Beth Yarnelle Edwards: Living the Suburban dream

Beth Yarnelle Edwards

I really like Beth Yarnelle Edwards’ photographs. There is something familiar and normal about them, but they also feel like frozen frames in epic stories too. I decided to track her down and ask her a few questions about them.

FTF: Do you stage your photographs, or do you try and capture people naturally? If so do you have any techniques for doing this? 

This may sound like a contradiction, but I stage things in order to capture people more naturally and tell an honest story. I think of my images as being like genre paintings, which show a typical moment at home. They’re based on extensive interviews and observations, and I think I’m good at creating trust and discerning what is and isn’t true about the people I meet. Considering myself a stalker of the real, I have developed techniques to ensure that people are sharing honestly with me. I’m not saying that people would intentionally try to mislead me, but at least with my American subjects, there’s often an unconscious desire to want to look like an idealised magazine ad.

Beth-Yarnelle-Edwards interview

FTF: How do you find the people in your photos?

I began this work by photographing friends and neighbors and their children. 
Then others who saw these first photos began to volunteer, and that led to even more new subjects, resulting in my photographing people several degrees removed from an original connection.

In Europe, people have come to me in a variety of ways including sign-up sheets in a museum, direct recruitment by a sponsoring agency, or even news announcements. However, once I begin working, the same thing always happens. People who’ve seen or heard about my project contact me to be included. Each time I’ve returned home without being able to meet and photograph all of the parties who were interested. So far I have photographed in five European countries: France, Spain, Germany, Holland, and Iceland.


FTF: Middle class America / Suburbia seems to hold a particular interest for you, is there a particular reason for this?

That’s an interesting and complicated question. When I began working like this in the late nineties, I had lived most of my life in American suburbs (with the exception of three early years in a Pennsylvanian mining town, two years in Mexico, and four years at UCLA). I was raised in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, which at that time was the fastest growing suburb in the US. You could say the suburbs and I grew up together.

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs after college and was living in a town called San Carlos when I began these photos. I felt bored with the area, and longed to live in San Francisco proper, but realised that for many people, this was an ideal place to live. So I decided to investigate this suburban dream by creating this project! (Suburban Dreams is the title of my monograph, which was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2011.)

Beth-Yarnelle-Edwards interview

FTF: Did you have any specific photographic training?

Yes, I have a Master of Fine Arts degree with an emphasis on Photography. Before I went to graduate school, I studied photography at a local community college. Photography is my passion, but sadly, I don’t make enough money with fine art to pay all my bills. I have enjoyed doing occasional editorial work, but until recently I worked teaching English as a Second Language at the University of San Francisco.

FTF:Your work is exhibited all over the world,  is there anywhere you would really like to take photos?
I am fascinated by how people live in their homes, so any safe place would be interesting to me if there were willing subjects. I’m particularly interested in the United Kingdom, Italy, Denmark, Scandinavia, and South Korea. However, any invitation with a sponsorship would be met with enthusiasm!


FTF:Do you use many different kinds of cameras?  Do you do much re-touching of your photos, what software or processes do you use if any?
My camera history is very simple. I did early student black and white 35mm work with a Canon AE-1 film camera. For most of Suburban Dreams, I used a Mamiya 7 rangefinder film camera, which has an amazing wide angle lens. More recently, I’ve used a Canon 5D, and now I have a Nikon D800E.

Until 2009 I shot film, and the prints were analogue too. Manipulation in the darkroom consisted of dodging, burning, and the occasional use of a colored filter. Post-printing changes were limited to spotting (removing dust spots) and occasionally rubbing colored dyes into small areas if a part of the image was off color or too light.

Later my negatives were scanned and worked on a computer to create files that could be printed digitally (along with new work of digital origin). The changes in PhotoShop would be similar to what I describe above. Only in one case have I removed a large object from an image. It was a radiator that I felt was very distracting and not important to the story. However, I’m still not sure I did the right thing and haven’t shown that image for a while.

FTF:Your pictures are always really well lit, is this a happy accident at the right moment, or do you use lighting to stage them?

I use lighting if I think it’s needed. Surprisingly, some of my most dramatically lit images use available light, but my goal is always to seduce with light and color. I want to create an image that’s a bit hyperreal. I want the viewer to have an “aha!” experience– to feel the way we do when we suddenly really see something for the first time.

FTF: Do you have any exciting plans for the rest of 2015?

Right now I’m trying to decide what to do next. I’ve done a few experiments that I’m evaluating and have some ideas I haven’t yet tried. Whatever new idea I come up with, I will continue to add to Suburban Dreams, perhaps revisiting people I’ve already photographed or concentrating on subsets of the suburban population: immigrants or tech workers, for example. I’m open to invitations for commissions or residencies and love the fact that my photography career has brought me so many surprises.

Apart from my photography, I’m looking forward to visiting London and Paris in late April/early May and reconnecting with artist friends.
For more info on Beth visit