Written by Anne Silver
“The more you listen to your breath, the more you can hear the voice of your soul.”
― Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, First Breath, Last Breath: Practices to Quiet the Mind and Open the Heart
Catherine Just is one of those rare beings who lights a fire in those who connect with her. She embodies notions of radical acceptance in a way that is natural, unforced, honest. It oozes from her words and from her imagery. Her passion for creating soulful, healing photography is effervescent, overflowing, and yes, contagious. It’s hard to walk away from a conversation (or one of her Instagram posts) and feel uninspired. There is a resounding “YES” singing in my brain. The sleepy urge to create comes alive and burns through me. My hands long to feel the weight of my camera. My mind races with ideas and visions for what to create next, and I can’t wait to set up a shot and hear the shutter click again.
Catherine is one who is not afraid to take risks, to try new ways of seeing and creating photos, and she eagerly shares what she has learned, providing her students and with friends, a sort of roadmap to authenticity in art. Roadmaps do not account for potholes, for detours, or for meteorological disasters, but Catherine is there to help normalize those tribulations too. As a teacher, she is an invaluable resource for people who want to learn to tap into their own intuition and use the wellspring they find beneath the surface in order to move toward reaching their goals.
Through her own example, Catherine encourages us to slow down and breathe, to stand in front of the mirror, and to not turn away. She invites us to face ourselves with a spirit of openness and compassion for all of our beautiful imperfections. She encourages us to honor our talents and gifts, and to go deeper in order to find ways to express our essential truths.
Catherine’s photos capture the limnal spaces of an unprecedented reality. Using long exposures and movement on Polaroid film stocks, she shows us a world that exists only in the pause between the inhale and the exhale. Even in her carefully constructed still life photos, the objects seem to somehow come alive before her lens, as if they, too, have become animated with the breath. Her portfolio is dedicated to the concept of capturing breath on film, of being, as she so eloquently wrote on her website, “A visual container for what the heart hears.”
I am honored to have had the opportunity to chat with Catherine about her photography and her process of making art, about her thoughts on addiction and recovery and growth, and about the connections that exist between these things. She offers so many nuggets of wisdom and compassion. There is something sacred in having a conversation with her, and in reflecting on what we talked about, I am filled with an immense gratitude.
When I look at your work, I am captivated by the sense of mystery that emanates from the photos. They are ambiguous, leaving a lot of room for interpretation and for connecting with our own thoughts, memories, dreams, experiences. Is this a quality that you strive for, or is it a happy coincidence that comes from your approach to making photos, a result of the long exposures and the movement? Some of the photos almost seem to be vibrating as I look at them, especially the photo of the house. It actually seems to be breathing.
“Thank you for such beautiful feedback on your experience of my work! My belief is that the truth doesn’t really live in the realm of thoughts... it lives in-between the words. I’m investigating a world that is unseen with our eyes in the everyday... the river beneath the river... my own personal experience is that the emotional, psychological, spiritual world is non-linear, and not what we would consider a straight-forward narrative. The vibration you feel may just be that you resonate with the energy that I’m feeling or exploring in my work. I tune into a different frequency than what’s happening physically in the world. Long exposures investigate all of this. I don’t really try to have a viewer experience my work in a particular way. I feel like it wouldn’t be true or authentic if I was facing you (the viewer) and trying to assume how you will experience my work or try to make the work for you. I have to face myself and go down the rabbit hole to find the treasure inside the portal of creation. It’s always amazing when artwork can pull us closer to the artist and to ourselves. Artistic expression is such a powerful language. I love when a song, poem, painting, photograph can speak to us on many levels and bring forth some sort of shift. Whether it’s a deeper connection to self, to the artist or to the world or all of the above.”
You have been making self-portraits for many years and have mentioned that you initially started doing this by default. Oftentimes, that is the case, we have the desire to relate a story or a feeling, we need a character in our story, but no one is available to pose for us, and so, by default, we become the art director, the costume designer, the model, the photographer. A self-portrait artist wears many hats in the process of making pictures. Have you always known that there was therapeutic value in this, or was it something that you became aware of some time after making them? And if it was something that came to you a few years into your photography, how did you come to realize it? What was the turning point, and how did this change your work?
