Long Beach, CA based artist Rebecca Sittler transforms and elevates the humble donut to an object worthy of contemplation and examination. For her piece Donuts of Long Beach, featured in LAL’s current show FEAST, Sittler visited every known, independently owned donut shop in Long Beach, CA with “donut” in the title. A plain glazed donut was purchased with a specialty donut and both were documented by placing the objects and receipts on a flatbed scanner in a darkened room. Attached to the wall with map pins, the photographs suggest something more than a delicacy. Despite their ability to make the viewer desirous, the donuts manage to also elicit a reaction beyond visceral hunger. The “gem-like” confections make viewers consider the ways in which we explore, discover, and map our worlds through food. Sittler is both photographer and collector and each donut specimen gathered narrates a journey led through the exchanging of goods.
To find out more about Donuts of Long Beach we contacted Sittler and interviewed her.
Lexington Art League (LAL): What is your background as an artist? What choices or influences in your life have led you to pursue this career? Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
Rebecca Sittler: No not at all, I didn’t know. The first time I was exposed to photography was in high school. My art teacher brought in a photographer to do this workshop with us- I just really loved it. I thought “Oh this is great – I’ll probably keep doing this.” It was the first time I really found something that I wanted to do with art. I always had liked art but I never thought it was a realistic option for me. But I went to college for actuarial science- I was very good at calculus – I liked the idea of doing something with math. I had to take some electives in art and English but I wasn’t focused on it.
I actually made my dorm room into a dark room- My dad found an enlarger for me and all the stuff I needed. I guess I wasn’t thinking about all those chemicals in my room! Still it was not something I was considering for a career yet. After a full year of being in college I decided I needed to take a step back from the actuarial science degree. I instead went to University of Nebraska, Lincoln and I took some art and English classes over the summer where I really fell in love with photography so I became an art and English major. I was lucky to have some really great professors that talked about how images can function in the world and how they could be analytic and poetic at the same time. I love being in the dark room. I love talking about pictures.
LAL: How did you go about researching/ finding these donut shops? Did you make a list/schedule and decide which to go to?
RS: Well I moved to Long Beach with my husband from Orlando where I taught at the University of Central Florida. I had only been to California one other time when I interviewed for the job so I was really unfamiliar with Long Beach. I sort of used the donuts as a way to map out my new surroundings. It was like an intro to Long Beach. I went to practically every neighborhood seeking out these donut shops. It was a strange way of mapping my new home, learning about it, and being open to it. I found it humorous how there was this huge Dunkin Donuts “following” at Mass Art where I got my M.F.A. and in Orlando too. It struck me as unusual that these independent donut shops were really iconic in southern California. I was so interested in these independently owned shops. My dad had been a small business owner maybe that is part of the reason why I liked them. The work I was making at the time I moved to Long Beach was centered on American fast food culture so I thought the donuts could be an interesting extension of that.
I also have this idea where I like to get out of the house when I’m photographing –I like to be adventurous and just be out in the world. I would map them all out usually and make a list. In my head I would try to kind of catalog these donut shops. So I would hit an area of town and hit like 6 or so at a time. I would try to get 5 or 6 donuts and then I would take them back to the scanner. I documented about a year maybe – my first year in long beach. Since I work I would just take a week and conquer one side of Long Beach – I would try to do it in my free time. The dates aren’t necessarily important and I wasn’t being too methodical.
LAL: The way you approach documenting the donuts is somewhat scientific which is kind of counter-intuitive to the way people approach donut eating (nobody seems to think critically about their donut!). Why did you choose to present them so methodically?
RS: I think that the donut is so much more interesting when it is looked at as an object and when it is separated from just being something delicious to eat. Food takes on a personality. A lot of people would look at a photo of a donut and say something like “that makes me hungry” but I want it to go beyond that. With the donuts I was thinking: What is the function of this thing I’m photographing? How can something represent itself but also be an idea? What are the relationships between objects that make you feel an emotion other than hunger? I like making things “non-edible.” I’m thinking about them like characters in a drama or sculptural objects. We have this desire to consume donuts and Americans understand them – I wanted to reconcile that with this idea of mapping – by showing where they came from it becomes more than a donut- it’s represents community, a place, a sensibility, a relationship. The receipts are also like little traces of the places I explored. I didn’t want the donuts to be just eye candy. I wanted to introduce something more analytical – I was like a scientist writing in new location and taking samples, however it’s not just a record of donuts I ate. Usually by the time I got a few the whole car was smelling like sugar – I wouldn’t always eat them especially after I messed around with them on the scanner!
LAL: Anything interesting you learned through your research and exploration?
RS: It was interesting for me to see that some of these independent shops were taking a similar approach to the corporate business model. I wanted to know: What does it mean to be an independent shop in an age where people like familiarity in their food? I was curious how this competition of large donut corporations affected these shops.
Something else interesting was that, as it turns out, the majority of the donut shops in Long Beach were started by Cambodian families. All these refugees came to Southern California to escape their government and genocide in the country. Other family members would learn the trade and it would spread through the community and new generations would learn the trade and pass it down. I could sense that there was a community between these shops- they were sharing ideas and business models. I thought about how surreal it must be to come to California after enduring a terrible war- I found that fascinating – Sometimes the research takes you somewhere unexpected.
LAL: Your style is fairly minimal in content and the focus seems to really be on specific objects. What has drawn you to object photography?
RS: I’m kind of an analytical person. I’ve always used objects to think about things that are not objects. I can give personality to the objects – I use them to work out human relationships – I’ve photographed people but I’ve found that I like spending time with the objects more. They can take on a set of projections. I can change them. I can’t take over when I’m taking a picture of a person. With a picture of a person, it was more about them rather than me bringing something to the photograph. With objects it was always more my voice. The distance helps me feel like I’m participating more in making the picture.
LAL: Why use a flatbed scanner and not just your camera?
RS: I just like the way it looks. It lights the object on all sides and gives it a glow. I actually really wrecked the scanner with the donuts, I sometimes like to do things that seem counter intuitive. It also made them seem more like objects you can touch; these little gem-like things. They reminded me of photo grams from the darkroom and I liked that too.
LAL: The show at LAL is titled Feast: Pleasure+ Hunger + Ritual. Which category (pleasure, hunger, or ritual) would you put your piece under and why?
RS: Probably between pleasure and ritual – I was trying to get myself out of my comfort zone- It was an excuse to go somewhere and see things and I had a specific goal. I had to talk to people and explore places I haven’t seen so in a way this was a ritual for me. But there was also pleasure of being out in the world and having a goal that brought me there and seeing these places and individuals. I was operating on a “collector” mentality.
LAL: What advice would you give to new artists/photographers?
RS: The idea of never forgetting to follow your curiosity has been very important to me. If you give it time, if you are dedicated, your photography changes as you grow- It can give you access to things that are really incredible and it can teach you about yourself and the world continuously. I’ve found that the medium of photography always rewards curiosity.
See more of Sittler’s work on her website: http://www.rebeccasittler.com/