Interviews With Alumni Artists: Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04

Rebecca Seidel ’15 interviews Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04, two of the featured artists in the free exhibition The Alumni Show II, on display in the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery through Sunday, December 8, 2013. Both Ms. Herman and Ms. Romano will also be attending the Homecoming/Family Weekend Reception for the exhibition on Saturday, November 2, 2013 from 2pm to 4pm in Zilkha Gallery.

As anyone who has stopped by the Zilkha Gallery in the past few months already knows, the current semester-long exhibition hosts a truly unforgettable body of work.

The Alumni Show II celebrates the artwork of four decades of Wesleyan alumni. The exhibit, arranged by guest curator John Ravenal ’81, P’15, showcases a huge range of media, styles, and subjects—reflecting the infinite number of paths Wesleyan students take after graduating. This Saturday, November 2, 2013, Mr. Ravenal will be joined at 2:30pm by ten of the fifteen artists featured in the exhibition for the show’s Homecoming/Family Weekend Reception, which will last from 2pm to 4pm.  Over the past week, I got a chance to interview a few of these artists.

For the first installment of this interview series, I talked to Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04. Highlights from these interviews are featured below.


Gabriela Herman, "Natural Selection," 2011, archival inkjet print
Gabriela Herman, “Natural Selection,” 2011, archival inkjet print

Gabriela Herman ’03 is a freelance photographer who divides her time between Brooklyn, Martha’s Vineyard, and Brazil. For the collection on display in the exhibition in  Zilkha Gallery, she photographed bloggers sitting alone in dark rooms, with their faces bathed in the glow of their laptop screens. “Passion and inspiration thrive in these dark corners as blogs change the way we interact, literally linking us to one another,” she writes in her artist’s statement. I spoke to her about the inspiration behind her work, what she’s up to now, and the art of storytelling through photography.

What drove you to this particular subject matter?

Well, it was sort of organic, but the first part of it was just something with the lighting and then it developed into the blogger idea. But the first part was just that a friend of mine was at her house, and she was leaning over her bed on her computer, and I just noticed the light from her laptop screen lighting her face—it was just this beautiful light. And I was like, “Oh, my God! Stay right there for one sec.” And I grabbed my camera, which I happened to have over there, and I took three frames, and then I came home and I looked at what I had shot, and I thought, “There’s definitely something really interesting going on here.” So that was definitely the bud of the idea. And that picture used to be in the collection—it got edited out, but it was in there for a while.

So that was the start of the idea. And then I came up with the idea of photographing bloggers in that way, with the light from their laptops being a metaphor for the tunnel, sort of—the light as a tunnel from being alone to this other connected world where we’re all together, online, and using that light source.

All my projects are very personal, and involve things that I’m very tied to. I am very involved online in the blogosphere, I have many blogs, I read and consume tons of blogs, and I think blogs are sort of our go-to center for information these days, and that bloggers can be our curators of information. I wanted to highlight that fact.

How did you go about finding bloggers?

So originally the idea was to shoot one blogger, and then the next blogger was going to be someone that they recommended, so that the photos would all be linked up in the same way that blogs link to other blogs. It didn’t end up being totally linear in that way, but every time I did a shoot of someone, I did get them to recommend a set of people, and so that’s how I found most of the bloggers; it was almost always through the recommendations of other bloggers.

As a blogger yourself, do you see yourself in these photos?

Yeah, I guess in the way that the online blogosphere influences my own photography. I know there are certain photographers who don’t want to look at anyone else’s work, don’t want to be influenced by anyone else, just want to be pure and shoot what comes into their heads, but for me it’s quite the opposite. I take in everything online; I read all the blogs, and every time I’m going through and I’m looking at other people’s work, I get so inspired. You know, it’s not copying what you see, but you just get inspired here and there. I love going to the blogosphere to motivate myself.

So you’ve been blogging for a while?

Yes. It’s changed, though, because when I first moved to New York, I used to blog a ton about the scene, and I used to go out all the time to gallery openings and to photo events, and I would write up who I ran into that night, and blog about what I saw and that kind of stuff. But now everyone’s moved to Tumblr, and Tumblr’s much more visual and less word or text-driven. Blogging has become much more about posting images and maybe a line or two about the images, and less about text.

What was it like using computer screens as the main source of light for these photographs?

I made [my subjects] turn off all of the lights. That’s not to say there wasn’t outside light from the windows—I couldn’t control that—but the light from the Apple icon makes this beautiful, soft, sort of diffused lighting. It was really easy to do the shoots, because [the lighting] really helped to simplify the factors going into the shoot: all I really needed was the laptop and the person, and I knew going in, 20 minutes in, that I got the shot. It was a very easy, sort of in-and-out kind of shooting.

And was there a lot of post-production work involved as well?

Not really at all. I’ll pump up the blacks and the contrast a little, and take out a couple distracting things here and there, but for the most part, they’re pretty true to what was shot in raw.

Were most of the photos taken in New York?

The majority were in New York, but when I was shooting at times when I was traveling, I would always have reached out to some bloggers. So there is a girl from Boston in there, and there’s one from San Francisco, from when I was out there. When I was in Paris, I happened to find a photo blogger, too.

