Martha Rial is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Newseum in Washington D.C., as well as numerous private collections. Rial previously worked at The St. Petersburg Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She is currently exhibiting at SPACE’s “Public Record,” a group show closing November 9, as part of Pittsburgh’s Biennial. She was interviewed by Sally Deskins of Les Femmes Folles about her “fly on the wall” approach, her work documenting Pittsburgh’s disability community, being an artist and woman in Pittsburgh, feminism, and advice for aspiring artists.
Where are you from? How did you get into art?
I am from Pittsburgh. I grew up in the eastern suburb of Murrsyville, but have lived in the city for more than 30 years. I left twice – both times to further my career, only to come back home. I have always been in involved with art. I drew, painted and did crafts throughout my childhood. I began making photographs as teenager because I loved the magic of discovery and engagement with subjects. I was especially fascinated by the power of storytelling. My father was an amazing storyteller and I wanted to develop same talent for sharing experiences and capturing the attention of others. He died when I was 17-years-old.
Tell me about your work, inspirations, process.
My inspirations often come from observing people in their environments and how they relate to others. I am also very curious how current events can impact ordinary people. Social justice issues are very important to me. I am primarily do documentary work, so I spend a lot time with hanging out with subjects. I usually favor the “fly on the wall’ approach, but I love the process of making portraits too – like I did for Public Record.
Tell me about your work in Public Record and why this show is important to you.
My work in Public Record at SPACE is titled Aspirations – portraits of young adults with spectrum disorders. I have spent a lot of time documenting our Pittsburgh’s rich disability community in recent years. I was awed by their stories, insights and unique gifts. Many disabilities are invisible, so I want to introduce these young adults with Asperger’s and autism to the community and provide some insight into their world.
I chose to make the prints as large as possible, so they would hard to ignore and you could look them in the eyes. My goal is to start a dialogue about neurodiversity and how society could be more accommodating. Their courage to put themselves out there has been so moving. I am curious about empathy too, and how it plays in reading images.
Advice for aspiring artists?
My advice is take time to experiment. I believe the best work always involves risk. I believe it important to encourage young artists to pay attention to their instincts. There are so many distracting voices out there. You will encounter others who will want to discourage you or not support your ideas and vision. Learn to pick out the constructive feedback and tune out the naysayers.
Is Pittsburgh a good place for artists and notably artists who are women?
Pittsburgh has an amazing arts community. There are opportunities to exhibit work at many different kinds of venues. I think it is wonderful there are six women exhibiting in Public Record.
But I think there are still many challenges for the working artist, especially women, who want to make a living wage from their work. Women still lag behind here in opportunities, and not just in the art world. We have too few women leaders in government and business in our region. We are unlikely to have real change until we see more women in decision- making positions. Courageous women artists like Aaronel deRoy Gruber have made it easier for me and other women to have our work taken seriously. We should honor their pioneering spirit by encouraging each other in our endeavors.
Is feminism relevant to you and/or your work?
Feminism matters because we still lack the power to affect real change. Economics is a big part of the problem. I think our region’s industrial past may have hurt women because most of those jobs went to men and many women simply did not have their own money. I have noticed more Pittsburgh women are investing in art and building collections in recent years. Women like to purchase art made by women.
Are you tenacious in your work/life?
Of course, one must be tenacious. Every time you create something and share it with others you are opening yourself up to criticism and rejection. My tenacity comes from creating my own path and paying attention to what I need in order to grow. I love how photography is a medium that’s always evolving. You need perseverance to survive.
For more information about Martha Rial visit martharial.com.
For details on Public Record at SPACE Gallery visit spacepittsburgh.org.
Sally Deskins’ project, Les Femmes Folles is a completely volunteer run organization founded in 2011 with the mission to support and promote women in all forms, styles and levels of art with the online journal, anthologies, books, exhibitions and events; femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com.