“Yes, self-portraiture happened by default because I was newly sober and in art school and didn’t feel comfortable around people just yet as I was still learning to get comfortable in my own skin... my sobriety meant more to me than fitting in... so I stayed in my dorm room making my art instead of hanging out in the hallways or in other people’s dorm rooms where all the parties were happening. I didn’t really know how to be here. How to be in relationship to others. Everything was big and hard. You take away drugs and alcohol and you are left with.... all the things you drank and used drugs to avoid. I knew I didn’t want to use or drink again and so I faced my discomfort by exploring it in my art. I could tell immediately that it was therapeutic because it wasn’t hurting me or anyone else, which was basically the opposite of my experience before getting sober.
The turning point happened when I was carving a linoleum block to do some printmaking, not photography. I noticed that the action of carving itself was therapeutic because I was so filled with dark and intense emotions and wasn’t taking it out on myself, I was making art and taking something painful and turning it into something beautiful. A type of alchemy. I was putting all of the emotion into the action of carving. I was cutting into my arms with razor blades when I was in the deep end of my addiction, so this was clear and obvious that I had turned a corner and could see that I didn’t have to hurt myself to feel even a little bit of relief. I became curious. I became obsessed with how to express emotions visually.... I would write a list of words describing how I felt, grab the thesaurus and try to really pinpoint exactly what I was feeling in a word or two. I’d take that word and try to express it visually. Create a place in the physical world for something that lived underneath the surface of what was seen.
I became interested in staying here sober and figuring out how to handle the feelings that used to swallow me whole. Thirty years later I’m comfortable in my skin, confident about who I am. I experience real connection with others as not just being deeply valuable, but for me it’s also a direct doorway to spiritual truth and bliss. My work explores the internal dialogue from different vantage points now. I’m no longer uncomfortable hanging out with you because I’m no longer afraid/uncomfortable hanging out with myself. It shows in the work I do. I find self-portraiture to be the medicine that helped bring me to this place and continues to. When I look back over my body of work I can see the evolution of self and all the stories I investigated along the way. It shows that shifts do happen and that even when pain exists there is evidence that it turns into something else. It’s similar to taking photos of your vacation so you don’t forget those moments. I’m taking photos of my internal landscape and have evidence and markers of moments that matter.”
Most artists feel at least a mild sense of vulnerability when putting their work "out there" so to speak, and this is certainly amplified when it comes to self-portrait work. Some people, especially anonymous ones on the internet, can be very cruel and competitive and shallow. They can quickly be dismissive and avoid looking closer or digging deeper to try to understand what an artist is trying to say. Publishing self-portraits can feel like standing naked in front of a firing squad. How did you learn to navigate those waters and not give into the fears around judgment and worth? Where does your courage come from?
"If I put my sense of self worth or whether my artwork was ‘good’ or not into the hands of other people... I would be on a constant emotional rollercoaster ride. I don’t like rollercoasters. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. I'm looking at the act of putting my work ‘out there’ from a different place I think.
