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THE FEMALE GAZE: “Rebecca Moseman: Seeing into the Soul of her Subjects” by Diana Nicholette Jeon

Rebecca Moseman received her BA in Fine Arts from Virginia Tech in 1997 and her MFA from RIT in 2001. She has worked as a graphic designer in private industry and the government. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation honored her as a 2023 Guggenheim Fellow in Photography and a recipient of the Joel Conarroe Grant. In 2022, she was a finalist in the Arnold Newman Prize in Portraiture through the Maine Media Workshops. Her work has been exhibited across the US and internationally and featured in numerous photography magazines and online platforms.

The Garage Men from the series The Land Where Roots Grow Deep

I first became acquainted with Rebecca Moseman and her work when I saw imagery from Into the Moon’s Room on Facebook seven or eight years ago. I was enchanted by the series title and its poetic quality, though at the time, I had no idea it referenced her sister, who had passed away. For me, many series about children are overly reliant on the innocence and likeability of the given kids filling the frame, but that was not how this work felt to me. I found the images of Moseman’s son equally poetic. The work was beautiful but also solemn and forlorn. It made me want to know what the boy was doing and why, rather than just saying to myself, “Oh, the kid on the swing. Fun. Cute,” (or something along those lines.)

I’ve watched her work develop from the distance of thousands of miles away while still having intermittent contact when our paths crossed for exhibitions. I’ve cheered on her continued success in her work. I am not alone: Moseman was named one of the 2024 Guggenheim Fellows for Photography. We all know just how tough those odds are. And how daunting the application process is. You have to be at the top of your game with your work and your writing to be honored with that award. Yet she managed to ace it after beginning the application a week before it was due. Most people spend the better part of a year. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, I don’t know what would. It’s amazing!

I am also in awe of Moseman’s ability to bring out the character of the strangers she photographs. I don’t have that skill. I’m self-conscious and shy when interacting with strangers, likely because I have always hated having my picture taken. I somehow manage to ruin every shot every darn time. I likely bring that awkwardness to bear when I take images of people who did not ask for them. Alternatively, Moseman can coax forward her sitters’ inner selves with little time to get to know them.

In response to my questions, Moseman opened up about her work and her life. I hope you enjoy learning more about her.

Words from the series Into the Moon’s Room

DNJ: Tell us a bit about your childhood.

RM: I was born and raised in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. My parents moved out to western Loudoun County (“the countryside” about 40 miles outside of DC) when I was 14 years old, and my oldest siblings were out of the house. I am the youngest of four. My sister was the oldest and ten years older than me. I also have two older brothers. I had a great childhood and spent most of my time playing outside with friends. However, my life changed when I got my first horse in 7th grade. It was a dream come true and a pivotal moment that would shape my future. After that, I spent most of my time caring for, riding, and doing everything and anything with horses. My horse, Gilly, became my best friend and confidant, teaching me valuable lessons about responsibility and perseverance.

Halting Site Training Wheels from the series Irish Travelers.

I attended public high school for two years but couldn’t find my footing there. That hurt my grades. I didn’t hate school, more that I couldn’t find anything I felt passionate about. So, I transferred to Garrison Forest, an all-girls boarding school in Maryland. During my two years at Garrison Forest, I discovered I had a talent for art, which my art teacher fostered. I often found myself in the art room after study hall in the evenings, working on projects deep into the night. My art teacher saw this, recognized my potential talent and passion, and was the first to ask me if I had ever considered attending Art School for college. That has changed the path of my life forever. I will always be so grateful to her for her encouragement and for supporting the development of my artistic voice.

Darnell’s Quickmart from the series The Land Where Roots Grow Deep

DNJ: Where did you go to college, and what did you major in?

RM: I started college at Syracuse University in their School of Art and later transferred to Virginia Tech. I graduated from VA Tech with a BA in Art and a concentration in graphic design. I worked for a few years as a designer for a Trade Show company before returning to school to get my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in graphic design from The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). I worked for the Federal Government as a designer for 20 years. I most recently started as a designer for Booz Allen Hamilton and as a contractor for the federal government.

Diner Lady from the series The Land Where Roots Grow Deep

DNJ: What brought you to photography?

RM: My mother was an amateur photographer when I was a child. I have many childhood memories of sitting in the corner of the darkroom and playing with toys while she developed her film. The darkroom was like a secret place to me with its maze of hallways, eerily glowing lights, and unique smell of chemicals. I loved watching her photographs come into being and form their lives. While alongside her, I felt insulated, hidden, and protected from the outside world. I felt the darkroom was a strange and magical place where pictures brought things to life and stories were told.

Girl from Cashel from the series Irish Travelers

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered photography by accident after being encouraged to attend the Maine Media Workshops. My first workshop was the Advanced Photoshop Techniques, which was appropriate since I’m a graphic designer. Little did I know that the class primarily centered around photography, and my classmates were all photographers. I had never used the camera I had brought; I needed to learn about cameras in general and be educated in all things photography. However, I dove in and spent the week learning about f-stops, apertures, shutter speeds, and composition. I didn’t understand it all, nor could I apply it all to make successful photographs. Still, I was intrigued and enjoyed the challenge. By the end of the week, I knew something had changed within me, and I had found my passion. I remember my teacher asking me, “Now what?” and I responded, “I don’t know, but I think you’ve just changed my life.”

