Spring Semester Rolling Into Summertime

Spring Semester Rolling Into Summertime


The semester is winding down. Only five-ish weeks to go (I think). After spring break, and settling into a pattern of rest and relaxation, I feel the heavy weight of responsibility on me in the final weeks of the semester, juggling tasks and deadlines and finding time to earn money for supporting myself… (Not to mention making new creative work, buying groceries/cooking/eating said groceries, doing laundry… have I listed all this before? LOL!) This semester so far, I have been busy traveling around the city at night, after work and class, documenting the local burlesque performance scene now that venues are booking shows more regularly. I can see how the work is evolving from last semester’s mostly-indoor, environmental portraits of performers at home. The performance photos allow viewers a glimpse into the actual show environments — the lights, the movements, the interactions with the audience. I have work to do and many more images to make, but the noticeable progression is exhilarating to note.

Shimmy LaRoux performing in “Embodiment” at Newport Theatre, from the series “Authoring Allure,” 2022; photo by Erica McKeehen

Once school ends near the middle of May, I will be shifting gears slightly and traveling all the way to Spain (Madrid specifically, for two weeks, and then to the coastal town of Almunecar, for two weeks), as I was awarded the Stuart Abelson Graduate Research Fellowship! I am beyond excited, especially as a first-time traveler abroad, but I am also overwhelmed that I won’t be able to shift quite out of work mode until I return from Spain a month later. Now that I have my passport in possession, my flight paid for, and my Air B&B booked, I can sort of relax and just worry about how to plan outfits to pack for 30 different days in another (warm) country.

While on the topic of the Fellowship, some useful information for inquiring minds!: the Stuart Abelson Graduate Research Fellowship was established to encourage international travel among graduate Photography students while completing a specific project and to support the experience by assisting with the costs of travel. After close review of applicants that are first year, graduate, Photography students enrolled at full-time status with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher, awardees are given funds to pursue travel internationally to complete a specific photography project. In Spain, I plan to photograph burlesque performers local to the scene in Madrid; I also hope to explore flamenco dance as well because it too incorporates flirtatious movements by femmes, richness of bodily expression, and sensitivity/profoundness of movement. In addition to portraiture and performance photography of strangers in these communities, I plan to create a small body of portraiture exploring the muse relationship I have with longtime collaborator, friend, and fellow burlesque performer, Kitty Tornado (who lives in Almunecar now with her husband).

Kitty Tornado in Red, from the series “Only Sour Cherry” 2016; photo by Erica McKeehen

Although it’s a tall order, amongst all this photo-making, I hope to explore, enjoy local food and the gorgeous coast, and learn about the vibrant culture! I am so grateful to Columbia for the opportunity, and if you are considering Columbia for your MFA in Photography, know that as a first-year, full-time student, the opportunity is there for you too!

While I plan ahead, I also have to stay focused on the work I am currently making for my thesis here at Columbia. I am curious about how all of the separate bodies of works I am making/planning will work together/separately in the end. Ultimately, they all deal with the performance of sexuality, of identity, of how bodies show up in society and are glamorized, respected, and compensated — and/or vilified, misunderstood, and further marginalized. I am up for the challenge of approaching it all and coming up with solutions.

One the end of June rolls around, I will be letting my hair down a bit more (it’s actually very short so — maybe not the best expression) and traveling for fun, to Boston to see live music with friends, to small-town Ohio near Lake Erie with my family, and to Anderson Ranch near Aspen, Colorado for a week-long photography workshop with Richard Renaldi (another opportunity afforded to me through Columbia’s Photography department)! Again, it’s difficult to not focus on these momentous plans since I’ve been working hard all year, but they are all just out of reach because there’s still work to be done before fantasies of summer and leisure settle in. I try to take my own advice, not get ahead of myself, take one day at a time, and cross tasks off lists in my planner, feeling satisfaction for all that’s been and all that’s to come!