There's a deadpan, almost antique-ish quality to many of Moyra Davey's photographs. Part of it has to do with her subject matter - battered Lincoln pennies, fridges, empty bottles, shelves of slumping books and record dust jackets, turntables, stereo receivers, pieces of paper. Hers is a quasi-diaristic inventory, à la Andy Warhol or Walker Evans, of the low-fi, no-tech stuff of everyday life, all of it seeming to aspire to a state of decay. Also, there's the size of her pictures: At a time when many photographers (Thomas Struth, Edward Burtynsky, Jeff Wall) are saying "Go big or go home," Davey's images are decidedly modest, rarely larger than 51 centimetres by 61 cm.
Born in Toronto, raised in Montreal and Ottawa, Davey is one of the two Canadian finalists - Kristan Horton is the other - for this year's $50,000 Grange Prize for excellence in contemporary photography. The winner, chosen by a public vote, is to be named Wednesday evening at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where works by the four finalists, including U.S. nominees Josh Brand and Leslie Hewitt, have been displayed since Sept. 22 and will continue to be shown there through early January.
Davey, 52, has called New York home since the late 1980s, moving there with her partner, media artist Jason Simon, after studies at the University of California, San Diego. Davey's been doing photography for almost a quarter-century and her work is included in the permanent collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Modern in London. But it's safe to say that until Harvard's Fogg Museum hosted a four-month-long Davey retrospective in 2008 (her first), she was a sort of "photographer's photographer," known and appreciated more in artistic circles than in the larger community.
"Since the Fogg, though, there's been a lot more momentum, more demand," she said recently on the phone from her apartment near the Hudson River. "I didn't have a gallery for five years in New York. Now I have one and I must say they keep me pretty busy."
Does a day ever go by where you don't take a photograph?
Yes, certainly. But I always keep a notebook. To me, the camera and the notebook have become interchangeable, almost. I'm always doing one or the other; I'm taking a picture or noting something or I'm videotaping something. It's a continuum of observation, an accumulation. Usually what happens is I reach a point, in terms of the accumulation of note-taking, the reading, the photographs, the videotaping, where I decide I want to make something concrete. It could be an essay [in 2003 she published a book-length essay, The Problem of Reading]/i>, a video, a series of photographs.
You seem to be attracted to photographic series, to typologies.
It's a thing with photography per se. It's sort of inherent in the photographic medium to work that way. Go back to the pictures of August Sanders, Eugène Atget, Hilla and Bernd Becher: It's all about multiples and similarity and difference; they always seems to be at play in photography.
In the mid-1990s you shot a bunch of pictures of New York newsstands and window displays of buttons. More recently, you seem most interested in observing and recording your immediate surroundings, where you live.
Gradually through the nineties I kind of shifted from taking photographs where I worked outside in the world. Partly it was a temperamental thing, a constitutional thing, a personality thing. I gradually became more introverted, hermetic - I shifted into feeling more comfortable in my own environment and working in a secluded way. I also had a child in 1996, which keeps you closer to home. That was a big part of it. There was a series I completed in 2003 where I was on the floor a lot with the baby and I started to put the camera on the floor and taking pictures of what was there, like the dust under the bed.
Included in the AGO show is this video from 2006 called Fifty Minutes. Which is just that: 50 minutes of vignettes, what you call autofictions, that take place almost entirely in this cluttered apartment. Sometimes you read stuff. Sometimes you're narrating, doing yoga or flipping through a catalogue and commenting on it. There's stuff about psychoanalysis. . . .
I did [psychoanalysis]for 5 1/2 years and that video, for some people, is almost like the final session because I quit very abruptly; I didn't do that well-planned, plotted-out termination you're supposed to do. I found psychoanalysis helpful but it's really hard and painful. I still really like to read Freud; he's a great writer. Reading figures a lot in what I do. In terms of the reading and narration in the video, some parts were memorized; some parts were read. I liked having that combination, switching between the performance of a text I'd memorized and reading somebody else's writing or reading my own script.
This interview has been edited and condensed.