Interview with Rachel Elizabeth Seed

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CK: What I find most compelling about your film is how multi-layered it is. There’s this layer of you retracing your mother’s footsteps through these interviews you’ve been doing, with some of the same photographers that she interviewed in the 1970s. There’s the layer of your own personal journey to reclaim her memory, and in that process, reclaiming a part of yourself.  There’s a layer of photography as a means and a way that all of this connects, and its historical significance as an archival medium — which is what started you on this path to begin with, when you discovered these tapes that your mother left behind.

So my question is: How has making this film impacted your life creatively, professionally, or personally?

RS: First of all, I’m really impressed that you separated out those layers so eloquently. Often times it is helpful when other people who are intelligent and creative reflect back to you what you’re actually doing. So, how has it affected my life and work?

CK: Yes, at any level, creatively, professionally, or personally?

RS: Yeah, well it’s been really huge, and maybe this is true of a lot of people working on feature documentaries, but particularly when the documentaries are about your own life. I think there’s no separation between the work you’re making and your own
life, which is a really strange and kind of immersive experience for better or worse. It means you can’t really can’t escape from your work, but it also means that maybe you’re working through something in your work, so the hope is that there’s this gradual or cathartic payoff, for all the emotional labor that you do when you’re making a personal story that you’re laying out for the world to see.  I was compelled to make this. It was like there wasn’t really a choice.

RS: In the process of getting this project off the ground, I gave up a lot of other things in my life. I was living in Indiana with my then long-term boyfriend, and I was also in the middle of an MFA program in photography, and in the process of accepting a job at the International Center of Photography (ICP), and you know, at first it was just me volunteering in their archives and uncovering my mother’s work and that was the initial intent for me and I wanted to rerelease and digitize her work and bring into, I think it was 2010 at the time. But then I was offered a full-time job and I had this moment, like you’re teetering on the edge of this big decision. It was like, do I accept this job and possibly give up everything else or do I keep my life the status quo of how it’s been and complete my MFA. And maintain my relationships, you know, in my comfortable life?

I ended up deciding to move to New York and take this job at ICP. At the time I didn’t know that that was going to lead to this feature film. I just knew that I needed to do something with my mother’s work. Looking back on it now, I realize how huge that decision was in the timeline of my life trajectory. And so creatively I was really a full-time photographer at the time that I started the project. So creatively the project lead me to be a filmmaker, which was a new career path for me, but one that seemed to make a lot of sense. Personally, I’ve learned so much about my mother throughout the process of making this film and that’s been a huge gift on one hand because I didn’t have this knowledge of her before.

RS: I’ve uncovered thousands of photographs of her and by her. I’ve interviewed at least two or three dozen people about her, people that were really close to her — from ex-boyfriends to journalistic subjects that she had interviewed, to my own father, to her siblings, etc. Pretty much anybody in her life that was important, I’ve managed to interview. So never having known her and having no memories of her, that’s been a huge gap that’s been filled in for me and my own consciousness of her, which I would say… I’m sure it’s hard to imagine for anyone who grew up with a mother present what it would be like to not have any conscious memories of your parent. But I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with conscious memories of my mother. So it’s just the experience that I needed to have, the process of putting it together to know who she was. And so that’s probably been the biggest gift, is that I know what her voice sounds like now.  I know what she looks like when she’s moving. I didn’t know those
things before I started this project.

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     Shelia Turner-Seed holding daughter Rachel Elizabeth Seed (photo courtesy of the artist)

CK: I have a question for you about the scene in the trailer, where you have headphones on and you’re hearing your mother’s voice for the first. What was that like?

RS: The moment where I’m hearing my mother’s voice for the first time since I was a baby. That’s really the moment when I decided that I needed to make a film. I was actually nervous about listening to her audio because, it’s this huge deal, like you’re meeting your parents for the first time in a way. And I didn’t know if it would be spooky, or if it would like affect me in some possibly negative way. But what was surprising when I listened to her voice, it was kind of familiar and it was comforting, and I think that was a really profound moment for me because it was like, wow.

RS: It was just a very beautiful moment for me personally. And on top of that, I was listening to her interview these famous photographers. I was sitting in the former office of Cornell Capa when I listened to them. He was the founder of the ICP and was very close with my mother, and the two of them collaborated on making films – and one of the photographers that is one of the archival backbones of my film. So I’m sitting in his office. He had died a few years earlier, but his office was basically intact. Nobody at ICP and yet dismantled his office, which was interesting.

