Beth Lilly’s appreciation for the mysteries and absurdities of life will be on full display through November 8th at the Swan Coach House, Atlanta. I had the opportunity to discuss her exhibition over coffee earlier this month. -Barbara Griffin
Barbara Griffin: As a long time follower of your work I was excited to hear about your upcoming exhibition, Knowing and Not Knowing. What can we expect to see at The Swan Coach House?
Beth Lilly: Curator Marianne Lambert and I are calling it a mid-career retrospective. I didn’t want to call it a retrospective fearing that I would never make artwork again. It includes my best-known work from … what’s the demarcation? I would say, starting with The Oracle @Wifi.
Oracle was a real turning point for me in my work, and so it starts there and comes forward. It doesn’t go all the way back to my first show in 1985. Some of that work we don’t want to show.
Barbara: I hear you. What led you to conceive The Oracle @WiFi project?
Beth: I was talking to a friend, and thinking what could I do with a cell phone that was unique. I remember saying, “You know, I could make a photograph for somebody who’s on the other side of the world. I could take it and send it to them right then and there.” The idea was more performance art, like music or acting, where you have an immediate interaction with your audience.
We were like yeah, that’s really cool, but why would I be taking a photograph for somebody? And it’s almost like the idea for the project just, “Phew,” popped into my head pretty much full-blown. I was like, wow, that’s a good idea. I have to do that.
Barbara: The idea of divination, where did that come from?
Beth: I’ve always had a fascination with divination. To me, it was just another aspect or part of a broader mystery – the secret workings of the whole universe. When I was a kid, I was huge into Magic 8 Balls. What an amazing toy!
Barbara: Funny that I have one sitting right there.
Beth: That’s right. As an adult, I was really into the I Ching. I never got into Tarot Cards, I couldn’t relate to those images. What I liked about The Oracle was using images of everyday ephemera, pulling them out of context. When you photograph an object or action, it imbues them with symbolic meaning. There’s something about that that I get a real kick out of, you know? Through the magical process of photographing, the ordinary suddenly takes on great meaning.
Barbara: For somebody who hasn’t seen The Oracle @Wifi project, or who will encounter it for the first time, give a basic description of how you set the project up, who participated in it and how they would find it.
Beth: Oracle was word of mouth. I put myself forward as an oracle, which is different from a fortune-teller. I have a great quote that spells it out. They’re invited to call me on their phone and say they have a question for the Oracle, and then give me their email address. The big thing to remember is, their question is secret. Wherever I am when I happen to get the message, ’cause every system of divination is about random chance. Random chance is wherever I happen to be when they call my phone. That’s my starting place to find, and take, three images, specifically for this person.
If I’m at a gas station, I’ve got to come up with three amazing photographs, at the gas station. I send them to the person, and then they tell me what their question is. So the final piece is three images each marked with the date and time that they were taken, and below that, the question that the person had in mind that they wanted to be answered with the images.
Barbara: It’s uncanny to read some of the questions and see how well your photographs fit the question.
Beth: It is. I was worried the questions would have no apparent relation to the images. But there were! It was hair-raising; they were just unbelievable. And not only were the images extremely appropriate for the questions, but when I was acting as the Oracle, the strangest, most amazing coincidences would pop up. The funny thing is, afterward, I tried going out to photograph, expecting the same kind of amazing situations to happen right in front of me. It never happened.
Beth: It’s this odd thing about intention, going out into the universe, and how that might be affecting all the things that are around you. I alluded to that in another project that I did pretty much immediately afterward, called Every Single One of These Stories is True, about true stories from my life, and dreams that I had that I re-staged and photographed.
The project was speculation of what is real, and what is not, coming out of that sense of wonder about the connectedness between people, coincidence, and a kind of magical realism. Many of the stories seem incredulous, but they are all true, and that’s why I named the series that, to really emphasize it. I don’t know how many times people said, “Is this one true? Is that one true?” And I’m like, “Damn it, no. Every single one of these stories are true.”
Barbara: Hence the title.
