By Ruby Love
Last year, Evergreen graduate Monica Jane Frisell decided to sell most of her stuff and buy a 1988 Toyota SeaBreeze with a plan to travel the country making portraits and interviews with the people she met along the way. She’s spent the last several months gutting and renovating the RV in preparation for the trip, adding shelving and a small darkroom area for processing her film and prints. Monica and her trusty sidekick Lucy (a most elegant and howly terrier) met up with me in the Evergreen parking lot in the SeaBreeze (the perks of having a mobile home/workshop) to talk about Monica’s project, Looking Forward: Portraits from an RV.
Frisell says the idea came to her because she’s “always wanted to travel around the country while photographing,” taking inspiration from photographers in the early days of photojournalism: “They would have a horse and buggy…and they’d have these huge carriages and they’d have all their chemistry back there…and I’ve always admired that kind of obsession, so I think I kind of just wanted to do it [that way].” Frisell is shooting on large format film (measuring four by five inches in size), so having a darkroom on hand to process and print is an integral part of the project. She says originally she was just going to put a portable darkroom in a van, but then she realized she wanted to live in it and try to do the project in a fully mobile way.
Describing the SeaBreeze as a “funky tiny home, keyword: funky,” Frisell says she’s put about four months of work into refurbishing it and modifying it for her needs. When she bought it, the interior was covered in the original faux-wood wallpaper and thick carpeting the color of sand, or like…really bad watered-down coffee. Just getting it ready quickly became an all-consuming project:
“I bought it not knowing about the rot…I built these two shelves and I was like ‘Oh, that doesn’t look right…’ and I touched [the wood] and it was kind of squishy, and then I was like ‘Oh, shit’ and I pulled it up and there were all these mushrooms and rot and it was disgusting. I was parked up at my parents’ place in Seattle and I just started ripping it apart and all of a sudden I was looking at this gutted…I mean, I went all the way down to the plastic, and I was like ‘What did I just do?!’ because taking things apart is way easier than putting them back together. That’s what I learned. This is my stubbornness manifest, haha. It’s not that bad, paint can do wonders. Just don’t look at anything too closely cause then you can see all the shit I’ve fucked up.”
Despite feeling in over her head at times (Frisell had no real experience with carpentry before this project) she says that renovating the SeaBreeze by herself was incredibly satisfying.
“You just [make] a lot of mistakes and you just keep going. This is all a lot of mistakes. So it’s pretty cool. Doing one little thing at a time, sometimes you lose the big picture and I’ll be like ‘Oh, god, I haven’t done enough’ but I was just looking at some pictures of when I first got it and I was like ‘Oh, it doesn’t even kind of look like that anymore’ and not just look; it doesn’t feel like that anymore, and it doesn’t smell like that anymore. It’s starting to smell more like mine and feel more like mine.”
“I know pretty much every part of this; the more I take apart the more I learn about how it all works, so there’s something really satisfying about waking up in something where you’re like ‘I know the water goes here, and it’s caused by this…’ and I know it’s all mine and I made it all.”
In the coming days, Frisell is having the SeaBreeze painted and re-sealed, and then it’ll be ready for darkroom work. She’s changing out one of the windows to red-tinted plastic: it’ll function as her safe light – an idea SO cool I had to stand there slack-jawed for a minute before I could compose myself. (For those who don’t know, a safelight is a red or orange-tinted light used in a black and white darkroom to help you see what you’re doing without impacting the light-sensitive paper.) Until she leaves the Olympia area, Frisell is using the Photoland labs “quite happily” to process and scan her film and to develop prints. Although she is still based in Olympia for now, Frisell has already interviewed and photographed around thirteen people, both local and found through day trips.
The setup of Looking Forward: Portraits from an RV is simple: Frisell invites a person into the RV for a conversation, which she records and later transcribes. She says she’s not asking people anything too specific – she’s interested in how people got where they are, geographically, but she emphasizes, “whatever story you want to tell me, I take.” After the “chat,” Frisell makes a portrait of each person, sometimes in the RV, sometimes in their home or the home of a friend. Everyone who agrees to participate in the project will receive, at “some point down the road,” a portrait and transcribed story of someone else:
“The idea is having connection between people who wouldn’t have otherwise met each other. It’s kind of a romantic idea. I’m doing everything on large format, so the process is really slow – shooting with that is really slow. People have been really opening up, like more than I ever would have imagined, I think.”
Opening up is key to Frisell’s project, and she’s greatly influenced by the current social/political climate in America. She says the slowing down of the project is also important: from shooting on large format film to sending physical prints via the mail, Frisell puts great emphasis on the slow and the physically real in a world where interaction is increasingly fast and virtual.
“I like the idea of the prints going through all of these hands to get where they need to go… I put a stamp on it and I send it out; I’m not just sending you a file via the internet, and there’s the physicality of it that I think is cool… Again, [there’s] the romantic thing of connecting people in our country when right now it’s really a lot of us-against-them talk, and that’s also why I’m feeling so inclined to do this [project] right now…people are really mad, and I think rightfully so, but I think people need to start talking a bit more than just yelling. I mean, I don’t want to get into politics but it’s scaring me, it’s scaring me a lot. I’m scared about the future, and I think a lot of people are – whichever side you’re on – a lot of people are scared and I think that’s really interesting to me. Because we’re all in the same country, we’re all in the same boat, why is there all this tension, and how can that tension not totally implode on itself? I’ve been asking a lot of people about that…which has been cool cause everybody has a different opinion.”
Last weekend, Frisell took the SeaBreeze to Portland. “That was the first time I was really doing [the project] and was able to envision how it’s gonna go.” Doing most of her networking through word of mouth and Facebook, Frisell says she was surprised by the response in Portland – there were so many people interested in talking to her, she actually had to turn some away.
For now, Frisell is working on her project in Olympia and in areas reachable by day trips (if you want to be part of the project, contact her!!) When she leaves Washington, she’s planning on going to California, slowly making her way south and then east – Frisell has no set route, but says she’ll map out friends and acquaintances across the states and plan around them. She has a show in Rochester, New York set for October 2017, and Frisell sees that as a time and place to aim for, and a chance to process, print, and scan (she’ll have access to a lab there) and to really take stock of the project after more than a year of work.
While her project and by extent, her life, will be mobile, Frisell says she’d never describe herself as going “off-grid:” “That’s the complete opposite of what the project is about!” She’ll be regularly checking in on social media via her cell phone, and updating her website with new portraits and interviews as often as she can.
To follow Frisell’s progress, you can visit her website at PortraitsFromanRV.com, or follow her on Instagram @MonicaJaneFrisell (or the project’s Instagram: @portraitsfromanrv).