RS: I was using a 1970s audio reel-to-reel player. And I’m listening to my mother talking to Cornell Capa while I’m in his office. I had this amazing feeling like I was just sitting in the room with them hanging out because the audio from the1970s, when you listen to these reels, it’s so rich. It’s like you’re right there in the room and it’s not tinny……  I needed to translate this incredible experience into a film or into something I can share with people because it just felt really special to me.

CK: How many photographers did your mother, (Shelia Seed) interview?

RS: I don’t know definitively because I have a feeling that there are more than I know about, but generally I would say it’s about 15.

CK: And of those photographers, how many were you able to track down and interview yourself?

RS: Unfortunately a lot of them had already died, but I was able to interview all the ones that were still living

CK: And who were they?

RS: Bruce Davidson, Don McCullin (a British photographer), and William Albert Allard, he’s one of the longest standing national geographic photographers. And I interviewed Martine Franck, when you were present.

CK: I’ll never forget that.

RS: Yeah, that was pretty special.

CK: It was really special.

RS: My mother interviewed her late husband Henri Cartier Bresson, in the same apartment where I interviewed Martine. And so to me it was almost like OK, there’s still continuity here.

CK: I remember that day vividly – being in her apartment, that is across the street from the Louvre, that overlooks the gardens. I mean, you couldn’t get more Parisian than that!

RS: It was incredible. Especially considering that she was actually very sick at the time, and she died just a few months later, or less than a year later. And so the timing of that, and it was also the first interview I did for the entire film.

CK: Yes, I remember. And we just happened to be in Paris coincidentally at the same time.

RS: I remember wishing for like another week because it was like, the weather was just ridiculously beautiful, but if you’re going to fall in love with Paris it was amazing.

CK: Yeah. (referring to Martine Franck) It was like, you know, French royalty, like artistic French royalty.

RS: From a production standpoint, that was a real feat to pull off. I learned lessons from that shoot because I had to hire people whom I had no personal references to, hired off of international websites. And then had to figure out how to pay them. It was just a bit of a nightmare.

RS: I’m looking at the shot where it was like, why is this stupid fence in the background? She’s living in this beautiful house, we could have had a better shot.

CK: Things like that do happen when you’re trying something new. Especially if it’s your first time film, or any kind of production scenario. There’s unexpected surprises that come up, and you learn from them. And actually that was one of my questions. I was going to ask later, but as a first time filmmaker, and going through this process – it’s been, several years you’ve been steadily putting this film together, and researching and compiling material. What are some of the surprises that you didn’t anticipate, which you’ve learned from along the way?

RS: Well. I’m still learning. But one thing that goes into making a feature length film, and some people can be a lot quicker about it than I had been. But, I think the fact that it’s probably about eighty five percent fundraising.

CK: Yeah.

RS: Which is a frustrating element of it. Although when you actually get some success with it, it’s like this miracle from God or something. (Laughter)

CK: I’ve just been so impressed with your tenacity because it really is..it’s like the long haul to get a feature film made, independently.

RS: It really is. I secretly have this underlying fear of not finishing things in my life. And so I had this really anxiety and urgency about finishing this film, because there’s this little voice in the back of my head that’s like, you never finish anything or what if you don’t finish this.. And at this point, I’ve got Kickstarter and a few people have given sizeable donations. There’s a sense of responsibility. It’s just, it’s way beyond myself at this point. And that’s actually a good thing because it actually is this pressure to get it done and have it be amazing. So that’s cool. But as far as what I’ve learned, I think one thing is how to build a team and how to follow your instincts about who you work with, and also just about partnerships with the film.

RS: Because the film involves very high profile photographers, a lot of people reach out to me, and they want to be involved in some way. They want to somehow be attached to the project or they want us to do something. But when the reality hits of actually doing whatever it is, sometimes they don’t actually want to do it. So I’ve learned to really just be kind of cautious, but also to follow my instincts. And I ended up at this point with really a wonderful producer, who every day I’m just grateful for. And part of it is that, I didn’t have that before she came onboard. And so I’m especially appreciative and understanding of that kind of commitment, and how amazing it is to find that person.

CK: Who is your Producer?

