Originally from Canada, photographer Marianna Rothen is now based in New York. After starting work as a model at age 15, she traveled extensively and documented her experiences in photographs. Rothen creates images in fragmented, romantic settings heavy with nostalgia and a perverse perfection. Since 2007, her work has been exhibited internationally in New York, Paris, Sydney, Cologne and Istanbul. In 2012, Rothenʼs work was featured in The Last Seduction, a two-person show that appeared at New York’s Hendershot Gallery. Her first book, Snow and Rose & other tales was released in June 2014 by b.frank books.
Laura: What impulse sent you behind the camera versus remaining in front of it—or have you always been a photographer?
Marianna: I was learning photography in high school around the same time I started modeling. The two fed each other really well. Sometimes I copied what I saw on fashion shoots and other times I used it as an outlet to experiment, to take the pictures I really wanted to take and have a voice through my photography. On set as a model, I always had a lot of ideas that had to wait until I was off shooting my own pictures.
Laura: How did you discover upstate New York?
Marianna: In 2003, one of my first boyfriends bought a house upstate and I was there for the first couple months to help him settle. It was winter and desolate; we hadn’t met any new friends up there yet. For Christmas, he gave me a Polaroid SX-70 and I spent the time photographing abandoned buildings around Woodridge and Liberty. It was such a mysterious place, my first encounter with what America had looked like in the movies. After that, I left the U.S. for two years and it always stayed in my memory as the place I wanted to return to. If I would see a pine tree in Australia I’d say, “That looks just like Upstate New York!”
Laura: Tell us a little about your house in Livingston Manor.
Marianna: It’s a very old house on a hill surrounded by nature on all sides. It’s perfect!
Laura: In The New Yorker, Amy Connors writes that you “create images that blur the line between natural and staged environments.” How does the natural beauty upstate influence your work?
Marianna: What I really enjoy about upstate New York is that the vegetation is so varied. Sometimes it photographs like some of the states in the Northwest and other times the trees and plants are so refined, you feel like you are in Europe. This really gives you the ability to make the landscape whatever you want it to be. This is one of the reasons I’ve been able to continually shoot up here over a long period of time—that and the wonderful community that supports me. Aside from natural beauty, upstate has an abundance of incredible buildings, mostly empty, that are remnants from the Borscht Belt era. They are like sets just waiting to be used!
Laura: What has been your most thrilling wildlife sighting?
Marianna: I am usually making too much noise to spot wildlife and I’m terrified of bears! On rainy mornings I love getting out to catch the mist. It’s unpredictable, but sometimes there’s tons of it clinging to the landscape. The water and air are so clean. It amazes me that a place like this can exist so close to a big city like New York.
Laura: How much of your work is created upstate and what is it about being there that inspires you?
Marianna: Ninety percent of my work is created upstate. Each time I go, I’m able to find somewhere new to shoot, a new corner I hadn’t noticed before. I’ve relied on the same locations for years. I always told myself that I could endlessly shoot on one piece of land—if I had it. There is a big harmony between the landscape and the manmade structures, a timelessness that allows you to transport yourself anywhere.
Laura: How would you characterize life upstate versus city life?
Marianna: The days upstate have a very different rhythm. The seasons dictate how you live and what you eat. Whenever I’ve just arrived from the city, I feel lighter and whatever seemed so important in Manhattan at times feels irrelevant upstate. Nature’s presence is powerful. There is also, of course, a great creative energy from the city. The constant feed of stimulation can be challenging. I believe it’s important to somehow have both. These two ways of living complement each other.
Laura: What are some of your upstate haunts?
Marianna: If I find myself in Callicoon, Ba & Me is amazing. I love the no-nonsense casualness of the place and the food is super-fresh and delicious. If I had this close to my house I would be there every day! For vintage shopping, furniture and set props I always go to The Old Sandhouse in Honesdale. They regularly get new pieces in so I don’t worry too much about competition—vintage shopping can be very competitive!—and they are also reasonably priced.
Laura: What is your favorite upstate summer pastime?
Marianna: Lying on the grass in the sun. I know this sounds dangerous to some people, but there is no better feeling then being sandwiched between the energy of the earth and the rays of the sun. You feel like a revived plant!
Laura: Describe the Upper Delaware Valley in 3 words.
Marianna: Green, magical and unique.
Interview by Laura Silverman
Photography by Michael Mundy