interview Jorge Perezchica

It was a family trip across the country from New Jersey to the Grand Canyon that inspired a 15 year old Carly Valentine to first fall in love with the desert. Carly credits her mother and grandmother as powerful, creative women who have always been supportive in the pursuit of art and they celebrate that. Carly started photography in forensics at 16, shooting for her father’s fire investigation business. But it was a fire scene she remember specifically, that it became clear she was more interested in photography as an art form. Carly transitioned as a young adult, traveling often and visiting museums. She studied at the Art Institute in Philadelphia and set up a photography business with a studio in New Jersey for about six years. Then she came to Joshua Tree, CA., and fell in love with the community, and decided to settle there. From a young age, the vastness of the desert translated “freedom” and it’s like nothing she ever experienced before. After meeting many inspiring and creative women in the Hi Desert, Carly Valentine is embarking in one of her most personal and transformative projects yet: Daughters of the Desert.

JORGE PEREZCHICA: Can you tell us about yourself and background as a photographer?

CARLY VALENTINE: I started photography in forensics when I was about 16. My father owns a fire investigation business and I was shooting for him. There was a fire scene that I remember specifically: This burned piano and keys covered in soot, and the paper was curled. I just thought it was so beautiful. I couldn’t stop shooting it and my dad said, “That’s not what we need, it seems like you’re interested in photography as an art form, so maybe you should go explore that.” So, I just started traveling all the time, taking road trips. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is where I saw fine art photography for the first time and I loved it. It was the work of Josef Sudek that moved me the most. I was raised in New Jersey but I went to school at the Art Institute in Philadelphia. Even then, I thought all I was going to do was forensics and did my internship with the state police. Then friends of mine asked me to shoot their wedding. I was nervous but did it anyway. I loved it so much that I started a photography business and had a studio in New Jersey for about six years. Then I closed it to move out to the desert. Now I live in Twentynine Palms.

JORGE: What motivated you to move to the desert?

CARLY: I dreamed of living in the desert since I was fifteen and was just looking for the right place. Then I came to Joshua Tree and fell in love with the community and decided to settle here. From a young age, the desert just translated freedom for me, the vastness of the landscape. I wanted that for so long and now that I’m out here, I feel that deeply. It really just allows you to pursue the life that you’ve wanted to, and to explore whatever art form you want. The community is so incredible, they support you in everything that you do and celebrate you. I really love the artist community out here. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

JORGE: Did you explore other creative mediums before establishing a career in photography?

CARLY: My grandmother gave me painting lessons when I was younger, so that kind of sparked my creative flow and my mom is very talented too. Those are powerful creative women in my family, and I was just figuring out which medium was for me — and photography ended up being it.

JORGE: Your photography has a unique quality. How would you describe your work, the aesthetic?

CARLY: I don’t really know how my work comes off, but my work is very emotional and it’s creating a sacred space with the person that I’m photographing. I think that comes through in the images. Other than that, I’m influenced by photographers who I’m friends with, I love following them to support them. But some of the masters that I love are Josef Sudek and Imogen Cunningham. I like finding my influence from other sources too, from paintings to movies and just noticing the gestures that people have.

JORGE: How do you set up or compose your portraits?

CARLY: I know a lot of photographers that do sketches of what they want the image to look like and I don’t do that. I really just decide how it’s going to look within the moment as it’s unfolding. A lot of that has to do with the way people naturally interact or the way they move. I don’t pose people. I allow them to move within the landscape and see how they’re affected by it and document that.

JORGE: You are busy nowadays working on a unique project “Daughters of the Desert.” How did that come about — what was the inspiration?

CARLY: My friend Sarabeth and I were talking one night at an event, we were just discussing how many powerful, talented woman there are in the desert, how inspired we are by them and how crazy it is that we don’t get together regularly. We were surprised too that there wasn’t a place to do that and we only saw each other in passing at events. I just decided to start this project as a way to get a women’s collective moving. The main goal is to get a building for us, so that we can be together all the time and do good things for the community.

JORGE: Has anything surprised you about the project since it began?

CARLY: I was surprised by the response, I did not expect this many women to sign up. I thought it would maybe be like 20 people. I started by taking a picture of my friend because she supported the project. I wanted to see it begin — and when that negative came back, I was just so floored by it, the power in it and the image is incredible. I started thinking about what the project would include and wrote my artist statement. Then I created the secret Facebook group and I added a couple of people and encourage them to add people. The next morning, I woke up and there was like a couple hundred people in the group. I was shocked. So far I think I’ve shot about 70 and it’s close to 200 people signed up.

