Collection Explore
Interview
Danielle St. Laurent
on Family Portraits in the Time of COVID-19

On September 9, 2020, artist Danielle St. Laurent attended Dayton Director Ian Berry’s Art History course “The Artist Interview” via Zoom. This interview was part of a series of interviews with artists conducted by Berry for the online exhibition Pandemic and Protest.


Ian Berry
Your new series of family portraits was taken in a New Jersey neighborhood during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The disorienting reality of family life during quarantine is framed by suburban home windows with you on the outside, looking up. The pictures are quiet, and the subjects can feel distant, but the emotions are right on the surface. For some context, can you tell us where you grew up?

Danielle St. Laurent
It starts out about as uninteresting as it can get. I come from Delaware, which is usually a conversation ender. When I say that’s where I’m from, I often get a blank stare or maybe someone says, “Oh, I drove through Delaware once.” Probably the most interesting thing about it is that it’s near a lot of great cities, so you can get out easily. That’s what became important to me: getting out of Delaware.

I grew up in a middle-class suburb that had very little diversity and culture. We had a yard and a driveway. I had two working parents and ours was the house in the neighborhood that no one could look at because the grass was never cut. It had a bit of a junkyard feel, which was humiliating for me growing up. I used to get dropped off in front of other people’s houses and pretend they were mine because I didn’t want anyone to know where I lived. After high school, I went to the University of Delaware where photography became important to me, but getting out of Delaware was my number-one mission.

IB
How was art part of your life growing up?

DSL
It wasn’t part of my life at all. At one point, my mom went back to college and while studying communications, she took a photography class. I remember her taking a picture of me and feeling weird about it because I was so self-conscious. I was standing in our backyard with my long hair down my back, naked. Now I think of it as such a beautiful image: a young girl standing, facing the cornfields where we would play. That moment is frozen inside me.

IB
How old were you when she took that picture?

DSL
I was about eight or nine.

IB
Do you have that photograph?

DSL
No, but I wish I did. Maybe I should re-create it. At the time, I hated that she took it, but now I love that she did. I think it informed the kind of photography I became attracted to.

When I got to college, I started out as a mechanical engineering major because I was good in math and I thought, well, as a woman with those skills, this should be an interesting field for me. I quickly understood that engineering was not the right direction for me, though. Then, in one year, two classes really shaped me: “Intro to Photography” and “Intro to Women’s Studies.” Both of those subjects allowed me to explore my angry feelings about being female, the experiences I had in high school, and how I felt limited by how I was perceived. I found Cindy Sherman’s work and her exploration of clichéd roles for women. I was very into being punk and expressing myself with my clothes and my hair. I would dress up, just me and my camera in a basement. That was an important time for me.

IB
Do you feel like you made your first picture during that intro class?

DSL
Yeah. I took that photography class and then I went on a road trip all over the United States with a boyfriend and a best friend. We took a lot of pictures. I explored everything. I was also shooting bands and started photographing the people I hung out with. I even liked photographing myself, though now the idea of a picture of me makes me cringe. At the time, I loved it because I was trying on other people.

IB
How did you find those sources like Cindy Sherman and punk music?

DSL
I found people who were exciting to me and the music they listened to became important to me. Especially during your college years, when you’re trying to define yourself, you can look at somebody and know if they’re your kind of people. We were really into Beastie Boys and stuff like fighting against “The Institution.” Everything was about creating an individual identity, every second of my life, and rebelling against my conventional suburban upbringing.

As a kid, I remember opening our mailbox and someone had left a note saying, “Congratulations. Ten years of being the messiest house in the neighborhood.” I stood there looking around and thought, “They’re watching me. Who wrote this?” It hurt so badly, even if I knew it was true. I hid the note because I didn’t want my mom to know. While I didn’t really know who I was, I did know that I wasn’t someone who could live on a small street in Delaware where people were judged by their lawns. I knew I needed to forge a path to New York City.

When I moved to New York, I found work interning for a commercial photographer named Michael Lavine, who is a well-known music photographer. That was how I learned to light with strobes and professional setups. It was no longer a bunch of candles in my basement or a little tungsten clamp. Michael had these badass assistants who taught me how to light, how to do everything. I would schlep things around and do the work nobody else wanted to do, but I learned so much. We only had film at that time, so we were running our film logs, exposures, and would do clips of the chrome to see if we had to push it, pull it. It was all very technical. We actually shot the Beastie Boys, and I remember thinking: this is so full circle—my idols! I was assisting on shoots and meeting a lot of people. Michael photographed Nirvana and that Notorious B.I.G. cover with him in the graveyard—a lot of iconic work. It was a dream come true.

