A Conversation with Hannah Altman

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Pittsburgh-based photographer Hannah Altman is the artist behind “And Everything Nice,” a photo essay which unapologetically explores society’s standards for female beauty. Here we talk photography, Haiku, and the relentlessly exciting nature of humanity.


What is And Everything Nice about?

The series is an unflinching analysis of the standard for female beauty. The series consists of women in states of affliction. The body fluid of the models (which include blood, tears, and vomit) has been replaced with glitter in order to visualize the concept of girls invariably needing to seem attractive regardless of what is actually happening in each scenario. The project is intended to be a pictorial representation of the unreasonable female standard of beauty. By creating setups that would normally be considered grotesque would it not be for the glitter, the sparkle stands out because it is the only facet of the photo that is abnormal. The models do not seem to acknowledge the glitter as something any different than natural body fluid, which supplements the idea that women have been conditioned to go to any length in order keep up an attractive appearance. The project is meant to raise the awareness of such a ridiculous standard, and to question its morality.

Do you remember when it hit you? What sparked the idea?

Rather than one specific “Aha!” moment, the project slowly came into a physical form through the constant bombardment of media. The issue of sexism is hard to forget, because once you start to think about it, you realize that it is everywhere. As a result of this, whether I wanted to be thinking about this project or not, it was constantly in front of me.

What are your subjects? Do you choose them or do they choose you?
 

My subjects are my best friends. We choose each other. We are all artists in our own respect, so when my roommates walked into the bathroom and saw me sticking glitter in my teeth (which was the first photo I shot from the series), they were all for it. I think the idea of using loved ones as subjects creates an intimacy in the photos that wouldn’t exist in the same way otherwise. Though the problems addressed in the series are universal, subjects who have already opened up to you create a raw and personal feeling through the images.

 

You tend to play with light and dark in your photos, but And Everything Nice is fairly bright, almost clinical.

The lighting in this series is intentional. Everything that compositionally exists in this series is meant to make the scenarios in the project seem more natural. The large majority of them are shot in bathrooms with unpleasing (and kind of gross) light. Women aren’t always in a studio with professional lighting and a team of experts applying their makeup. Most of the time, it’s the opposite. The project wouldn’t be entirely representative and genuine if the subject had a bloody nose but was still looking fantastic.

And Everything Nice is certainly your most popular series. Is it your favorite?
 

I’m very proud of the project. I would have liked it just as much if I had never shared it with the world. But my love for this series has grown with the amount of attention it’s getting. With the understanding that women around the world relate to this project in a personal way comes a growing gratitude and deeper understanding of my own work.

In your interview with Buzzfeed you call the project intimate. How is this series personal for you? How do you feel about the attention?

The series is intimate because of the personal issues that are projected through the subjects. It was shot in a dorm with no budget and a very lax pace. Each shoot consisted mostly of discussing the issue that was being visualized. I published the photos onto my tumblr on February 15 to a modest amount of followers. The intimate project quickly began to circulate, and in 24 hours had gained over 130,000 notes. It now has twice as many. Seeing the project go viral is an important aspect of this project because sitting behind the computer screen are real girls who all relate to this issue on a personal level. What began as a personal project shot in a college dorm has turned into a relatable and relevant statement that calls the perception of beauty into question.

Do you have more planned for And Everything Nice?
 

This specific project is finished for now. The themes of the project, however, will continue to be explored in my future works. Feminism is a subject that interests me so much; though it may be more subtle in works other than this series, gender studies are a main theme in my work. The world’s perception of the female body is endlessly remarkable to me, and I will continue to include my observations in my work.

 

When did you know photography was your medium? Have you dabbled in others?

I am very bad at a lot of things (namely, volleyball and ordering food at a restaurant). However, photography makes sense to me. It is a form of speaking, sometimes a scream and other times a whisper. I used to take photos on a camera phone when I was thirteen and haven’t stopped since. The more I shoot, the more I develop my skills to visually communicate. I do dabble in other forms of media; I write, draw, and paint. But these mediums are ones that I always incorporate into my photographic work. Any [media] which create a stronger message in my photos are the ones that I enjoy using.

 

You're based in Pittsburgh. Are you from Pittsburgh originally? Does where you are influence your creativity?

I study photography at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Penn. I’m originally from a small town in New Jersey, so the change is pretty drastic. Both places are inspiring. In New Jersey, I have nothing but solitude. When my mind is just allowed to wander is when my concepts first come together. In Pittsburgh, I’m constantly surrounded by other artists who want to create and develop new ideas. This forces me to be creative in a different way.

 

Who are some of your favorite photographers?

Oh man. So many. I love Duane Michals, Nan Goldin, Silvia Grav, Ben Zank, Ryan McGinley, Petra Collins, the list goes on. They all have something great to say.

Who or what else inspires you? Do you find yourself inspired by particular music, films, literature, or art?
 

I’m inspired by all forms of art. Art is weird. One medium can connect to another in ways that seem strange and unlikely. Sometimes it’s a song lyric, sometimes a painting. Sometimes it’s a human being in their entirety. Feelings are everywhere, and I thrive to create art inspired by art.

Your subjects are usually people. What fascinates you, delights you, disgusts you, and/or inspires you about human beings?
 

Humans are relentlessly exciting. They are simultaneously all of the things you just mentioned: delightful, disgusting, and inspiring. I shoot humans because of these multitudes. The multifaceted human nature is so interesting that I could probably spend the rest of my life shooting just one person, but instead I’m trying to show a few sides of as many people as I can.

What do you love?

Things that evoke feeling, whether it be positive or negative. Everything is significant when viewed through the right lens.

What are your goals for 2015, art-wise and otherwise?

I’m going to be focusing all of my energy into my photographic work, which is nothing new. My first solo show is going to contain these images, so that is very exciting. I mostly am just continuing the development of my artistic vision. Projects that discuss feminism are definitely going to be a continuous theme throughout my work.

Describe yourself in a haiku.

I have an eye for

Photo, and the mind for change;

Fists to fight for it.


Find Hannah’s work here.

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All images © Hannah Altman

Laura is a journalism student at George Mason University. She usually speaks in abbreviations. She has been told she "reads too much." If you don't recognize her, it's because she changed her hair color.