Fair Gun from the series Irish Travelers

DNJ: How does your career as a graphic designer inform your work in photography, and vice versa?

RM: The same principles apply to both design and photography. Lines, positive & negative space, composition, balance, and attention to detail – apply to both genres. When I started photographing, I was drawn to creating photographs with sharp lines, structure, and graphic elements. As important as this can be with certain photography styles, it became a crutch for me, and I had to work on growing past it. Portrait photography challenged me to shift my focus from organizing the form and structure of inanimate objects to creating an emotional connection with other human beings.

Van Jump from the series The Land Where The Roots Grow Deep
Church Girl from the series The Land Where Roots Grow Deep

DNJ: What kind of photographer do you consider yourself?

RM: I used to consider myself solely a portrait photographer, but the lines between portrait and documentary photography have blurred. Although I now see myself as primarily a portrait photographer, my work encompasses both.

Don’t Look from the series Into the Moon’s Room

DNJ: Tell me about the evolution of the different series you have done. What came first? How did one lead to the next (if they did?)

RM: Each series is about people and my deep, personal connection to them, and each has a different level of intimacy.

Into the Moon’s Room is about a boy’s honor and oath to his deceased aunt to carry on the story they created and threaded together about a blackbird and the moon: “Oh, to go where the clouds sleep, where the moons dance, and the stars weep. I went into the moon’s room, zoom. There were stars in his closet and clouds in his bed, and lying in the corner a black bird with her feathery black head.”

It was my first complete series, and I created it as an emotional response to my sister’s sudden death and the loss to our family, most especially to my oldest son, Ben.

The Butterfly from the series Into the Moon’s Room
Leaves from the series Into the Moon’s Room

The Irish Travelers series of images reflects my interactions with the Travelers I connected with at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair, various halting sites, and illegal encampments throughout County Galway, Limerick, and Dublin.

This series was a natural shift. At a workshop in Santa Fe, I met a fellow photographer friend who saw I was a black-and-white portrait photographer and recommended I consider traveling to Ireland to photograph the Irish Travelers. Four months later, I was in Ireland at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair, experiencing my first encounters with the Irish Travelers, not knowing how successful and expansive this project would become for me.

School Drop Out from the series Irish Travelers

My journey as a photographer has continuously explored new subjects and themes. Between my visits to Ireland, I embarked on a new project in the Mississippi Delta: The Land Where the Roots Grow Deep.

In photographing the Delta, I observed and captured the socio-economical and psychological challenges of the local people and their battles with the natural hardships of their land. However, the Delta is intriguing despite its challenges. I was charmed and inspired by its people’s resilience and stories. My photographs strive to weave a story of the people of the Delta and their journey through the changes and challenges of the American South.

I delved into the unique culture and people of the Deep South, a region rich in history and diversity. It evolves as I explore this area further, reflecting my ongoing exploration and discovery.

Nightclub Owner from the series The Land Where Roots Grow Deep
Flood from the series The Land Where the Roots Grow Deep

DNJ: What do you want viewers of your work to take away from it? What do you want the experience of viewing your work to be for them?

RM: Ultimately, I want viewers to experience the connection and level of intimacy I have experienced and entrusted with my subjects, whether my photographs are portraits or objects that help narrate a story. I want my work to be emotional to viewers and provide a glance into what I saw, felt, and experienced when I took the photograph.

For my Irish Travelers series, I want viewers to experience these unique people and appreciate their distinctive customs and traditions. I also want to humanize the Travelers and demonstrate their struggles, discriminations, and hardships within their country and fellow Irish.

The photographs from Into the Moon’s Room help retell and continue a story via ethereal images that simultaneously narrate the story and serve as an emotional outlet.

In The Land Where the Roots Grow Deep, I strive to weave a story of the Delta people and their journey through the changes and challenges of the American South.

Hem in the Weeds from the series Into the Moon’s Room
Nails from the series Irish Travelers
Secrets from the series The Land Where the Roots Grow Deep

DNJ: What are you currently working on?

RM: In early June, I was in Carlisle, UK, to attend the annual Appleby Horse Fair, the largest horse fair in Europe. I took the train between Carlisle and Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria, England, to photograph the Irish Travelers and other gypsies from Ireland and the UK attending the horse fair.

The Three Sisters from the series Irish Travelers

DNJ: Tell us about your process: When and where do you work? Do you come to work with a fully formed idea, or do you improvise in the making? What motivates you?

RM: I have a very organic process of photographing people. Spending time with your subjects to make them comfortable, or as much time as possible if you don’t have the luxury of time, is essential. It’s necessary to make some connection with them. I try not to pose my subjects—instead, I want to capture them in their natural postures and whatever they’re willing to give me in the moment.

