Carissa is a photographer and director living in Los Angeles, California. Both her personal and client work explore the arc of physical and emotional relationships: ones that exist between the human body and its environment, and ones that exist between humans themselves.
Photography by: Andrew Gallo
GAL: What was the first book you fell in love with that turned you into a lifelong reader?
CG: It was probably The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe. I was in a great book class in elementary school which taught me how to dissect meaning in books, and we did so with The Lion The Witch And the Wardrobe. Being in that class showed me that using books to think critically and come up with ways to better understand the world is an incredibly important skill. Literature is full of deeper meanings, and that was the first time at that age I had done anything like that with a book.
GAL: How do narrative and storyline influence your photography?
CG: Oh, it’s huge. I’m also a director and it translates more obviously to film. In photography, I think you can tell a story just by that one shot. I believe that phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” is true. So I’m always trying to tell a story through whatever photo I’m taking. Even if it’s an inaccurate view, it’s my view.
When you’re not watching a movie or looking up someone else’s interpretation, it forces you to think up the images yourself. I think that’s so important for my creative path. I feel a direct correlation between what I’m reading and what I’m producing creatively. I remember even from a young age I hated watching a movie before I read a book. It ruined all the fun because I loved picturing everything myself.
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot?
CG: I usually just want to be in my bed. When it’s warm and sunny I try to find somewhere where the sun is on me but most of the time it’s my bed.
GAL: Are there any movies based on books that are successful examples of that difficult translation?
CG: Lolita by Stanley Kubrick, bc I think it’s flawless! Also, there have been a lot of people who have tried to make Jane Eyre, but the most recent version by Cary Joji Fukunaga really accesses and highlights the raw emotion of the story. I think that should be the goal in making any book into a movie: you can’t show it all, but you can show the core of the emotion that tells the story.
GAL: Do you have a favorite photographer or director?
CG: Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda, Terrence Malick, David Lynch
GAL: Have either influenced your personal work?
CG: Yes, all. David Lynch doesn’t influence my style much, but I’m always interested in the way he tells stories. Old Terrence Malick movies are great teachers. Same with old Woody Allen, despite not being a fan of him personally.
I think it's possible to like someone’s work without liking the person. It's possible to separate the two.
GAL: Agreed. Though I don’t always think women are given that advantage and they should.
CG: I agree.
GAL: And how do you choose the books you read?
CG: I have a pen pal living in Winnipeg, Canada. She and I write book recommendations in many of our letters*, because we have tastes that seem to spur the other one along in interesting ways. So, that’s one way I find books. I also fluctuate between fiction, non-fiction, and biography on my own, and doing so usually takes me down an interesting path of discovery.
I recently shot an author for work and she gave me a list of books. It’s an energetic thing, I think. Someone you’re around inspires you to read something that takes you on a new path.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction or fiction?
CG: Fiction. I love non-fiction too but it depends what I’m interested in at that moment.
GAL: Within non-fiction what genre do you read?
CG: Auto-biography and biography. More contemporary ones such as Just Kids by Patti Smith and A Story Lately Told by Anjelica Huston. Both take you to a specific time and place of an individual and I find that interesting.
GAL: Can you read on a device?
CG: No, I don’t prefer to do that.
GAL: Do you have strong feelings about them?
CG: Yes. I simply don’t want a device on me. I don’t want to be distracted, and I also have a lot of beliefs about what devices do to our well-being like EMFs and all those things. I know devices are a critical part of life right now, but I would prefer not to have one near me as I’m on a device all the time for work. I don’t get books from the library but I do like to buy used books. The books become my friends. They stay with me; I return to them. Returning them to the library would be heartbreaking. I know where things are on the page because I have a photographic memory which doesn't work when using a device. I don’t care how heavy it makes traveling or anything, having physical books is so important to me.
GAL: That must mean that you’re a re-reader.
CG: Yeah, I am! Not frequently, but sometimes.
GAL: Which ones do you re-read?
CG: East of Eden is the main one. It’s very different at different times in my life.
GAL: You have two children. Do you read to them?
CG: I do! I read a lot to my son since he is little right now and can’t read for himself.
I also try to read in front of them. I believe that a kid learns the most by watching what their parents are doing. A kid learns to love reading more from seeing their parents read than being read to. I think that being read to is great, but I want my kids to see me with a book in hand more than they ever see me with a phone or computer in my hands!
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
CG: The characters that live in the stories are the most powerful aspect of story. For example, every time I re-read East of Eden, I usually connect with a different character and find more of myself in them. It can be a different person every time depending on my age, where I am at in life, and how I’m feeling.
It's the same for any book I read. There are characters in stories that you either hate or love and it’s very personally connected to how you feel. Story sends you on a whole new path in your life. You learn by entering into a whole new world. Through having this experience that you aren’t actually having, you have the opportunity to grow as a person.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
CG: Next to my bed is where my sanity shelf is!
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
It is like a meditation, I can pick it up at any time and read portions for a bit of grounding.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
I remember reading this in high school for the first time- he says something like ‘Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads…’ Especially in that tumultuous age of adolescence, this line left a mark on my brain as a reminder to open my eyes to what is happening now, instead of pining for something in the distance. I am very nostalgic, so I have to remember to be in the moment.
A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver
When I can’t fall asleep, I like to read a poem before bed and pick a few lines to repeat in my head to help me sleep. This one is always on my nightstand.
GAL: If you were to title you were to title your memoir what would it be?
CG: A Palm Tree Grows in California
GAL: Please name three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
CG: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
In my perception, this book is far too often overlooked. The way she writes these female characters and describes where and how they live, their habits, etc. is so visual and visceral for me, as I grew up with sisters.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
I remember I started it sitting on the floor of the bathroom while my son bathed, thinking it would not be riveting (not sure why I thought this). Four pages in, ‘the sound of horses like roses being burned alive’ and I realized I was riveted. I’ve had to re-buy this book more than once because of how often I loan it to friends.
Another one I’m always lending or buying for friends... It is short and each excerpt can stand alone. Especially in these uncertain and rather dark times, I find myself more drawn to the message of this book and the idea that we all need to take our actions to heart, as they affect ourselves, the world, and the environment.