Elise Tyler is a photographer as well as a short film director and producer. She is based outside of Nashville, works between there and Los Angeles, and travels frequently for projects throughout the South. She has directed music videos for artists like Damien Jurado, and is currently working on a project for Refinery29 that profiles young women in different American subcultures.
How did your interest in photography begin, and how did you arrive at your current style?
I began taking photographs as a young girl. I remember being 11 years old and getting a Pentax 35mm camera that my mom passed down to me. We lived in Nashville, but our entire extended family was in Mississippi, so we spent a lot of time going down there as kids. We usually drove through Holly Springs and Oxford, MS. I was fascinated by the abandoned buildings in Holly Springs, and asked my mom if we could stop so I could take pictures. On the way home from our trip, we drove through the Delta, because I wanted to photograph it. The rest is history.
How do you feel about the relationship of an artist to their city or surroundings?
Space and place are integral to my approach as an artist. My work varies greatly depending on where I am: I split my time between a cabin about an hour outside of Nashville and traveling for work, usually to cities (I direct and produce films and videos). I find that when I am secluded in the woods, my work becomes more subtle and defined by the environment. Fog and light play take precedence over the content. When I am traveling, I tend to do more portraits, perhaps for the simple reason that I am not alone in the woods anymore! Regardless, much of my work is focused on documenting the whole "world" of a place or person, whether that is the world of rural America or city life.
How do you choose your subjects?
It is a quality that is hard to define, it is more of a feeling. People are beautiful for so many reasons; confidence is a big point of attraction for me, as is a unique feature or tattoo, or just some inherent style. Usually, I am talking to the person already, and ask to take their photograph. Many of my subjects are participants in film or video projects I am working on. I have been taking some of my subjects' photos for years now, like my neighbor Scotty and his family. They have become dear friends, and I have loved watching his kids grow up.
Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?
I've been very lucky to be surrounded by creative people my entire life. My parents are musicians, as is my brother, and we were always around music, visual art and film growing up. My friends definitely inspire and challenge me creatively, whether we are collaborating on projects or working independently.
But my best teacher hands down was my high school photography teacher, Trent Boysen. He took me under his wing and let me spend as much time as I needed in the dark room. As a teenager, that was salvation--to have a dark, quiet space to myself where I could experiment. He gave me the confidence to grow as a photographer.
Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you're a part of?
Yes! I am very involved in the creative community of Nashville, which is primarily made up of musicians, but also filmmakers and visual artists. Some of my greatest cohorts are people I have met through film and video work, in Nashville and in Los Angeles. It is invaluable to have a group of people to discuss ideas with, collaborate with on the weekends, and show your work to. I have also found great friendship through Instagram, which has become such a great place for visual artists to come together. Some of my favorite photographers I found through Instagram.
Where do you go to draw inspiration?
I try and just drive around at least one day a week and photograph. If I am in Nashville, that is easy: I have several roads that are my "favorite" places to go. If I am traveling, it is the most exciting challenge. I love to explore, you never know what you will find. I also love Youtube, I get on weird kicks and have gone down many a Youtube k-hole.
Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?
I think there is beauty in anything, if it has the right lighting! Kidding/not kidding. Honestly, no, I feel drawn to most aspects of life in the South. It is such a strange land, and the divergent paths of the South create a stark contrast. I do feel passionate about documenting poverty in America, however. I think poverty is one of the biggest problems facing our country, and so many people turn a blind eye to it. So, I have consciously decided that one of my goals with photography is to bring light to the working poor, that we must look past our perceived differences and help each other. We are all in this together, but most Americas would like to believe that they have nothing in common with poor folks. That simply isn't true- some of the kindest, most intelligent people I have ever met live in poverty, but they are proud and work hard for what is theirs.
Do you feel creatively satisfied?
Ha! No, never! That's the whole point though, right? If I felt satisfied, I wouldn't be so driven to create. I have an insatiable thirst, and a million ideas that I want to pursue creatively. It often feels like I will never have enough time to do them all.
Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.
I'm pretty excited about a current documentary project I am working on with my collaborator Lina Plioplyte. We are following young women across the country who are involved in various subcultures, interviewing them about what it is like to be a young woman in America, as well as how certain themes affect their lives. It is financed by Refinery29 and should debut in the summer months. So far, we have filmed in New Orleans, Mississippi, and California. I can't wait to edit the pieces together!