CAC’s Chicago Artist To Watch: Stephanie Graham

The Chicago Artists To Watch program is an effort to showcase talented CAC members from communities who have been under-represented in the past. Our goal is to increase awareness of artists from a wide variety of backgrounds and support artists of any age, cultural or ethnic background, at any stage of their careers.

CAC sat down with February’s “Chicago Artist To Watch,” Stephanie Graham, to learn about this artist’s fresh eyes through a conversation about her photography and relationship with the city.

An Interview with Stephanie Graham, Chicago Artist to Watch
By Miguel Jimenez

Self Portrait
Self Portrait. Courtesy of Stephanie Graham.


First, a little bit about your background: Where were you raised, and where did you do your undergraduate work?

I was raised in Schaumburg and went to Columbia College in Chicago. I graduated in 2005.

Your photographs are taken in both urban and suburban settings. Is that a reflection on the duality of living in the suburbs and studying in the city?

I was raised in the suburbs, and even while going to Columbia I still lived at home in Schaumburg. But there was always something about the city that intrigued me when I first started to go there — there was just a lot more diversity. During high school, my friends and I would take trips out to the city and go all over Chicago — just hanging out and exploring. It was an experience of freedom from the whole suburban life that was really routine. The city had lots of layers to it. There were lots of different things going on and people from different walks of life.

Louis Vuitton
Untitled. Courtesy of Stephanie Graham.

In many of your photographs taken in the city, there seems to be a focus on the way women express themselves with their bodies and fashion. What do you look to capture in these photographs?

A lot of it is just off of my own observations of people. I just try to re-set them and exaggerate them a little. They are women who have attitudes and exude a confidence all the time that I’d never seen before. I am showing this confidence and making it grander than what it usually is.

Can you describe the process behind these photographs?

Everything is always set up. I have stylists, make-up artists, and models. I talk to the models about a character that I build up. I can see a lady sitting at the bus stop with her hands in her pockets, very voguish, but she can be tired waiting for the bus. I tell a model, “Picture the girl waiting for the bus, it’s really cold, and you have to get to work.” Models and people can relate to this because they’ve seen these characters. They know the person that I’m talking about and they know the emotion.

It seems like fashion brings something unique to these re-staged real-life scenarios. Fashion and photography really collide. Where did this idea come from?

I like fashion photography and I also like photo journalism. I take both things and put them together.

Walmart
Logan @ Walmart. Courtesy of Stephanie Graham.

You have a project that seems to follow these ideas, entitled The Wal-Mart Project. Can you tell us about it?

A really good friend and I go to Wal-Mart and take pictures every year. We dress up alike and pretend we’re a couple, and we take pictures together. I just thought it would be fun to bring a model into Wal-Mart and take a picture. They have these crazy backdrops with sailboats and leaves and other stuff, and I thought it’d be interesting. That’s something that I’m working on now. It's fun to see the portrait photographer get involved. I direct the model and after we take the picture, we all look at the picture. The model can look, the photographer can look, and we have to decide whether or not we want the picture. It’s just a fun project. I’m going to video tape the next one.

Is that what you're currently working on?

I want to continue to work on my Wal-Mart project and do a little video with it. I’m also working on a documentary/mockumentary about black kids who are raised in predominantly white suburbs. I’ll be able to do a portrait project with that.

Finally, what keeps you going as an artist, specifically when something like the State arts budget cut occurs?

I hope that someday I can get to the point where I can be so successful that I can meet with someone and change his/her mind or be able to cut a check, because art is really important. If I hadn't studied art I wouldn’t be here. It’s all that I’ve wanted to do. It’s important that other people get that opportunity to express themselves and know that careers are available in art and that you can make a living doing it. I can’t believe that they cut the budget. I just really hope that I can get to the point where I can make a difference.

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