IB
This sounds like a key relationship, a key first job. How did you get from candles in the basement to New York City on a set with rock stars?

DSL
Unfortunately, connections are so important. The introduction to Michael was through a musician I knew from Delaware, Sean Pierce. My all-girl band would open for his band. Sean had already moved to New York and randomly had painted Michael’s studio, so I learned from Sean that Michael was looking for an intern. Another friend had a spare bedroom, so I moved to the “big city” and got a job at Wetlands, which was an old jam-band bar. I was bartender by night, intern by day. It was a hard time but amazing. I also got to know Michael’s wife, who was running Bust magazine at the time, which was really influential for me.

IB
What was the name of your band?

DSL
Straddle.

IB
Has Straddle ever reunited?

DSL
No, but we’re still good friends. We actually didn’t do all that great. I was the drummer and had a problem with stage fright. I’m definitely supposed to be behind the camera, not on stage. I think we were more into the punk rock attitude than having any talent.

IB
What was your first hired job?

DSL
Photographing dildos for Bust magazine. It had nothing to do with my personal work, but it was a job, so I took it. After that, they would hire me to do portraits. I got to shoot Amy Poehler early on. I was still focused on shooting bands, too, at that time. When I got my first commercial fashion job, I already knew how to light and how to go on location, but it was a very different type of situation than I was used to. On the commercial fashion shoots there are models, and a big RV with hair, makeup, styling, and styling assistants. It’s a little different than shooting the Wu-Tang Clan, where you’re mostly thinking about the coolest angles and the coolest lighting. Instead, I had to start thinking, “How does the hair look? What’s the right makeup? Should those shoes be with that skirt?”

IB
When was this?

DSL
Late 1990s. I loved having a team. I started doing more stylized band shoots and celebrity things because I found that that a strong visual direction was how you could make the image more interesting without having to rely completely on what the subject was going to give. Sometimes they don’t give anything.

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Danielle St. Laurent (born Bear, Delaware, 1973)
The Weiss Family In Quarantine, 2020
digital chromogenic print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2020.48.5.a-b

IB
How much do you actually control, though?

DSL
Usually there is an art director or a creative director. I prefer to work with someone who’s giving me direction, because they are the ones going into meetings and presenting their concept for the season. They need to figure out the flow and what will be going into layout next to each image. The more I know about the mindset of what they need to sell, the more it helps me get them what they want. Once a director brings a vision, it often becomes collaborative, especially on set. There are a lot of photographers who really get out there; they have a big Instagram account and just start shooting without knowing a lot of technical aspects. I admire them because they’re pure and raw, but I love feeling confident. I love feeling like I know I can deliver what’s needed.

IB
Are you on a shoot every week?

DSL
I used to be. Before March, I would shoot pretty much every week. The freelance lifestyle will make anyone completely bipolar, though: one week you’ve got the world in the palm of your hand and you’re booked solid and then all of a sudden, your calendar is empty. It’s really hard to stay sane and still feel confident. Generally, I’ve been lucky and have had a consistent career with loyal clients.

IB
March quarantine happens, and everything shuts down. How did that affect your world?

DSL
It was bad. I didn’t do well in the beginning. I have a constant need to get out of the house, so lockdown was hard for me. I start crumbling if I’m home all the time. Also, I have two kids and it’s always been important to me to have a career and not get too consumed by mom life. Of course, being a mom is so very important to me, but I never wanted it to be everything. I think it’s important for my kids to see that I have this passion and direction.

IB
Were you in New York City at this point?

DSL
No. We had lived in New York for a long time, but about two years ago we moved out of the city to a little commuter suburb called Maplewood, New Jersey. It was something that my husband wanted more than I did. He’s fine with never leaving the living room.

IB
Did the portraits start as a project or did it turn into one?

DSL
At the beginning, there was no goal of it becoming a project; it was just my way of digesting what was happening. I was depressed and needed a place to go, a reason to get up and get dressed. The portraits got me out of the house, got me to put on some mascara and feel like I had a purpose again. March 13 was the day that everyone started getting nervous here, and then within two days people were too scared to go outside. At some point during those early days, I looked out my window and saw a kid looking out of his window and it felt so sad. I started to think and worry about the long-term effects on kids not being able to go out or see their friends. I basically had to rewire my children not to run up to friends or people that they love, which was really difficult. We were all barely going outside, and when we did and would see someone, the impulse became to turn the other way because it felt scary.

IB
How did the first portrait in the series come about?

