The Ghosts That Follow Us: An Interview with Abbey Meaker


Abbey Meaker's images look almost as if they could be photographs taken by the ghosts that follow us during the course our lives – just behind us as we climb the stairs – as we lay in bed alone and naked – behind our shoulder in the mirror – sometimes they look out of windows gazing into a white ambiguous eternity as the light through the slats falls back on them like a cascade – sometimes they follow us on our travels – always invisible, but always present – they knowing us and us never knowing them at all.  The images – black and white, grainy, and sometimes out of focus – are haunting, preternatural, and erotic – as if on the journey these ghosts make in our existence they are learning day by day how to possess us with a lustful and forceful desire. I've known Abbey for close to fifteen years and she has always been an artist with an almost ancient, black-magic spirit, but only in past few years has her predilection for photography been so keen.  And I've seen first hand her photography evolve to develop a distinct style, reminiscent of the late Francesca Woodman, but entirely unique – Abbey's images have innate melancholia, but at the same time a beautiful chaos that cracks open a parallel world of hope and yearning. Last weekend saw the commencement of Abbey's first solo show in Italy, entitled Boudoirs and Landscapes, at the Palazzo Barsanti in Pietrasanta. I was going to conduct the below interview while Abbey got tattooed, but there was a freak black out at the tattoo parlor – so we made our way to a cafe to discuss art, inspiration, darkness, and the great power of Billie Holiday. 


So, tell me a little bit about what inspires you to create?  Well, there is always an urge to make something.  I have this – I see the world in a way that is more romantic than it actually is – so I try to make what I see in my mind tangible for other people.

Would you call yourself an artist or a photographer? I wouldn't call myself anything, because I want to be more open that that – I want to have more options.  I just like to make things…..

But right now your main focus is photography? Yes, photography.

And your current series? Boudoirs and Landscapes?

Yes, can you tell me about that?  Well, for the landscapes it's not specifically landscapes, but buildings and places that have an eerie quality – it's a place that I see that I have a visceral response to and I try to capture that on film. And the bedroom scenes are – I try to create a scene that isn't really an interaction between photographer and subject, but more a looking in on someone in a moment of reverie. Someone alone in their space. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your background – biographically – in terms of how it has influenced your work? Well, a lot of my family members are artists and I grew up around and I always – because of that – it's almost second nature, but I have always been searching to find a medium that feels right in every way, and I hadn't found it until I started taking photographs and it just feels right. Everything feels aligned when I'm taking photos. But no one in my family is a photographer. 

But creators? Yes, creators. 

Can you remember the first image you ever took? The first one I ever liked or the first one I ever took? 

The first one you took as you started to discover photography…. Yes.  There is this building in Burlington, Vermont where I live that has always had this presence, like a dark presence, and I have always been drawn to it, and I drove around back and took some photos of it and only later did I discover that it was an orphanage that my grandfather was in when he was younger. It was an orphanage run by nuns. Then is was an Episcopal diocese. And now it is a college. 

"I try to create a scene

that isn't really an interaction

between photographer and subject,

but more a looking in on someone

in a moment of reverie."

What was it like growing up in Burlington, Vermont? Not a lot goes on there – so you have to search within yourself to find things to entertain you, and maybe that's part of what led me to making things, because there isn't much else to do. Unless you want to be an alcoholic [laughter].  Because 8 months out of the year it's dark and snowy.  

Do you think artists in cities have a different advantage than artists growing up in a rural area? Not necessarily. I think an artist growing up in a rural area it's easier for them to look within themselves for ideas, because there isn't much else to do – so you are, for me at least, I am always in my own head, and I think if I had grown up in a city I would find inspiration from things that were happening around me, but as it pertains to business – I think the more people that see your work the better, so there is obviously more people in cities, so I think if you are an artist living in a rural area you have to get out there and network.

And you just had a show in Italy. Can you tell me a little bit about that? It was my first show – I've shown here and there - this was my first solo show.  I noticed in New York, where I've been to a lot of openings, it seems very social – people go to socialize and make connections and not really take in the work – but in Italy I noticed people really – theres a heightened sensitivity – and I really appreciated that people really seemed to want to know what I was trying to do and they asked really great questions.

What are some questions they asked? Well, there was one self portrait in the show and a man came in and asked me if there was a message I was projecting through my eyes.  Which I thought was a really interesting – and very spiritual. It was really intriguing. 

What was your answer? Well, I wanted to come up with something clever on the spot, but it didn't really pan out. Plus he didn't speak any English, so it had to be translated – and I'm sure a lot got lost in translation. But I was showing my vulnerability with this particular self portrait, because I was looking at the camera which I don't normally do, because I wanted it to be really honest. 


So even when you're taking self portraits there's still a sense of looking in – almost as if through a key hole? With self portraits I am letting the observer look in on me. When I'm the photographer I'm – I guess I'm still letting someone look in on someone else, but its usually more difficult being behind the camera to let yourself be revealed. To let myself be revealed.

