Jessica Yatrofsky on Creativity, Poetry, Sexuality and Feminism

By Jelena Martinovic on June 13, 2018

Jessica Yatrofsky is a creative who lets her ideas dictate the medium. Whether working on photography, film or (more recently) writing, her work is direct, raw and provocative. A truly multifaceted artist, she explores themes of body politics, beauty and gender in a compelling, thought-provoking way. Jessica is most known for her monographs I <3 Boy and I <3 Girl, photography books that undermine traditional representations of masculinity and femininity. She has also contributed to a number of publications, worked in film and created a campaign for Jean-Paul Gaultier.

As of late, Jessica has undertaken a more intimate venture: bringing her signature artistic perspective to a new medium. Losing herself to the written word, the artist created 200 poems in a 72-hour-long flash of creativity. Wrapped up in a provocative anthology called Pink Privacy, these poems address similar themes that have informed her previous body of work, like gender, the human form, sexuality and feminism. Drawing from high-minded art school theory to schoolyard taunts, the artist has forged a language that is simultaneously comedic, sad and ferociously sensual. Coming from a deeply personal place, these poems read like a diary of some sorts.

PRØHBTD chatted with Jessica to find out more about her latest book and her practice in general. She talks about letting concepts dictate the medium, the creative process that strikes like lightning, current conversations around sexuality and gender politics, the necessity for creating platforms that support creativity and equality, and much more.

Your art practice spans a range of visual mediums, such as drawing, painting, photography, performance, film and more recently, poetry. I have to start by asking, how do you articulate these different forms of expression and how do they all come together?

I let my ideas dictate the medium I choose to work in. I studied painting from an early age, so I feel like that set the foundation to understand light and color. I also studied piano, and I feel that also shaped the way I respond to the world in terms of exploring the different modes of expression. My father is an orthodontist, but he was an avid piano player and guitar player—very artistic and very multifaceted. I think, growing up in that environment, I recognized crossovers and similarities in the various art genres more than I noticed the differences. I was always encouraged to explore them all. And I am a huge fan of artists who dabble in all the creative arts. We are called “creatives” for a reason. I say, “Don’t stay in your own lane but be on your own path.”

Your latest book Pink Privacy is your first venture into poetry. How did this come about?

I've always loved poetry and storytelling—that is [what] a lot of my photography and films do. I recently came across a treasure trove of poetry journals from childhood and little zines my work was published in [throughout] high school and college. I guess I had just completely [fallen] off of it once I was in graduate school because all the writing became so academic. I've always enjoyed creative writing and poetry as a young girl and now revisiting it as a woman in my 30s felt… cathartic and exciting all at the same time.

A few years ago, I was traveling and touring with a talk called “Gender Beauty & the Camera” while exhibiting my photography work, and I was feeling intensely inspired to write. I was traveling with my best friend at the time, neon artist Dana Caputo, who was moderating the GB&C talk. It was a whirlwind, and I was going through a lot of personal shit at the time.

Words just started coming to me, the titles, the phrases, etc., and I did my best to capture everything in real time. It became a creative avalanche, and I couldn’t stop. I was writing quite literally non-stop. I keep describing it as being divinely guided because still to this day I don’t know where it all came from. I would write the quips in my iPhone notes, on napkins or speak them into voice memos, sometimes even straight up tweeting them. I would read and text them to friends, and we’d both laugh our heads off, and it got me thinking other people might enjoy these “poems.”

Written in 72 hours in a flash of creativity, the poems read as a stream of consciousness. Could you tell us something about this creative process?

For me, the creative process is more of a zone or a mode, and it strikes like a lightning bolt—you can either decide to answer the call or not. And I was so driven by the inspiration that it became a source of release. After having held back so much in my life, I wanted to keep diving deeper and deeper to see where it could take me.

To be fair, although I talk about the first 200 or so poems coming as an initial burst in 72 hours, in reality I kept writing for weeks and months after, and now the words still visit me periodically.  

The title itself, Pink Privacy, is ambiguous. Could you tell us more about this?