JORGE: Have you set a completion date yet or is the project ongoing?

CARLY: People ask me that all the time. I don’t have an end date for it right now. It seems like the majority of the woman who have social media have heard about it, but I found out the people who don’t have social media are still finding out about it through word of mouth. So, I want it to be open to them. I especially want the elders in the community to find out about it, because I have so much respect for them. I guess it’ll stop when people stop signing up. But for right now, I still get sign-ups every day.

JORGE: What are the requirements to participate in the project?

CARLY: It’s all artists from the High Desert. There are some people who live here part-time, but the requirement is that you’re an artist who creates in the High Desert, because the Low Desert already has an incredible women’s collective “Wyld Womxn.” I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing and I’m glad that they provide that for the Low Desert.

JORGE: The project requires artists to add something to the portrait. How do you begin, what is your creative process like?

CARLY: They book a portrait session through the website, we go to any location in the High Desert that inspires them most. We just have a conversation about their story, what inspires their work, what they create, what it means to them to be a part of the collective — and then, they stand, grounded in the space. There is a moment right before I take the picture where I say “take a deep breath” and then I tell them what I want them to think about and it’s based on their story. I never  never really know what’s going to come out of my mouth. I just like feeling the connection with them and creating a sacred space and  being clear about how grateful I am that they’re part of it. It’s like taking a moment to reflect on their path and what this will lead to in the end, the fruition of it.

JORGE: What is your camera of choice for the Daughters of the Desert project?

CARLY: I started using this camera (pointing to a large format 4X5 camera) back when I was in school and I fell in love with it because it’s so hands-on. It requires a lot of patience that I usually don’t have. So I’m constantly being tested and learning about myself with this camera. I put it down for a long time when I started my career, but knew that I was going to use it again for something big. I didn’t know what until I moved out here and came up with this project. I just love that it doesn’t block my face when I’m shooting, so I’m able to have direct contact and have a moment with, and interact with someone before I take their portrait.

JORGE: Can you mention some of the artists you have collaborated with on Daughters of the Desert, anyone you would like to give a shout out to?

CARLY: It started with Anna Olivia, an amazing musician and collage artist, and my friend Sarabeth, an incredible musician and writer — they’re both huge inspirations to me. I mean there’s a lot of people on the list that I’m excited to shoot that I haven’t yet. I met them through the collective and I look forward to getting to know them better. There’s a lot of people that have moved me through their work, through the experience of shooting together. There are really so many, I can’t name them all but every single experience has been a really, really beautiful, creative process.

JORGE: Will each session include one image per artist or a series of images? And will there be any additional information, like a story behind the images?

CARLY: It’s going to be one image to artist and they’ll receive their print which I’m building the dark room for right now. The print will be about 20×24 or 16×20 inches. I’ll give them their print and then they apply their medium of choice to it. The images will be paired with a form that all the artists are going to fill out, basically explaining why they chose that location, their work and their inspiration, and it’s going to be a huge thing paired with. The whole show will be a collaboration to promote everyone’s work.

JORGE: How will Daughters of the Desert be presented to the public, have you found an ideal space?

CARLY: It’s going to be presented at Taylor Junction in Joshua Tree, CA., and we can’t wait to do the show there. We’re thinking about breaking it down into three parts, because there are so many images and I don’t want the walls to be too busy. It would be great to have each showing be an event where female performers can be on stage to promote everyone’s work. It will be exciting to see it unfold and then it’s going to be published in a book of all the images paired with the writing.

JORGE: Have you been documenting the process as well?

CARLY: Sarabeth has been coming with me on some of the shoots and doing behind-the-scenes footage, so they can understand what the process has been like.

JORGE: What would you say is the most important lesson you learned so far throughout the project?

CARLY: I’m still in the middle of it and I’m learning everyday about myself in the collective. For right now, I’m just like, I don’t feel like the work is mine anymore. I feel it belongs to everyone else and it has become clear to me that this work is happening because the other women manifested it. I’ve heard so many times that they’ve been praying for something like this to happen and I just feel really honored to be doing this work and I’m completely floored by this opportunity.

JORGE: What was your vision behind the project from the beginning?

