Carrie Mae Weems is one of the most important image-makers of our time. Her work in photography, social practice, performance, and video has grounded our understanding of the power of visual storytelling and investigated subjectivity in domestic and public spaces. This April, nearly 30 years since she produced her ambitious and revelatory Kitchen Table Series — a collection of twenty photos, all shot in her kitchen, and fourteen text panels — the first monograph celebrating the project was finally published.
In her introductory essay to the text, scholar Sarah Lewis describes Kitchen Table Series as "a body of work that probes the depths of our development: how it is that we become." Long before the age of the selfie, Weems embarked on an unprecedented exploration of interiority. Very often her own subject, Weems produced work that is raw and personal and in many ways informs how we understand self-imaging even now.
I've never had my own kitchen, but I've always had a relationship to the themes explored in Weems's series. In fact, it's hard to point to my first encounter with her work, because it's seemingly always been a part of my visual vocabulary as a young black woman who was born in the 1990s.
When we spoke, she had just returned to New York after being honored by the Anderson Ranch Art Center for her extraordinary contributions to the field.
Kimberly Drew: When did you first start taking photographs?
Carrie Mae Weems: Well, you know, actually I started taking photographs when I was about eighteen. My boyfriend at the time gave me a camera for my birthday. I'd always been interested in art in some sort of way, but the moment that I started taking pictures ... everything kind of clicked. Every facet of me said, "Yes, this is what I am going to do. This is my way forward. This thing, this instrument, is going to lead me into my life." The first person I photographed was a black woman, a friend of mine who I knew. I wasn't interested in doing anything fashion oriented, but I wanted to immediately work with black women. I knew that that was important.
In addition, I had become familiar with these incredible volumes of black photographers' work. The Black Photographers' Annual was produced by an incredible man named Joe Crawford, who has since passed away, but he worked with people like Roy DeCarava and the Kamoinge Workshop. Ming Smith was one of the only women involved in the Kamoinge Workshop. The Kamoinge maybe had 20, 25, 30 men and this one lone woman. Of course, I immediately started looking at her very closely and looking at photography very closely. The Black Photographers' Annual showed me that black people needed to be engaged and described through this medium.
KD: Wow, I'm so glad that our dialogue begins with the Black Photographers' Annual and Kamoinge as part of this conversation because I feel like those are two important pieces of art history that are often left out of the conversation. I know that before photography, you studied dance. Could you tell me more about that? Does it connect to your photographic work?
CMW: Oh yes. It really wasn't my intent to be a dancer. It was just a natural part of my makeup. I had joined Anna Halprin's company. She was a very progressive, interesting, dynamic dancer — who is still dancing to this day in her 90s. In 1970 she was already really interested in bringing [diverse] people together in order to have them experience one another, [as a way to be] in touch with the deeper humanity of the people around you that may look different from you.