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Social Distance Spotlight: A Conversation with Becki Rutta

Published October 13, 2021

Interview by Bailey Richards

Bailey Richards: What first inspired you to become a photographer? Did you plan to focus on portraits? 

Becki Rutta: I was first inspired by a high school photography course. The task of observing the world around me closely and composing it photographically thoroughly absorbed me. I also loved the hands-on nature of the process—from taking pictures to developing and printing film in the darkroom. Conventional film is much more challenging to control, and I found myself enamored of the fits it would give me, leading to pictures that often appeared at least partially spontaneous and unplanned. When I look back at my work, I now see how much I have been drawn to portraiture. I don’t think I was conscious of this until recently; I would say it evolved more organically. I think people—like film—are infinitely intriguing and unpredictable.  

Bailey: How did you come to work with Linda Hall on this project? 

Becki: I learned about Linda Hall and her fantastic artwork through both SAIL and FSU. Although I admired it from afar, we didn’t begin working together until 2019, when we both joined a larger collective seeking to increase the public representation of older women (our exhibition, Women Among Us: Portraits of Strength, opens at LeMoyne Arts on October 14). Just prior to the pandemic, Linda and I were discussing the possibility of collaborating on a project involving her Anxiety Masks. The masks offer a similar form of protection to the ubiquitous medical mask, providing shelter from the world to those who wear them. Exquisitely crafted, they are also elaborate and whimsical, comforting for some and alienating for others. Although she has been making masks for years, people react to them differently now that everyone wears a mask in public. The visual cues on which we traditionally depend to communicate are absent to us. In their place, we are greeted now so often with an inscrutable masked face. My photographs explore this body of work in varied environments—some private, some public, some commercial, some recreational—to see how they are transformed by different contexts. Unlike most face coverings, the Anxiety Masks cover the entire head and sometimes the whole body. Precisely because they are so idiosyncratic, they serve to replace the experience of expressive legibility. 

Becki Rutta and Linda Hall during an in-gallery performance.

Bailey: What’s different about taking photographs in public rather than in your studio? 

Becki: I think of the genre of portraiture as being at its essence an act of collaboration, a shared dialogue. I can’t anticipate how my subjects will pose for my camera, and I am attracted to that unpredictable aspect of the photographs. When I photograph in public, I find that the world has a way of intruding into my pictures in subtle and marvelous ways: Ducks methodically swimming on a pond or a glaring passerby in a supermarket. These nuanced, background details can make all the difference in bringing a photograph to life.

Bailey: I know you’ve done photographs for MoFA documenting exhibitions. What’s the difference between photographing artwork versus people? 

Becki: I enjoy doing both. Documenting images in a paid setting means you are trying to make an institution or someone else happy. When I am doing my artwork, it is about what I want and what makes me happy.

Bailey: The spaces chosen for the images are a combination of public and private spaces to explore how the masks change in different contexts. Do any of these locations have a specific meaning to you? 

Becki: Linda and I both came up with locations to photograph. On many occasions, Linda has performed with her masks in parades and other public events. Of course, the pandemic really shut that down. Once masks became mandatory everywhere, it made sense for Linda to insert herself into public spaces. Only now she didn’t need a special event to perform. The southern outdoor backdrop also felt right. The pandemic and last summer’s social unrest really altered the public’s perception of Linda’s masks. Where several years ago she might have been asked to leave the mall if she were parading in costume in public, today she fits right in, since everyone wears a mask. People either ignored her mask all together or admired it. This was really shocking to me at first. I’ve noticed that kids are especially intrigued by Linda’s masks. 

We took a series of photos in my home with my daughter when she was six months old. I gave birth to her in the midst of the pandemic, and like many mothers around the world right now, I find myself raising a child who has little opportunity for social interaction. She struggles to make sense of half-covered faces encountered at a distance, and I can’t help but wonder how this environment is shaping her self-identity. 

Bailey: Are you working on any projects currently?

Becki: Linda and I are continuing to work on her Anxiety Masks. As the pandemic drags on into another year, we are exploring different spaces and experimenting with short films. I will also have an exhibition up in October at LeMoyne Arts I mentioned earlier. Women Among Us: Portraits of Strength is a collaboration among women. The exhibition features seventeen photographic portraits of professionally accomplished women aged sixty-five or older, accompanied by haikus and biographical narratives about the subjects. Five women also designed the exhibition, each contributing an important role in bringing to life this portfolio of work: I am the photographer, author Mary Jane Ryals wrote the accompanying poems and prose, Lynn Knight designed the accompanying catalog, and Eleanor Dietrich and Linda Hall assembled the collaborators and brought them together. In a concerted effort to convey the depth and richness of their experiences, all seventeen of the women sitters took the time to share their stories, each as individual as the women themselves. 

Becki Rutta received her BFA in 2004 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A 2008 graduate of the Florida State University MFA program, she is currently working as an artist, commercial photographer and adjunct teaching at FSU. She has previously taught photography at Lively Technical College, the School of Arts and Innovative Learning (SAIL), and art and photography to adults with disabilities at Pyramid Studios. Click here to learn more about Becki Rutta.

Bailey Richards is a student at FSU pursuing her BA in Art History. This semester she is an intern at MoFA and has experience volunteering and interning at other non-profit arts organizations in Tallahassee. Bailey’s interests include art handling and art education.