Beth: Hence the title.
Dream of the Red Elephants
Barbara: Well, they’re haunting stories. I especially love the one I have about the horse nearly dying …
Beth: Was it the one about my great-grandmother who was supposed to be psychic?
Beth: Yeah. Should I quickly tell the story?
Barbara: Yes, it seemed so preposterous a story, but it really happened.
Beth: It happened, and stories like that, that was also part of my upbringing. Growing up in the South, my grandparents, great grandparents, great, great grandparents, and I don’t know that it’s true of all southern families, but we were extremely superstitious. Our family mythology was full of magic and the otherworldly. Oddly enough, it was also wrapped up in religion. You know, that old, Protestant kind of thing.
Barbara: How has living in the South shaped you as a photographer?
Beth: I think maybe it’s that Celtic heritage that’s part of a lot of people in the South, storytelling history figures prominently. Just look at all the stories we’ve told of ghosts. I have an ancestor who is a ghost, actually. That story didn’t make it into that series.
Barbara: Why not? That seems like a natural.
Beth: I know. Years ago, I was actually gonna do a whole series about the ghost, back when I was a graduate student. Here’s the story, and this story was actually published in a book. My great, great grandfather was on the family farm when he saw the ghost of his father pull up in a ghost carriage. And the ghost of his father steps out and points out towards the field.
Later, they were adding a second story to the farmhouse and found this stash of silver in the rafters with a note that said, “More buried in the garden.” So the family story was that he had hidden the family wealth, buried it out in the fields somewhere, and it was probably a large amount of gold or something. And I was like, “Oh, man. I’m a poor student. I’m going out there. I’m going to locate the gold. I’m gonna photograph it, and it’s gonna be this amazing story.” Instead, I wound up hanging out with all of the eccentric characters that are still left in this kind of non-existent town, including this out-of-work carnie who became my photo assistant while I was there.
I love it when the process of trying to tell the story, in and of itself becomes this whole other story. Actually, those photographs that I took as a graduate student, I included them in the full exhibition that I had at The Hagedorn of that series, and it was kind of a reality within the reality.
Barbara: I love that. Did you ever see the ghost… or the ghost carriage?
Beth: No, the actual farmhouse had burned down, and the land had grown up into woods that had been rented out to a hunting club. The locals told me I’d better watch out or I’d be mistaken for a deer and shot. That made me pause. It was summer, and I knew there were snakes all over the place. I remember standing there, looking at this impenetrable jungle, and thinking, “Hmm, maybe this winter.”
Barbara: Yep, sounds like a winter expedition to me. Do you have one of those things to search for treasure…a metal detector?
Beth: I was going to rent one.
Barbara: You are the only person I know who would follow through on that. That is so funny. That was so you.
Beth: Yeah. And you know, also, I was the kid who believed that I could become a horse if I ran around on four legs and ate grass. It had taken a whole day of that before I figured it wasn’t going to happen, no matter how deeply inside I really wanted to be a horse.
Barbara: You know, my grandmother worked at Merle Norman. So she had all these makeup samples, and also these hairpieces, the long ones, that you could turn into buns and…
Beth: Yeah, and falls.
Barbara: Yes! We would tie them to the back of our pants, and they’d become our horsetails. We’d be racing around neighing, and making jumps.
Beth: My first thought is, if I was in a car driving by and I looked over and saw all these kids running around in their front yard …
Barbara: With horsetails flying.
Beth: … with horsetails flying. Oh, where your brain could go with that one! I love seeing something out of context and you don’t know the surrounding story, so it’s just startling and hilarious.
Barbara: Those are the un-expected experiences and that touch on some little wisp of something in the back of your mind and bring your childhood rushing back in a flash. Those experiences feel uniquely southern.
Beth: Yes. Oh! There are going to be two brand new series that I’ve never exhibited before. One is called Nighttime Is A Place, and it’s all about that experience, I think of it as particularly southern, maybe it’s not, but in the summer, sneaking out and playing with your friends, hooking up with your friends, at nighttime, which is a place of mystery and imagination.
