New Jersey resident Linda Troeller did not set out to become a photographer — or the subject of a film being shown Saturday, June 6, at the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick. Her original intent was to study law at West Virginia University after graduating from high school.
But during her first summer in college she went to New Mexico on a program sponsored by her church and attended seminars, conferences, and a variety of classes. She also participated in drama, only to be struck with strep throat on opening night. That’s when the director gave her a camera to take photos instead and unintentionally introduced her to photography. A week later they were invited to artist Georgia O’Keefe’s house, which was on the property of the church retreat. There Troeller learned about photographer Alfred Stieglitz and decided to spend the summer making pictures. Based on that experience she returned to West Virginia and changed her major to journalism, which was the only course of study that offered photography.
Born in Jersey City and raised in Toms River, Troeller describes her parents as very creative people. Her mother worked at a design firm in New York where she designed hats, and her father, a salesman, was also a poet. Though he was working his way up the corporate ladder at AT&T, an injury during World War II forced him into early retirement. He became a stay-at-home dad while her mother eventually worked her way into a civil service position in Toms River. In the 1950s this was known as an “upside down household,”
Although this provided a wonderful bond between her and her father, Troeller saw her father’s writings and letters to senators and activism as a big inspiration for her. “He helped evolve the ‘what you can do for your country, your country will do for you,’” she says.
After receiving a BS degree from West Virginia University and a MS and MFA from Syracuse University, she had assistantships with many great photographers including Ansel Adams, Ralph Gibson, and George Tice, and even served as a model of Adams and Lucien Clergue. She taught photography at Stockton University; University of Nevada Las Vegas; Bournemouth College, England; and Salzburg Summer Art Academy. She then lived in Lawrenceville before moving to the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, traveling the world for both editorial and fine art projects for more than 20 years, and creating a series of documentary photos and images that explored sensuality and female eroticism.
One of Troeller’s most acclaimed documentary series is the “TB-AIDS Diary.” It takes place during a time when her first marriage was headed for divorce. “Sometimes it takes a lot of self-esteem and being very self-oriented to put yourself out there, and this was a big conflict in my marriage — who came first and things like that,” she says.
The series was based on the idea of stigma and shame, things she had come to understand from how the general public treated her mother, like so many others who suffered from TB. The photographer used some of the snapshots her mother had taken when she suffered from tuberculosis during her 30s, added text, and created a diary initially calling it “TB Diary.”
Troeller entered the work in Photo Metro — which, she says, “was the hot magazine back then, that’s how one got their work out there in those days” — and won the publication prize. This was the early 1980s, just about the same time that AIDS was coming onto the scene. In a conversation with a journalist who had won awards for championing AIDS, he spoke of the TB series and said, “You know, it tells a story but, if only you had a story of a young man with AIDS to bring it home.”
Troeller decided to search for that story and found Barbara Cleaver of California. Her son had died of AIDS, so she started a support group, Mothers of Sons with AIDS. Their contact and interaction led to her sending Linda her snapshots and stories to include in her diary. Troeller then created work that would relate from TB to AIDS. A grant from Polaroid enabled her to create 24 x 24-inch copies of the collages, and another grant enabled her to make copies of her work to distribute to an audience that might be affected by AIDS. It also resulted in lectures, travel, and raising awareness about the disease.
“These pictures were very emotional. I was also a little ahead of the trend, but the trend or the zeitgeist caught up with me, and then I could really be effective. And having had that earlier degree in communications, being an art person and a communicator, that was a thrill to be able to deliver ideas into the culture.” She found it important to raise social consciousness. She was invited to speak in front of groups about the TB-AIDS Diary and spread the word about AIDS.
The idea for the film, “Inside the Frame: Portrait of Photographer Linda Troeller,” came about when Canadian filmmaker Jeff McKay was in Cambridge to make a film about sewage called “Crapshoot.” “I was in the Harvard bookstore where I stumbled on a copy of this brilliant photo book called ‘Healing Waters’ by Linda Troeller,” says McKay, who was planning to work on a film about a swimmer. He says that Troeller’s photos were the “memories of water” and “I made a date with her for my swim film, flew out to NYC, and shot an interview with her.”
