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A Lesson on Gender Neutral Photography With Natalie O'Moore

While Pride is the perfect time to celebrate how far we’ve come in the arena of gender neutrality, lord knows we still have a long way to go. Sexualized images of the female body are aplenty, the word “slut” still hurts, and the male gaze can penetrate even the firmest of female strongholds. That said, this is 2K17, and feminism rules. Natalie O’Moore is one female artist in particular that is working in her own realm of visual imagery to keep the conversation moving forward—whether that means highlighting girls in her work, de-emphasizing femininity, or taking to the open road to air her grievances, we’re with her 100 percent.

O’Moore treated us with a special jackpot of never-before-seen images that emphasize all of these themes, and then some; check the full collection of photos in the slideshow above.

I love all of the photos. They’re just so beautiful. There’s a ton and you said they’ve never seen the light of day, or?

Yeah, well I had some down time, so I went through all of the negatives I had shot since I moved to LA because those are the only ones I have with me, and then I rescanned a ton and edited it, so there’s some of that. Then there’s other stuff that I feel like no one has really seen, like I’ve had it on my website for a while, but even my closest friend, I printed a photo for him and he goes, “Oh, I’ve never seen this before!”

So just looking through them, I recognized one theme that you’re always going back to is the road trip situation, and just a lot of really dreamy, beautiful portraits of women. Can you talk about what draws you to those themes in particular? 

Yeah, well I’m just super into photo history, and in school I studied at NYU Gallatin and I made my own major, and sort of the culmination of it was half photo/art history and half studio photography, but a big part of that was I was so attracted to, and I really found inspiration from, photographers of the American road trip, so like Lee Friedlander, obviously Robert Frank, all these people, even like William Eggleston. And I realized that they’re all men, and this idea of creating images that speak to the American landscape are all through the lens of American men, so I just realized that it was missing a lot of women—the majority of the populationand their perspective and bringing them into that vision. And I’m also really drawn to photographing cars, I love taking pictures of cars, there’s something really intuitive about it. But then I read a quote that said the car is the symbol of American freedom in the modern century, so it’s like escapism and where you first feel individuality, you can break free from your family, and you have the opportunity to go anywhere you want. It’s something that’s always inspiring to me. I can’t really escape it.

That is so interesting, I’ve never really thought that deeply about cars, but you’re totally right, that’s exactly what it means to every suburban kid.

Yeah, totally. I have all of these pictures from when I first moved to LA, I had this show with my friends, and the whole thing was literally pictures of my friends playing in the car, and pictures of us driving at home in Pennsylvania, or in New York when I’d drive upstate. And also, you listen to music with your friends in cars, you have really intimate conversations in cars, and things like that. And when photography was invented, it was during the industrial revolution and when trains were becoming the popular form of transportation. There’s a correlation between looking out a window and watching the world pass you by through a frame and the invention and popularity of photography.

Yeah, that’s a beautiful image. And as far as women shooting women, I mean it’s really interesting to me because I feel like traditionally it was always male artists shooting or painting women for a man’s pleasure, and now it’s like you’re kind of flipping the script, putting the perspective into women’s hands. Do you think about that a lot when you’re working?

Yeah, I think about it so much. For me it’s always been organic to photograph other women. I feel like in 2009 it was a professor that brought it to my attention and she said, “Oh, you’re a feminist!” I was like, “What?” I had never heard of feminism before, and then I started really reading about it and that’s what my thesis was about. It was about escaping the male gaze through taking pictures. It’s actually so complicated for me to think about now but, basically, I have a twin sister, so I was like she’s my self portrait in the world but she’s also another person separate from myselftherefore it’s an image that is both a portrait and a self portrait. So if she’s looking in a mirror, and I take a photo of her looking in the mirror looking back at me, maybe I can subvert some sort of male gaze because it’s like me regarding myself and that person regarding themselves, throwing it back at yourself. So I was doing my personal photography in school and there was that, but then there was this whole wave of female photographers with the same perspective, including a fourth wave feminist movement, and I thought it was an interesting synchronicity that everyone was hitting on the same feeling at the same time. It’s really interesting to see girls shooting other girls, because I always think back to when I was growing up, even now, I don’t look through magazines anymore but in Vogue there were always images of women being hyper sexualized and it’s like what? I’ve never even seen a girl like that, so I don’t understand how people could even have that. That’s why it’s important for girls to shoot other girls the way they see them.

Even as a simple business model, you want to make money, so you want to connect with your audience, if your audience is women, the people that know women best is just other women! It seems obvious to me.

Exactly! Have you watched Misrepresentation on Netflix?

Yeah, oh my God, it’s mind blowing. That documentary made me feel duped my whole life, like, “Everything’s a lie!”

The correlation is just so obvious to me now, like, “Of course, I picked up the camera and was interested in photography because I wanted to create images on my own and not just be told what I’m supposed to look like and infiltrate your mind and feel bad about yourself.” I want to make my own work that makes me feel good and other people feel good.

Now that you create all of these images for a career, are you really intentional about what messages you’re sending, or do you feel like it’s more of just following your instinct of what makes a beautiful image and people can take from it what they will?

I spend a lot of time reading, and looking and watching. So I spend a lot of time thinking about what it is that I want to portray, and in the moment, I act on intuition. But I think all of that manifests, all of the looking. I’ll see an image and I’ll think why is this photograph something I disagree with, why is this one something I agree with. And hopefully it comes out in my work. When I shot my friend Diana for you guys at Milk, my other friend was looking through the images and said about Diana: “You look so strong, yet smart and vulnerable.” And I thought that was so cool because that was exactly what we were getting at, while having fun and not being so conscious about it. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not super conscious, but I notice sometimes if someone is too skinny, I just can’t put those images out. Or a lot of times, images of girls just standing and staring, I get that it’s just to take a photo and I’ll do it sometimes, but I want her to live, she’s a person, she should be doing something. So sometimes it’s very conscious, and other times it’s very organic. I just watched Wonder Woman for example, and it was good, but I just had an issue with the way that she’s presented to the world.

Have you had any cool reactions or conversations with younger girls or other female artists in general about your work?

One time a friend said to me, which was really important to me, but I took a picture of one of my girlfriends and someone asked, “Oh, is that a guy or a girl, I really just can’t tell.” And another time a friend said to me, “You treat everyone very gender neutrally, guys and girls, you treat them all the same, it’s not masculine-femme thing, it’s just neutral.” I love the idea that everyone is treated equallyvisually and in person. One time, a friend I’ve known my whole life, she said, “I saw this photo of yours and it was shocking. I was shocked. It was just surprising, and something I didn’t even realize that your mind thinks like that.” She got to see my work in a whole new way.

As far as what’s in the horizon for you for the rest of the year, what kind of work do you want to expand on?

I really want to start making movies. I’ve tried to do some, but I think that making videos is a totally different practice. Even the mechanics of a camera, I haven’t nailed it at all, but I just borrowed a friend’s Super 8 camera, so I’m going to play with it this weekend. I just want to make moving images. And I’ve been talking to some people about directing music videos, which I’m excited about. I’m shooting a friend on Saturday, which is cool and exciting. I’m just really happy that I’ve been asked to direct things or am having the prospects to do so.

Well, hopefully you can make a video for us!

Yeah, that’d be so cool! I’d love to do that. 

All images courtesy of Natalie O’Moore

Stay tuned to Milk for more west coast artists who slay.

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