May 01, 2012 —
If this year’s WPPI Awards ceremony were compared to the 2012 Oscars, photographer Jennifer Hudson would be akin to the film The Artist. In a nutshell, she was the big winner. Hudson took home the Grand Award (first place) in the album category for her series, “Medic,” plus first place in the 16 x 20 Portrait Group category, second place in the Illustrative/Editorial category, third place in the Individual category, and the list goes on.
“[Photographer] Justine Ungaro was texting me throughout the ceremony, keeping me updated every time they called my name,” says Hudson, who had left Las Vegas the day before the awards ceremony to return to her studies at the University of New Mexico where she is an MFA candidate.
Photographer and WPPI instructor David Edmonson accepted Hudson’s awards on her behalf. “We had dinner earlier that week and she texted to ask if I would accept her award in the case that she won,” Edmonson explains. “I asked her to jot down some words I could share, but I had no idea I’d have to go up there multiple times.” (At one point Edmonson dialed Hudson on his cell phone as he approached the stage, again, and got Hudson to say a few words to the audience as he held his phone to the microphone.)
Despite her absence, it was an exciting night for Hudson. It was also much-deserved recognition after the year and a half it took to create “Medic,” and the almost 10 years as a wedding and editorial photographer that led up to Hudson’s fine-art work.
Originally from rural Texas, Hudson was a music major (she played clarinet) during her undergraduate studies at the University of Texas, Arlington. But after taking a photography class, she was hooked and changed her course, setting out instead to become a fine-art photographer. Like many young artists just out of school, Hudson wasn’t quite sure how to make a professional go of it, but at age 21, she moved to Fort Worth, determined to open a studio and start a business.
“My dad went with me to get my business license, and to buy my first ‘big’ camera,” she says. “I was an instant professional. I rented a warehouse location on total faith, put pictures of my friends on the walls, and prayed a lot.” Hudson started shooting portraits, which inevitably evolved into larger requests. “A bride walked in one day and said, ‘Do you do weddings?’ and I said ‘sure,’ ” Hudson recalls. “Her wedding was six months away, so I had exactly that long to learn how to photograph them.”
Among this bride’s attendees were 12 single bridesmaids, many of whom asked Hudson to shoot their own weddings in the months after. Although she didn’t set out to be a wedding photographer, within two years, Hudson had shot more than 70 weddings, and her fine-art work seemed farther away.
Although her wedding-photo career sustained her for six years, Hudson eventually burned out and needed an escape. “I didn’t want to do photography at all anymore,” she says. “I moved up to Boston, turned my back on everything I knew, sold my studio and started over.” Hudson landed a job teaching photography at Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts, and it was there that she conceived the ideas for her first two fine art series: “Traveler” and “Medic.” “I went back to what I started with—art,” she says.
In 2010, Hudson came up with the concept for “Medic,” which explores human relationships during illness and recovery. “I was going through an illness, and the heart of it was not the illness itself, but the relationship between my husband and me,” she explains. “It started from one sentence, his saying—‘I wish I could take the pain from your body and put it into mine.’ I would do the same thing for him, so that sentence started the whole work.” Hudson sketched the idea for six months before making a photograph. Eventually, she came up with conceptual machines that were the physical representations of what her husband described: devices that would remove the pain from a loved one’s body and put it into another’s. “Each one is a miracle machine that would put you in a world where you could care for someone in a way that we can’t quite get to [physically],” she says.
In November 2010, after teaching at BU for three years, Hudson applied and was accepted into the bi-annual artist-in-residence program at Santa Fe Art Institute. There for six weeks, “Medic” was finally underway, and as Hudson says of the program: “It was amazing; they gave us a big space, food and a place to stay, and tools. It was beautiful and we were there with other artists, which was very inspiring.”
To actualize “Medic” as it was in Hudson’s mind, she and her husband, Josh, built an antique bedroom set from the ground up in a warehouse space they were allotted by the Santa Fe program. They started with wooden boards for walls, affixed foam to the interior and concocted a cement, plaster and paint mixture to cover them, creating the illusion of concrete. Josh engineered a removable skylight for the makeshift ceiling that could be moved forward, back or side to side. The couple also affixed 18 halogen lights to the ceiling for continuous lighting.
For the interior, they gathered 750 pounds of props, equipment and supplies at a military surplus salvage yard, Los Alamos Laboratory; these would make up the beds, machines and antiquated gadgets. “They call it the ‘Black Hole,’ and it’s probably two acres of this bizarre stuff that people have discarded,” Hudson says. “That’s an important element in my work—I use things that people discard and repurpose them, giving them new life.”
The machines that Hudson engineered from found materials weren’t always meant to be assembled, so—as she does with most of her work—Hudson photographed most everything separately and digitally cobbled it together in post-production. Many works are conglomerations of 50 or 60 different photographs.
“It depends on the image—some of them I couldn’t put together in real time because the parts wouldn’t fit together; they were too big or too small,” Hudson says. “I work from sketches, and knew what I wanted it to look like, so I just had to make it happen physically or digitally.”
The resulting images of patients affixed to otherworldly machines follow Hudson’s aesthetic, seen in her previous series, such as “Flora” (tintype-looking portraits of women adorned with flowers and 19th century lace dresses). “One of my heroes is Julia Margaret Cameron,” Hudson says. “I love her spirit, work and the old process and look of prints from glass plate negatives.”
Shot with a Nikon D3 (“I’d love to have a medium-format digital back, but the grad school budget doesn’t allow for that”), Hudson even recorded a Web series called “The Making of Medic” on her blog, where she explains her process for construction and shooting (jenniferhudsonfineart.com/blog/?p=431).
“When you see a mother looking at her child and the little medicine bottles, you realize a lot of photographers can have impact, but not a lot can tell a story,” Edmonson says of Hudson’s work. “Jenn’s thinking process is impactful in its starkness and visual portrayal. She has a real grasp of the humanity and frailty we go through as people.”
Edmonson and WPPI are not the only ones to take notice of Hudson’s work: she is also the recipient of IPC’s 2012 Professional Photographers Leadership Award, presented in May at the U.N. in recognition of photographic excellence to one professional photographer in each of IPC’s five member organizations—in her case, the WPPI category.
Now that “Medic” has been properly lauded and put to rest, Hudson is already at work on a new installation—a full scale model of her Boston home. “I just finished building a fireplace and wrapping the entire interior in strips of fabric,” she says. “Who knows where it’s going? It’s very innocent and brand new.”
With the recognition and confidence of her peers, and an MFA on the way, many more vintage, emotive works are in the young artist’s future.
See more of “Medic,” “Flora” and Jennifer Hudson’s other photographic works at www.jenniferhudsonfineart.com.
Jessica Gordon is associate editor at Rangefinder magazine and long-time contributor to Nielsen Photo Group publications. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org