Friday, March 24, 2017

More Than The Eye Can See: Talking Photography With Ivy Vainio

I first noticed Ivy Vainio's photography at an exhibition at the Duluth Public Library a number of years ago. Whereas one often sees photography on the walls when you are in public spaces, these photos stopped me in my tracks. I didn't know the person who had produced them but made a mental note of the experience.

There are plenty of fine photographers here in the Northland whom I've gotten know, and several whom I've written about here including Jeff Frey, John Heino and Andrew Perfetti. Two photographers whose paths I most frequently cross while documenting many of the really great music and arts events here are Michael Anderson and Ivy Vainio. I'm always a bit envious of the gear they are equipped with. My Sony Cybershot is adequate, but they have those long lenses and know how to use them.

Ms. Vainio has been actively involved with the American Indian Community Housing Association (AICHO), which tonight is celebrating its fifth anniversary. According to her bio at the AICHO Galleries website, she is a direct descendant of a Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe member and very connected to Ojibwe culture, values and beliefs.

EN: Can you briefly summarize your career? Where were you raised and what are you doing today?

Ivy Vainio
IV: I began taking photographs of events at my workplace at UW-Superior in about 2001 when my supervisor bought an Olympus camera for the office. In 2007/8, my husband Arne noticed that I was taking an interest in photography outside of the office and decided to purchase a camera at a local pawn shop. It was a Canon Rebel and I loved that camera. I had that for a couple of years and started to photograph local powwows and some local diverse community events. Then in 2012, I had a chance to show my photographs for the first time in a public setting in the Jim Dan Hill Library at UW-Superior when I was a graduate student in the Communicating Arts program. That was a semester long show in the Spring and I sold a couple of my photographs.

In Summer of 2012, I submitted three of my powwow photographs to a Photographers of Color Art Show in Minneapolis. All three were accepted. In November of 2012, I had my first solo exhibition at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in the Gimaajii Gallery. It was also their first art show in their art space. Over 200 people attended. Since that great year of 2012, I have had my photographs in several art exhibitions, permanent collections in Duluth, Superior, and Cloquet, two of my pieces were part of the Native American exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for just under two years, and published in several local, national, and two international publications.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in photography?

IV: Through my work at UW-Superior.

EN: When I see you at events I get the impression that the aim of a lot of your photography is as a documentarian. That is, you are present to capture and share what is happening. When shooting, what kinds of thoughts are you having and what matters most? Is it "the story" or "the composition" that is dominant in your aims?

IV: I can tell you that right before a photo shoot, I get so nervous – like I’m going into a job interview kind of nervous. My stomach gets all churned up a bit. Every single time. Right before the shoot, I will put out some sacred tobacco and say a prayer. Once I start the shoot, that nervousness goes away right away.

Like most photographers, I want my images to come out clear, on point, and somehow tell a visual story. I know I need to get better at all three of these personal wants. When I bring the camera up to take a photo, I think about the composition mostly. I was told by another photographer years ago that I should not shoot so focused in on the individual (pertaining to my powwow dancers imagery). That I should “shoot out” and then crop if I needed too. I just can’t bring myself to doing that. I like having what I am shooting up close and personal like you can reach out and touch them. And it’s not just about composition, I like helping to tell the story through the people that I photograph. If that’s a powwow dancer, an elder making a pair of moccasins, or a mother and child marching in a protest. I feel like it’s more personal when the images are up close. Like you can almost get a feel from what that individual is experiencing at that moment.

I like to document diverse events, diverse people, aspects of diverse cultures because history has not done that very well, and/or culturally correct, for diverse communities and members. Back in the day, white photographers would pay a couple of dollars, if that, to a Native person and bring the props with them for that person to wear. So a lot of times, the Native people in the old Black and White photos were wearing items (regalia, headwear) that weren’t even from their tribal communities. And throw in a gun or hatchet for that person to hold to progress fearful stereotypes. Correct representation has gotten better with Native photographers documenting tribal communities and events. As well as other diverse photographers and film makers. No one can tell our story better than someone in our own culture. Someone from the outside of the culture can document but I feel that they lose somewhat of the connection between subject or individual which could potentially be seen in the final image.

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You can read more about Ivy Vainio, her achievements and interests at

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If you make it to the event tonight it will be easy to pick her out. She'll be the one with the camera.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Celebrate it.

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