Barbara: And a little hint of the forbidden too.
Beth: Absolutely. When we were younger, we’d play games like Ghost in the Graveyard at night. You’d be hiding in the dark, knowing that someone was going to jump out so even games in the yard were scary.
Barbara: Or that hands could reach out of the ground and grab you.
Beth: Yeah, ’cause, oh god, who let me watch those scary movies? One of the stories I photographed for Every Single One of These Stories Is True was about sneaking out at night when we were 13 or 14. The photo didn’t make it into the retrospective, but we’d say, “Oh, I’m spending the night at so-and-so’s house.” They’d say they were spending the night at mine. And we’d hang out and do mischief.
Feral Children of the Suburbs
We lived in a subdivision where they were building houses, and that’s usually where, in the wee hours of the night, we would sleep. It was less about doing naughty things, like smoking cigarettes and drinking, and more about this was my way. I was too scared to go out at night into the woods and roam by myself, so I was hanging out with the bad kids.
Barbara: Would you have been considered one of the bad kids back then, probably?
Beth: Yeah. Yes.
Barbara: I did that one time and ended up, from six in the morning ’til nine in the morning, hanging out in a gas station bathroom ‘til my friend’s sister could come and get me. It was the most horrible night ever. I thought it would be so daring and cool, but it was completely miserable.
Beth: Yeah, the reality of the world was so very different from what you imagined. I’m trying to imbue that sense of mystery in the landscapes that I’m photographing at night, for Nighttime Is A Place. They’re taken in different suburbs around here. It’s about what’s hidden and what’s not, what is revealed in the pools of light that streetlights create and just hints of what’s beyond.
Night Street 2
Barbara: We were supposed to be home when the streetlights came on. If you were out after the streetlights were on, you were courting danger …
Beth: Yeah, that’s right.
Barbara: … or at least a whipping. What’s the other new body of work that you have?
Beth: The other new body of work is called Like No Tomorrow, which it comes from a phrase I can still hear my grandmother saying, “They’re living like there’s no tomorrow.” I made family portraits in front of a green screen, classic family poses so I could drop the families into these over-the -top scenes of the end of the world, mass destruction. The first disaster scene I created shows the Atlanta skyline with some 13 tornadoes bearing down on this family in an abandoned lot who are just smiling and hugging each other, with the most clueless looks on their faces.
The first time I put a family into that tornado background, I swear I fell out of my chair laughing. It’s that humor I love, of pulling something out of context. I was researched all these different ways that the world could end, like pandemics, lots that are related to climate change, nuclear war, and so on, and created these scenes making composites in Photoshop.
When I was photographing families in my studio at The Contemporary, as I said, in front of the green screen, I went online to find posing ideas, you know, sites for portrait photographers. The poses I found had funny titles like “The Kid Sandwich.” I had a list of them. The family would come in, and I’d say, “Okay, now, Mom and Dad be on either side of your kid, and give them a big hug.” You know, taking these pretty silly posing ideas …
Beth: … cheesy! You see these in every home, framed on the mantelpiece. I made those and matched the families with the disasters.
Barbara: Extreme weather, fire, war, civil unrest…
Beth: There’s nuclear winter …
Barbara: Nuclear winter.
Beth: … right, and pandemic. I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse and it was a study of all of these different civilizations who collapsed, like the Norse colonies in Greenland, the Mayans, and Easter Island. I noticed how every single one ended in cannibalism. So there’s one called “Dinner,” and it’s these bombed out, burnt out buildings, and my boyfriend looks like a corpse stuffed in a trash can. In the background, you see two men cooking meat over a fire. In the foreground, the parents are holding their child up in the air, like, “Mmm, look what we just caught.”
Barbara: There’s dessert.
Beth: Yeah, main course. And there’s another one that’s about big plastic … I’m fascinated about the massive continent of plastic that’s out there in the Pacific ocean.
Barbara: Yes. It’s horrifying.
Beth: It is, and I could not believe that was real. It sounded like something out of a science fiction story.
