Twentieth Century such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Those writers are famous for looking beneath picturesque exteriors and deep into the souls their subjects. What those writers discover becomes more and more disturbing as their stories progress.
Gothic details appear regularly in Natalie’s work: The shadow of a railing seems to crack the pristine concrete of a set of stairs; Tree branches enter the frame from above, menacing a lonely park bench; Oily water distorts the silvery, perfect reflection of a pool railing; A partially hidden chaise lounge beckons us for what exactly…? Her work is mature and sophisticated. Many artists can create beautiful images, but often struggle with creating subtext. Natalie’s photos are imbued with psychological details that help the viewer connect with them and create a story.
“If an image leaves someone feeling a little bit uneasy, then I feel like that is a successful photograph,” said Natalie when we spoke earlier this year. “I am trying to knock on the door of the subconscious in these really mundane sorts of features that I shoot. For me they symbolize something and I hope that they do for the viewer.”
Remarkably, she has only been taking photos seriously since 2015 and has had no formal art training. “I’m a frustrated painter and I think probably a lot of photographers are,” she says. Inspired by her mother’s late-in-life turn to the easel, Natalie tried to paint as well — it didn’t go well. “I took it way too seriously and I would get so frustrated with myself,” she says. “It wasn’t fun.”
It wasn’t until moving from her native Kentucky to the southwestern state of New Mexico that Natalie found photography. “I don’t think I would be a photographer if I hadn’t moved here,” she says. The flat, intense light of the Southwest and the surrealistic quality it gave to subjects inspired her to start taking pictures. She rapidly progressed from using a smartphone to a dSLR. She also heavily invested time and energy in Instagram, leading to the rapid growth of her profile, real friendships and projects in the US and Europe. “It was important to me to respond to people who were commenting on my work and also to follow other people and support them. I would spend a lot of time on doing that. It was worth the investment. I could go anywhere in the world, reach out on Instagram and say, ‘I’m here. Let’s go shoot.’”
Natalie constructs her images out of the raw material found in New Mexico’s cities and towns. “I want to stay in New Mexico because I feel like I am identified with it and there is a lot to explore here,” she says. “I feel like I have a lot more to add to my body of work that’s here.” She often shoots in the state’s commercial hub, Albuquerque, as opposed to its picturesque capital, Santa Fe, where she is based. “[Santa Fe’s] been photographed millions of times. It’s very beautiful to look at in the way the light hits it and the blue sky next to the orange adobe color, but I don’t feel that I have anything new to say photographically about the subject.” High on her travel list is a trip to the eastern part of the state and visits to towns such as Tucumcari and Clovis. According to her, eastern New Mexico has a film set quality to it without being ‘Old West’ artificial. “It just calls to me psychologically that there’s a lot of stories there to explore there with my camera.”
Natalie Christensen Red Bench In Snow
Her work is evolving, too. She has started to mix in more organic elements with human-made ones, further exploring the emotional subtext of her images. “I want to push myself,” she says. A quick peek at her Instagram feed does show more organic elements
and swimming pools — lots of swimming pools. “I love swimming pools, I mean I’m obsessed with them,” she laughs.
Her swimming pool obsession is appropriate because, like a dead leaf floating just below the surface of a calm pool, the subtext of her images where the Southern Gothic meets the Southwest.