Rachel Herman was 35,000 feet in the air, holding a disposable camera in one hand and clutching her window-seat armrest tightly in the other, when she realized she no longer felt afraid.
Herman’s fear of flying began soon after 9/11. She had just moved back to the U.S. from Hong Kong, where she worked as a headhunter. Her new consulting job required her to fly to and from New York multiple times a week. It was on one of those flights that a pilot announced an emergency landing due to engine failure.
That plane ride was a pivot point in Herman’s life. Although she had never been afraid of flying before, her job required her to constantly be on planes, a difficult task after such an experience.
“I was like, ‘this is wrong ... something is not clicking,’’’ Herman said of her consulting work. “But [I realized that] if I sat and made photographs the whole time I was flying, I wasn’t afraid anymore,” she said.
Herman used those photos to make the photo series how I got over my fear of flying. “After I made that body of work, I was like, ‘I really should change my life ... change everything.’”
So somewhere in the midst of feeling incredibly wrong about what she was doing, Herman decided to change her career, midstream.
Herman decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts from The University of Chicago in her early thirties.
“Grad school sort of takes your life apart, then puts it back together, and you’re not the same,” she said.
With her new degree, Herman became contemporary photographer Laura Letinsky’s teaching assistant at the University of Chicago and went on to teach photography at Columbia College in Chicago, Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., and Evanston Art Center.
Last January, Herman joined Northwestern’s Art Theory and Practice Department to teach Introduction to Photography, a course devoted to developing film in the darkroom.
“It was the first time I’ve taken a class at Northwestern and actually felt like I’d really gotten something out of it that I can use in my actual life, instead of just my career,” said Claire Christianson, a McCormick junior who was in Herman’s first photography class. “She really wanted this class to be something where you didn’t feel like you were at the pressure cooker that is Northwestern. The way she taught was not to teach people how to do it, but to teach people how to love photography.”
Herman praises the “rawness, inventiveness and openness” of her students. “It's the beam in the realm of discovery, because students new to the medium are always discovering by the virtue of failing,” she said. “Sometimes not fully knowing what you’re doing is the best place you can be, without being constricted by what you think you’re supposed to know.”
Despite being the daughter of parents active in the arts, Herman took many paths before deciding to pursue photography professionally. Herman’s mother, an art consultant and docent at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Miss., brought art in and out of their home, making it “an ever-rotating museum and gallery space.”
“From a young age, I always thought about art as just an extension of the house,” Herman said. “It was just as natural as having dinner.” But because her parents — as benefactors and collectors — were more involved in the business side of the art world, the idea of actually creating artwork seemed somewhat forbidden.
Despite this, art has always been an integral component of her life and her “obsession with photography started early.” Herman’s parents gifted her a Canon AE-1 on her 10th birthday.
“Somewhere in those early years, I realized that the camera was making images that were an extension of my emotional being,” she said. “That's when things got interesting.”
Though her decision to pursue photography professionally came after that transformational plane ride, Herman’s interest in the arts continued to grow in college, where she spent a semester abroad in Florence, Italy.
“I traveled throughout Italy looking at the masters [of art], reading Dante, and thinking about beauty in a way that was really unapologetic,” she said.
Herman’s teaching career started right after college, when she spent a year in Poland teaching English as part of WorldTeach, a non-governmental organization. She moved back to the U.S. for a couple of years, but soon moved to Hong Kong to work as a headhunter.
Though traveling so frequently, Herman tried to stay in new places for as long as she could to get an immersive experience before leaving.
“The best way to learn about a place is to really spend time there,” she said, “which is one of the reasons why I loved photography, because working in the darkroom requires [that degree of] slowness.”
But to Herman, photography means more than being present in the moment.
Herman’s most famous work, The Imp of Love, is a collection of film photographs that exhibit interactions of couples who were once together. The series shifts away from typical romance stories about falling in love by photographing couples who are grappling with and redefining their relationship after growing apart.
“The project was romantic both in the setting and in the process,” Herman said. Photographing at dusk, mostly along Chicago’s lakefront, Herman chose the lake to be her outdoor studio for “a mutable, changeable and neutral” backdrop. She explains that it was neutral in color but even more so in terms of setting; the lake created a safe space.
For her upcoming series, Float Chandelier Float, she is capturing the process of grieving, from the anticipatory phase to the unraveling of it. In the same way that her artistic intention behind The Imp of Love was to use photography as a tool to visualize the tendrils that remain in the aftermath of love, Float Chandelier Float attempts to make the process of grief somewhat visible.
In the same way photography helped her overcome her fear of flying, “it propels me into an emotional space so that I can look at it …” Herman said. “It’s a way of visualizing feelings from a transformational experience into something tangible. I see [the camera] as an amulet, a magic box, a repository for empathy.”
Looking forward, Herman sees her future as a continuation of this invisible growth.
“I’ve been having all these visions of my future photographs ... Now it's time to make them.”