DSL
I asked my neighbor Claire, who is also a close friend, if I could do a portrait of her family with them inside their house and me outside in their yard. We weren’t even sure we could go into someone’s yard; that early on, nobody really knew anything about how COVID-19 spread. Claire is a photographer, too, so for the shoot we were able to use nonverbal communication: it was a lot of pointing and gesturing while holding the phone. Luckily, their house has a big window that is low to the ground with a lot of trees that reflect beautifully in the glass. It was only when I started editing that I realized that the series is so much about these reflections and the world outside that none of us were experiencing.

IB
So, you were standing on their lawn on your cell phone and directing the picture?

DSL
Yeah, I didn’t have to give them a lot of direction, but they also couldn’t hear me, so they didn’t always know when I was actually taking pictures. Sometimes the instinct is for people to put on that back-to-school-photo smile, and I didn’t want that at all. I didn’t direct anyone to be somber, but I also said I wanted realness, honesty, and no phony smiles.

IB
Was everyone in the same neighborhood?

DSL
I kept it very local, between two towns. I wanted to broaden and go into other areas, but at the time, no one was going exploring. I had to keep it super local.

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Danielle St. Laurent (born Bear, Delaware, 1973)
The Oliverio/Kwan Family In Quarantine, 2020
digital chromogenic print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2020.48.6.a-b

IB
Did you know all the families?

DSL
I sent out a group text to people I know and then asked some friends to spread the word because I wanted to get some people I didn’t know. Things were pretty tense, though, so there wasn’t much interaction beyond everyone’s tight circles. One shoot was interesting because when I showed up, I could hear a lot of screaming inside the house. The kids were freaking out, so I offered to come back another time, but the mother bribed the little one with a lollipop, which is why her mouth is purple in the picture. The key to parenting is bribery! They eventually got the kids to the window, but they were miserable. They wiped off their tears but weren’t feeling good, and I could totally relate.

Regarding the early quarantine days, I know a lot of people have said, “Oh, it was great, and our family bonded.” Sure, that happened, but there was also plenty of hating each other. Everything was annoying and scary and tense. There was the need to redefine every movement because no one knew what we were allowed to do, not even how to get groceries safely.

IB
It’s interesting to think about how much of these experiences are revealed or concealed in these pictures. The window is a shield but it’s also transparent; it’s both things.

DSL
Yeah. For a little while, it felt like survival. At the start, my intention was not to create a body of work. It didn’t feel like my next career move. I didn’t care about any of that, I was just processing. People were so excited to see another human, so excited to have a picture taken, but I would walk away from every shoot feeling like I didn’t get a good picture. Typically, I know when I have something, but I was sure I was failing every time in this case, and I really didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I wanted to give them a great picture. Luckily, it did end up that there was always something I liked from every shoot.

IB
Were these all taken in those first few weeks?

DSL
March and April mainly, because when the weather improved and people started going outside, the tone of quarantine loosened up. This project really was about that period when people weren’t leaving the house.

IB
What are other stories from the families?

DSL
One woman is a breast cancer survivor. At the time of the picture, she’d just battled cancer and had come out on the other side, but then this quarantine started. She’s an incredible person and a strong mother. One family started a local composting business. I’ve been lucky to know so many fabulous people in this town. It’s all about relationships.

IB
One thing people have been reflecting on in this moment is how many of us are meeting our neighbors for the first time. When you get into a routine, you can live in a place for twenty years and not know the people around the corner. You made an important record of how it felt in one place at this unprecedented moment. It’s very moving.

DSL
Thank you. Initially, we were so unhappy stuck at home. I wanted these pictures to show how we were feeling, the tension, but also that we needed one another. I think there was a little bit of a forced closeness that people weren’t used to, but you try to embrace it. A lot of it does feel loving and sweet, but there’s also an underlying tension, which was very real.

Maria Staack ’22
What interests you so much about people? Do you feel your own personality comes across in images of other people?

DSL
I desperately love to connect with people, and it’s especially important to me that I connect with the people I’m shooting. I get this emotional fix, like a little bit of a high after a shoot. I love learning about people and observing them. It doesn’t really matter whether I like them or not, it’s about the connection I have with them. Even with a celebrity or a model who is on autopilot going through their twenty or thirty moves, I’m always trying to get more—something unexpected, a realness. That need I have to connect is what I think makes my images interesting, and it was one of the things that was challenging with these window portraits. It was so much harder to connect with people.

IB
How much of the stories of the families would you like to accompany the pictures when they are exhibited?

DSL
I want their voices to be part of this. It’s just as important as the pictures. I think their expressions tell you a bit about what they’re going through, but I love that their perspective will be a part of it, too. It absolutely has to have their story.

Cite this page

St. Laurent, Danielle. “Danielle St. Laurent on Family Portraits in the Time of COVID-19.” Interview by Ian Berry. Tang Teaching Museum collections website. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/257-danielle-st-laurent.

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