Seven Questions for Jeremy Dennis, Photographer

What I love about talking with my friend Jeremy Dennis is the way he listens. In every conversation we’ve had about his work, he always finds ways to be deeply present to his questioner. I’m in awe of that gift. And what I love about Jeremy’s process as an artist is how he’s creating an entire artistic world that is relevant to history, identity, narrative, art, way-finding, place, in the context of a contemporary conversation.

Here’s his bio:

Jeremy Dennis (b. 1990) is a fine art photographer and a tribal member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, NY. In his work, he explores indigenous identity, culture, and assimilation. Dennis won a 2016 Dreamstarter Grant from the national non-profit organization Running Strong for American Indian Youth. He won $10,000 to pursue his projectOn This Site, which uses photography and an interactive online map to showcase culturally significant Native American sites on Long Island, a topic of special meaning for Dennis, who was raised on the Shinnecock Nation Reservation.

Installation shot for Dennis' 2018 solo exhibit in association with the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, NY
Installation shot for Dennis' 2018 solo exhibit in association with the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, NY
Photograph courtesy of Jeremy Dennis

Dennis also received funding from Getty Images to continue his series Stories.  In 2013, Dennis began working on the series, Stories—Indigenous Oral Stories, Dreams and MythsInspired by North American indigenous stories, the artist staged supernatural images that transform these myths and legends to depictions of an actual experience in a photograph. He currently lives and works in Southampton, New York on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.

I hope you enjoy our conversation.

What are some of the things that are most frustrating to you as an artist? How do you deal with frustration now differently than you did in the past?

Some of the frustrations I've experienced as an artist arise from the limitation of how I can support myself. It is common for artists to have a day-job to support their life and artistic practice and I think often about whether I have enough savings for a certain project or to travel to pursue my photography. I try to overcome these by setting aside time to think of ways to sell my work or make it consumable. I've had various success in selling prints, books, and fundraising for specific projects and I am currently working on my website store to help streamline some of the processes!

What are the most helpful teachings you’ve received (recently) from teachers?

Throughout my visual art career, I've had mentors and teachers who encouraged me to keep working and guide my work. Before I developed a sense of purpose in my work, I notice that teachers who were the most prolific advised us to continually work no matter if it is good or bad work. I still try to work that way today to push through some of my thoughts and to constantly make new work to avoid hesitation and blocks in creativity.

How do you stay motivated to create?

 I am motivated by the clarity in words and I am fascinated with the idea of communicating spoken and written word in visual art formats. Artists I go back to when I think of motivating my work include those who put words directly into their work—including Glenn Ligon, Duane Michals, Jenny Holtzer, & Edgar Heap of Birds for example. I find it motivating that art has the potential to communicate important ideas and memories through image and like to experiment with different ways of accomplishing that.

When you think about approaching work as practice—what comes to mind?

In my photography, I work sequentially to pursue a narrative within my various unique photo projects, but by working in this way, it becomes a practice in experimentation. If an image doesn't work, it allows for the flexibility to try again or perhaps - having it be shown with another image in the same project, that image can then work and make sense in a larger scheme.

When demons of self-doubt or fear or lack of confidence come into play, what strategies have you developed over the years to work through the stuff in your head?

In my work, self-doubt can be present when I compare myself to other artists. This is more present in open call competitions, exhibition opportunities, and grants - when you receive a decline letter—I feel a lack of confidence, but over time I have turned the application process into more of a routine and try to not take it personally no matter what happens. Perhaps a better opportunity, theme, or exhibit will happen next time.

What do you think is most important for young artists, beginners, to focus on? How did you personally move from being a student to seeing yourself as an artist?

When I think back to my early career as an artist, I try to encourage younger artists to become their own self-advocate. There are so many talented artists who are bashful about sharing their work or don't see the value in showcasing their work until they feel it is completed or perfect. At the very least, I encourage artists to design their own website even if it is a simple page with a biography, a single image, and contact information for those interested in learning more and supporting their art. Some of the success I've had as an artist has happened because my website featured a certain image, article, update, or artist-statement at a certain time.

Jeremy Dennis on set in Saratoga Springs testing reflection for a project titled 'Rise,' influenced by his ancestral history in New England.
Jeremy Dennis on set in Saratoga Springs testing reflection for a project titled 'Rise,' influenced by his ancestral history in New England.
Photograph courtesy of Jeremy Dennis

What are you trying to improve, technique-wise, right now? How do you go about learning a new skill or technique or mindset?

As I share my work more and more, I try to place my work in an art historical context as a way of allowing viewers to better understand my work. Technique-wise, I want my photos to exist more in the realm of painting; to break away from what's restricted in our reality while still using reality as the main ingredient to produce the work. I admire in painting the varying light sources, impossible bodily proportions, compression of space, and other-worldly colors that are possible.