Q&A: Shane Lavalette

Shane Lavalette currently lives and works in Somerville, MA. His photographs have been included in well recognized exhibitions both nationally and internationally, he was awarded the Yousuf Karsh Prize in Photography for his project "Slí na Boirne" and has published editorial work with such names as the New York Times Magazine. He also edits the photographic periodical Lay Flat.

Shane Lavalette’s website.
Shane Lavalette’s blog.

Untitled © Shane Lavalette

Rose Tarman: Tell me a little bit about your personal background in photography.

Shane Lavalette: I grew up in a small town in Vermont, so I was never really “exposed” to the art world or fine art photography until I sought it out myself. My interest in images was always there – I obsessively photographed with my Polaroid camera as a child – but it wasn’t until sometime in high school that I began to look at photography more seriously. At that time, I found the Internet in combination with photographic boo
ks to be my primary resource for learning about the medium and its history. I moved to Boston to study photography at the Museum School and at about the same time began my blog in order archive the work that I was interested in: artists, books, exhibitions, etc. In the process, I spent a lot of time making my own photographs and continued to explore curatorial avenues such as my current publishing venture, Lay Flat.

Rose Tarman: How do you go about starting a project? Do you go through a specific process usually or is it a spontaneous creativity?

Shane Lavalette: In terms of my own photographic work, the projects seem to originate very organically. Ideas often come about about spontaneously but the execution generally takes time – months, years. The most recent project I’ve completed was made in a short amount of time that I spent living in Vrindavan, India – the birthplace of the Krishna Consciousness movement and, to Krishna devotees, “heaven” on Earth. The photographs were all made early in the morning as the sun rose; with this, I hoped to make pictures that were quiet and offered a view of India that was atypical (are we not all too familiar with the colorful and chaotic images that Western photographers tend to make?). To me, the pictures are an exploration of the spirituality of the people and landscape.

Offering, Vrindavan, India © Shane Lavalette

Rose Tarman: Though I have an immense appreciation of photographing areas you know well, I would love to photograph in places other than my immediate, easily-accessible surroundings. How do you build up the funds and resources for the trips you take, such as to India or Ireland?

Shane Lavalette: The relationship we share with our immediate surroundings is of course vastly different than our relationship to a distan
t land. But from my experience being in an unfamiliar place often triggers ideas and new ways of looking at subjects. In other words, I believe it’s important to photograph what you know as well as what you don’t. Both of the projects you mention were made possible in part by generous grants from the Museum School, but if you have an idea in mind there is a lot of funding available to the public in support of photographic projects, especially for students.

The Sea © Shane Lavalette

Rose Tarman: You’re so young to be so well respected and you have a show coming up with some pretty impressive figures like Alec Soth, Laura McPhee and Zoe Strauss — what has motivated you to get as far as you have? You have to be extremely confident to do many of the things you’ve achieved.

Shane Lavalette: I’m not sure about confidence – in fact, I think it’s important for artists to possess some uncertainly. I know I do! The opportunities that have come up for me have been pretty unexpected but my general passion for p
hotography has been the motivation since the beginning. I enjoy looking at other work as much as I enjoy making my own. I’m always working on things, whether it’s my personal projects, curatorial endeavors or collaborations.

Rose Tarman: I hear from all sides that there are certain ways to “make it big” and certain procedures you must follow. This seems like a daunting task.

Shane Lavalette: There are of course things that artists can do to help get their work “out there” but I think artists become well-respected for other reasons. I forget how the quote goes, but Thelonious Monk once said something like “Genius is being more of yourself.” I think that’s what takes artists far in my book, being honest.

Blue Fan in Laundromat, Brooklyn, NY © Shane Lavalette

Rose Tarman: Where do you gain inspiration from? I’m talking anything — photography, music, films, books, colors, people, places…

Shane Lavalette: Poetry has always been important to me, particularly the works of E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound and Rainer Maria Rilke. Other writers that inspire me include Samuel Beckett, J.D. Salinger, Milan Kundera, James Joyce, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Some theorists and philosophers that have shaped my thinking include Dave Hickey, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Vilém Flusser, Jean-Paul Sartre and David Levi-Strauss.

Then, of course, there’s music. To list some artists in rotation now: Yo-Yo Ma, Chopin, Philip Glass, Bill Evans, Billy Holiday, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, Leadbelly, John Fahey, Devendra Banhart, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Cat Power, Neutral Milk Hotel, Jackson C. Frank, The Gun Club, Don Caballero, The Dirty Projectors, The Books, Sigur Rós, Tom Waits, Neil Young, The Velvet Underground and the “Goodbye, Babylon” box set (assembled by Bob Dylan).

I think it’s safe to say that I’m equally stimulated by non-photographic material.

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