Welcome to our new blog series: Behind the Photograph
In this series, our editors interview Literary Mama photographic contributors. For the debut column, Photography Editor Stephanie Buesinger corresponded with photographer Jennifer Wannen over email to find out more about her creative process and journey to Literary Mama. Jennifer’s work will be featured alongside articles in future Literary Mama editions.
You can see more of Jennifer’s work on her website and follow her on Instagram @jennifer.wannen.
Stephanie Buesinger: How did you get started with fine art photography?
Jennifer Wannen: My beginnings with photography were totally unexpected. I’ve always been game for anything creative, but I never thought of myself a visual artist. About eight years ago I went through a very rough divorce. I was starting life from scratch in many ways and dealing with a lot of overwhelm.
I’d read a quote by Jack Kornfield that adapted a Buddhist teaching: “A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable. A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticeable.” This became a healing truth for me as I spent as much time outdoors as possible sitting by lakes, hiking trails, resting in fields. Being outdoors got me out of my own story or at least let me see it against a larger, more timeless horizon. Other days I could simply sit with the outside stories moving around me and feel myself back into the heart of life through what I witnessed. I started taking photographs in those hours to have an image I could hang onto when I was back at home in the thick of work and parenting.
Over time I found myself adapting the way I took pictures, focusing less on the detail of the scene and more on the experience of being there. Eventually, I found as much refuge in the creative process as I did in the peaceful settings. My photographic excursions became a kind of sanctuary and liminal meeting ground. Photography itself became the wide horizon. My work is a reflection of those encounters, of what showed up for me, what I saw, and what sheltered me.
SB: Are there certain photographers you admire?
JW: I feel very connected to the style and vision of the early Pictorialists, who elevated photography as an art of subjective rendering rather than a tool for literal reproduction. Anne Brigman is my favorite. Her ethereal self-portraits were ground-breaking for the early 20th Century, but for me they’re timeless. There’s a mysticism to them that very much speaks to the experience I’m often attempting to express.
SB: Do you have a favorite work of your own?
JW: An image I always come back to is “Hidden Hour.” It was a beautiful day walking around the lake. I don’t often shoot street photography, where the subject is unaware. It felt like a rare occurrence that day as I was able to capture this very private moment from a reverent distance. For me, actually, the distance enhanced the photograph’s intimacy with the framing of the trees and the delicate outlines of the women’s posture toward one another. I look at that picture, and I see sacred companionship in the world.
On a more personal note, “Wonder” is one of my favorites. I don’t share many photos of my children for privacy’s sake. All of us as artists—literary or visual—struggle with this question, I think. What about our children’s lives do we share and what do we protect? That particular image felt like it spanned the personal and the universal. It’s a representative moment in time with my daughter. It encapsulates her miraculously free spirit, but it also reflects a spark that lives in all of us and hopefully stays. I look at that photo and think of Mary Oliver’s words, “all my life I was a bride married to amazement.”
SB: Would you like to share anything about your creative process?
JW: My creative process, for better or worse, is often mood-based. Sometimes I just head out for a long walk or day trip and bring my camera along. Other times I’m more in planning mode and set up equipment for some still life or self-portrait experimentation. Once I get going on whatever it is, another energy usually settles in, and I can give myself over to the process. Almost always something comes forward, and this is the moment that makes the whole creative process enthralling. When I’m in editing mode, I’m generally trying to take the image further from reality and more into an imaginative space, which means loosening rather than perfecting it.
SB: Do you write as part of your creative practice?
JW: I considered myself a writer decades before I ever saw myself as a visual artist. Still, writing is something I’ve struggled to settle into. I write for myself nearly every day and have boxes of journals. I also write professionally for businesses and organizations. There hasn’t been much in the middle.
Growing into photography so quickly has helped me look at that opposition. I’ve been doing more of my own writing and am finally working on a book project that’s been tugging at me for a few years. I’m at a point where the two arts are beginning to forge a working relationship with one another. Maybe that’s what needed to happen for me to take the next step. I’m at the beginning of that incline. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes into view.
SB: How does parenting inform your creative process?
JW: I think when we talk about making art, particularly when we’re sharing about our process as mothers, the how and when can feel so critical. My ears perk up anytime another mother mentions something about how she gets it done—how she carves out creative space and commitment for herself. I want to hear her secret and to simply soak in the shared experience. As parents we’re usually working with very limited resources.
When I took up photography, my children were still very young. I was a new single mom. Most days parenting took all the time and energy I had, but there was a small handful of days each month when I was suddenly alone. At first, I struggled with that. It felt like sinking for a while, but eventually I learned to dive in intentionally. I realized my creative process was going to be a saving grace for me. I fell into a practice of retreat—at home and (after a while) beyond home. Designating a set amount of time as a separate container helped me step outside my normal roles and the constraints around those. Years later I’m still doing retreats as a regular creative practice.
When I look back at my beginnings in photography and compare them to where I’m at now, an interesting pattern has emerged. The retreat mindset itself claimed a central place in my photography, which is very much about sanctuary worlds and time-out-of-time moments. They say every image is a self-portrait. The intensity of that truth keeps shedding light along my path.