Is it easier – is it different shooting yourself or shooting other people? I'm taking more and more self portraits, because there is more freedom. I'm still building up a lot of courage as to what I feel comfortable asking of my subjects, but when I'm shooting myself I can do whatever I want and if it's too much I don't need to show anyone. That's why I like taking self portraits. 

What are some of your thoughts as you are looking through the viewfinder?  I just want to create this other world. A non-reality. A place thats more beautiful than reality. 

You shoot mainly film? Only film. 

In terms of showing your work – is there a certain resistance to it, in the sense that you are showing too much? I think it's always a little scary for artists to show their work, because it's so personal – maybe not for all artists – for me. It's like I'm revealing a page in my diary – if I had a diary. So, it's a little scary, buts it's also kind of thrilling to just be naked in a way and let people see what they want and feel what they want or just feel something even if they don't want to.

You also paint too? I do.

Is photography as a medium something that you want to focus on more? Painting is more that something I just do – when I paint I am not trying to create something specific - its all emotive – so I'm just doing it as a practice – as something I have to do between taking photos. So, I don't really have any aspirations to show my paintings. 

What about the medium of photography do you find has allowed you to express what you want to express? People tend to trust photos and you can get away with the non-reality easier with photos, I feel, because people believe them. Does that makes sense? And it looks real, but it might not be.

What inspired you to pick up photography – I mean how long have you been practicing photography? Nothing inspired me to get into it – for as long as I can remember I've had this draw to it that I never really indulged in until a few years ago, but i've always had a feeling that it would happen – it just had to happen naturally. I waited and when I was ready I did it. 

Why did you feel you weren't ready? Because I wasn't doing it, so I must not have been ready [laughter].

Where do you see yourself taking the medium in the next five years? I want to start delving into large format photography and also film – I want to start making short films that expand on the photos. 


How do you think photography today, as a fine art – I mean do you see yourself as a fine art photographer? I do.

And you would never go commercial? No, and I don't want to.

How do you think fine art photography is perceived today in a cultural context? I think there are a lot of blurred lines – I mean there's fashion photography and fine art photography. It's hard sometimes to differentiate. I think it's regarded as a fine art. 

How do you think the definition of an artist has changed – and what do you think the definition of an artist is today? I think it's a romantic idea that – it seems like artists used to be perceived as these weird people and now it's cool to be an artist and people can dress the part and get away with it. I guess thats the biggest change I see – that now it's cool to be an artist and when I was younger I always thought of the artist as weird – the outcasts. 

Who are some artists that you are influenced by or inspired by? I don't think I'm influenced by anyone. Sometimes, Francesca Woodman, for example, I really appreciate her photographs, but I wouldn't call her an influence. I've taken things and then seen her work and noticed some similarities, so people may think I'm influenced by her, but I think people with similar mental ailments create similar images. 

Do you feel like you have mental ailments?[Laughter] No, but I think I tend to be on – I mean no one is any one thing and I hesitate to even say that I tend to be a certain way, because I don't want to be pigeonholed, but there are themes of melancholy and that emotion is evident in my work.  That mood – that heavy dark mood. And it's also evident in her [Francesca Woodman's] work. I'm drawn to a darkness. 

" I'm drawn to a darkness."

Where does the darkness come from? I mean it comes from inside of you or how you perceive the world around you. It's different for everyone and it doesn't have to be one thing or another.

Do you think artists are different – in terms of their role in society – is the artist's role, not necessarily more important, but more profound or carries more responsibility? Not necessarily. I think a lot of artists tend to be narcissistic for some reason. Maybe it's because we're always looking at our selves and expressing our selves – so we naturally become a little self involved. I think other people might be drawn to artists because they can be mysterious – people love mystery – people want to understand something they can't.  I don't know if that answers your question….

Yes…I mean artists unveil something that other people don't necessarily have access to…right? Yeah, they can show that the mysterious part of life – that romantic side. There is a Henry Miller quote, something about when you are writing – or when the artist is creating - or when the painter is painting – they are connecting to that source that is timeless and when you are in it you can feel immortal.  That struck a cord with me. 

And your dad is an artist – a musician – and he has had a big artistic influence on you? Huge. We have this strange connection. He has always been a source of inspiration, but I can't figure out why – it's not something I can put words to – it's just there. He's a musician and a painter. He has always been my role model – since I can remember. I've watched him paint and I – when I was four years old there was this period where I would have these nightmares and not be able to sleep and he would take me out into the living room and sing God Bless The Child until I fell asleep. 

A song written by Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday has been a big influence it seems like? Huge. It's the blues. She had a difficult life and that pain was in her and it came out in her voice and I identify with that. 

You said last night that if you could listen to one musical artist it would be Billie Holiday……over and over again….why?  It's that feeling of alignment. That feeling of alignment, like I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be and doing what I'm supposed to be doing. That feeling comes over me when I hear Billie Holiday. 

If you could, using five single words, to explain the different themes in your arts, what would those five words be? Blue……soft……blurred…..underneath……still.  

What is next? Feverish creation.

Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper