By Jennifer Coburn
Even before she started kindergarten, Reneé Weissenburger was fascinated by how art and literature influence one another. She even went so far as to create her own illustrations that she felt were missing from her storybooks.
This passion for blending visual art and literature continued into Weissenburger’s teens, when she started photographing herself as literary characters such as Desdemona and Ophelia.
“I always tried to think about the psyche of the characters, and how I could use the body and composition to give a critique and an in-depth look at them,” said Weissenburger, an instructor in photography and literature at the UC San Diego Extension. “Like most people, I’ve always looked for meaning and connections and I think that perhaps art and literature offer two paths to the same place.”
She has seen firsthand how the influence of one art form can transform the other, and can change the life of an artist. While teaching a photography class at UC San Diego Extension, Weissenburger shared with her students key passages from Seymour Glass’s diary in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. “I wanted to talk about poetic images and how art and literature can help us see beneath the surface,” she began. She deconstructed the passages she read to her students and indicated that the character was “revealing his invisible scars.”
The Franny and Zooey lesson had a profound effect on a young woman in Weissenburger’s class. Until that point, the student was photographing portraits of her friends and family, sunsets, and flowers. “Nice, but not uniquely belonging to one person,” said the instructor. The student’s work began to evolve, delving deeper into her personal life. “She was a military nurse who had just returned from deployment, and she began to show us bits of her experience though her work, and it was heartbreaking,” said Weissenburger.
She characterized this student’s ten-piece project as “fearless and brave.” The student double- and triple-exposed nude photographs of herself and layered them with pictures of her uniform, letters she wrote, and sketches. She also incorporated poetry. “She shed her skin for us, and let us look at her experience inside, in all of its layers,” said Weissenburger. “She also discovered that she is an amazing poet and is now applying for an MFA in poetry.”
Weissenburger loves to discuss her favorite photographers. One is Francesca Woodman, whose work she traveled to San Francisco to see. Weissenburger stayed so long at the gallery that she was still there at closing time. “They had to kick us out,” she said with a laugh. “What appeals to me most about her work is the meaningful references to myths and stories,” she said, recalling a series of photos that incorporated yellow wallpaper, a nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic feminist short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Equally compelling to Weissenburger is how Woodman “crawls into these uncomfortable spaces of identity and concealment.”
The same might be said of Weissenburger’s work, though she doesn’t tout herself or her own accomplishments. In fact, it is only because a friend submitted Weissenburger’s photography-based pieces to D Gallery in Lake Arrowhead, California, that her work is exhibited there. Her favorite of her collection is the Victorian Surgical Box, part of a series she did on Victorian asylums. A haunting look at the mistreatment of women diagnosed with mental illness, “the assemblage is made of photographs, hand-painted with green gouache, broken glass, scalpels, medical tweezers, and specimen frames,” Weissenburger explained. “The arrangement is set inside a display case to emphasize the study and dissection of these women.”
Weissenburger isn’t the only one in her family to discover a passion for photography and literature during childhood. Her son Elijah has taken a keen interest in photography. He recently graduated from photographing bugs and plants, and would like to start shooting darkened shapes of wild animals. His inspiration? A photograph of a wolf he came across while reading National Geographic. “I told him he could train by photographing tree silhouettes to avoid being eaten,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”
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Updated October 2019