'I’m Never Not Myself'
Profile by Erica Watson
Fairbanks-based photographer Charlotte Peterson floats above the ground in an untitled photo in her 2015 series “Drifting Inward.” Her toes and eyes point down to the field of dead grass below, against a background of dark storm clouds. Her red lips are the brightest burst of color in the image. In “Hive,” bees swirl above her head and crawl in her half-open mouth, honey dripping from closed eyes, suggesting death and the body as host.
Though her self-portraits vary in mood and content, Peterson does not see these as distinct characters. “I might play up elements of myself in different images, but I’m never not myself,” she says. “I have to take a moment, look in the mirror and pose, and tell myself ‘this is okay.’”
Her self-portraits speak to their creator’s emotional life, the range of inner turmoil and contentedness. These are bold moves for someone who describes herself as still growing out of her shyness, but in recent years Peterson has found a quiet confidence and self-assuredness in her art and life. “I’m my own intended audience,” she says. “I create my work for myself, and everyone else is invited along for the ride.”
Peterson describes her mom as her first art teacher, helping her learn to paint, draw and press flowers. She provided rolls of butcher paper for Peterson and her brother to create expansive battle scenes. Growing up in Nenana, Peterson learned to keep herself entertained and as a teenager started taking photos. “I had a Polaroid when I was 16, and that was fun for about two minutes,” she laughs. The prohibitive cost of Polaroid film led her to experiment with disposable cameras, to work on her high school yearbook, and eventually to earn a photography degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
At first, “hiding behind the lens” was a relief, but as Peterson developed her own artistic style, defined by composite images and self portraits, the transition to placing herself as the subject of her own photos came more from practicality than a desire to be seen. “I started self-portraiture because I didn’t have anyone else to shoot,” she said. She didn’t have to pay herself to model. Composite photography, the technique of digitally combining multiple images, allows Peterson to bring the scenes she imagines into reality. This aesthetic grew into a series of fanciful and sometimes disturbing photos and gives her exploration of internal landscapes the intimacy and vulnerability of a first-person story.
Writing about “Drifting Inward,” Peterson said: “I use self-portraiture to illustrate a narrative of inner turmoil, drawing attention to and creating beauty out of that which is thought to be dark and foreboding … Strange or mysterious parts of me that I wouldn’t wish to share outright are often most present in my work.”
She keeps a distance between her work and other peoples’ opinions, recognizing that her photos will speak to some, and the critiques of those who don’t share her emotional landscape don’t serve her. This means trusting her own humor and silliness, too. In the series “Everyday Stormtrooper,” “Star Wars” action figures live out mundane moments in miniature, tracking mud across a clean kitchen floor and walking the dog.
Peterson’s daughter, Ebony, is also an occasional subject. The series “Adventures of Ebony,” which started when she was 8, lets Ebony live in a spectrum of dreamworlds, from a superhero fight scene staged in a nighttime cityscape to sheltering from the rain under an toadstool mushroom cap. Peterson’s artistic playfulness is evident here too, and Ebony, now 13, is starting to develop her own art. Peterson encourages her the way her own mother did. “She shows me her stuff, asks what I think, and I’m like, ‘Yes, I love it, keep going.’”
Peterson is excited for the next generation of creators and image makers, as more and more people have constant access to phone cameras and photography apps. “This next generation is gonna do something really cool,” she says, rejecting the notion that iPhone photography or curated composite images are somehow less authentic than traditional photography. She’s excited by technology and innovation; as styles evolve, new techniques emerge. “There’s a lot of pie out there, and everyone can have some pie — even kids with their iPhones,” she says.
It’s a position some purists in the field might reject, but the cameras displayed in Peterson’s studio in downtown Fairbanks — the Polaroid, of course, an old Argus rangefinder, and a Holga 120S film camera, popular as a low-fidelity response to the complexity of digital cameras — are evidence of the constant evolution of image-making technology and options.
The studio space is a recent investment that Peterson might not have been ready to make if not for her Rasmuson Foundation award. Despite her ambivalence towards others’ approval, the recognition of her work showed her that it’s acceptable — and necessary — to prioritize her artistic space. “I believe in myself, and somebody else believes in me too. That shouldn’t be a driving force, but it helps a lot,” she says.
The studio overlooking First Avenue is peaceful and allows her to create separately from family and her day job at a local camera shop. Props for future photo shoots line the studio shelves, and a collection of vintage dresses hang along one wall. Peterson is interested in set design as well, drawing from cinematic styles of directors like Wes Anderson, and photography that allows her full control over the shot. She intends to create complete scenes in her studio, without relying on composite images to bring her imagined worlds to life. It’s a lot of space to grow into, and Peterson no longer feels she needs any permission but her own to explore it.