Mossless in America: Missy Prince

Portland photographer Missy Prince on deserts, darkrooms, and goats on leashes.

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Jul 29 2014, 3:22pm

Mossless in America is a column featuring interviews with documentary photographers. The series is produced in partnership with Mossless magazine, an experimental photography publication run by Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh. Romke started Mossless in 2009, as a blog in which he interviewed a different photographer every two days; since 2012 the magazine has produced two print issues, each dealing with a different type of photography. Mossless was featured prominently in the landmark 2012 exhibition Millennium Magazine at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it is supported by Printed Matter, Inc. Its third issue, a major photographic volume on American documentary photography from the last ten years, titled The United States (2003–2013), was published in June 2014.

Born in 1971 in Gulfport, Mississippi, photographer Missy Prince now lives in Portland, Oregon, though her photographs take place all over the States. At a glance, Missy Prince's photographs are the images from the quintessential American road trip we wish we'd taken. It's the kind of road trip on which you choose a new route everyday, talk to locals to find favored diners, and sleep in your car. Yet when studied more closely and looked at individually, Prince's photographs tell the story of once prosperous towns crumbling and the lives of the last hangers-on. We talked to Missy about deserts, darkrooms, and goats on leashes. 

Mossless: Where are you from? 

Missy Prince: I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but I've lived in Portland, Oregon most of my adult life.

What initially attracted you to photography? When did you get started? 

Initially it was just another thing to try, like playing guitar, painting, or writing. I messed around with it as a kid but didn't really get rolling until about 2003, when I started carrying an Olympus XA with me everywhere I went.

I’ve been looking at your blog, Sea of Empties. You’re based in Portland, Oregon, yet a lot of the images you’ve been posting as of late take place in the American Southwest. The images are quite arresting. They really give me an intimate sense of the place, especially those taken in Miami, Arizona. What is your connection to that place? 

I'd never heard of it until a few months ago, when I went to the Phoenix area to do some photographic poking around. I found it by chance and was immediately taken with it. I usually try to cover as much ground as possible when I visit an area, but I was so into Miami I drove there three more times instead of trying to find a bunch of different places. There are some great stories there.

Can you tell us a memorable story from Miami, Arizona?

On a crumbling hillside road I met a woman walking a goat on a leash. She told me that she had rescued the goat, named Princess, from an abusive home where she had been fed potato chips and candy. Princess had also been attacked repeatedly by a gang of dachshunds. She said when she first brought Princess home she was depressed and unresponsive, but with some nurturing she came out of her shell. Now Princess sits on the couch and watches TV with her. They live in a small house on a cliff across from a copper mine and acid plant that lights up the night "like New York City." Unfortunately I didn't get a good photo of them, but it was a memorable encounter.

Is there a certain topic or landscape you’ve been itching to explore photographically? 

I'd really like to explore more desert landscapes, get familiar with all four deserts in the US: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan.

It makes perfect sense for you to go after American deserts. A lot of scenes in your photographs are quiet, desolate at times. Why is that?

I'm not sure, but here's a theory: I am a fairly quiet person. Perhaps I seek out such scenes to match my surroundings with my inner state, to find some kind of stillness. When I go out to look for photos I'm also looking for mental space. Somehow I end up in places that serve that purpose.

In your interview with Blake Andrews, you talk about this necessity of a physical and tangible object (as in prints) in photography to establish a connection between the photograph and the viewer. I completely agree with this sentiment, which is why I think photography books are so important, especially now. How do you come to terms with this feeling during a time when about 90 percent of the contemporary photo community operates almost entirely on screen?

I think the physical form is more powerful but what the screen lacks in tangibility it makes up for in accessibility, which is probably the reason for the large online community. Though it would be great if everyone who sees an image online could see it in print, I don't feel much of a conflict between the two. They fulfill different functions and can complement each other very well. The growing photobook world, particularly small press, has benefited from the reach of the internet. Mossless is living proof of that. Photobooks and prints are slower deliverers by nature. Ideally good work would have a life both online and in print, but it's hard to imagine any one person physically accessing the same volume of images they could view on screen. 

What do your days look like? What are you up to today?

Right now my days are filled with the demands of about eight different gardens. Designing, planting, pruning, mulching, etc. Today my only plan is to get a massage, then wander around in a daze.

Missy Prince is a Portland-based photographer and wanderer. 

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