When I was newly sober (well, yes... and of course, when I was using drugs as well), I had the experience of resonating deeply with other artists, poets, musicians expression. Even though I often had no idea what in the world the meaning behind their work was, I felt a connection. That connection helped me see that I was not alone. One thing that many alcoholics/drug addicts experience is a sense of ‘terminal uniqueness.’ That their pain could never be understood. That they are very deeply alone with whatever it is that is their struggle. The lie of being separate is felt so deeply, it can strangle you. I’m not just posting my work to reach the alcoholic who still suffers... it definitely started there. I learned that my experience wasn’t unique to me, so it felt like if I share my truth it may reach someone out there who relates and needs it on some level. I can’t really know who that is... It’s evolved into an acknowledgement that we all (everyone on the planet) have edges we face along with growth, insight, awareness, blissed out states of consciousness...etc.... It’s a way of having a conversation. I make the work based on an experience I’m having. Something I want to explore. I share the work for many reasons now. I just don’t really entertain thoughts that if I post something vulnerable I might get torn down. Not everyone is going to resonate. Thank god there are so many artists in the world. We get to find those that speak in a way that we can really ‘hear’ them. Art saved me, and if I keep my work from being out there, someone may miss the lifeline. The truth is not out there. It’s inside of me. This brings me to gratitude for the Toltec path that I learned from Miguel Ruiz (author of The Four Agreements). I worked with him, was apprenticed to him and another Toltec teacher, and worked in his office for a bit. It’s inside this practice that I find more resources for living a life outside of other people’s judgement and my own. Nothing anyone else says or does (positive or negative) is about me. If I’m triggered it’s an amazing opportunity to clean up whatever old wounds it reminds me of from my past. I could talk for days about this and about how this practice has shifted everything for me and continues to do so.”
What gets you really excited in terms of your photography? You have been a photographer for a long time. How do you avoid feeling stuck in your work, how do you keep moving forward, how do you stay inspired?
“There’s so much to learn about photography and of artistic expression in general. I started out in high school drawing and painting. It’s expanded to include printmaking, photography, mixed media, writing with dipping pen and ink, book binding, ceramics, alternative processes, vintage cameras, film, long exposures, polaroid, wet plate collodion, pinhole, medium format, large format, filmmaking, photography without a camera, digital, light and how to really see it, exploring ideas, investigating the unseen, becoming extremely present to what’s in the now using all of my senses, creating something out of nothing... my god what’s not to be excited about.
Not only that... but that moment... what’s been called the decisive moment... when everything comes together, and you know it’s time to push the shutter, take the shot. When everything aligns, and you feel that feeling of ‘YES.’ For me photography (and creativity in general) demands that I becomes present here and ‘listen.’ Photography helps me ‘see’ with my entire being. Photography and the act of creation brings with it a spiritual connection. When I put the lens up to my eye I have the experience of my version of ‘God’ looking back at me. It brings me to tears. The honesty of someone (or something) looking back at me and being present to experience it... Can you tell I’m excited now just typing this up! I love getting ‘high,’ and creative expression is one of the ways I have access to a high that doesn’t land me in jail or to dating drug dealers who go to jail for killing people. (The latter is part of my life story... right before I went to rehab... lucky me).
Getting ‘stuck’ pushes me to my edges and it usually stems from insecurity and wondering if I have anything else to ‘say.’ I’m facing the wrong direction. I’m facing perfectionism and a need to create something that’s ‘better’ than the last rather than just making to make. It’s a hesitation with a wanting to know what’s next... How in the hell will I know what the artwork will look like or feel like unless I actually start to MAKE SOMETHING. When I feel that self doubt have a hold on me I have to shake it off. Go make something for no reason. Just start. Allow myself to make what I might label as ‘bad’ artwork. It will lead somewhere. It will inform the next photo or the next creative action. Who cares if we I don’t have it all figured out ahead of time? How boring would that be. Jumping into the portal of the unknown is not easy. I ‘circle the airport’ a LOT. And then I land... I create space to make. I get inspired by learning something, educating myself around another artists work, listening to music, going to a movie, looking at actual books at the actual library. Looking in different corners of the world and inside myself to find an entry point. Talking with other trusted friends who are artists. Setting myself up for success by not having expectations. a ‘lets see what happens if I just try this idea out.’ It’s so many things. Stuck can also be a way of marinating in your life and experience before you create the new or the next thing. Sometimes the pregnant pause is needed. If it’s insecurity or fear I have to deal with my discomfort and make the work anyway.”
And speaking of inspiration, what are the things and/or people that inspire you? How does inspiration come to you? And once it arrives, what do you do with it?
