As a young girl when Joann Brennan started snapping photos and learning how to use her dad’s new 35mm camera, she couldn’t have imagined her photographs one day collected and exhibited at one of the nation’s top art museums.
Now as a photographic artist, professor and associate dean in the College of Arts & Media, Brennan’s work hangs in many museums and galleries. The latest exhibition to include her images opens Oct. 30 and runs through Feb. 22, 2015 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art is a showcase of a dozen contemporary artists including Brennan. Another of the exhibit’s artists is Barbara Bosworth, who was one of Brennan’s early mentors. Brennan studied under Bosworth at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.
Five of Brennan’s photos were selected for the new Smithsonian exhibit, but these images are not what one might expect. They are bird specimens that she photographed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Power of pictures
While honing her skill with the camera, Brennan was drawn to nature and landscapes. Some of her inspirations for studying human interactions with wildness and zoological specimens evolved from reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on the environmental impact of pesticides. The book helped to spark the environmental movement in the 1960s.
“Remember, it was a museum collection of raptor egg specimens that solved questions about the chemical DDT as the cause of declining raptor populations in the United States,” Brennan said. “That’s the value of maintaining zoological specimens. They could be the missing link to solving critical environmental and human issues that might occur in the future.”
Brennan has been asked if her work is more documentary than art. “It is both,” she said. “My photographs are a bridge, a vehicle to create and share stories that expose nuances and the paradox of our complex relationship to wildness and the natural world.” She knew early in her career that commercial photography was not her calling. Storytelling through the descriptive and interpretive lens of photography was her passion.
“When you use photography in a representational way, while creating images that can stand as metaphors for larger ideas, it is possible to harness the unique power and beauty of photographic description as a means of charging the image with larger meaning,” Brennan said. “The images stand for something greater than the particular subject photographed.”
Brennan’s professional ties to the Smithsonian began in 2010 when she was selected for a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. It’s a competitive one to three-month residency award given to accomplished national and international artists. She is also a Guggenheim Fellow, having received a Guggenheim award for her photographic work in 2003.
“During my Smithsonian fellowship, I worked with scientists, researchers, museum staff and wildlife conservation organizations. I had two months of photographing in amazing places,” Brennan recalled.
Tools of the trade
Brennan has transitioned from film and the darkroom to creating images digitally, though her preferred equipment is still the large-format 4×5 camera atop a tripod.
That equipment can slow her down, and she acknowledged that it made her stand out a bit in in the creation of her long-term photographic project, Managing Eden, but she used that to her advantage. Through this project she has photographed hunting, reintroduction projects, habitat manipulation, contraceptive testing designed to manage wildlife populations, river restoration, the development of devices to deter or attract predators, raptor banding, genetic testing, and zoological collections. While photographing hunters, critics accused her of being pro-hunting as a negative thing while others applauded her support of hunting culture.
The images sparked interpretations that revealed personal biases. The hunters she photographed were intrigued with the “old-fashioned” 4×5 camera she used. Questions about camera equipment became an opportunity to build a relationship with her subjects and making the photographs became a collaborative effort.
Brennan knows that working as an artist has boundaries that require her to plan ahead and to be prepared for the unexpected. “Boundaries are good. Problem-solving within boundaries creates the conditions in which innovation can flourish.”
New work ahead
Brennan has agreed to serve as CU South Denver’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, reporting to the provost. She will provide oversight and leadership for the academic programming at CU South Denver and ensure delivery of high-quality academic programs there. Her immediate focus will be encouraging program development for Spring 2015 from all four CU campuses.
Brennan will also continue serving in her current roles at CAM and, of course, she will continue taking pictures.