A Conversation with Rachael Pongetti, about her Graffiti Bridge book “Uncovering the Layers”

by Jeremy Morrison

As 2016 winds to a close, Pensacola photographer Rachael Pongetti celebrates the publication of her book, “Uncovering the Layers.” The work stems from her Graffiti Bridge Project, which involved shooting daily photographs of the ever-changing public canvas that is the 17th Avenue train overpass.

Pongetti took a few minutes recently to discuss her work with SANDSpaper. The photographer considers “Uncovering the Layers” to be more than a collection of lush photos, accompanied by journal entires, essays and historical explorations — though it is that, too. She views the work a lesson in letting go, in accepting the inevitability of change.

SANDS: So, how are the book signings going?

RACHAEL PONGETTI: Well, I’ve only had one, and it was great. I didn’t realize it until somebody mentioned it, that the book launch was the exact date as my Kickstarter launch two years ago.

SANDS: Oh, really?

PONGETTI: It wasn’t planned that way at all.

SANDS: It’s been a pretty good experience?

PONGETTI: Yes, the book has been so well received. It’s so nice to be involved with something and have it exceed your expectations. I really try not to have any expectations, because that wasn’t really what it was about, but it’s nice when you give something so much that it gives back.

SANDS: What was this project about, what did you set out to do?

PONGETTI: I set out to basically — I think in hindsight I was just really trying to understand life better, you know? I just really felt like I’d kind of been kicked in the teeth a little bit by life. I think art is a way for me to process and observe life, so the bridge provided that for me, because it changed everyday.

SANDS: You had just been through a divorce, is that right?

PONGETTI: Yes, that’s correct.

SANDS: Did this process help you heal in some regard?

PONGETTI: It helped me to understand, and I think when I understood more I was able to let go. I mean, it wasn’t just about the divorce, though that is an easy thing to say. It really was more about — I was just really disappointed, I guess, that things weren’t turning out the way that I had planned. So, the divorce was part of that. That was really just one aspect of it. There was this idea that nothing was turning out like I had wanted it to. So, when you have so many things that are happening in your life like that it’s very hard to take, it’s very hard to absorb that, without, you know, being confused and all of that.

SANDS: And how did this project tie in to that, how did this project relate to that process?

PONGETTI: Because I — a friend of mine suggested that I photograph the bridge, thought it’d be a cool project. And I really didn’t — and I thought, sure it would be, but I really wasn’t super interested until he said, “You know, it changes everyday,” because he drove under it everyday. I actually was not that familiar with it, not like I am now.
For me it really wasn’t about graffiti, and it really wasn’t even about that bridge, so-to-speak. It was just about learning how to realize that things are impermanent and things change. And so when I would see the art on there, maybe sometimes I wouldn’t have my camera or I’d forget a piece of equipment, and it’d be the coolest thing on there and I’d drive home, which is just a mile away, and I’d come back and it’d be gone, you know? Or, you know, something would be covered up with something really stupid, with little thought and little art technique, as well. So, something that was put down that was really great, something really minor would cover it up.
And it’s about that kind of thing, it’s about learning to just be ok with that, just not be so frustrated when that happened, or not be frustrated that I missed it, or that the lighting wasn’t right — because the lighting is terrible on that bridge, most of the time half of it is in shadows and the other half is in light, so it’s just really quirky to photograph. It was just about going through that, letting go, all the time. And letting go of attachments. So, that was how it all really started for me.

SANDS: What was the timeframe?

PONGETTI: I started it in 2011. I started photographing on January the first. I mean, it really was — I haven’t talked about this a lot, I mean, I don’t know if you really want to get into it, but it really was my pathway into becoming a Buddhist. I just didn’t know it at the time.

SANDS: You had not pursued that previously, and you got into that, you know, because of this or during this?