Michael and Danny from the series The Land Where Roots Grow Deep

When I’m in a specific location, I focus on producing work for that place. My photographic style is impulsive and loose – I explore an area and its people and photograph what I see and whom I meet. I don’t follow an agenda. Sometimes, people don’t want their photographs taken, which I have worked around. I try to get a variety of people. However, many adults do not wish for their photos to be taken within the Traveler community. It’s always been a challenge for them to relent and allow me to make portraits of them.

Every night, I look at my work to edit and sort through my initial reactions to what I captured that day. Still, I’m careful not to delete any photographs. I have found some real gems after initially disregarding them.

Alisha from the series Irish Travelers
Jonathan with Gun from the series Irish Travelers

DNJ: What challenges have you faced in making your work?

RM: Like most photographers, I face the challenge of staying relevant and fresh. I create new work and hope it will be interesting enough to sustain myself and others. There are periods when I need to be more motivated or challenged sufficiently, and I find myself seeking something to dig into. My everyday job and family commitments make it hard to spend as much time on my photography as I would like to. I have to focus hard on creating a balance between all three things.

Moons and Mirrors from the series Into the Moon’s Room

DNJ: What message do you intend to send to the world with your work?

RM: I intend for my work to show compassion, curiosity, and beauty. There is beauty in all things and within all people, and I would love for people to feel some of that essence in my photographs. I’m also a bit of a voyeur, and I find it interesting to peer into others’ lives and document what makes them who they are. I find people and their ways of life interesting, and I hope this comes across within my work.

The Pool Hall from the series The Land Where The Roots Grow Deep

DNJ: You have gotten a lot of acclaim for your work. How did you make that happen? What advice do you have for others who want to make a similar career trajectory with their work?

RM: When I became serious about photography and started creating work I thought had potential, I entered my work into themed group shows. That is an excellent way of getting your work out there to be seen and to start to create a style for yourself. However, photographers must be careful about the competitions they apply to and the fees and commitments required. Paying a modest entry fee is acceptable, of course. Still, some competitions charge too much for entry and then add other fees later if/when you’ve been selected for some award level. It’s essential to weigh the pros and cons of entering specific competitions. What are the fees vs. the chances of being selected? Is it worth it? Will you get some recognition for entering the contest even if you aren’t selected? It’s good to stretch oneself and apply to things (grants, etc.) that you may not be sure you will be awarded. Still, if the chances are slim to none, your work may not be ready, and ultimately, you’ll save money.

Living Poverty from the series Irish Travelers

I didn’t intend to achieve the acclaim I have received for my work. For example, the Guggenheim was only something that was on my radar a week before my portion of the application was due. But, I had entered my work into various higher level competitions and had done pretty well, and had had a few solo shows under my belt – and I felt the series had had enough time to marinate and grow. I decided to apply without any intention of winning a Guggenheim Fellowship. You can imagine my surprise!

If you have a substantial body of work that you believe in and a clear vision, any work deserves high acclaim. My advice is to stick with it, work hard at improving it, and be smart about where you enter it. Make the competitions work for you, not against you.

Most importantly, don’t worry about rejections. Everybody gets rejected from shows, competitions, grants, etc.. I’ve had just as many rejections as I’ve had successes. Just shrug it off and keep going.

Puppies from the series Irish Travelers

DNJ: Can you share your approach to bringing out the emotion and personality of the people you photograph? Does it differ from “Moon’s Room” to “Travelers” since one is family and the other is strangers?

RM: My approach to people is all about connection. Sometimes, I have time to get to know them, and the photographs happen over a more extended period—other times, I have 3 minutes or maybe even 30 seconds. Being relatively shy, asking people if I could take their photographs was very uncomfortable for me initially. I was embarrassed and awkward when I received my first “No” after asking someone if I could take their photograph. But the more I did it, the better I became at doing it. If someone says no, I don’t mind. Sometimes, they may say no but then come around to it after you’ve talked with them, or they see you photographing others.

The Pose from the series Irish Travelers

DNJ: What’s on the horizon for you?

RM: This fall, I will embark on a three-week artist residency in the Arctic Circle onboard a traditionally rigged Barquentine sailing vessel. The trip will comprise a group of scientists, educators, musicians, and artists. We will each have our individual projects to work on, and this trip will facilitate a collaborative environment where we can work and learn from one another.

This residency will challenge me to try a new form of photography, focusing more on landscapes and the environment versus people. But I’m hoping I’ll have an opportunity to make some portraits of some of my fellow shipmates and/or the crew.

I’m incredibly grateful that the Guggenheim Fellowship has given me this opportunity to pursue these opportunities to explore new areas, meet other interesting people from around the world, and try out new genres of photography.

Moon’s Reach from the series Into the Moon’s Room

Readers, I hope you have enjoyed learning about Rebecca and her photographic practice. Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing your ideas and experience with us at FRAMES.

REBECCA MOSEMAN

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Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>


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