Alexis O'Connor moves between commercial and project-based photography
The Fine Arts Program recently connected with photography alum Alexis O’Connor (they/she) (BA ‘16) to talk about their Loyola experience and current freelance photography practice. They share how they got started in photography and reflect on the impact of art mentorship and the tough but necessary lessons that come with learning how to build an arts practice beyond the University. They also discuss their current photography project Making This Body A Home, which "explores the identities of QTPOC folx through the scope of fashion portraiture.” Alexis, along with twelve other artists representing four decades of Loyola alumni, are exhibiting work in Alumni Show, currently on view at the Ralph Arnold Gallery on the Lakeshore Campus through December 6, 2019.
Tell us about your interest in photography. Was it a medium you were working in prior to majoring in photography at Loyola?
Every summer, since high school, I would always become wildly obsessed with some new hobby (It’s probably because I’m an only child and had a lot of free time). It was the summer after my freshman year of college, when I was like “I think that I can do this.” I had a friend that would always post pictures to Instagram or Tumblr and that made taking pictures feel more accessible. I told my mom that I wanted to be a photographer and she was definitely skeptical. However, the best advice that she always gave me was to “find something that I love to do, and to find a way to make money doing it.”
So, no I wasn’t, because having access and the means hadn’t felt possible before.
I added photography as a second major (I was already majoring in psychology). Working as an image-maker has made me feel like I’ve been called to preserve those tiny moments that most people miss or take for granted. I like to view myself as a “time-keeper.” Someone that has the ability to help create stories and preserve history and pass them on through imagery.
Who was your first art mentor and how did that relationship shape your development as an artist?
I would say that it was definitely Professor of Fine Art in Photography, Noritaka Minami. He came to Loyola and it felt like a breath of fresh air. He showed us that research really matters. There is certainly a lot work that goes into a project-based practice. It helps to see what other photographers/artists are making to know what context your work fits into. Especially from a historical viewpoint. Working with Nori also helped me learn that you truly start to make art when you stop caring about what other people think.
Geode Boxes, 2019 (Gold Leaf Design Group)
Did you work with any Loyola professors that impacted the way you’re currently thinking about making images or how you approach either your commercial or project-based practice?
I have also worked with Instructor of Fine Arts in Visual Communication Kevin McGroarty on a lot of commercial work. We worked together at a small furniture design company. Having that day in and day out practice taught me to take time to make images and to learn how to understand the scope of someone else’s vision and work within it. It’s easy to take things personally as an artist, but with commercial work you are working for someone and working to achieve a vision with them. Kevin taught me that not everyone will like the work that you create, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.
What was the transition from student to freelance photographer in Chicago like? What is your biggest piece of advice for art students at Loyola?
The transition was not an easy one. At times, it has been extremely difficult, financially and emotionally. But this journey has only guided me more toward my path and revealed that no matter how hard it gets, this is the life that I am choosing and I know that I am making the right choice.
When I graduated, I got a job as a product photographer and had no clue what I was doing. I felt so lost because college doesn't prepare you for what the real world actually feels like. I realized that there were a lot of things that I did not know how to do, but knew that if I wanted to keep that job that I had to learn quickly. I think that it's an almost shocking experience to feel how different the workflow feels in a real-world environment. Things start to move a lot faster than you would expect. The trial period is short-lived, and you can either do it or you can't, because you can be replaced. I didn't know if I wanted to be a product photographer, but I knew that it would lead to so much more.
Vortex Sculptures, 2018 (Gold Leaf Design Group)
So, I started to spend a lot of time at work and home learning skills that I hadn’t learned in school. I watched YouTube videos on lighting techniques, sketched out lighting diagrams, studied light in photographs to try to recreate in the studio, and improved my editing. That job was a lot of work, and there were many times when I would second-guess or question my worth as an artist. Working there lead me to realize that I wanted more for myself professionally. So, I started to seek out more opportunities through different side gigs. I shot events, a wedding, more commercial work, and really anything that came my way.
That leap from full-time plus side gigs to freelance was a big one. I completely ripped away my safety net of almost three years because I wasn't happy anymore. It was one of the most terrifying, but freeing things that I have ever done. It felt like a free fall. It still feels like a free fall. I think that choosing happiness can help breathe new life into the work that you are creating.
So freelance is still brand-new to me. A lot of what I have done so far is slipping into people’s inboxes and being like “Hey, this is me and this is what I can do. If you like what I can do, let’s sit down and have a meeting.” That makes it sound easy, it's not. A lot of people don't respond. But that's the first step: I learned to put myself out there. I did that and ended up shooting a couple of food pieces for the Chicago Reader. There really is no waiting around for jobs to come, it's about seeking out the work. It's about working your connections. I've started to get more work through family and friends. It's also about having a job that can help sustain your art. Freelance is many, many, many hustles.