RS: Her name is Danielle Varga, and she worked on the film “Cameraperson”, which came out last year and premiered at Sundance. It was shortlisted for an Academy Award. And she’s just worked on great projects which are really in the vein of what
this film is. What I find is that the American market, people want either stuff that blows up or Hollywood blockbusters. Or they want documentaries – that have some big social issue, it’s like this dark and depressing world problem that’s happening, and they don’t really…. The funders aren’t necessarily looking for a nuanced personal artistic story. So, Danielle really is into that nuanced artistic personal story, and she understands and gets the importance of that. So that’s why we’re on the same page.

CK: I think nuanced artistic personal stories are very important because it’s how we are able to identify with each other and empathize. I hope that people are still making those kinds of films!

RS: We are, but it’s hard to raise capital for that kind of stuff.

CK: It’s the logistics of it. Yes, I understand.

RS: Yeah. It’s like the desire to make those stories is there, and personally those are the stories that I want to see, more than like…. I read the news every day and I’m disheartened by state of the world. I don’t necessarily always want to watch a movie about that stuff because I feel like it just enters my consciousness at a much deeper level. I would rather watch something beautiful, maybe uplifting, maybe sad, but that’s the kind of film I want to watch.

CK: We’re saturated, we’re over-saturated.

RS: Exactly, yes. And just to paraphrase… There’s a good article by Michael Moore where he talks about 10 things you should do if your a documentary filmmaker. I don’t know the exact title, but he emphasizes that a documentary is still a film. It still has to entertain people and keep them engaged. It still has to have great characters, and I’m totally aligned with that point, that’s the kind of film that I want to watch. It’s just a good movie. It should be a good movie. It should be cinematic.

CK: In your film. Like I said earlier, it’s so rich in its layers. The fact that it is a personal story, it’s a personal journey that you’re uncovering this mystery, and that you’re relating it to this history as well….is really compelling. I’m so excited to see it when it’s finished. I also noticed how much of your mother is in you, your expression, and your smile and even the way you speak. Is that something that you immediately recognized when you started to unearth all of these tapes and started listening to her voice, and seeing film footage of her?

RS: You know it’s really interesting, I think other people are so struck by that. I think, I don’t know if I just take it for granted, or if it feels like this cheap, like consolation, or I don’t know, it’s like I would rather just have her in my life, as opposed to just be like her, if that makes any sense. And also, I guess I don’t know why, maybe it’s just because it’s me, I can’t really wrap my head around that. It’s a little too metta for me to get it, to get that. I just take it for what it is.

CK:  Yeah, I can see that, and I can see how people that have more of an objective view, that it would be more impressing upon outsiders, because, in a sense, you have this underlying connection with your mother. Even though you didn’t know her, her dna is in you.

RS: Right, exactly. I am her – who she was – I just can’t really see that from the outside somehow. But I will say, there are a couple of things about that. One of recordings I’ve had of her, she asked a question to my dad and I actually thought it was me. So that was a weird moment where I heard her voice and I was like, wait, I don’t remember saying, oh wait, this isn’t me! So that happened once. And then another thing is there has been some sort of uncanny coincidences, I guess you’d call them. For example, I think it was when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, I was getting into black and white photography, and I took a picture of my I took a picture of my cousin’s daughter who was then about three or four years old, and I took it at – it was my mother’s old piano. And, then a few weeks later I looked at, I was looking through my mother’s contact sheets and I noticed she had taken the exact same picture of my cousin at the same piano, I guess forty years earlier. So there are little moments like that where it’s like, Whoa, there’s some weird otherworldly conversations happening.

CK: Like this spiritual reverberation or echo happening.

CK:  What does your father think about all of this? We should mention your father Brian Seed, who is an accomplished photographer in his own right. What has this been like for him and how have you involved in the process?

RS: My dad has been an ongoing subject in the film. I’ve interviewed him and filmed with him maybe two dozen times…and it’s kind of funny because these days his memory’s not so great. But even before that was the case, he never could really understand what I was doing, like why I kept interviewing him. I had to keep reminding him, or even to this day I’ll say, I’m working on my film and he’ll be like, oh, what’s it about?  (Laughter) I think he understands what it is at this point, but it’s like this abstract concept to him. But he’s been generally very accommodating I would say. And I’ve discovered that he has a theatrical side to him. He actually enjoys acting up for the camera, you know, he’s a funny Englishman and that’s sort of his thing. He likes to make kind of funny comments about everything. So it kind of works in the film, I think. Yeah.

CK: Of all the interviews that you’ve done so far with these photographers, have any of them stood out as being particularly meaningful, or significant, or that something special occurred?

