Julie Rae Powers (they/them) is a photographer based in Columbus, OH. They operate Soft Lightning Studio, an independent publisher of contemporary photography. Julie Rae and Perry sat down to discuss how they arrived at their latest project, a queer-focused zine titled 50:Pride.
Can you tell me more about where you’re from?
Yeah, so I lived in West Virginia until I was 8, and then we moved to Virginia, where I was through undergrad before I moved here. My entire family lives in West Virginia, although my mom and her husband moved to Virginia when I was in undergrad. So a lot of my roots are quite deep within that culture.
So is that part of what drove this zine in particular?
Well I guess I should start with what drove Soft Lightning. I wanted to make a photo publishing company that held space for someone other than straight white men. The fine art world, the documentary world, and the commercial world is such a boy’s club. I see people getting published over and over again. I understand giving someone multiple publications and the leverage, but at what point is it regurgitating for the sake of Instagram followers or whatever?
Or not having to do the work of finding new people.
Right. And I just saw that there are plenty of other people. Sure, this straight white guy’s work is good, but I know a black queer trans man who is just as good, or this Indonesian gay man, or whatever. I wanted to make space for that. The second layer to wanting to do it is the fatigue with the coastal narrative of being an artist. A lot of people ask me why I’m not in NY or LA as a photographer. I grew up in rural spaces, and actually for many years my work was about being in a rural space. I know a lot of incredible artists who are living in the middle of nowhere. But those people aren’t getting recognition because no one cares about someone living in a trailer in a holler in West Virginia.
The queer and/or rural narrative is also just assumed a lot of the time.
Right, so it’s like how can I open this space up? And by no means is Soft Lightning trying to be exclusionary. But my goal is to include more of a different type of narrative. Another layer is the expense of photography books. At the end of the day, the cheapest ones you’ll find are about $35. The nicest ones are like $75. I just think of myself as that closeted queer kid in rural Virginia who fell in love with photography but I couldn't afford to buy that book at Barnes and Noble. This was before Instagram, so I didn’t have that accessibility, but there’s still something to having something to touch and hold. So by making these zines, I can scale down cost and whoever wants to see photography in a physical form can do so. Photography is supposed to be fun, and it’s impactful and can be reproduced in a way other art forms can’t.
I think there’s a huge difference between seeing it on a screen and seeing it in person. I just wonder if some of the younger people that you’re thinking of kind of don’t realize that. But if they can get something in their hands for $12-15, that may help shift some things. Instagram is great for visibility, but it can be hard to tell what’s real.
And for a photographer who makes a body of work, for example crafting a narrative over 25 photographs, you can’t just put those on Instagram. It’s broken up and not really viewed as a set. If you put it in a book or gallery, it has a flow. To me, books are much more accessible than galleries. I do think it’s getting better, but there is still this idea that art is elite. I want to change that so much.
I think a lot of this stems from the fact that when I was a kid, I’d run around my backyard with my messenger bag and play school by myself. There was something so intimate, and I was so in love with books. Even if I wasn’t reading them, just having them meant access to different worlds, and I think it also came from the fact that my family was like, Get an education. We didn’t, you need to. I was one of the first in my family to get a Bachelor’s degree. My parents didn't really know what I would do with photography, but they knew I was getting a degree and they were happy about that. When I think about these photography books, I think about that. I wonder, am I able to make that object for someone?
So I had this whole vision, and I was like how do I name this? I knew I wanted it to be press or studio. My last name is Powers, and I have a little lightning bolt tattoo on my hand, and I thought of lightning as quick and powerful. That’s how I view a lot of queer photography—it packs a punch even if you only see it for a second. Lightning can be very quiet when it strikes. I also like the idea of tenderness. You can be both soft and tough at the same time. I pushed those two together, and it just so happened that it sounded kinda cool.
I don’t know many photographers that are willing to create a whole business concept, branding, and ideas going forward like Soft Lightning. Would you like to do it full time?
I think taking that extra step is because the purpose behind it is so meaningful to me, and the feedback I’ve gotten is it’s so meaningful to other people. It's a space in the photography market that maybe exists on small levels, but how do we keep pushing it to the market? The thing is, it’s a photography publishing idea—it’s not me doing photography as a service. I do photography as a service on the side, but I’ve never really invested in making it a business. You kind of have to find a market, like portraits or weddings or something like that. To be quite honest, I don’t give a shit enough to make that kind of work. So me as a person, if I don’t care about it I generally can’t do well at it. I always think of being an artist as the longest of the long games and a lot of managing your expectations. Whatever job I have cannot deplete me of whatever thing truly fulfills me in life, which for me is images and talking about images. I feel like the photography world takes photography way too seriously these days, which is good in some ways because photography is super powerful, and has a lot of meaning. But at the end of the day, the reason we all do photography is because it’s fun, because we enjoy it and have a passion behind it. I love a good, deep academic conversation, but the real question is does the image impact you or not? The deep elitist conversation can make photography exclusionary. It just gets tiring…I don’t always want to talk about art like that.