After completing the swim project in 2004, McKay was still intrigued. “I love photography — always have since I was a kid. My mother and father were both avid photo people and arts folks. I just couldn’t get her photos out of my head,” he says.
The challenge would be financing — with most broadcasters not funding a film without a name director or famous subject. “Neither Linda nor I are famous even though we have both spent our lives making a living doing what we each do,” says McKay. “Broadcasters do like features about artists who have had tragic lives and something ‘exciting’ that they can dramatize. So making this film about Linda was going to have to be a side project for me. There wasn’t going to be a pile of money. BRAVO! almost gave me a license, but as it turned out, I was to get money from them for another film called ‘40 Years of One Night Stands,’ about the first 40 years of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. So with no money for the Linda film I plugged away as I could. In 2005 I applied to the Manitoba Arts Council here in my home province and received a $20,000 grant, which I made the Linda film with.”
It was that persistence that brought the film together. Once he started in 2005 McKay knew he had to finish the film, even though he was busy with other film projects with broadcaster deadlines for delivery. But, he says, “in between my work and my upside down family life, I was always trying to pick away at the Linda film like an ongoing ice sculpture — hoping it will not melt away into nothingness before I can finish it.”
McKay describes Troeller as a “veteran whose photos have a gift of being able to let you feel the place you’re looking at. She has a natural talent for seeing and capturing, unlike so many people in this PhotoShop world we live in.” He tried his best to mimic Linda’s photo style of blur and saturated color in camera work for the film. “She was my compass. I shot with a Sony PD-150. It is a real workhorse, with lots of manual override so you can really play with shutter and exposures. But while I am shooting I have to sink into the moment and just ‘live the shot’ through the eyepiece until I know what I have managed to capture,” he says of the filming in New York City, New Jersey, and Europe.
Troeller says she discovered the film festival on a visit to an event at Rutgers. As she was leaving she saw a poster announcing the international film festival. She had just received the DVD from McKay, though it had been two years since they spoke. As she was reading the announcement she said to herself, “Can I do this?”
And she thought: “This is so perfect: New Jersey girl returned here.” She worked on the application through the night, and in the space for the applicant’s comment wrote, “I taught in New Jersey and one of things in New Jersey is that the schools are all spread out. There isn’t a photo scene like New York. This would be wonderful if this could be made known to students here.” The next day she received a call from Albert Nigrin, executive director and curator of the festival, telling her that they would like to include the film.
The New Jersey International Film Festival began in 1996. Last year it drew close to 5,000 viewers by offering a unique media arts culture. This year there were some 383 films submitted by filmmakers from around the world for inclusion, but the panel of festival judges took only seven percent of the submitted titles, giving audiences the opportunity to view 25 independently produced films. An added benefit is meeting with the filmmakers, actors, critics, scholars, and media art professionals invited to speak at the screenings or lead workshops, seminars, and lectures.
Nigrin explains his role in the film selection process. “As films are selected by a jury, I am asked as a curator to pair the selected films that I think have common themes. The documentary ‘Inside the Frame: Portrait of Photographer Linda Troeller’ was paired with the documentary ‘When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story,’ which is about the musician Robin Lane. Both films deal with the life and work of two very talented women. It was easy to put those together. Other films like ‘Soap’ and ‘Forever Into Space’ were paired because they both prominently feature bathtubs and generational struggles. ‘Journey to the Place of Birds’ and ‘M Cream’ are both mythical journey films.”
Of Jeff McKay’s film Nigrin says Troeller’s photographs are suffused with a sense of female eroticism and a sense of place. “Working out of the Chelsea Hotel and her home in Lakewood, New Jersey, Troeller has created a deeply evocative body of work. Like an impressionistic painter from another time, her photographs evoke moments that seem to be filtered through the haze of memory.”
Nigrin, like McKay, also has a copy of Troeller’s “Healing Waters” and loves her photography. When asked what should be the take-away for audiences when they see the film, he says, “The goal of our festival is to entertain, challenge, and enlighten our audiences. I think the film on Linda does all three of those things.”
Inside the Frame: Portrait of Photographer Linda Troeller, New Jersey International Film Festival, Voorhees Hall #105, 71 Hamilton Street/College Avenue Campus, Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Introduction and Q&A session by Linda Troeller. Saturday, June 6, 7 p.m. $10. Preview the film at vimeo.com/126078774.