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Artist Profiles

"The Larger Questions of Life: An Interview with Patt Blue"

FACETIME, Copyright Patt BlueBy Ann Marie Rousseau

"When she gradually began to look through the lens for her own purposes, outside the strictures and confines of her job, she was able to see and record something else, something to do with the complexity and intensity of the people whose lives she had entered. She had discovered herself as a photographer."

Patt Blue is a photographer and writer whose work confronts some of our deepest questions about the human ability to change, the inner realm of the self, and the undeniable fact of our mortality. With her camera she fearlessly shines a light into the darker corners of existence and brings back messages of hope, truthfulness and clarity. Her life’s work has been one of commitment to revealing the depths of the human condition.

Blue has spent the last ten years working on a book project about her chaotic early family life. This project layers text from her diaries, dreams, old letters, and interviews with her mother, with photographs taken by her father, a "Don Juan" type figure, bigamist, and amateur photographer, and Blue’s own photographs of her return visits to the various houses where they lived. Another recent body of work has been to document the aging process in her own face by photographing herself every day since 1991.

These are just two of a number of projects Blue has worked on in more then twenty years as a photographer. Her process is always one of slow, obsessive accumulation of material over long periods of time. "All of my work," she says, " is really a self portrait in one form or another." Photography for her is an effort to better understand her own nature and the influences that formed it.

I met with Ms. Blue on a cold winter day in her Upper West Side apartment where a jet black cat named Sassafras welcomed me at the door and visited with us throughout the interview. Despite the fact that I have arrived terribly late due to some problems with the contractor-from-hell, Ms. Blue is extremely gracious and we begin to talk while she prepares tea in a tiny kitchen. One can see immediately that her spacious apartment is given over almost entirely to her work. Large industrial shelves that reach towards the ceiling hold many photo boxes, a big desk is against the wall in the center of the room, and what must have been a bedroom has been converted into a large comfortable darkroom. The small shower is completely filled by a 24"x20" print washer. Another bedroom and bathroom are in the back of the apartment.

We sit down to talk and I ask her to begin at the beginning. Speaking in a calm matter-of-fact voice, Blue describes a family situation in which her parents were married and divorced to each other three times during the years 1938 to 1985. "I was born in Kentucky and moved to Louisiana when I was twelve because my father was being chased by a woman," she says. The eldest child of three, Blue lived in eleven houses by the time she was eighteen. A few lines from the introduction of her book further elucidate the parental relationship: "My father had the swagger and convincibility of a Southern tent preacher. My mother had the patient and trusting heart of a child. He chased women. She cleaned house."

Despite a severed relationship with her father whom she has not seen in over twenty years, she credits him with the awakening of her interest in photography. "In all the many houses we lived in, no matter how small, even if my brother had to sleep on the couch, my father always had a darkroom," says Blue. "He was a serious amateur, interested in psychological and human portraiture. There were boxes and boxes of his pictures around the house, but we never had any of the usual snapshots of family pictures or celebrations. He liked to shoot with medium format view cameras and we were formally posed, strictly under his control."

Early Work

Blue’s first chance to work as a photographer came through a job she took as a field-worker with a rural anti-poverty agency in upstate New York. She took this job during a traumatic and difficult period in her own life. She had just given up a child for adoption after a stay at the Washington Square Home for Unwed Mothers.

At the agency she was deeply moved by the incredible social injustice she witnessed among the clients being served and greatly admired the work being done to help them. She found a mentor and role model in the director, a dedicated and ambitious African American woman committed to finding solutions to the problems of the poor. She also found inspiration and comradeship with the two other field workers in her team, community organizers whose energy, advice, and concern for the people they worked to serve guided her own desire to help where she could.

"I loved the faces of my clients," she says. "I was repelled and fascinated by the appearance of things, the bare dirt floor, the natty blankets, the flies on the face of a baby. I felt a need to expose and protect at the same time." She knew that she had a unique vision, that it needed to be documented, and that no one else cared as much or would take the time. She also saw that she had the ability to straddle both worlds, to be both on the inside and the outside at the same time. She could get down to her client’s level, wash the floors, do what ever needed to be done, and also maintain objectivity and distance. This duality between the grotesque and the desire to help has continued to be a part of all her work.

At the time Blue had only the most rudimentary understanding of how to operate a camera, but she proposed to the agency that she document their projects for grant proposals and funding applications and they agreed. She began photographing the broken down homes, the poor living conditions, and the poverty of the people the agency was trying to help, and for a long time took pictures only to meet the agency requirements. When she gradually began to look through the lens for her own purposes, outside the strictures and confines of her job, she was able to see and record something else, something to do with the complexity and intensity of the people whose lives she had entered. She had discovered herself as a photographer.

The people at the agency also turned their attentions to Blue. "They asked me what I was doing with my life. Was I going to simply stay in this job ‘giving’ and never getting anything for myself?" They thought she should go to school and made it possible for her to attend a local community college. She majored in biology, but independently developed an art portfolio which then gained her admittance to the art program of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. At Stony Brook she stayed on for another year after graduation in order to take special courses in photography offered to a select group of students.

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