I love hearing about intention behind things. Whenever I want to quit or feel like Quiet Deviants is a dumb idea, I come back to the original purpose. You have to love the process too—I’d imagine you love sitting in someone’s living room, photographing a family.
I love all of the aspects of it. Some can make you jaded, but at the end of the day I like to say photography is my longest relationship. It’s like any other relationship; it’s not always good. Sometimes I have to take a break and come back, but just like any other relationship you have to find balance and a way to make it healthy for you. I’m married to photography at this point.
For this zine, were there any parts of the submission process that made you jaded or does that come more from the production aspect?
I spent so much time going through submissions, going on Instagram and looking for people. I probably sent out 100 or more DMs and probably got 10 back. So that part was really frustrating. But how do you grab someone’s attention and hold it, especially if they don’t know you? The people that got back to me, gave me feedback, and showed me the most support were queer femmes and people of color.
I’m not surprised in the least.
Even if I knew this cisgender, heterosexual males well, or even some of my queer male friends, they did basically nothing to help me, or have a conversation with me—I largely was ignored. That was truly disappointing. I thought we had a very strong bond, and I know people are really busy, but this one queer femme friend works a full time job, has 3 dogs, a partner, is a full time poet, and she was with me every step of the way. And you know what? She was also my first order. She’s crazy busy, and she made the time to just put it on her story, like a few images, order the book, and just say I see you, I’m here for you, and I’m rooting for you. I’m like if she can do that, then so can other people.
Right, especially when it’s people who give lip service to feminism or various other causes to support. And it’s like do you? Because when you’re called on it, that follow through isn’t there.
And we’re all human—I try my best to be of service, and maybe they’re being of service to other people in other facets of life. At this point, I’m not trying to make that judgment. But just on a personal level, it sucks. But whatever, it’s fine. The support that I have gotten has been of quality. From people I admire, whether I just admire their photography on Instagram from afar, or whether they’re people in my backyard. That’s been awesome.
What I liked about the zine was that the submissions you picked were a little different than your typical queer imagery. They were very colorful, and one of my favorites was the person in the pink bathrobe with the snow in the background. I see the portrayal of rural/southern queer culture as a little repetitive, but what are your thoughts?
When I initially think of queer or southern or rural, I think of movies like Boys Don’t Cry. So just pure queer tragedy, and complexity with self and wrestling with identity, ending up in violence. Or it doesn’t exist at all. I didn’t come out until I was 23, and in hindsight I was queer my whole life. But I didn’t see a lot of representation; I didn't see a lot of me. I couldn’t point and say, that’s me. That’s the great thing about Instagram. Now I follow a bunch of queer people who live in rural spaces--@queerappalachia is a great account, @shooglet is this queer photographer who is also very body positive. The whole point of this Soft Lightning platform is whether it’s queer people, people of color, or rural people, I want them to be able to tell their own narrative instead of having a narrative imposed on them. Why don’t you let them tell their own story?
Yeah, there’s a lot in Appalachia to be celebrated. A lot of communities are seen on paper as really judgmental or not accepting, and I’m not saying those places don’t exist because they definitely do. But some people that I know that are from the country are some of the best people I know, which makes sense right? They’re just human.
Absolutely. My entire family would literally give you the shirt off their back. Where my dad lives is an incredible example. He lives on top of this ridge in an area called Kentuck, West Virginia. It’s 15 or 20 minutes off the highway and single, winding lane roads. The first time he ever gave me directions, he was like “Okay, when you get to Donkey Hill, turn left.” And I’m like, “Is that the name of the road?” No, it’s literally a hill with donkeys.
They have such a community-oriented spirit. This woman had her house get flooded, and her—I don’t know if it was a very serious hobby, or her actual bread and butter, but she’s a seamstress and lost all of her sewing machines. We had two sewing machines in the basement, one that was my grandmother’s that was given to me, and just an extra one to have around the house. [My dad] called me and was like, “I know this sewing machine means a lot to you because it was your grandmothers, but here’s the situation and I was wondering if I could give it to her along with this other one.” And I was like by all means! So he did—he loaded up everything he could find that they didn’t need and he drove it down to the church and gave it to her.