Pink Privacy is a state of mind for me, it occupies a feminine space as the color pink sort of implies. It’s also a physical space—it’s what I call my closet—it’s a private space that no one ever enters but me, and the book is referencing that as a concept. What would it be like to walk into my private thoughts? It also refers to a vagina, which is private and pinkish inside.

The book tackles subjects that you have already explored in your previous work, such as gender, body, sexuality and feminism, but it is also a self-portrait of sorts. How challenging was to expose yourself in this way?

I think people that don’t know me personally were surprised at the comedic element of the book. I feel that my photography and film work is taken very seriously, but my friends and family know me to be very snarky and silly in person, and the book taps into that side of me in a very real way. It felt more natural to share this side of myself through poetry than, say, a photograph. And I didn’t plan for this, it just sort of happened that way. I guess Pink Privacy is a self-portrait in that respect because all the poems are about my experiences and my experiences alone.

Currently featured in the Museum of Sex exhibition NSFW: Female Gaze, your video work “Photography is a History of Masturbation” examines the concepts of art and beauty and the relation between the two. What was the motivation behind this work?  

For many fans of my film, the work “Photography is a History of Masturbation” is this piece that stands out, and I think that’s because it resonates. The piece presents a series of questions examining what beauty and art is/are, and who gets to decide. I made that film while I was still in graduate school, and I still don’t have the answers. I think that’s the point! I talk about these concepts in the talks and panel discussions I’ve participated in, one most recently hosted in Berlin.

Your photography books I <3 Boy and I <3 Girl address gender representation in a direct and compelling manner. How do you think your work contributes to the growing conversation around sexuality and gender politics?

I think we are living in a time of gender fluidity. Pronouns are a huge deal, and individuality above all is being celebrated. I like to think I contributed to that dialogue with those two projects, in that I included people in both series as suggestions and studies of the form, presenting their bodies as sculptural representations of “girl” and “boy” via their anatomy. I see them as aestheticized but also formal studies of the human form that celebrate the body.

As I continue to shoot subjects, I have become more interested in exploring gender fluidity, gender transitioning and also what transitioning within your gender looks like. I have many curiosities and questions, but I feel communicating those inquiries via photography is such a gentle and elegant way to go about it. I am excited about how this medium alone has approached discussions surrounding sexuality and gender politics, and I hope to continue to be part of that dialogue with my work.

How challenging was it to forge your own voice through art in this male-dominated culture?

I’ve never known anything different. To me it seems difficult, but it doesn’t seem as difficult as other marginalized groups of women I see struggling. I am aware of my privileges, but I am also very aware of how my own limiting belief systems can frame reaching my goals, whatever they may be. I feel that it is important to keep my vibration high and surround myself with like-minded artists who value inclusivity and community—these groups don’t include “boys clubs” that women are sort of taught by society we need to try to become part of in order to climb some fictional success ladder. What an outdated concept! We live in a modern time, and I believe we have the ability to create our own platforms, ones that support creativity and equality.

Women are becoming more vocal about challenges they face in the social and cultural landscape of today. What’s your take on this shift? How do you think art can contribute to today’s social and political battles?

We haven’t even scratched the surface of the challenges we are facing today, but I do think the current political climate is benefiting women. It’s sort of “clothes-lining” a lot of men and allowing women to rise up into places once occupied by men. If this is how this has to happen, so be it.

I think women have been pretty vocal over the years: The issue here is not being heard and taken seriously. It’s the cultural norm to shut down women, and women have been conditioned to feel that our opinions aren’t of value—this is shifting because society is demanding change. God bless the internet.

Could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?

I just released a single, I’m calling it “performance art” because I’m no singer! It’s a song based on one of my poems called "CUNT KEEPER." I performed it during Miami Art Basel last year, and it was a lot of fun recording and shooting the video. I collaborated with VR artist Lauren Moffatt where she used images from my photographic work to create these elaborate 3D collages. 

I am currently working on my third photography monograph, and I have two forthcoming poetry books as well with dates to be announced. I am still traveling and performing work from Pink Privacy with my collective NEW YORK FEM FACTORY, and we are set to launch a podcast under the same name this fall!

Pink Privacy is available here and listen to "CUNT KEEPER" on Spotify here.

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