My biggest piece of advice is to know your self-worth. No one can tell you that. It is a journey and a process of self-discovery that you have to figure out for yourself. It does not happen overnight or at any particular age, and there will probably be a lot of tears and uncertainty. However, when you are doing work that truly matters to you and are able to recognize lessons learned along the way, then you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. Also, you should never settle for mediocracy. The work that you are doing needs to reflect who you are as a person.
What type of work samples or portfolio should emerging photographers develop as they move into a career in commercial photography?
I think that I’m still figuring that out myself. If you want to move into a career as a commercial photographer, go with what interests you. Working as a product photographer lead me to food photography, which lead me to portrait photography. I’ve always followed what I am passionate about. It’s about learning different skills and techniques to build a portfolio. You should do what feels right. You should also do a bunch of different things. I believe that a portfolio should be broader and have different elements, but those elements should be able to be tied together to tell a cohesive story. You should be able to see your hand in any project that you do. It may be different, but it should feel like it fits together like a body.
Beet Salad, 2019 (Our House Pizza)
In your artist statement you state that your work “explores the identities of QTPOC folx through the scope of fashion portraiture.” Can you tell us more about how the intersection of fashion photography and QTPOC (Queer & Trans People of Color) identities operate in your project Making This Body a Home?
I feel like fashion has always been a very political thing, especially in the queer community. The idea that has always interested me, especially when starting Making This Body a Home, is having the autonomy to look however you want, and to dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable, just as a person. Not a lot of queer folx get to do that on a daily basis.
It’s a brave thing, it’s a daring thing, and it can be a dangerous thing. This project is intended to elevate folx who are not necessarily “models”, and allow them to feel truly loved, cared for, and seen. Weaving fashion and QTPOC identities is intended to challenge the cis-normative binary that people have been stuck in and feel that they have to adhere to.
Dominique, 2019 (Making This Body a Home)
The works “Dominique” and “Roy” have a fashion magazine feel to them. Are you interested in explicitly referencing fashion photography in this project? What are some of the formal qualities or visual tropes you choose to work with? Do they have a particular significance for you as an image-maker interested in QTPOC identities?
At this moment, it feels like that is where the project lives, solely as a means of self expression through fashion. I honestly haven’t thought of any other formal qualities, outside of lighting and composition. I like to think of this project as a choose-your-own fashion wonderland. So each photo shoot is intended to be experimental in a way because each person’s energy and fashion feels so different.
Roy, 2019 (Making This Body a Home)
I don’t try to plan much outside of the time/space that I create with each person. I feel like it would be difficult to have an overarching visual trope present in each work because QTPOC identities don’t work that way. Each person is so radically different, that it feels like each photoshoot has to be too.
Airos, 2019 (Making This Body a Home)
You’re showing two archival pigment prints in Alumni Show at the Ralph Arnold Gallery, Airos (2019) and TORi (2019). Could you talk about the two works in relation to the Making This Body a Home in general, and more specifically what your relationship to the subjects is? Do you have a history with your models?
I actually just took those photos a few months ago during the summer. That portrait of Airos was taken on a really sunny day near Hollywood Beach and that portrait of TORi was taken in my backyard. Airos is my partner’s good friend from college. They’ve done a lot of work over the years with ICAH (Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health) and as a director of youth theatre ensembles around Chicago. So I've collaborated with them over the years.
TORi, 2019 (Making This Body a Home)
I met TORi through Instagram. They are a DJ for smallWorld Collective, photographer, and graphic designer. I saw them on my feed and thought "this would be a cool person to photograph". I find a lot of people for this project through through friends/acquaintances or Instagram.
Where do you see this body of work going?
At this point, I can feel that this project is so much larger than me. It feels like it will grow and move through the world with me. I want to go to New York next and then Europe.
Alexis, and all other artists featured in Alumni Show, highlight the vast artistic abilities of Loyola University Alumni. Decades of art-makers, from a variety of majors and diverse disciplines, are presenting pieces that are funny, poignant, and uplifting. The connections between generations of artists resonate with the universal ideals that drive the Loyola community. Celebrate the unique relations of four decades of Loyolan artists by coming to experience the Alumni Show, open at the Ralph Arnold Gallery until December 6, 2019.
All information on the exhibit can be found at https://www.luc.edu/ralpharnoldgallery