Traveling and living out of a converted Sprinter van last August, Art & Design senior Grace Coudal discovered the beauty and vastness of the American Southwest. With her friend and Art & Design class of 2020 graduate Dante Tsuzuki, Coudal drove through Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico to photograph the sweeping landscape.
Thousands of miles away from Coudal’s native Chicago, this coveted region of American terrain inspired Coudal’s debut photography book Intimately South, Intimately West, which was ethically printed in Minneapolis and released Feb. 11.
Coudal believes that embracing a nomadic lifestyle during the pandemic led her toward a deeper intimacy with the landscape where she traveled and the people she met. In a virtual interview with The Daily, Coudal she described a particular night at a Utah campsite.
“The whole sky was black except for this sunset that was happening all across this mountainscape. I’ve literally never seen colors like that in my life,” she said. “When I started crying, I didn’t know why. It was like I was seeing heaven.”
Funded by the Kelly McKinnell Memorial Scholarship grant from the School of Art & Design, Coudal launched her vision of a travel photo project into action. The dynamics of intimacy have always enamored Coudal.
“Intimacy is just being blown away, and entranced by land that I have never seen. Feelings that have emerged that I couldn’t really even anticipate,” she said.
Coudal only brought 10 rolls of 35 mm film for the month-long trip.
“It was a very active choice to do film photography. I did not want to at all do digital. I did not want to be able to see the photos that I was taking. I wanted there to be an element of surprise,” Coudal said.
Only after returning from her trip and scanning the film did she see the photos she took.
“Photos serve as artifacts. With a digital photo, you can take as many photos as you want just to get your ‘perfect’ shot,” Coudal said. “And I kind of liked that that was not an option.”
Through the spontaneity granted through film photography and journal entries, her book revels in the joy of the unknown and unplanned, all while capturing an otherworldly landscape.
Photos featuring nudity in nature, like people bathing in a creek, are included in her book as well — physical intimacy is a common thread throughout her other photography, as seen through Coudal’s personal projects like “Lusting Longer.”
Coudal speaks on the self-portrait series as growing out of a transformative time in her life when she was navigating her own identity as a queer femme. “Lusting Longer” subverts the common fairytale trope of a girl venturing into the woods; Coudal re-imagines the tale by reclaiming her identity through fashion and photography. Hauling photography equipment and various outfits to Nichols Arboretum in the early morning, Coudal photographed herself.
“I was trying to reclaim myself, sensuality, desires and lust that I’ve been feeling toward people,” Coudal said. “It was a really meaningful project at that time, and I was happy with how it turned out.”
Though she has been creating and selling zines — self-published work curated by images and text — since childhood, Coudal gravitated toward photography as a medium. The vulnerability one could capture through a lens enamored her.
“You could display, entice people and provoke people very quickly, which I really liked … Trying to progress the world into the way that we (Coudal and her friends) wanted it. We wanted it to move it. Photography was an accessible way to do that,” she said.
The pairing of intimacy and photography stems from Coudal’s interest in how her sexuality intersects with the art she creates. Informed by her minor in LGBTQ and Sexuality Studies, her senior thesis project is on the future of queer femme intimacy. Coudal said that if she wasn’t a photographer, she’d be a sexologist. The intersection of these interests led her to conceptualize and launch her startup STAA, a brand focused on sex education and empowerment.
Growing up as a queer teen, Coudal didn’t see her sexuality reflected in sex education class. So, STAA was born. “I wanted to make a company that was unapologetic about talking about sexuality, sex, intimacy and identities,” she said.
Coudal found that much of LGBTQ+ and studies on sexuality can be dense and academically challenging to read. In an effort to promote more accessible content, Coudal hopes to inform other young people about sex through art, particularly her photography.
“It makes life confusing when you aren’t taught those things, or you just don’t feel validated or seen if you are like a part of those communities. … And so I’m trying to translate that into a universal language of art,” she said.
Coudal contextualized her mission: “Literally less than seven percent of LGBTQ+ individuals were ever taught an inclusive sexual education in the United States, which is awful,” she said. “The brand is basically just trying to open these conversations, empower people about their own desires and their own intimacy.”
Coudal also hopes to add a podcast to STAA where she can interview guests about sex, desire and LGBTQ+ topics. By broaching especially sensitive topics that can be really difficult and sensitive, such as sexual and gender identity and sexual intimacy, Coudal finds that having her photography online helps others feel validated and seen.
“There are so many things that are perfectly normal and amazing that people need to feel validated about and need to feel empowered about,” Coudal said. “They shouldn’t just feel validated — they should be celebrated for being themselves.”
Daily Arts writer Nina Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org