Denise E Cerniglia | Issue Nine Interview

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work

My first art was ballet. I grew up dancing and I’ve been teaching, choreographing and directing for the past 25 years. Eight years ago I was writing reviews (I prefer to call them experiential essays) for a local publication. I would go see professional dance performances and write about it, and sometimes get in touch with the companies for pictures to include. I would get old pictures or pictures that I didn’t feel reflected some quality from the performance that I wanted to talk about, so I bought a camera and got permission to take photos myself at dress rehearsals. I gradually became more interested in the photos, and went beyond theatre setting with my camera. When I choreograph a dance I am basically composing images within a frame, in this case the stage, so I feel ballet prepared me for photography. It’s beautiful to discover a new art at the age of 40.

What do you think draws artists towards a more minimalist approach?

I think people who want to say something true and meaningful would tend to eliminate distractions and be straight forward, like economy with words but in a picture. For me it’s the same in photography and choreography. I want to avoid clichésand gimmicks and I try to be as direct as possible. I can’t speak for others, but I generally feel a sense of chaos in my mind – trying to do lots of things at once, living life, working and so on, so to temper the chaos in my images or the dance studio is a meditative and healing experience.

Tell us about the themes you pursue in your work

I have the phrase esse quam videri (to be rather than to seem) tattooed on my arm. Getting past image crafting to something real, being rather than seeming, is important to me, especially with the weight of social media where image crafting so easy and tempting. I want to find and share common truths in simple things. Probably 15 years ago I went to an exhibit of the artist Yves Klein and it became very influential for me. The most basic truths are simple, monochromatic. There are other ideas that go into my work, of course, but that perspective forms the basis of most of it.

What art do you most identify with?

In terms of creating? I couldn’t choose. With choreography I go in with an idea and share it with other humans who will translate it with their bodies. I need that time of creating and moving with others, relinquishing some of the control over the final product,. Which is totally opposite from my time of retreat behind the camera where I feel like I can become invisible. If I’m creating an image of a person or people, then photography and choreography are essentially the same. I can’t separate them.

Is there something you couldn't live without in your studio? what is your most essential tool?

There are the tools that I couldn’t work without, such as a camera, lenses, computer, hard drive, and photoshop. I have a chair made of strips of stretchy material that I love and a beautiful desk – a minimalist desk! Its a 4 foot long piece of wood with no frills, and nothing on it but my MacBook, so I can spread out. So I guess besides the obvious tools of the trade, physical comfort is pretty important, and feng shui, the space has to feel right. My desk is a haven.

What sense of feeling do you want your artworks to convey?

I try not to create work with a response in mind. I try to make something I find simple and beautiful. If I love it, I share it. I would be happy to know that a sense of peace was the response. A sense of being part of a community. A new awareness of the beauty in the simple lines and curves the world, or in the way a common bird looks for food or builds a home.

What do you feel the role of artists and photographers is in society?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question for as long as I can remember and my answer is always changing! Communication is important. What do we have to say and why is it important? If it’s communication then it can’t be the last word. If a piece of art evokes a feeling or sticks with you, then the conversation continues. I’ve seen many things, such as the Yves Klein work, that had a lasting impression on me, became part of what informed my creative choices, and inspired me, so in that way he started a conversation that continues. Not everyone will use that inspiration to make a piece of art but it will show up in their life and work in other ways.

Are there any upcoming exhibitions or projects in the works?

I have things in a couple of gallery exhibits that are closing this month. I plan to continue working on the intimacy of the hands and face. The first few months of the year always feel like an especially productive time. I’m preparing to start a photography project with the working title, My Grandmother’s House, which I want to present as kind of an estate sale of memories. I will be cataloguing objects and sensory experiences from my fragmented memories of being at my grandmother’s house as she suffered from the effects of dementia, before I was old enough to understand what that meant.

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