Cynthia Henebry has no clue what she is doing, but that’s exactly how she likes it.
In fact, Henebry teaches her photography students at Virginia Commonwealth University that not knowing what you are doing is exactly what you should be doing.
“Once we understand why we’re making a particular piece of art then there is no reason to make it anymore,” said Henebry. “We are making the art because we don’t understand.”
Henebry is a film photographer living here in Richmond. While a lifelong photographer, mostly taking photos of her friends and more recently her kids, she had’t pursued it professionally until the last few years.
In a recent series of works for which the artist won a VMFA fellowship grant, Henebry examines a pair of trees in her mother’s family home that are conjoined at the roots but are two separate trees.
Titled “The Marriage Oaks,” Henebry uses 19 images to explore people’s experiences of duality and unity, within ourselves as well as with other people, and how that shapes who we are.
The children in Henebry’s work are photographed in way some people may not be familiar with; they are often not smiling, with blank expressions as if they are daydreaming.
“When we see children, including when we take pictures of them, we have an invested interest in seeing them in a particular way,” Henebry said, “For whatever reason, I’m sure because of my own childhood, I have always been interested in really looking beneath the surface.”
One of her featured photographs, “Mavis in the Backseat,” (top image) stands out among the series. It features a young girl, Mavis, sitting in the backwards-facing seat of an old family station wagon. The expression of Mavis’ face seems confused, like she’s thinking about something but can’t quite put her finger on the answer.
Henebry can’t explain why she decided to take the photo, or any of her photos, she said it’s something she doesn’t understand herself. There’s something between the connection with her and the subject that makes her feel like the time is the right to press the button, open shutter and capture the moment.
Henebry has an eye for patiently searching for the right moment that needs to be acknowledged by the viewer, the subject and herself.
Henebry says that she gives very little direction to the children in her work. She never asks them not to smile or to pose in a particular way. She just waits until the moment arrives in which the subject is comfortable enough to show a side of themselves that others often do not see.
“They’re not sad children, they are really just like everybody else, “ said Henebry. “Just resilient little beings who are going through life which entitles so much joy and beauty and a fair share of hardship.”
Henebry, a Richmond native, said photography was always a predominant part of her life growing up. Her mother had a passion for the craft, and she remembers photo books laying around coffee and kitchen tables as typical part of a normal household.
But she got her first real introduction at the age of 10 when she was given a simple Kodak camera point-and-shoot before going on a family trip to China. Henebry said it was this trip which helped opened her eyes to what a camera can do for her in terms of understanding the world around her.
After attending Bates College, she pursued a career in acupuncture and herbology. Even though photography was not her career goal she was still creating work and showing pictures in different galleries.
Eventually, art started taking a major role in her life. She decided to go back to school and attended a graduate program at VCU where she graduated in 2014 with a Master of Fine Art in Photography and Film.
Earlier this year, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recognized Cynthia Henebry for her work in photography by including her on the list of artists for the 2016 VMFA Fellowship Grants. Henebry was honored at the professional level with $8,000 to help her pursue more photo work.
In addition to the VMFA, Henebrys work has been featured at the National Portrait Gallery, Page Bond Gallery, and many other exhibits in Richmond and around the world.
To see more of Henebrys work you can visit her website here.