What does it mean to be a ‘recovering photographer’?

What does it mean to be a ‘recovering photographer’?

A painting depicting a person in a dark green toque and a red winter jacket with their back turned.
“Snow Squall” by Nancy Friedland (Photo courtesy of LF Documentation)

Over two decades, Nancy Friedland built her career in art as a photographer. She was represented by a respected Toronto gallerist, she won grants and her work attracted collectors. Then, suddenly, she found she couldn’t take another picture — not as art, at least. 

Her photography was always “clever” and conceptual, she says, like a traditional portrait series where potted plants assumed the role of the sitter. But when Friedland embarked on a rather personal, and therefore, uncharacteristic photo project about her family — positioning them as the stars of her own sky — something shifted inside of her.

“It just felt so much better to say something directly than the wink and nudge of my earlier practice,” she says. “Once I found that genuine connection with my work, I just wanted to take it even further … [Photography] was like a completed journey.” 

She had the feeling — both inexplicable and undeniable — that she could connect with her art more strongly still if she could only involve her hands more. So 2016’s Constellations became her final photographic series. After that, she picked up a brush for the first time in her adult life and began painting.

Today, the 53-year-old artist playfully calls herself a “recovering photographer.” She still paints like one: with a shutterbug’s special reverence for light, shadow and the optical eccentricities of the lens. But away from the tech- and technique-obsessed machismo of the camera world, which always made her a little insecure, she’s found in paint a medium that enables her to express herself more truly and deeply, while still allowing for the magic of surprise. 

Although second chapters, such as this one, are not uncommon in an artist’s career, what’s indeed rare is that Friedland the painter is finding a much wider success than she ever did before. In the past year, her artwork has appeared in international exhibitions, accompanying new fiction by Joyce Carol Oates in the pages of Harper’s Magazine and on the cover of The New York Review of Books. Just last week, a solo exhibition of Friedland’s work, titled Heavy Weather, opened at La Loma Projects in Los Angeles with 20 new paintings. It’s as if the moment she finally found her flow, the world came to meet her. 

A dark painting of black and blues depicting a rainy road lined with trees at night.
“I Have Something to Tell You” by Nancy Friedland (Photo courtesy of LF Documentation)

Friedland calls her initial departure into painting “a bit of a midlife crisis.” She was 47, with teenagers at home who were newly joining social media, and “at the age,” the artist says, “of being embarrassed by everything they do.” She wanted to teach them it’s OK to appear vulnerable in front of your peers, so she decided she’d learn to paint — something she’d always wanted to try — and document the process on Instagram from its shaky beginnings.

But after a few lessons with Toronto painter Roberta McNaughton, which freed the artist from some old misgivings about her skills as a draftsperson, Friedland’s experiment as a role model grew into something much greater. “I was completely hooked,” she says. 

She was deeply satisfied with the feeling of making something by hand — and she surprised herself with her knack for it. “It’s like that dream you have that your house has this room you never knew about,” Friedland says. “Or [it’s as if] you’re a right-handed tennis player, then one day, you discover you’re actually a left-handed tennis player … I just discovered this whole part of my brain that I couldn’t access for 25 years.” To this day, she still experiences a sort of “neophyte joy,” she says, in her ability to communicate an idea with just a few strokes of paint.

A dark painting of a birthday cake.
“Name Your Shadows” by Nancy Friedland (Photo courtesy of LF Documentation)

Although her tools may have changed, Friedland hasn’t completely left the camera behind. In fact, it’s still integral to her artmaking. About three-quarters of the artist’s paintings begin as photographs. She’s enthralled with the idea of translating the medium’s idiosyncrasies, like lens flares and flash lighting, into paint. She’s also interested in exploring the way photography make us feel, with its deep psychological connections to memory, time and our personal narratives.  

Then, there are the things she’s found she can do with paint that she never could with photography. It may sound like a paradox, but she feels painting actually enables her to be a better observer. “I see better with a paintbrush in my hand than I ever did with a camera around my neck,” she says. She can pay better attention, especially to what’s happening in the dark. She’s able to sweeten the dance between light and shadow, to choreograph it in a way that evokes mood and feeling to tell a human story. 

A painting of a girl's shadow on the wall.
“Daybreak” by Nancy Friedland (Photo courtesy of Darren Rigo)

This is perhaps the root of her artistic inquiry, and it has been the obsession of photographers and painters alike for the history of either medium: How can the basic visual elements of light and dark combine to make meaning?

“I started thinking about painting darkness, and painting little spots of light in the darkness,” Friedland says, “using that obvious metaphor for depression and trying to find those little spots of joy that we have to feel, that we have to try to find, no matter how bleak the world might seem.”

A dark painting of blacks and blue with white highlights depicting two silhouettes in front of a house beside a large tree.
“Dark as a Pocket” by Nancy Friedland (Photo courtesy of LF Documentation)

The artist’s answer lies in her paintings — but also in painting itself.

 “I can go into the studio and it’s like a map toward feeling some sense of order or calm that I can produce for myself.”

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