From being an activist, an artist, a teacher and worldly traveler, Nine Francois has definitely lived a fascinating life to say the least. I was recently lucky enough to talk, laugh and live her adventures through her stories.

 

Where did you grow up?

My family emigrated from the French West Indies to Thibodaux, Louisiana. Before that we’d lived in Martinique and Puerto Rico but the chunk of my young life was in Louisiana.

Are you close with your family?

My Mom lives in Louisiana and my Dad lives in France so half of my family is on a different continent. The distance puts some stress on the relationship but I take my kids back as often as I can.

What/Who would you say were your biggest influence?

My brother attended Tulane University on an architectural scholarship and he was also a marvelous painter who hung out with that crowd. The people I met through him were very inspirational. I wanted to pursue art at Tulane but my parents told me that there couldn’t be two artists in one family. My second love was traveling so I thought, I’ll be a diplomat or something of that nature, so I got a degree in political science thinking I would travel the world. I got a job at the Louisiana’s World Fair working as a liaison between the city and the fair. I worked with lots of city officials and politicos including Governor Edwin Edwards and his entourage. This really opened my eyes and I learned a lot about myself, like that I really don’t like politics. I was frustrated at the time because here I have a degree in politics and I didn’t want to do anything with it! So, I left and moved to New York for two years with a boyfriend. He was an amazing illustrator. At the time, I was also into drawing, in a very photo-realistic style, but he was so good at it and so much more creative, that I decide to do something completely different, so I chose photography. I think that this boyfriend really influenced me as he introduced me to Jazz and cool avant-garde art.  It fed the part of me that I had to cut off when I was choosing my major in Tulane and it got me back to where I started, which was art.

What inspires your current work?

My aesthetic is clean lines and it’s in everything I do. It might have to do with the years that I studied graphic design and worked in Advertising. There’s just something about clean lines and well-defined space that inspires me.

What other careers were you involved in before committing to photography?

Lots! There was politics and that morphed into civic action. I’m an activist at heart but I put that aside when I moved to New York. I worked in advertising for a couple of years and learned that it was too cut throat for me. When we left New York, we moved to Austin because we heard it was great and I wanted to go back to school to study journalism. During school, I worked at an outdoor store called Wilderness Supply. We’d go rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking — I’ve always liked the outdoors so this felt really right, especially after working in advertising which was absolutely stressful. The nature part was very healing to me.

Were there any professors in school that influenced you?

Absolutely. Mark Goodman at The University of Texas at Austin was a big influence for me. I’ve been told that I’m good at critiquing and understanding photographs and if I’m good at that it’s because if him. He’s amazing. He has a way of getting inside a photograph and finding out exactly what’s it’s about. He not only inspired me with what he did but he also allowed me to teach with him as a TA and it was magic. When we’d critique work from undergraduate students I remembered thinking what a great experience it was and students would say that about his critiques as well.

At what moment did you know you wanted to become a professional photographer?

Before I entered the Masters of Art degree program I took an undergraduate photography course with Mark Goodman. It was towards the end of the semester during finals when

…I found this incredible special in the newspaper that said: Flight to and from Caracas – Seven Nights in a Hotel – $300.

I remember very clearly going to his office. He was sitting at his desk, I spread a newspaper out for him to see which advertised round trip tickets and 7 nights in a hotel in Caracas, Venezuela for only $300. I looked at Mark and asked what he would do.  He looked at it and said, “I would take some really good pictures to make a dynamite final portfolio for this class.” So that’s what I did. My first picture ever published came from that trip and that’s where it started.

What is your thought process when combining travel and photography?

I’ve been traveling a lot since working on the Animalia series so I make sure to research where I’m going and what it can offer in terms of photographs for this series. This usually leads me on the coolest adventures. I went to Costa Rica recently where there was this reclusive woman who used to be a high powered corporate executive in Ohio. She came to Costa Rica some time ago and started an animal sanctuary that you can only get to by boat. Besides a few people that work for her she lives by herself where she has about ninety animals that she takes care of. When you get to her place, you go on a boat and dock at this beach and you can’t even see the entrance to her property because it’s just jungle. You walk through it, get to her compound and you’ll see that she’s living with these monkeys that she’s raised and panthers and other different animals. I went there to photograph a sloth and we spent the whole day with her and it was out-of-control cool. So, whenever I go somewhere I dig around to see what I can find.

 

How long have you been teaching? What classes do you teach?

I’ve been teaching at Austin Community College since nineteen ninety-five but in between that time I’ve also taught at Texas StateUT Austin and Southwestern University in Georgetown. Right now I’m part-time at ACC where I teach Introductory to Photography and another class that I love very much called Expressive Photography. In this class we collectively pick a theme and do all kinds of research on what that theme might means to us. Each student works all semester long on a portfolio trying to develop that idea and at the end they have an exhibit.

