Niki (aka Going Out), 2000.
Onetime ESL professor Beth Yarnelle Edwards turned to photography in her 40s, finding some of her most compelling subjects in the Peninsula suburbs where she lived for 28 years. Here, she discusses one of the grandly evocative images from her upcoming show at the Oakland Museum of California.
"I'm fascinated by material culture—by people's relationship to their possessions. My photos are staged, but they’re often more honest than a snapshot because I’ve thought long and hard about the story I’m telling.”
“I’ve known these young women since they were little girls. Their mother and I taught together in the 1980s. We were pregnant together—we even job-shared.”
“I ask my subjects a lot of questions—in this case, ‘Where in the house would you be in the same place at the same time?’ They said, ‘When we go out in the evening, we like to get ready together, listen to music, talk.’”
“When I arrived, Niki had crimped her hair. Her father is Italian, and I thought, ‘Wow, you look like a Renaissance Madonna.’ Lucia is painting her nails—I think she looks like a Degas. The middle girl, Rita, resembles a Renoir woman to me. I have these icons in my thinking process, but when it all comes together, it’s magic.”
“The bedroom is small and very baroque. I always try to shoot at navel height. To get all that detail, I had to squat in a corner for an hour with my butt off the ground. I’m 62—I can’t do that anymore.”
“I always tell people, ‘I’m not here to make a glamour photo. I would never intentionally make you look bad, but I want to do something truthful.’ In Europe, they stare at me like, ‘Why are you saying this?’ They know it’s art, and they want it to be good. Whereas Americans are much more, ‘Can you photograph my good side? Can you not make me look fat?’”
"Suburban Dreams,” Jan. 19–June 30, museumca.org.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.