RS: Before I interviewed each one of them. I went back to my mother’s interviews with them. And I think it’s that continuity of hearing them forty years ago, she’s talking to them, and going and talking to them again. That’s been special. But I think particularly Bruce Davidson and Martine Franck were two that were particularly meaningful. Partially because they were in the same physical spaces that she (Shelia Seed) visited them in. So to me, that was really significant. And also because both of them Bruce Davidson and Martine Franck had these emotional memories of her.

And to put it in perspective, with Bruce Davidson, I’m pretty sure she just spent like one afternoon with him in their entire lives, in 1971 or something like that. So, kind of incredible that he has these rich amazing memories of her (Shelia Seed) like forty some odd years later.  And then with Martine Franck, it’s kind of the same thing. It was like one or two afternoons in the seventies. But she remembered how Cartier Bresson grew so much respect for my mother after that interview, and wrote her very sweet letters and gave her all sorts of prints, and told people it was the best interview he ever gave.

I think just how this little brief moment of time, where she crossed paths with
them, made such an impression on them, these well-known photographers who had been through so much. I think that was meaningful to go back and reconnect with them.

CK: Where did you have to travel to do these interviews? Besides going to Paris and interviewing Martine Franck?

RS: Bruce Davidson was conveniently located on the Upper West Side of New York City. Don McCullin, though he lives in England, was actually in Houston, Texas for a photography show. So I went and tracked him down there, and that can be a whole story in its own right because that was not so easy. And then William Albert Allard lives in the hills of Virginia. So I went to his house in Virginia, on a road trip.

CK: Since you’ve been going through making this film, going through this process… What has been some of the greatest advice you’ve received along the way from anyone in any
capacity?

RS: About three weeks ago, I took a one day workshop with Kirsten Johnson, Who is the director of “Cameraperson”. She’s an amazing cinematographer, just worked on a lot of films. And she created a space for women filmmakers to say film takes as long as it takes, don’t be s hard on yourself. Let it be. Let things come to you. Don’t try so hard or don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself. And then she also showed us this incredible, like how her creative process works and it was very kind of freewheeling and open. There was something in that workshop that really clicked for me, and I was able to crystallize some of my own creative ideas. And really excited about them and gave myself permission to embrace them and run with them. I think just being in her presence and hearing about her process was really cathartic for me for one thing. I guess because that’s recent it’s sort of fresh in my mind.

CK: Aren’t you part of a documentary group in New York or like a woman’s filmmakers group?

RS: Yeah, I am a part of the Film Fatales documentary chapter. I also co-founded a group called the Brooklyn Documentary Club, and I have found these to be really essential in my processes as far as having support and having people to ask any sort of question that comes up. Whether it’s technical, creative in terms of law, in terms of just the endless questions that come up when you’re making a feature film. It’s like you’re thrown into this ocean, this choppy ocean of things you need to know and things you don’t really have control over, and your expected to know how to do them. You have to hire lawyers and things, you have to have contracts, you have to negotiate, you have to pay people, you have to manage people….

CK:  It’s a huge endeavor.

RS:  It’s a huge endeavor. You have to write grants. You have to know the technical aspects of directing, and shooting, and shooting it yourself. It goes on and on, all the things you need to know. And so being part of those communities, is like this resource safety net, and also emotional support in the process of making the films.

CK: So going back to earlier, you were mentioning how making this film – because there are these high profile photographers in it, that was attracting, other people that wanted to be a part of it. But when it came down to it, they didn’t want to do the dirty work or, or work that maybe seemed…sometimes there’s grunt work, grunt work is better way to describe it. It’s one of the reasons, in my own practice, I do very independent works, and I think that’s why I gravitated more towards being a media artist or video artist because exactly of that dilemma. To make a film, to make a feature film, you have to rely on other people. It takes a community to make a feature film, and you have to trust that people are going to show up. (Laughter)

RS: Also, that they’re in it for the right reasons. I’ve had to learn about looking at other people’s intentions. If they’re not here because they love the project and they want to see it succeed, and obviously they want something for themselves because that’s human nature. They want money, or they want accolades or they want whatever. I’ve learned about really looking at the nuances of why people are reaching out and also the question of what does a producer actually do?

CK:  Well, it sounds like you connected with the right person for that role. When do you anticipate the film being released?

RS:  It’s always dangerous to say that.. I would say that our current goal is that we’re actually this Monday, as in tomorrow, we’re starting to work full time with an editor. He’s been on the project for a little while, so we’re just going to be full time editing with the hope of it being released in early 2019.