“I’m very inspired by life and all of the layers that make up the moments inside of it. I’m curious about the inside of the inside of the inside of what makes up a single experience. I love investigating topics and asking myself if what I’ve found is all there is or if there’s more underneath that. The spiritual, relational and emotional often catch my eye and I want to hunt for what lives in between what we see, feel, touch, know. It comes to me in all sorts of ways. A song, a poem, a thought, the spiritual experience of connection, a camera, a type of film, a process I want to explore. Someone else’s art expression can inspire my own.
When I was using crystal meth in high school... my art teacher looked past my exterior and spoke to my interior. She told me I was talented. She didn’t judge me. She helped me find a way of expression in the world that felt good. She did a drug intervention by not doing a drug intervention. She did a life intervention by paying attention to me and encouraging me to focus on my gifts. She has actually been a source of inspiration for all of my years. I graduated High School, got sober and went to art school. She was a working artist who saved my life without knowing it. It inspires me to pass it forward. To hold space and encourage artistic expression. That we are all valuable and have a unique story to share. It’s the inspiration behind all of my online courses and retreats.
My spiritual practice, connection (with what’s seen and unseen) as a source and a way of life. It’s a total turn on for me.
My son, Max is an endless source of inspiration for many reasons. The experience of being his mama inside a culture that marginalizes my son based on his diagnosis. This fire in me to shift the paradigm is coming ultimately from a fierce love. It inspires me to move mountains through creative expression. Creative expression as activism / advocacy fueled by and in the name of love. YES.
The endless list of artists (in all mediums) who inspire me.”
You talk a lot about intuition and listening to oneself in order to express our truths as an artist. Do you have any words of advice for those who are struggling with this? How do we even tap into our own intuition when we are so busy, both in our external and internal lives? Do you have any tips on this?
“I think it’s just an ongoing practice of learning to ‘listen’ from the inside out. And not just listening, but then taking action based on what you ‘hear’ from your internal nudges or knowing. On top of that it requires a level of trust in oneself and detaching from what others might think. There are so many layers here. I think you can be busy and still be available to hear your intuition. It’s a matter of responding. I actually did an entire series of images based on the awareness that I was leaving myself every time I didn’t listen to my own internal knowing. How can I expect anyone else to show up, be supportive, be consistent, do what they say they’re going to do if I’m not doing that for myself at this very primal level. It’s an act of love towards yourself and a strengthening of a muscle we as humans on the planet have grown accustomed to not using. Literally the tip I have is to just start practicing listening in every area of your life. Everything is related to everything. So how you show up in your busy life is how you show up in your art making. If you can become a human that responds to your inner knowing more and more regardless of how busy you are – it will, by default, ooze into the creative process as well.”
What are the gifts you have received from photography? What has it taught you, brought to your life, helped you do?
“Conceptual photography helped me express visually what I could not say verbally. I found a visual language. A way to take something painful or difficult or exciting and turn it into a sort of visual poem... or note of a visual song made up of object and movement. Photography helps me connect with my version of ‘god.’ It helps me connect. It has things to tell me so it becomes a sort of conversation rather than forcing my own agenda and in that way it helps me to be extremely present with every aspect of my being. It helps me let go of perfection and practice facing the ‘blank canvas’ again and again. It pushes me to my own edges by continuing to learn and stretch myself outside of my own comfort zone. It helps me remember that we are all connected to each other and to everything. It helps me witness how the light is wrapping itself around every single thing. It helps me capture moments that matter. It took me to France, Morocco, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Spain, All over the US to bring more connection between and with us... to capture the breath, the heartbeat, the dreams wishes desires... the pulse of the planet. It did save my life by grabbing my attention, and it continues to show me that there’s much more to this life than my little mind can comprehend. It makes me gasp in awe and it literally can bring me to tears when I look through the lens and see what’s looking back at me (I’m kind of known as the photographer who laugh/cries at my photo sessions). It helps me face things I do not want to face. It helps me express what it’s like as Max’s mama and be an advocate for him through my photographs. It helps me investigate what lives in between the words that we cannot see but we feel on a different level. It brings to me what my eyes cannot see. It’s a portal into unlimited potential. It’s a turn on, again and again. It’s my teacher.”