Any other projects you’re working on right now?

I’m currently working on my next big project, which is portraits of people who are in college or older, who have or were raised by at least one gay parent. It has some audio components—I’m doing audio interviews of the subjects and having them share their stories. I’m talking to people who were raised from birth by a gay parent, or by two gay parents, as well as people who were raised by a mom and a dad and then later had a parent come out. So I’m getting the audio into their stories, and then a portrait of them that somehow relates to the moment when they found out about their parents.

So you really like to convey stories through your photos.

Yeah, it’s much more powerful, and I think people are much more receptive when you have something to say—you know, when I have a story to tell, versus just looking at a pretty picture.

And you work full-time as a photographer?

I’m a full-time freelance photographer. I’ve been very focused on editorial photography, which is for magazines. I’ve literally been traveling right now since August, just on different assignments; I’ve been doing a lot of travel photography for several magazines.

What is your favorite type of scenario to photograph?

My favorite scenario to photograph would be when I can spend two to three days with a person—not just show up for a shoot for two hours, in and out, but spend a few days with someone, and photograph not just them, but also everything around them: what they’re doing, where they’re living, where they’re working. I get to encompass the whole story by hanging out with someone for a couple of days. That’s my favorite kind of work.

Juliana Romano, "Taylor Swift Walking," 2012, oil on linen
Juliana Romano, “Taylor Swift Walking,” 2012, oil on linen

Juliana Romano ’04 is a painter whose love for portrait and figure painting dates back to her time as a Studio Art major at Wesleyan. She now lives in New York, but she also now teaches studio art here at her alma mater. Her work in the exhibition in Zilkha Gallery features portraits of “young women who are noticeably cute or pretty.” Two of her three pieces on display are paintings of Taylor Swift. She writes, “I’m interested in the tension that surrounds this kind of girl, the anxiety about whether or not she will be consumed by her own image.” I talked to her about the creative process behind her artwork, the facial expressions of her subjects, and what it’s like to be back at Wesleyan to teach.

What drove you to pursue this subject matter?

I’ve been painting figures since I was an undergrad at Wesleyan. I used to paint the models who we used in the art classes, but they were professional artist models, and I wanted to pursue a more personal subject matter—but then that was problematic for me in other ways. And so I started trying to bring things that I didn’t think necessarily belonged in an art context into the art context.  I spent a lot of time reading Us Weekly, and tabloids, and fan sites, and so I thought it would be fun to start grafting the space between that kind of fan fiction area and what I designated as art. And that was how I started playing with the pop culture figures. And there are these incredible image archives of all these people. So once I started thinking that Taylor Swift was pretty and would be a fun subject, I was able to find amazing pictures of her—everywhere she goes, she’s photographed. And that became its own kind of element within the work, which I thought was interesting.

And you combine the photographs while you’re painting to form a composite image?

Sometimes I’ll like one thing about one picture and another thing about another, and I’ve practiced enough that I can use multiple sources for one face.

You wrote that your work “brings together portraits of famous and non-famous people in an unsystematic way, creating instability for the viewer.” Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I’ve found that people often, even if it’s totally just a stray picture of someone I know and whom nobody else would know, people always think it’s somebody famous. It’s like the chicken and the egg: I don’t know which came first, but people always have a sense of familiarity with these subjects.

I noticed that the women in these paintings have pretty neutral and interiorized expressions on their faces.

I always work with this really neutral expression. I think it’s probably a mirror of my own “concentration” face, that sense of meditation that happens when I’m working. I’m not having an ecstatic, hyperbolic moment—maybe if I was, that would come out in it—but I like that: it gives them a sense of interiority. And I’ve talked about that even since I was an undergrad; I remember [Professor of Art] Tula Telfair talking about that with me. When I had my first body of work, the first time I saw a bunch of my paintings of people together, I was really surprised by the really strong effect that I had that they were, all together, looking out of the canvas. I think if you look at the actual pictures that I work from, you might not get that sense as strongly. So I don’t know where it comes from.

How much time do you typically spend working on a painting?

I don’t spend a lot of time; usually a couple of days of about five hour sessions. But with these ones that are in the show, you can see—the one that’s of Taylor Swift in a sweater was made in one day, in a couple hours, but the one of her walking in the white dress took probably about a week. You can see the difference in the material—the hair took a really, really long time because I had to keep letting it dry, and the face took a really long time, but the one on the right was super fast.

What’s it like to be back at Wesleyan to teach?

I mean, it’s the best. It’s so great. I love my classes, I love my students, and it’s just so fun to be back. It’s such a special place.

After taking studio art classes here, it must be strange to suddenly be the one teaching.

It’s not weird. Being a student is so closely linked to being a teacher. It’s just a really easy transition. It’s funny, because when I came back for my five-year reunion, I hadn’t been back in a long time, and then my ten-year reunion is coming up this year, and that’s a really different feeling. That first gap was really crazy, and now I’m much more used to it. It doesn’t feel like ten years. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s the truth.