Barbara: We’ve been friends a long time. I don’t even know how many years at this point. Many. But I think one thing I always loved about you is that your keen sense of, and appreciation, for the unusual, the unique, and the absurd.
Beth: Thank you.
Barbara: Your sense of humor and fascination for the mysteries is prevalent throughout your work. Where does that come from, and how does your sense of humor and the absurd impact or influence your work?
Beth: To me, one of the greatest mysteries is how I came to be who I am. When I look at my family, I don’t see anybody like me. In fact, I don’t recall a time when I didn’t wonder, “What family did I really belong to?” You know, I was some kind of changeling, switched at birth or something. I’ve always had that feeling of an outsider. I think to survive that, a survival mechanism, was to find the humor.
Beth: Growing up in one of those Tennessee William families, if you don’t laugh about it then you go insane. I think that’s what gave me a dark sense of humor. I remember watching The Addams Family and thinking, “My people!” and that Gomez was the ideal man. How many little kids had a crush on Gomez Addams, I don’t know, but I did.
Barbara: Yeah, he was pretty great. Or identifying with The Munster’s, I always loved that the one normal girl is the outcast.
Beth: That’s right. It wasn’t lost on me that the girl’s name was Lilly.
Barbara: That is so funny.
Beth: It was.
Barbara: Lilly Munster.
Beth: Puzzling out how we create identity was really at the heart of Every Single One of These Stories Is True. Our brain stores up all of these memories, we put them together, next to each other, and start drawing connections. We create ourselves out of that. It’s not an accident that Stories was the project I did after Oracle, ’cause the one big takeaway I took from that was, you put two images together, and it’s like you cannot stop the brain from suddenly creating …
Beth: … connections and relationships, whether they’re there or not. In Oracle, it was random, but you put them together, add in the text, and boy howdy, you were going to come up with a story of how they were absolutely related, and wasn’t it amazing. It could not be any other way.
I was trying to answer, “Where does the “self” come from? How does that develop?” I wanted to recreate that as an experience for the viewer. So by putting this story next to that story, and in that way, I’m trying to very cleverly control what kind of relationships they’re going to make between them. I want that to mirror the experience of how we create not just ourselves, but our whole world. In a way, it’s manufactured.
Barbara: Yes, one person’s take on the story who stood right beside you could be completely different …
Beth: Completely different. I asked my brothers, “Do you remember that time when such and such happened,” and they’re like, “I don’t remember that at all,” or they remember it in a very different way.
Barbara: Storytelling is the buzzword of our times; we’re steeped in this whole tradition of storytelling. Were there photographers who came before you who, as storytellers, influenced you and your work?
Beth: I was thrilled to come across Duane Michaels and his inclusion of text. His stories were about everyday events, yet they were also about how the universe worked at the same time. I love that, how the individual can become the universal. One of my favorite quotes comes out of the Hebrew culture, and it’s that, “What’s truer than truth? The story is truer.”
There are some truths that can only be told through story, and it can’t be state explicitly. Somehow the truth is hidden in the story, and it’s more true than a list of facts.
Beth: My best friend had this picture book, “The Best of Life Magazine” on their coffee table. I remember flipping through photographs that were taken in the 40s, or 50s, and it hit me like a tidal wave. Looking at these pictures told me things about America at this time, or Paris at that time, and these people and how their world felt and how it was different from my own contemporary time.
The ability of photography to have all that going on under the surface, to me was magic. How photographs can carry all of that, the things that can’t be spoken, that can’t be said, that can only be seen and felt, you know?
Barbara: Seen and felt in a visceral way, where you see it, you feel it, it brings you back to a specific time, reminding you of a sound you heard, or a thing you smelled, giving you the best feeling for a different era that you could have.
Beth: Right, in a way that painting didn’t do for me, you know? I think back to the philosopher Roland Barthes and what he said in his book “Camera Lucida.” It’s the fact that the photograph is real, that this did exist at some point. At some time light was reflected off of this actual person. It had this kind of immediacy that just reaches out through time and grabs your heart in a way that did not happen when I was standing in front of a renaissance painting.
