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Nancy Floyd, Weathering Time (2020)
Nancy Floyd, Weathering Time (2020)Photography Nancy Floyd

Nancy Floyd’s 40-year self-portrait project finds virtue and loss in ageing

Weathering Time spans four decades of the photographer’s life, documenting the passing of time in over 1,000 images

Almost four decades ago, when American photographer Nancy Floyd first embarked on the project that would become Weathering Time, she was taking daily self-portraits every morning at 9am. Using a mix of analogue and digital cameras – at one point she even borrowed a friend’s iPad – Floyd appears in every frame; sometimes she’s solo, other times she’s flanked by family members, friends or her pet dogs. Like looking through a stranger’s family album or scrolling through the selfies on someone else’s camera roll, the images feel both incredibly personal, and like a significant cultural document. Nearly forty years on, with the self-imposed time constraint lifted, she shoots as few as two pictures a week; right now she’s averaging about ten a month. “A technical problem is what it is,” she tells Dazed over the phone from Oregon. “I need a place where I can leave a camera, where I’m not going to knock it over, it’s not in the way, and there’s no window behind me.”

Back in 1982, Floyd, then a 25-year-old graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, was hanging out with a friend when she decided it might be interesting to photograph herself every day for 20 years; to watch herself grow older and observe the changes via her camera. Now in her 60s and, having kept up the practice for an additional two decades, she’s releasing a book.

The catalogue features over 1,000 black and white photographs (of a possible 2,500), neatly organised into categories like ‘Shirts with words’, ‘Good Hair’, and ‘Pets Misbehaving’; more straightforward sections, named after specific individuals and particular objects, provide similarly engaging outcomes. A mammoth undertaking, Floyd’s loyalty to old school conventions meant editing the pictures was primarily an IRL operation. “I’m a hard copy girl,” she says, alluding to the tedious process of arranging the pictures by hand. “If I’d grown up during the digital revolution I probably wouldn’t have this issue, but I need hard copies so I print everything out.” 

Though not immediately concerned with the sartorial, each picture ultimately tells a story of the changing fashions and, like in the case of a BLM T-shirt that makes multiple cameos, is a product of the times. The environment of each shot, whether it be Floyd’s bedroom, front porch, or a studio she used to work at, is similarly indicative and a central component of her practice.

Below, Floyd tells Dazed what she’s learnt about her body, and considers the significance of loss in her work. 

Prior to starting the project, what was your relationship with your image?

Nancy Floyd: I’ve never been camera shy. I’d done some self-portraits, but it wasn’t my thing. This project started off very methodical, more in-line with how I make portraits, where I have a plan in mind; it’s my full body, there’s an environment. Because it was (originally) on film I didn’t notice what was going on every day, I just took the picture, it was done. It would be months before I processed the film. 

Initially, you took the photos at 9am and, in the book, you write that you chose not to smile. Can you elaborate on the brief you set yourself?

Nancy Floyd: I wanted to not smile because I thought it would be more detailed, give more description of the facial expression, especially as I got older. I really imagined in 20 years I was going to be ancient (laughs). And it was 9am because I woke up at that time; I thought I would forget if I didn’t take the picture right away – which is true because now I don’t take as many pictures – it has to become part of your daily routine to be carried through like that. Also, I called it Nancy at 9 in the beginning.

In terms of planning, how set up are the images?

Nancy Floyd: In the first 20 years I had no planning involved. If I was travelling I would just take it with me. In 1984 I got my acceptance letter (to CalArts) and I held the envelope for the picture, so that started the series Success (in the book). That’s about all the planning in the early stages.

In 2002 I had an exhibition about my house being torn down – the house I grew up in – and decided to scan all the negatives of my self-portraits and make a video. I was putting that together and realised there were all these themes: I went from a typewriter to a computer, for example, all these changes. I started thinking, ‘Well I’ve got typewriters in some early pictures, maybe I should stand in front of my computer.’ So that’s when the conscious part of the project began, and even then, very seldom do I set things up. Because I take so many pictures, at some point I will have another picture of something that will sew that idea. When we were putting together the car pictures for the book, I realised I didn’t have my Toyota that I’ve been driving for eight years, and so I did go out and stand by my car to take that picture.