CK: And who is your editor?

RS: His name is Daniel Claridge . He’s a talented young man my producer found. We went through a huge process. I have a list of about three hundred editors. Many of them are what you’d call an A-List editor. I interviewed several of them and went through this whole process and the timing was never quite right or the right person wasn’t available.

And so we just ended up working with this young man who hasn’t…I don’t think he’s finished any features yet, but he’s doing a great job so far. And then we have
Jonathan Oppenheim, is our consulting editor and he’s a very established editor. He’s worked on films like “Paris is Burning” and he’s worked on a few of Laura Poitras’s films. She was the director who won the Oscar for Citezenfour two years ago. So we have a balance of a young person and a more experienced person on the team.

CK: Do you have someone doing your sound design as well?

RS:  Not yet. That will come during the rough cut.

CK: Is there anything else that you want to say about the film or something that we didn’t cover? Something you think is maybe important for listeners to know?

RS: One thing I have learned along the way is, still learning it – but it’s about balance. When I first started making this film, it had taken over all aspects of my life. And in terms of one’s career, I think at a certain point I realized, I needed to be doing other things in addition to the film . My initial approach was, I’m gonna blast through this. I’m going to get it done. I’m not going to do anything else until I finish this thing.

And then I started to get into a kind of a hole of darkness.. because it’s really a test… if you’re working on someone else’s story, but when it’s your own story, it’s like I can’t really escape from it. I’m constantly in a sort of therapy, but it’s not always therapy. You’re kind of living in the past of family history and loss, and I realized for my own mental health and for my own happiness that I needed to be building my career in other  ways, and continuing forward and working with other people and on other projects. Once I started doing that, I gained some of myself back that I’d been losing into the hole of this big family project.

CK: It doesn’t feel like there’s any need to rush. Do you know what I’m saying? As far as,  I mean, obviously there’s an urgency that you feel when you’re making something and you want to complete it, but it does sound like you found the balance of allowing the film to have its own process and timeline, and then finding sanity within that. (Laughter)

RS: I have to say, I do feel like I want this thing to be done, and I have an internal sense of a rush with it. It’s been almost seven years that I’ve worked on this thing. It’s just a lot. As a filmmaker working on a feature project, I kind of feel like, sure the process is great or whatever, but the fun part looks like running around at film festivals and finally showing the damn thing!  (Laughter)

CK: Absolutely!

RS: Just finish this sucker, you know, and then being able to share it with people. So I’m actually really looking forward to that, and to being able be like, OK, what other projects can I work on now? And also when you have hundreds of people giving me money there a sense that I have to constantly explain to people why it’s taing so long.

CK: There’s an expectation, of course.

RS: Yeah. Like 99.9%  percent of the world doesn’t understand how long a documentary could take. Do I want to have to keep explaining that or do I just finish it and move on?

CK: Do you feel like you have gotten some closure, or a sense of integration through doing this film, in terms of this search to reconnect with your mother, and who your mother was?  Where do you feel you are with that at this time?

RS: I feel like there’s the ideal warm fuzzy answer and there’s the reality. The reality is, it just makes me aware of how much I miss her all the time. On one hand it’s a real gift that she left behind all these materials and I can know who she was.. and that I can integrate that into my myself. And so I really appreciate that because I know people who’ve lost a parent who don’t have anything, or maybe they have one story or one photograph. What I have is like an absolute trove of her work, which is like a beautiful thing. On the other hand, I’m aware that I don’t have a mother in the world so that I haven’t really ever. So that’s a painful fact, you know, and it’s not really that easy to come to terms with that.

RS: I look at it like, OK, so what do you do with that information once you have it? And obviously you have to accept it because that’s the way it is. And then maybe you
can give back to other people who are struggling or sharing the story by connecting with other people. I recently found out about an organization that’s called Empower Her and it’s a non-profit that’s for girls who lost their mothers young. That was a revelation to me. And I’m thinking maybe I can get involved with that — go to their retreats and be like a mentor to some of the other girls. So I guess that’s how I see the bigger picture of it. But yeah, it’s not easy, I guess I would say, but you just have to do something. In my case, I want to do something productive and positive with the experience I’ve had, even if it’s emotionally difficult.

CK: And with that, I think that is a good place to close the interview.

CK: Rachel, thank you so much for the conversation! Looking forward to seeing “A Photographic Memory” when it is completed!

RS:  Thank you!

 

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