PONGETTI: I mean, I think from a Buddhist philosophy I’ve always been Buddhist and just didn’t know it, you know? Really, Buddhism isn’t necessarily a religion either, a lot of people think that it is. It can just be — it’s about really working on your frame of mind and that type of thing. And being a kind person, you know? But, for me I was already — I think zen is very approachable, you know there’s a lot of books out there about zen-this and zen-that, zen-rock gardens, So, I was already kind of playing around with that. And people were giving me books and stuff that were about zen, but I didn’t really know what Buddhism was about.
And then I wrote an artist’s statement I think for one of my first openings. And they started telling me, you know, this is Eastern thinking and philosophy. And then, of course, I started delving into it a little bit more and reading about change.
But I just kept trying to find some kind of way to cope with what I was going through. It was so devastating to me. Such just a shift in my life. I mean, to go from being a full-time caregiver to my kids, to now trying to make a living out of photography and art — it’s kind of a scary place to be.
And everybody was just telling me I should be doing this, and I should be doing that and I should be doing this and I should be doing that, so it took a lot of courage to just take the unconventional path. So, I think Buddhism helped me with that.
In looking back, that’s really what Buddhism is about, that nothing is permanent. Everything’s always changing. To let go of your attachments because you’ll be happier if you do.

SANDS: What were some of your experiences over this year, of photographing the bridge, some of your more interesting experiences?

PONGETTI: I think that really me getting to know a lot of the graffiti writers. And when I say ‘know,’ I didn’t get to know-know them well, but I got to know who they were and I got to meet them and I started learning about this underground world that I was not yet privy to, and that was a really interesting part for me. And I think a lot of the memorials were really influential for me, which probably led to me starting Day of Dead — well I know it did — with Art Beyond Walls.
And hearing the trucks crashing underneath, seeing that and hearing that. It’s like a bomb went off. The Earth just shook when that happened, so loud. So, little events like that I think were really interesting for me.
You know, Osama died during this, and I think, you know, Syria, that was just starting to happen, so all those political things were also fascinating to me. You know, Occupy Pensacola was very active at the time. So, those made the most impact throughout the year for me.

SANDS: And you’ve continued to chronicle it, right?

PONGETTI: I continue to what? Chronicle it?

SANDS: Yeah, chronicle it, take pictures of it.

PONGETTI: I like the word ‘chronicle,’ actually. I really like that and I’m gonna have to remember that, because I’ve never called it ‘documenting,’ I never really felt I was a documentary photographer, that’s a very specific thing, and I don’t consider myself that. This book is more of a hybrid. So, ‘chronicling’ is an excellent word.

SANDS: Yeah, it’s a fun word, I like it.

PONGETTI: So, yes, I’m still doing that. Then I also started teaching high school this year, so I haven’t really photographed it — I was photographing it almost everyday for the last five years, really. I just didn’t make it a point that I had to be there everyday, but yeah, I’ve kept up with it.
And then once the book started becoming more and more and more, I kind of backed away just to get the book out, I couldn’t continue to spend so much time out there. And then teaching and doing everything else, so … I haven’t missed it though, because I feel like I’ve got the book, you know, I feel like it’s still there.

SANDS: What has the feedback been for the book, what do people say? The people who are buying this book, why are they buying it?

PONGETTI: One of my friends said he sat down to look at it, and he started — it’s divided into 12 sections, by month — and he said, ‘I sat down to read January,’ my January journal entries, and that’s all he was going to do, and then he turned the pages and then he got to February, and then he read February, and then he read March. He couldn’t put it down. Because the journal entries really do tell the story. Not so much my story, but more about my observations. And so you get to know this cast of characters through my journal entries. You get to know about the homeless people and you get to know about the graffiti writers. Which I think is pretty interesting.
But it also has current photos in there, from 2016. There’s also poetry from Jamey Jones [Pensacola Poet Laureate]. There’s essays on the history of graffiti. Because I taught art and was a professor, I really was interested in the history of graffiti, too. I wanted that in there. There’s a historic timeline that talks about that area, that nobody has researched yet. And so that’s pretty exciting.
That area just seems to gravitate — it was so strange, we were driving by the other day, so bizarre, and there are people that practice fencing out there at one of the parks, right next to the bridge. In the 1800s, that was a dueling ground, like people would go out there and duel. So, I found out that it was a dueling ground, and kind of in a way they’re still doing the same thing that they did way back when, which is, you know, really kind of cool.

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