Jenny Riffle and Molly Landreth met in 7th grade in the early nineties. The relationship that developed between the two women in the years that followed is one of first love and years of side-by-side personal and creative discovery, which evolved into a lifelong friendship - and now, a book. It's Raining...I Love You: Self-Portraits is the culmination of a devotion to photography, and each other. Full of black and white photographs from the summer of 1999, Riffle and Landreth documented their world and, in turn, created a testament to the power of enduring friendship and the creative spirits of two unique yet complementary artists.
The two chatted with our Founder and EIC, Amanda Carter Gomes, about how the book, photos, and corresponding narrative came to be, their artistic lens and inspiration, and the complexities of an "extended youth and a second adolescence of 'coming out.'"
This book shares the images you both, as budding photographers, captured of each other at a seminal point in time. Can you tell us why these photos hold such importance to you both?
ML: These self-portraits are important to me because the process of making them 21 years ago shaped who I am as an artist and photographer today. It made me realize the power and vulnerability involved in sitting in front of a camera and staring directly into the lens and how a collaboration between subject and photographer can become empowering and revolutionary. Without "It's Raining...I Love You" I would have never created my long term series "Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America" (2003-2010). There are actually early images from that project, which I created out of a longing to be “back in time” with Jenny. See photos attached. “Untitled, 1999. from “It’s Raining...I Love You,” and Gary and Jeremy, Brooklyn, NY. 2003 from “Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America”.
JR: It is important to me for so many reasons, one as an archive of personal memories and first love, but also as an artist just starting to learn about the power and importance of an image. Personally making self portraits at a time when I was still figuring out who I was, was a way to see myself in different roles playing different characters. To see who I could become. As an artist looking back, to see myself then at an age of experimentation and innocence is to remember what that feels like, a time when I did not have the weight of art history on my back. A time when taking photos was new and with that newness came a different kind of excitement then I have now. A time that I can never have back. And maybe a time when I was less self-conscious and less aware of an audience, a time when I wasn’t thinking about the viewer, but was making these images just for Molly and I to see ourselves.
If these images were made today maybe they would be shared on Instagram with immediate feedback and that feedback would make me more self-conscious. How would that have changed the work? Having them hidden away for 20 years and then bringing them out gave me a gift, to see a part of myself that I had not thought about in a long time. A part of myself that I would like to get back in touch with creatively - less self-conscious and more willing to be vulnerable in my work.
Personally when I look back at photos of myself from this same period of life and time (we are very close in age) it's hard and honestly a little uncomfortable. Not always, but it feels quite vulnerable. I would love to know what the impetus for this project was and how you both felt when compiling these images.
JR: (I read that question as what is the impetus for the book project) The impetus was a studio visit that Molly had with Michelle Dunn Marsh and Eirik Johnson - the then executive director of the Photographic Center Northwest (PCNW) and the woman behind Minor Matters, who was looking for work to share in an upcoming publication. Molly mentioned the self-portraits we had made so many years ago but had never shown anyone and Michelle was intrigued because she knew both of us and our contemporary work but had no idea we had collaborated back then. It sort of took off from there and some of the photos were included in Latitude 47 - a publication made by PCNW of Northwest artists - then we did a lecture about the work at PCNW and it made us realize how much we had to say about the work and how much we wanted to dive into it and share it.
I definitely felt very vulnerable and still do! This work is the most personal work I have made, so the whole time we have been putting this book together I have felt scared and unsure. But at the same time compiling the images was so much fun and so rewarding. Going back through this archive with Molly over twenty years after experiencing these memories was precious and informative. I got to see myself at an age where I was just becoming myself. I saw one of my first relationships form and could reflect on how important that relationship was/is and how it informed all my future relationships. There was a lot of laughter and tears going though this archive with Molly in the last couple years compiling everything, and plenty of embarrassing content! But it has pushed me to be more vulnerable and I’m excited to see where that takes me in my creative life and in my personal life.
ML: The vulnerability of that time is so real and I personally continue to feel vulnerable while sharing these images and words with the world. As 19 year olds we were at the tipping point of an extended youth and a second adolescence of “coming out,” and in 1999 we didn’t even have the right words for “who we were” yet. These images represent increasingly nuanced queer identities which we couldn’t articulate in words so we explored through images. I remember sitting at Denny’s being like, “….are we lesbians? NO - absolutely not. ...are we Bi...that seems closer but ...not really right. Dykes? ….at least that feels a little sassy?!” The impetus was really an unconscious hunger for understanding ourselves and a need to see images that felt like our lived experience.