“‘Weathering’ is a geological term – the weathering of rocks, of an environment – and so I feel like we humans, we weather over time, our skin becomes wrinkly, men go bald” – Nancy Floyd

You mentioned Nancy at 9. When did this become Weathering Time?

Nancy Floyd: That was a 2002 invention; Nancy at 9 only lasted a couple of years because I got tired of taking it at 9am. I called it my self-portrait project, but when I decided to do the project about my house I had to have a name. I was thinking about the way things decay, but I didn’t want to think about it negatively. Obviously, I’m ageing, but I wasn’t trying to make a project about my death, although it is sort of about my death. I wanted something more descriptive on a level of how I think about this project. ‘Weathering’ is a geological term – the weathering of rocks, of an environment – and so I feel like we humans, we weather over time, our skin becomes wrinkly, men go bald. And it’s about time, so Weathering Time seemed appropriate.

You’ve referred to yourself previously as a ‘project-orientated’ artist. Can you speak on where this interest in long-term undertakings stems from? 

Nancy Floyd: I like to do research, and make mistakes. I’m curious, I enjoy delving into a project in ways that go beyond what would ever become part of the project. Weathering Time is different because I don’t have to think about it, I just take pictures then every few months gather them together, but my other projects I like to spend time with. I wish I could be a little faster – my new work is taking nine years. I’m not in a rush, and I was a professor for years so the idea of showing my work was never an issue, I always had a salary so I didn’t have to think about a market, I still don’t.

When editing the book, were there clothes or objects that stood out in terms of the memories attached?

Nancy Floyd: There’s things I wish I still had. But I do have my brother’s robe, who was killed in Vietnam, and there’s a photograph of me from ‘83 and a reenactment of that photograph in 2012, in the same robe, so it’s not like I’ve gotten rid of everything. I also have clothes today that I wore 30 years ago. In terms of things I miss, I’m trying to let go of stuff, so I try not to think about it too much (laughs). As an artist, you don’t want to throw anything away because you don’t know when it can be used and with this, there’s clothing that I have just for reenactments. I’ve never thrown away my glasses, I’m not sure why, but that’s a new project.

What have you learnt about yourself through taking these daily portraits?

Nancy Floyd: I don’t know if I learnt this, but I’m really okay with my body. As it ages and things start to sag – also I have a mean look when I don’t smile – it doesn’t bother me, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve seen the pictures of myself constantly. As you get older, as long as you’re physically healthy, you don’t feel older, you just feel yourself. It’s only when you see a picture that you’re reminded you’re ageing. I’m in my 60s, the ageing process is speeding up, whereas from 24 to 40 or 45 you don’t look that different. But after that, you start to age. 

With the arrival of smartphones and the ascent of selfie culture, how do you think the project would differ if you started it today? 

Nancy Floyd: I understand selfie culture, my nieces, nephews, and students do selfies and I see them all the time. We used to call them ‘squishies’, where, in order to have a picture with someone, you had to get up close. I like making them but it doesn’t work for what I’m interested in, which is much more about the entire body, the landscape around me, and to try and stay away from a façade. You’re still a façade when you’re standing in front of the camera, but I’m not trying to make myself look better or prettier, all those things that come into play when we’re making photographs. Photography is so full of lies, it’s interesting to see pictures of people when they’re off guard. 

I stopped wearing makeup early in my life because I realised when I wore makeup people always said, ‘Oh my god, you look so good, what did you do?’ And it made me think, ‘I do look better in makeup, but if I look better in makeup then am I ever going to be accepting of my own face?’ I didn’t want to be disappointed when I took it off. I like when I have a photograph of me looking good, but again it’s a fabrication, a moment where that second I look good. I think people look better in real life then they look in photographs; the active moving body is more interesting. 

Do you have a favourite image, section, or era from the series?

Nancy Floyd: I have a few and they have to do mostly with loss. I think what happens for me, I see beyond the death – of my brother or my home or my pets – and I just see what a wonderful life I’ve had. 

Weathering Time by Nancy Floyd is published by GOST books and available from February