CARLY: My vision from the very beginning, I kept imagining being surrounded by these images which include everyone’s artwork — and everyone in the community just looking around and thinking, “Yes, I love these women, I support them, I want them to succeed”. We can all work towards getting a women’s collective and a building for that. Just to be surrounded by the creativity in our community, I think will be really powerful. I can’t wait to see what else this community is capable of.

JORGE: What would you like viewers to come away with? Is there a larger message or statement you want to express?

CARLY: I feel like this project is giving the women in the community a voice, they’ve always had a voice, but this is about a collective voice and what we can do for each other, for the community as a whole. How to learn from each other and feel supported in that way. I think that in this political climate, it’s really important to have a safe space where we can gather and heal and feel powerful together. I keep envisioning the circles and meetings that we’ll have and the feeling that it will create. I want everyone to be able to leave and go out into the world and be able to return to that feeling, so they know that they’re supported and they know they’re empowered. They can do that on their own but they also have us to fall back on. Regarding the art world, it’s really incredible what women have been doing and the voice that they’ve been giving to fighting for women’s rights and equality and making a presence. Being a feminist isn’t about rising above, it’s about equaling out. So this work that we’re doing is to have an equal playing field and I think this is the perfect community to start in and be a really good example.

“Daughters of the Desert” photography by Carly Valentine

JORGE: What’s one of the biggest challenges you face as a photographer?

CARLY: The most challenging thing is pursuing personal projects while also having a career. But I think it’s incredible that my camera makes me money and also allows me to pursue fine art. I remember in school that one of my teachers said, “You won’t do your own art once you start your career.” And we all thought “That’s crazy. We would never — really?” And it’s true, it was  hard to find the time for it, but it is possible, and I’m learning that through this project. The connections that you make and how therapeutic it is to be able to express yourself in that way and seeing that in other people, providing that for them is really a blessing.

JORGE: Growing up, did you have any mentors in your life?

CARLY: My mom and Oma, I have great respect for them and the way they’ve influenced me. It was a drive across the country from New Jersey to the Grand Canyon that made me first fall in love with the desert. They took me on that trip over the summer before I went to high school and it was such an important and influential experience. They’ve always been supportive of me pursuing art and they celebrate that.

JORGE: What do you think about the photography industry today, since there are more tools and outlets available than ever before?

CARLY: I think it’s a really exciting time to be a photographer. People are still supporting the film industry and I’m really excited about that. Polaroid just came back. I’m thrilled about what the Impossible Project did to make that happen. I think that everyone has their own style and so I don’t think it’s really a competition. It’s just wonderful to be in an industry where everyone finds their voice in their own way and there are different types of cameras that they can do that with, different types of film.  I’m constantly finding new ways to express myself through it.

JORGE: What keeps you motivated each day?

CARLY: Within my career, with wedding photography, documenting love is my job. It’s so wonderful to be able to do that and to create heirlooms for people and that’s a huge honor. That’s what keeps me going is sharing this moment with people and documenting them in it. Within the project, I feel inspired by the stories that people share with me and the time that we share. Every single day, I’m just amazed at the way the people open themselves to be part of this and it keeps me moving forward. I’m excited to wake up every morning and find out what stories I’m going to hear, and meet new beautiful people.

JORGE: Do you use social media often to promote your work or look for inspiration?

CARLY: It has definitely helped me with marketing and getting the word out. But as far as using it for anything else, I don’t really look for other photographers, because I don’t want to compare myself at all. I find inspiration from other sources and it has to come from a very pure place.

JORGE: When you are not taking photos, what are you doing in your spare time to relax and stay creative?

CARLY: I have morning rituals that I do. A lot of it is just meditating and doing some yoga. I have a little altar where I sit and give thanks to my ancestors and connect with the people that I love. And then hiking, I’m not like a rock climber or anything but we live in such a beautiful landscape and being in tune with it has really helped me stay grounded and focused. It’s really good for the heart and mind.

JORGE: What advice would you give to young, aspiring artists interested in pursuing a career in photography today?

CARLY: Go for it. I think you should pursue all interests that you have. Maybe photography will end up being it for you and maybe not. It’s still an incredible art form to explore and it’s very fulfilling in a lot of ways. If you’re serious about it, I wish that you would take the risk. I remember the first day I opened my photography studio and sitting at my desk and thinking, “What did I just do?” My portfolio was very minimal at the time, and I just, I just knew that I had the talent to pursue it — and so I went for it. Sometimes it’s really worth the risk.