The family portraits that crowd the walls of Kate Wichlinski’s Elliotborough apartment aren’t like those on your living room credenza. There’s one of her mother, naked, in a bathtub, her back to the viewer. Another shows Wichlinski’s grandfather in his open casket. In a third, Wichlinski embraces her younger brother, together at their grandfather’s house for what would be the final time, a moment Wichlinski wanted to capture on film.
There are also a lot of self portraits, from her very first black-and-white shot taken as an undergrad at the University of Memphis to an award-winning, lushly colored nude captured on Folly Beach this summer. Over the years, Wichlinski’s portraiture has become more intimate, more vulnerable, more naked — literally and figuratively. She doesn’t like to wear clothes, because they specify her gender and the time period she’s living in, and the message isn’t what she’s wearing, it’s what she’s feeling.
Through her photography, Wichlinski has seen herself progress through the different stages of her life, as she works on herself on a personal level. “Some of my most recent photographs are my favorites because they’re my state that I’m in now and I guess that’s the challenge,” she says. “That’s the scary part: How to continue to move people or make these images that can capture what I’m feeling and who I am right now instead of relying on the same things that I’ve already done.”
Wichlinski has an MFA in photography from the University of Memphis and has had photos in major shows throughout the region. But she made a late start to photography, not getting into it until college. “I never was really encouraged to be creative ever growing up,” she explains, and she admits she wasn’t very good in childhood art classes. After getting a bachelor’s degree in art history and working retail jobs, she realized she wanted to go back to school and focus on the medium she had become acquainted with in an introductory class.
Now a couple of years into her career, Wichlinski can recognize the patterns in her work. When she first started, back when her hair was shorter and people constantly called her “sir,” Wichlinski was a lot more interested in gender and androgyny. “I did have a little body of that, but I still see that body as relating to what I’m doing now. It’s just that my life has evolved since then so it’s not constantly in my mind,” she says.
For her most recent Charleston show, last year’s Sensation is Already a Memory at Jericho Advisors, Wichlinski used windows, mirrors, and framing, because she likes to put things in boxes and places. “I would always see these mirrors and windows and it was a frame within the frame of my camera within the world, so it was just different ways of compartmentalizing what I see,” she says. By doing so, she’s able to explore how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you.
But regardless of the patterns, Wichlinski’s overall body of work has similar influences. Light is one of them, and the other is the people in the photos themselves, “whether it’s someone who challenges me and makes me think — friends, writers, other artists — or someone who I see into and want to transfer that inner beauty or light into an image,” she says. The more familiar Wichlinski is with her subjects, the easier it is to take their picture, and that’s why there are so many photos of her family — and herself. Wichlinski thinks her art will always be somewhat self-centered, because she can always give herself what she wants, and if she can’t, she can find other people to act as stand-ins.
After the Jericho Advisors show, people told Wichlinski that they felt they knew her better after seeing her work. “That was beautiful,” she says. “Maybe I don’t always talk about these things or even know how to talk about them, but I can photograph them, because I’m photographing this emotion.”
In March, Wichlinski will start teaching a portraiture class at the Charleston Center for Photography, where she will give a talk on Mon. Feb. 11 as part of the center’s Second Monday lecture series. She’ll go through her process and what led her there. Wichlinski wants her students to look at photography as a form of expression, not just a form of documentation.
“I do think it was my means of self expression. We all have this inside of us and I found a way to release it and it was beautiful for me,” she says. “In some way, I don’t think my body of work will ever be finished until I die. This is what I do.”