You said in an interview for the Candid Frame photography podcast that, "The unexpected is where the miracle happens." Can you talk about how this relates to your artistic process?
“I experience great miracles when I let go of control. When I create without designing every single piece of it beforehand. It allows other elements to come in and add their input. I invite more than just my own singular idea to be involved... Meaning... I think the film, the sun, the air, the human I’m photographing, the camera, the unseen forces we can’t really name but we feel and my own ideas all converge and create something collectively. Once I start creating I’m looking at photos and making new choices that didn’t exist before. It’s a sort of dance with everything that’s present in the moment. I can’t know what that’s going to be until I open myself up to the unknown and just go for it.”
When did you start using Polaroid cameras and film? You have talked about the instant gratification that comes from using Polaroid, the fact that in just a matter of minutes, you have a physical positive print and/or usable negative to hold in your hands, but is there anything else about this type of photography that appeals to you?
“I started using Polaroid in college when I was creating self portraits. It helped me as a tool to see what I was creating and not waste rolls of film because I didn’t know I was standing outside the frame. I used a Mamiya RB67 medium format camera and it had interchangeable backs. I could use Polaroid and then change to film without moving the camera. When I discovered the 4x5 Pinhole camera an entire universe opened up to me. I hand held my camera and opened the shutter and would ‘listen’ to when it was time to close the shutter... literally... go with my intuition. Seeing the image immediately with Polaroid Type 55 was a thrill because I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I also LOVED the look of the edges of that film. There’s nothing like it. You always knew when a photograph was taken with Polaroid Type 55 because it had a look to it. I love the texture/grain in the various types of Polaroid and instant film. There’s nothing like it. It has it’s own unique way of ‘showing up.’ I like the nostalgia inherent in it’s look.”
What is next for you that you would like to share with our readers?
“I just opened registration for my upcoming Slow Travel Deepening Artists Retreat in Provence next October 20-25th 2019! I cannot say enough about the power of taking yourself out of your daily life, into a beautiful place (especially when it just happens to be the France!), connecting in person with other like minded artists and having time to make your work. Breakthroughs happen. This particular place is so enchanted and so inspiring in and of itself. France changed me. It deepened my own connection to myself and to my work. I love sharing this place and my own teachings of creative process here with people wanting the same thing. I currently have just 6 spaces. If people are interested they can find out more at http://www.catherinejust.com/provence
I also have a handful of my ‘Hotel Room Sessions’ available. You can click HERE to check out what this is. You basically meet me in a hotel room and we make art together. It’s sensuality meets empowerment meets devotion to self. It’s not Boudoir and it’s not Porn. It’s truly about noticing the light and giving me permission to capture your true essence. WHY? Because it’s SO important to have reminders of our own beauty inside and out. We are bombarded with images around us that we as a culture use to judge ourselves with, compare ourselves to, never measure up to. This is a moment to step away from all of that and more fully into yourself. This is clothing optional. No nudity required. It could be simple yet elegant images of how the light is wrapping itself along your neck and shoulder. Check out some of the images HERE and sign up. I only open a handful of spots and they are filling up pretty quickly right now.”
Catherine Just is an award winning photographer, artist and activist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work has been published on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, inside O Magazine, Photo District News Magazine and shown throughout the US and France. She travels internationally with her 4x5 camera, Polaroid, Pinhole and other alternative film cameras. Catherine leads photography retreats for women in Paris, Oaxaca, Barcelona, Marrakech, Provence and Malibu that focus on deeper expression through an immersive experience. Her commercial clients include Carrie-Anne Moss, actress and founder of Annapurna Living, Miguel Ruiz, author of the Four Agreements, Danielle Laporte, author of the Desire Map, Makenna Held, Owner of La Pitchoune (Julia Child's Summer home in the South of France) and Alo Records.
*All rights reserved. Photos ©Catherine Just. No photo may be used or reproduced without the express written permission of Catherine Just.
©Pryme Editions, 2018. No portion of this text may be used or reproduced in any capacity without permission from the author, Anne Silver.