There are also letters you penned to each other. How do these inform the photographic work? Why were they important to include?
ML: I feel beyond grateful that Jenny and I kept all of our handwritten letters and handmade envelopes from this time. They are so visually beautiful and represent treasured objects to both of us. They were created right at the moment where email replaced paper so they represent a critical moment in time and personal marker of love and friendship. The fashion images in the envelopes were all very homoerotic or subtly queer in various ways and give a glimpse into the world of mass media that we were sifting through when we were making the self-portraits. They are a little portal into our headspace in 1999 and the written words really distinguish us as two unique individuals with very different voices.
JR: They were visually important, to see the images we were looking at in magazines, to see the fashion of the time that was informing our identity as women and girls in love and as artists. It was also important to read some of the letters to see how we were forming our ideas about art, the art that was influencing us at the time and the work we made together. Also, I think the letters really help bring the narrative of our relationship into the work and I think that is important.
The Fold as platform was built to celebrate the evolved woman: the woman who understands that the journey is constant and there is no arrival point, the woman that remains open to that evolution and pivots when wanted or needed, to allow herself continued growth. What do you think the book conveys about your evolution personally and professionally?
ML: At the start of this collaboration we presented each other with bins and bins of letters and envelopes and scraps of random paper, which we have each moved around to all the places we have lived for the last 2 decades. Then we sat and read each other the letters. It was mortifying. I crawled inside my shirt. I sounded so young and naive, so newly in LA and so newly gay. But, pushing through it, there is something brave and empowering about returning to the headspace of our 19-year-old selves who were becoming artists and wrapping our arms around love for the first time. This project represents the beginning of it all for me. It is interesting now, as a 41 year old, I have been married and separated, my 4 year old son is the center of my universe and I have a full time job that is not about art-making. In rare moments I have to just be still, I am once again taking a good look in the mirror and saying OK...who am I now as an artist, as a queer woman, as a mother and as a future partner.
JR: I think the book conveys how much our professional work has changed since we made these images, both of our work looks very different now. But it also shows where our work came from and you can trace themes in our later work back to these images - themes of identity and place. I hope the book touches on our personal evolution as friends who were once lovers, who have stayed connected through it all - sometimes living in different places but still staying connected creatively and emotionally. A romantic relationship evolving into an amazing friendship that lasts a lifetime - for years we have been picturing ourselves as old ladies sitting on a porch together… I look forward to that day and to all of the memories that we have yet to share.
Looking back at yourselves during this time and the relationship you have maintained for the past 20 + years, what about your relationship are you most proud of? And what do you love or admire most about each other?
ML: Let me count the ways!! I love Jenny so much it is just beyond. I love Jenny’s relentless image making. She is a serious artist and she sticks with it and stays true to herself and her voice through it all. She is a fierce friend - loyal, honest, maternal and intimate. She has at times felt like a cross between a sister and a wife...our friendship and love runs deep. I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve remained true and close through countless moves, countless breakups all the career ups and downs. This project and the sudden parallels in our personal lives created a renewed closeness that I will always be grateful for.
JR: I am most proud of our trust and open communication with each other through all of these years. That was a huge realization for me while going back through all of our letters - how honest I have always been with Molly and how important that is for me. How I don’t think there has been another relationship for me where I have been as honest and trusting and therefore as open to sharing my whole self. I love how strong Molly is and how she has pushed me creatively to engage with my vulnerability. I admire her intelligence and humor and wit. She is a constant inspiration to me and a huge support for me - she feels like home to me always, like family.
How do you hope readers will feel after viewing this relationship journey?
ML: I hope that readers feel motivated to share or archive their own stories.
JR: I hope that seeing someone else’s journey will help them reflect back on their own.
What can we do to help bring this book to the masses?
ML: Help us spread the word!! Help us break out of our own social media bubble and tell your friends.
JR:Our book has reached its goal! It's not too late to have your name included in the publication—everyone who pre-purchases by June 16 will be listed in the book.