John Blais (APA Charlotte member) is no stranger to adversity. Growing up in a tough neighborhood, he decided to escape the hardship of his daily life at young age. Eventually, his camera became that means of escape – pictures not only brought him joy, but they also told stories of human interaction, intimacy, and hope. Now a successful commercial photographer based in South Carolina, John’s images are poignant, moving and ethereal. I had the chance to ask him about his personal series American Gothic where he engages his subjects as they reflect on life’s struggles.
At what age did you encounter the painting American Gothic? How did you see it differently as a child than you do today?
Around the age of 10. I knew that I was fascinated with art and started visiting the library to study the masters and learn about my future. My parents grew up during the depression and my grandfather, my mother’s father, was a farmer. I remember the stories she told us about how difficult it was. When I came across Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic, all those stories rushed to the surface, along with all emotion I felt for my mother, her loss of childhood….and I think my fears because of the challenges we were facing then as a family. So as a child I think I saw it as a reminder of what she had been through.
How did you select people for the series? Did you know them or “find” them?
I’m always roaming – looking for people with something to say. It’s mostly just a feeling I get when I see them.
How much hand did you have in constructing the images? (Props, setting, clothing, body language)
My style is pretty natural. I like to tell real stories about real people. So, what they are holding in the photos is what they had on them at the time and I photographed them where I found them. It’s really about the people, in that moment when I ask them to reflect on the hard times in their lives and how they feel about them – what emotions come up for them? The eyes and the body language start to reveal the emotions.
Your images are of a new American Gothic that includes diversity. Did you approach the project with diversity in mind? Why was that important to the project?
Yes, America is much more diverse now. Life’s challenges can be particularly demanding on the minorities. The pandemic has hit some really hard.
How did you approach this project differently than your commercial work?
Same intensity - less restrictions.
How did your subjects feel about their pictures? Did they understand what you were trying to convey?
I find that lots of people are open to me photographing them. I usually take a few frames and then show them what I’m doing, then they get really excited about it. Surprisingly, most everyone was familiar with the painting except one young couple in NYC , but when I showed them on my phone they remembered and got into it. I love sharing images with the people I photograph. They are always so appreciative and thrilled to receive them. It warms my heart.
Ultimately, what did you learn about the human experience from creating these images?
I don’t think I learned this as much as it reinforces to me that we are all human, we all struggle and we feel the same emotions. And that we all respond to challenge differently.
Is the series ongoing? Will you make a book or exhibit it in galleries?
The series is ongoing. I have a hard time hitting the complete button on anything I shoot. I always want more – I always want to dig deeper and evolve. I’d love to show the work in galleries.
In your artist statement, you mention that you have chosen hope. Can you be more specific about your personal experience of choosing to hope to rise over adversity?
Well, my mom always told me, when things are bad, to remember that tomorrow’s a new day. I grew up in a poor, depressed neighborhood and my family had very little. A good day was when we had enough food on the table for the whole family and no one got into a fight on the street. I had a child at a very young age and was forced to quit school and work multiple jobs. I was living on my own by age 16. I really could have let it all steer me in the wrong direction. But I held onto my mother’s words and decided to focus on what I could do make tomorrow better. My passion for photography was a huge source of hope and motivation.
What do you want us, the viewer, to take away from American Gothic?
I tell my kids this all the time…..that life can be difficult, but if we accept that and embrace challenges, they seem easier to get through. And to get comfortable with delaying gratification. Hope allows me to be able to endure and delay gratification. When life is tough I find that I can really show up and appreciate when things are great. So I guess I am looking for people to get curious about how they react to life’s struggles.