“I built a darkroom when I could have fixed up a kitchen.”
“I built a darkroom when I could have fixed up a kitchen,” Joanne Leonard has said, reflecting on her career as a photographer. “Men are expected to dedicate themselves to vocations and avocations, but even as a young woman, I had to take myself seriously as an artist in order to allow myself the time, money, and space for my art.” Leonard’s work often centers on painful moments in her life: the end of her marriage, a devastating miscarriage, her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Using photography and collage, she highlights the intersections between the public and private spheres and dissolves their boundaries by giving her personal history a public form. She describes her process as “intimate documentary,” explaining that her work aims to capture “the intimate realities of life as they are lived and allow them to touch and be touched by the world at large.”
Leonard was born in Los Angeles in 1940; her first interaction with the camera was in front of it, when as an infant she and her twin sister shared a role in the film The Lady Is Willing, starring Marlene Dietrich. On set Dietrich fell and broke her ankle while holding one of the sisters. The experience left them “too traumatized and tearful on the set after that to continue [their] screen life,” but Leonard’s interest slowly continued. She purchased her first camera, a Kodak Brownie, at around age seven, paying only a dollar and a cereal box top for it. It wasn’t until her move to West Oakland in 1963 that she began to take the medium seriously. The city was a hub for political activity and activism; as she began to socialize with other artists, she was inspired to pick up her camera “with conviction.”
Many of Leonard's photographs from the 1970s center on technology in the home, notably where technological tools offered women more freedom and flexibility in their careers. Often using the homes of West Oakland neighbors as sets, Leonard’s black-and-white interiors reveal spaces that are clean and stark while clearly in daily use. Close inspection of these mundane suburban scenes reveals unobtrusive absurdities and a sly sense of humor: the children’s toy “lady” coffee maker, multiple televisions crowding an empty room, two electric can openers redundantly resting side by side. In the rare moments where a person appears in her photographs, they are not engaged with the camera; instead they turn away, with their backs facing the viewer. Photographs from this series were originally intended for the exhibition Human Arts and Technology, which included the work of fellow photographers Bill Owens, Chauncey Hare, and Don Thompson and explored the impact of technology on everyday life, but after funding was cut, the final project was never realized.
Although they may be photographs of strangers’ homes, for some, these images will appear extraordinarily familiar. The artist has chosen scenes that invite viewers to consider how technology has generated peculiar habits in their own lives, allowing them to look both outward and inward simultaneously. As Leonard explains, “through my work as an artist, I’ve discovered that the realms of the personal and the public are rarely as separate as I once imagined.”
Tasha Lutek, Collection Specialist, Department of Photography, 2022