Barbara: There’s a quote from the movie One Hour Photo where Robin Williams’ character says “And if these pictures have anything important to say to future generations, it’s this: I was here. I existed. I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture.”
Barbara: It’s a gift.
Beth: Yes, yeah. It is, and to me, there is no greater mystery than the found photographs… somebody you don’t know. Why was this lost? Who is this person? What was their life? All of that is endlessly fascinating.
Barbara: … understanding the moment that someone else had teaches us empathy.
Beth: Absolutely. I haven’t talked yet about a series I did about time and the interstate. It’s called A Moving Image of Eternity, about how we live in time. It’s inspired by a quote from Plato I came across while reading about time.
([the Demiurge] began to think of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This, of course, is what we call “time.”- Plato
Half A Second
My other interstate series “Lost In Thought,” is looking at people in their cars who are unaware. In the car, you have the delusion of privacy and you kind of get lost, and you’re oblivious to those around you, especially on the interstate, which for me is a place and time for contemplation and meditation.
Barbara: So…you’re taking photos while you’re driving?
Barbara: Remind me to not be on the highway with you.
Beth: Look, I am such a good driver. I am one of the best dang drivers in the entire world, and let me tell you, in my sleep I can out drive anybody on this planet. I isolate people from their surroundings. My concept for this is somebody is caught in a crystal ball, or some glass orb or vitrine for study. You’re beside them in traffic, you know, you’re at a traffic light, and this is your one chance. You can stare at them, study them, and try to extrapolate from their expression, all these other little visual clues, what they’re thinking about.
You Are Almost There
The Change You Have Started Already Has Far Reaching Results
You Are Headed in the Right Direction. Trust Your Instincts.
I took the photographs at a slow shutter speed, so the people are sharp but the background blurs out so they pop out form the background. I matched each image with a fortune cookie fortune. I have a collection of every fortune I’ve ever gotten from a fortune cookie. And again, I just love fortunes.
And we’re back to Oracle! You know, those fortunes are bland and universal like, “Happiness is not found material objects,” or something like that. But when you pair it up with somebody with this expression on their face, you kind of apply it to them and their situation.
Barbara: Yes, that’s funny, you know, the idea of pairing fortunes for a stranger you observe and what would be the appropriate fortune for them?
Beth: Yes, what’s a good match for them?
Barbara: So often, when you get a fortune it seems like it’s the perfect fortune for you at that time like, “When you’re ready for the lesson the teacher will appear.”
Barbara: The fortune that you need will appear. I wonder if there’s some mystical connection when you’ve matched a fortune to a person? They don’t really know why their life got better.
Beth: Well, there’s a famous story of The Oracle at Delphi. There’s a king and he wants to know if he should attack the Persians. The Oracles says, “Oh, you would destroy a great empire if you attack them.” He thought, “Okay, it’s the time to go to war,” and he was completely massacred. It was a devastating loss. He assumed that when the oracle said it would destroy an empire, he didn’t think she meant his!
Barbara: Someone’s going to win. You tend to work in a focused project-based manner that’s specific and really interesting to me. You tend to get fully immersed in a project and not just randomly shooting. At what point do you feel like a project is complete?
Beth: Right. If I’m lucky, you know? I‘ll be dabbling in this and dabbling in that ’til I get hooked and become obsessed, and it grabs me. Growing up I always had projects. And I’m still that way. Fortunately, one of the things I love about photography is it’s so versatile that it can be part of whatever it is that I’m investigating, or exploring. And how do I know when it’s done? When I’ve answered my question or when I become bored. But Oracle was one of the hardest to end.
Barbara: Did you ever have any idea it would become international?
Beth: No. No, I didn’t, and I loved it. I was amazed.
Barbara: You could have been the Oracle full time, pretty much.
