Artist Interviews 2023

Lisa Toboz  
By Julia Siedenburg

Lisa Toboz’s vernacular photography is truly magical. Her imagery has an eerie fantastical feel to it. Her world holds something secretive that draws the viewer in immediately and doesn't let them go too easily. The desaturated blue and red tones in combination with the scenes being out of focus showcase a haunted scenario that the photographer herself puts her in as her main subject.

She has created multiple beautiful series such as her and my favorite named “Ghost Stories” as well as her very own coffee table book. I am so happy to have this talented artist in this issue sharing her inspiration and her craft with us and I hope you enjoy her story as much as I do, dear reader!

First of all, tell us where you draw your inspiration and ideas from.

Literature, horror films, vintage photography (I have a large collection of old photos), ephemera. One of my favorite photographers is Claude Cahun and I’m inspired by the Surrealist movement in general. I love photography that takes the “moment” of the photograph and extends time through other means - collage, photomontage – making the photo a stand-alone object.

Could you please explain to our readers what the term “ vernacular photography” means and why that is important to you?

“Vernacular photography” are photos that are used for more practical, everyday purposes: commercial, forensic, family and friend snapshots. They’re important because most serve as records of a moment or preservation of an object or memory, but sometimes, they are unintentionally beautiful, evoking so many stories. I’m fascinated by how a person who may not necessarily consider themselves an artist takes a photo that belies its initial purpose. When searching through old and found photos, I’m drawn to the ones that make me ask, what was the person thinking when they took this photo? Why this subject? It’s kind of like peeking into the mind of a person who you can’t talk to any longer – the photo is one clue into their psyche.

Your work is a mix of mesmerizingly eerie exterior and interior imagery where the element of movement, light, and color very much stands out. Why do you focus on using Polaroid and film and could you run us through your preparation and process?

Thank you for your kind words! (I answer this in more detail in question 7, I combined the two)

As a female artist with a background in writing and literature, could you tell us what defines good storytelling for you?

Good storytelling has strong characters (or subjects), elements of mystery, imagination, and courage. Good stories strive to tell in ways that haven’t been done before, difficult to do in today’s digital age, but it’s amazing how clever artists have become in making an oft-told tale of their own just through the boldness of embracing their own voice.

Do you have a favorite piece of yours? If so, which one and what is the story behind it?

My favorite photo is one from my Ghost Stories project: I’m wearing a red dress with fairy lights streaming past my face. I love that the expired Spectra film came out with so much “snow” on it (chemical scatters as it made it through the camera rollers) and with such deep, rich color. Those are the moments when I jump up and down with happiness, knowing that this shot is the only one in existence and I was lucky enough to capture it.

Please tell us a bit about your childhood and upbringing.

My father was a steelworker and my mother did various jobs throughout her short life. They divorced when I was really young, so I have few memories of them as a couple. My sister and I grew up in a single-parent household with my mother, who suffered from mental illness. She always wanted to be an artist, but did not have the mental capacity to see her dreams through to fruition. We floated from apartment to apartment, searching for some stability either through religion, or some sort of career change for my mother, but the one constant was always writing and art. Living with her was very difficult because she could be destructive and unpredictable, yet she taught us to be liberal, independent, and fearless – she was always encouraging when it came to creative pursuits (I wanted to be a writer, and later in life, found photography). Our scraped-together lifestyle taught us how to make more out of what little we had; living in poverty requires creativity and an economy of resources. I still use this practice with my artwork, especially working with Polaroid film and mixed-media.

When did your love for photography start and where did it come from?

My love for photography began as an appreciator of the medium when I was young, before I chose it as an art form. Photography often spurred story ideas, and could convey for me what. I found it difficult to express in writing. I decided to delve into photography in my early 30s – a late bloomer! – and while I loved darkroom work, I didn’t have access to it all the time. Polaroid has the beauty of analog with the immediacy of the digital world. It teaches me to be a careful photographer, and an experimental one, too, since there is only one shot of an image – if it doesn’t turn out the way I wanted, then I think of ways to salvage it. It’s a process of patience with unpredictability, embracing imperfection.

On Instagram, you mention that you are a lymphoma survivor and your Bio mentions that your work “explores self-portraiture and creativity as a form of healing”. Do you feel that life’s hardships change or better an artist's work? If so, in which way?

Any life-changing moment in a person’s life can transform art, positive or challenging. I think the more challenging experiences drive art into deeper realms because pain and fear can be unbearable, and we need somewhere to make sense of our hardship. Sometimes the outside world can’t handle the burden of our pain or fears because it’s just “too much” – but often, when turned into art, it’s creating a way for people to reach out and talk – a relatable way to communicate and connect.

Some of your beautiful work can be found in your book called: The Long Way Home. How was your experience creating this book and what advice would you give other artists that play with the idea to have one of their own made?

I took a photo book workshop with Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar on how to edit photo sequences in the book process. I learned so much in that workshop! The most difficult thing in editing is to let go of what doesn’t work for the book – there were photos I wanted to include because I felt they were some of my “best” photos, but they didn’t make sense for the book’s narrative. I also learned about “breather” images: ones that aren’t heavy in narrative, that give a viewer’s eyes some rest, but also transitions the narrative, too. Since I had the original Polaroids, I arranged them on the floor and just arranged and rearranged the sequences, playing with how each image worked with or against another through color, subject matter, linearity, story. I ended up choosing an edit that I liked, then decided to completely reverse the image sequence, which I was really happy with. My husband designed the book and was helpful with creating a piece that worked in conversation with the subject matter. When creating a book, really be comfortable with the editing process – even if a photo doesn’t make it in this book, it may be a start for another one.

What is next? What are your plans for the future?

I am excited to be part of Silver Eye Center for Photography’s Radial Survey Vol. 3 biennial this November through February 2024. I’m also dreaming up Ghost Stories into a book, which I feel is a natural home for it to be.

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