One of your past projects, Out of Hiding, shows a different kind of community. I loved that, and I’m curious about the timeline and how that informed the 50:Pride zine.
I got the idea for it December 2017. I had spoken with the Sean Christopher Gallery because my friend had a show there in December, and they said they loved my work and gave me a date. All of my work in grad school was essentially my coming out story with a background that was really conservative, like coal mining in West Virginia and this really complex relationship with the land, and blue collar-ness and being an artist. I really loved that work, but it was hard to make it when I was going through it, so I wasn’t super satisfied with how it turned out. I was like I can’t afford on a personal level to be making work that’s that difficult any more, but I’m also not the kind of person who can make a body of work that isn’t personal, so that’s how I was trying to find a balance.
During grad school, I actually met these people at Pride by complete accident, and that snowballed in to these beautiful friendships and they became my chosen family. And so it was really great—and along the way I realized I was so sick of seeing all of these sad queer stories. It’s not all tragic. There are for sure hard parts because we live in a world that makes it hard for us, but I’ve experienced a lot of queer joy with my queer family. I wanted to pay homage to that, and I had also seen through living in Columbus for 5-ish years off and on that there were little pockets of families, like the West drag family. This guy I went to grad school with, his queer family would always be at trivia or other events, and they called themselves Cheryl, and I saw that as the beginning of this. I shot my first family end of January 2018 and worked on that all the way up until July 2018. By the end I got to shoot about 20 families.
And when you first reached out to them and talked about this idea, did they see themselves as a queer family?
It was a mixed bag. Some people were like yeah that’s my queer family, let’s celebrate this cool thing. I also let people very much define themselves on their own terms, whether it’s a friend, or sibling, your dog, or you’re married. It was a very open definition of family. And even with that, I still had some people say well, Julie Rae, I just don’t think I have what you’re looking for.
Did you think at all about instead of doing it in their setting, having a day where you have a studio and people come in?
A lot of people have suggested that, or setting up a booth at Pride. But there’s something to having them in their own environment; there’s an authenticity, a comfort. When they interact with each other in a place where they spend time together, whether it’s a bar or their home, it’s more authentic. There was a family I shot at Goodale Park in the spring, which I am not sure if it had any particular meaning for them, but they pretty much art directed themselves. They call themselves The Bad Kids, and they all strolled up wearing black leather daddy harnesses and dark lipstick, and then I photographed them in these beautiful blossoming dogwood trees. Each group made meaning in their own way. My group did our photo shoot at Club 20 on Duncan Street, because that’s the bar that we grew up and found ourselves in.
Was that one of the first places you went to when you came to Columbus? Is that were the origin story of your queer family Haus of Mess begins?
We met at Pride. H, who is sort of the powerful matriarch queer femme nonbinary queerdo, they lived not too far from me in Clintonville and I lived in Old North. I met Paxton first—we hung out, and hooked up. She was driving me home the next day and asked where I lived. I told her, and she goes, “You’re fucking kidding me.” It turns out she lived like 5 houses up the street. So Club 20 was just naturally a place we could all gravitate to. When I first started going, Club 20 was a little bit more of an older gay bar, but no less cool. I feel like now it’s kind of become multi-generational, which I think is awesome. I’ve just met so many amazing people there.
That project was successful—I saw you got a ton of good press on it.
Lot of good press, which was awesome, so that was in September of 2018, and it’s not technically finished. I would love to keep going. I shot a few families in the spring, too. Ideally, if I could take this nationally, someday, that would be really cool.
So you did the 50:Pride zine, which is out now. What’s next?
Good question. So I’m about to sell out of my first run. I’m trying to decide whether to do another run and keep getting it visibility, but I know I need to keep growing a base. I think the smart thing to do is have another open call and attract different photographers. I’ll be able to see the people that I may want to publish in the future, and then they’ll also see Soft Lightning and be interested in what I’m doing. The idea I’ve had as of late is I want to do more of like a really thick magazine—I’m talking 100, 200, 300 pages. I kinda want it to be a bit of like, a fuck you book. Like, we’re fuckin’ here. Really just call out to everyone I’m saying I want to publish, like people of color, trans people, rural people, disabled people, you name it. Whatever sense of marginalization where you feel like you’re not seen, and I just want to put together a thick-ass book, throw it out and be like proof. We’re here. We’re not going anywhere.Photo Credit: Jaclyn Silverman
You can find Soft Lightning Studio at https://www.softlightningstudio.com/ or at https://www.instagram.com/softlightningstudio/.