Beth: I could have! I don’t know how many calls I could’ve taken because the phone just never stopped ringing. I actually had two cell phones, one I would take a call, and then turn it off and shoot with the other cell phone, because it was just insane. That was before airplane mode, by the way. I was like, “Oh, my god. That could’ve been my career,” you know, oracle! What a fun thing to say at cocktail parties. “So what do you do?” “I’m an Oracle.”
Barbara: Have your business card that says oracle on it.
Beth: Yes, I did have one. What’s really funny is my family’s reaction to my projects. I’ll visit my dad and he’s like, “So, honey, what are you working on now?” And I’ll say, “Well, I’m an Oracle, and I’m reading fortunes with my cell phone.” And he looks at me full of concern and he goes, “Oh, honey.” And he’s like, “Why don’t you try photographing weddings?”
Barbara: Yeah, exactly.
Beth: He shakes his head and thinks, my poor crazy daughter. And then I’m saying “No, its going great, dad.” And he just looks aghast. Yeah, it’s funny.
Barbara: That is so funny. I don’t think my family totally understood what I was doing ’til they saw my actual name in a magazine on a masthead, ’cause that made it real.
Beth: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Barbara: You have this exhibition coming up, your mid-career…
Barbara: What are you working on next in preparation for your final retrospective? Unless, of course, you’re going to have a quarterly career retrospective.
Beth: Yeah, the senior, the platinum. I don’t know how I’ll do it, and it just keeps changing. Well, I’m still working on Nighttime is a Place, which I said is going to be in the show. It’s the kind of thing that I can just walk out and do. I’m working with APG, all the time.
The only time I have to photograph now is at night. It’s a series I don’t have to plan and prepare for. I can take my camera and walk outside. And it’s therapeutic. There is something amazing about stepping outside into the quiet of the night and dropping your concerns to tune into the wonder of how light and darkness is transforming the ordinary into something magical. That’s what I can work on now.
Beth: I also want to make a video, I’m not sure of what. My undergraduate degree was in filmmaking, and there’s something in me saying, “Beth, let’s make a video. Let’s work in video.” I don’t know what it’s gonna be. I’m just slowly working towards having more of that kind of large expanse of time for deep thinking and exploration, and the faith that you jump off the cliff and something’s gonna happen besides, “Splat.”
Endlessly Into The Future
One thing I know for sure, I’m always surprised by what my next project will be. And I’ll let it be a surprise to the viewer. So often, where I start is far different than where it winds up at the end.
An exhibiting artist for over twenty years, Beth Lilly’s recent exhibitions include The High Museum of Art, the Zuckerman Museum, Whitespace Gallery, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the Center for Fine Art Photography, MOCA GA, and the New Mexico Museum of Art. A Hambidge Fellow, she also received grants from Fulton County Arts Council, Society for Photographic Education and Atlanta Celebrates Photography. Her work resides in the permanent collections of the High Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, MOCA GA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund and many private collections. Her critically acclaimed performance/interactive project “The Oracle @ WiFi” was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2012. Lilly earned a MFA in Photography from Georgia State University and an A.B.J. in Telecommunication Arts from the University of Georgia.
Knowing and Not Knowing, a photographic exhibition by Beth Lilly, will be open September 27th and run through November 8th, 2017 at the Swan Coach House Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia. The Swan Coach House Gallery is a non-profit gallery run by the Forward Arts Foundation whose mission is “to support the arts in Atlanta!” So, when you buy art with us, you are giving back to the local art community. We’ve been giving between $300K and $700K a year to art institutions since 1965 and provide a beautiful gallery space in which local artists can exhibit.
Barbara Griffin is an independent Creative Director and Photo Editor. She serves as Board President for Atlanta Celebrates Photography (ACP), a non-profit arts organization which produces the largest annual community-oriented photo festival in the U.S. Formerly, Barbara was senior vice president of Image Management for Turner Broadcasting, responsible for all photography created globally for Turner’s entertainment, animation and news networks.
Currently at work on multiple photobook projects, she also served as photo editor for Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink, the award-winning fine art book by photographer Bill Yates. A frequent speaker on professional photography, she’s a member of the International Center of Photography, APA, ASMP and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.