 

What was the story or thought process when creating the Composites series?

Sometimes the story is the first step and then you build the work to follow the idea but sometimes the story comes after you build the work. For the Composites series, it was the latter. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to do so I hung a big piece of white cloth right by the entrance of my door and in front of that was a chair and then my 4×5 camera. When anybody came into my house, I’d ask if they’d sit for a portrait. Then, all of a sudden, I had all of these pictures of people that I captured on Polaroid type 55 and each was its own object. At some point, I got into using the photographs as material and I started cutting, then sewing and stapling and pinching. Then, I began to see these objects as material that I could manipulate. From there, I created a different series that recombined faces, sometimes with people that were completely disconnected, sometimes with other family members or with different photos of the same person. I don’t know what it means but they looked really good together. That started another series I did called, Family AlbumMy favorite piece from that is at Nicholls State University in Louisiana where my mother taught for 30 years. It’s a 4×6 foot grid of individual photo tiles and each tile is comprised of glass, a photograph, masonite board and then a rod that sticks it off the wall. Each rod is one inch, two inches or three inches long so the tiles are undulating. I photographed portraits of myself, my mother and my grandmother and found other photographs of us in albums from all the different stages of our lives and I meshed them together. I created these composite portraits on regular photographic paper but they’re backed up against an MDF board which is full of pollutants. So you have this portrait that’s a combination of three generations of women and the images are bleeding and fading. Some come forward while the others recede. It’s a living portrait. I love what happens with time and the chemistry in the photographs that I can’t control.

 

 

Family Album from left: Passage, Heritage-1

Family Album from left: Passage, Heritage-1

What keeps you motivated to continually create a unique body of work?

I think the most beneficial motivator for me would be to take off and do a residency because what I’m lacking in my life is an extended period of time when I can just concentrate on creating. You need time to create. It takes a lot of open time to think and explore.

My consistent advice to my students who are about to graduate is – Sell everything! Leave now!

One of the things I remember as a kid is that you don’t have a sense of perspective because you live so much in the moment and think that it’s going to be like this forever. Sometimes you don’t realize that it takes one thing like marriage or a trauma or children or a job that changes the whole balance of your time. So, I tell my students that if they have the option to defer their student loans for a couple of years, they should just sell everything and get out of here! As someone who is bicultural I think that getting out and exploring the world is something that really needs to be pushed in our society for so many reasons. For people to become tolerant and for people to become more inspired. When you leave your country , your safely zone, and go somewhere else, you see things so differently.

What’s your favorite part of creating a new body of work?

The discovery. When you have an idea that’s turning in your head and you’re trying to make it work, then take that one seminal photograph that goes click. It says yes, this is the path to take; this is how you’re going to talk about this. The idea and the technique to me really have to work together. For the Animalia series, the giraffe picture was the very first one that I took. The story behind that happened when I had finished graduate school. I was so burnt out I didn’t know what to do so one day I took up a toy camera – a little plastic camera with a plastic lens – and went to a friend’s wedding in Louisiana. It was outdoors on a farm and I got side tracked by this rooster that was parading around. I slipped out of the wedding party and started stalking it, so while my friends were getting married I was chasing this one rooster down. I captured a photograph with these streaks of colors of the bird as it ran. When I saw the image I cut it out and put it in my journal. Years later, I went back and saw it and thought, well this could be something. I started going to farms and taking pictures where I photographed light colored animals against a dark background which developed into a series of work called The Farm. I kept that process going until one day I drove past the Exotic Sunrise B&B off of Ranch Road 12. They had zebras, giraffes and ostriches and other types of animals. When I saw the giraffe I realized I had to change everything. I switched it around and started photographing animals against the sun so the animals became dark and the background blew out white. That started the whole aesthetic for that project.

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Animalia: Giraffe, Zebra-1

What has been your best career decision so far?

I think teaching was an excellent decision. I come from a long line of professors and I never thought that it would be my thing but it’s the right mixture for me of supervision and freedom. When you teach at an institution you have a lot of freedom to run your own class. It’s getting more constricted and institutionalized these days but even within that there’s a lot of space to be creative. I teach part-time now and in the end, it’s really great  because I have time to work on creative projects and my fine art.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Austin?

I really love riding my bicycle during the East Austin Studio Tour. I’ve been living on the east side for over 12 years and I love it here. I feel like I live in a zone of creative people who are always exploring, thinking, stretching, and creating. It’s very inspiring.

What are you favorite restaurants?

Justine’s and the Blue Dahlia. I also like the Hillside Farmacy.

One Response to “Nine Francois”

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