Betty Press has been a freelance photographer and photojournalist in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America for over three decades. She currently lives in Hattiesburg, MS, where she is working on a long-term project about life and culture there. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, Aint-Bad, and South x Southeast, and she recently edited selections from Mississippi for Lenscratch's ongoing States Project.
How did your interest in your medium begin and how did you arrive at your current style?
The medium for my serious personal work has been primarily black and white gelatin silver prints. I started with 35mm and then moved to using medium format film with vintage and toy cameras. The toy cameras really allowed me to loosen up my style and enjoy the imperfections associated with those kinds of cameras. Now I am exploring using color film more. But I have also been interested in other processes, such Polaroid transfers and now trying to work with Impossible film. The latter has not been nearly as successful as the Polaroid work. I really like Instagram but it still seems like something that I only have fun with. Sometimes I think I take better pictures with my iPhone. For one thing it is always with me and so I can indulge my creative urges on a daily basis. In January 2017 I had two Instagram images in Post Presence: An Instagram gallery takeover at San Francisco’s RayKo Photo Center.
How do you feel about the relationship of an artist to their city or surroundings?
I have always photographed in my surroundings and that works well with my interest in documentary photography. I lived and worked in Africa for more than 10 years as a photojournalist. After exhibiting the African work for many years I finally finished the project by publishing an award-winning book I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb. Now I hope to do the same in Mississippi where I currently live. Both places draw photographers to them because the regions are culturally unique and open to endless discussions on what it means to be African or Southern.
How do you choose your subjects?
I am an observer. I do not set up my photographs. I am constantly looking for something to happen or something that catches my eye or surprises me. I go on a road trips, attend festivals or events. I try to look for things in the real world that could be a metaphor of what I see happening in society. But mostly my work is very intuitive and unplanned. Certain visuals, which attract me, are signage, abandoned buildings and lonely places…also interesting people.
It’s in the editing process where I pull together the themes and sequencing into a project.
Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?
My earliest influences have been some of the masters of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus and Roy DeCarava. More recent ones have been Southern photographers such as Keith Carter, Debbie Fleming Caffery, William Eggleston, William Christenberry and Sally Mann to mention just a few. But my main visual and literary muse is Eudora Welty, who writes from a strong sense of place. Calling herself a recorder of real life, she traveled around Mississippi during the Depression taking photographs for the Works Progress Administration. These were later published in One Time, One Place. She photographed not “to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain.”
Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you're a part of?
A group of women artists got together to form the Women’s Art Collective in Hattiesburg. Though I am the only photographer in the group, I really treasure the chance to meet with them and discuss our creative efforts. We encourage each other, participate in shows, and try to give back to the community. One of my artist friends in that group loves photography, and I often show my work to her. I wish I had a group of photographers to work with. We may have the beginnings of one if I am willing to travel to other parts of state. Right now we are organizing exhibitions of the Do Good Fund (A Collection of Southern Photography) to be shown around the state of Mississippi in the fall of 2017. I am honored to be in that collection.
Do you feel creatively satisfied?
I can’t imagine doing anything else that would be as fulfilling. Being a photographer has exposed me to so much that I would never have experienced otherwise. As a photojournalist I experienced history as it was happening. As a traveler it is my perfect companion. My photographs serve as my personal journal, a way of documenting my life in pictures rather than words. Many of the things that I remember about my life come from the photographs that I took.
Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.
I am very slow in developing my projects. The African book, which I am very proud of, took almost 15 years. I started the Mississippi project in 2010. A lot of those photographs have been shown in group exhibitions, juried competitions, added to collections and featured in online magazines. I just had a portfolio of that work published in the last portfolio edition of Shots Magazine edited by Russell Joslin. But what really took me out of my comfort zone was curating the Lenscratch States Project for Mississippi. I learned so much and met so many extraordinary photographers. I also self-published a small zine of the Mississippi work that I launched at Slow Exposures. I am now beginning to exhibit in solo shows mostly around the state of Mississippi. One that I am really looking forward to will be at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi, Oxford in Winter of 2018.