Call photographer Gina Gaiser a documentarian of the Anthropocene. Planned and unplanned landscapes, the way in which we build structures, occupy space, and travel from place to place: the things that Gaiser documents move, are temporary. Her shots explore evidence of life, the subtle changes over time that tell a story of our current age.
Such a chronicler was born in San Jose and raised in Oakland, where Gaiser attended Piedmont High, later leaving for college, and then returning to the Bay Area to live in 1990. She’s been here ever since, currently residing in the Deep East Oakland neighborhood of Sequoyah, near the zoo.
“I love the cultural diversity, food, quality of light, and city living with close proximity to nature,” Gaiser told 48hills of her romance with the Bay Area.
Her love for capturing truth through photo began early. In grade school, she took a summer photography course and made a pinhole camera. Soon after, she started collecting old-format cameras. Not afraid to take things apart, she deconstructed them, made adjustments, and loaded them with film to see what images she could create. Learning how light works—really, how the eye works—fascinated the young artist. In high school, Gaiser was the first woman student to work in the print shop duplicating school district forms. There, she developed a love for print processes, paper, and the intoxicating smell of ink.
Gaiser’s formal studies include a BA in studio art from UC Santa Cruz, a certificate for a year-long study of printmaking and art history from Il Bisonte Foundation for Art and Printmaking in Florence, Italy and an MFA from Mills College in digital media, video, and sculpture. She has attended three-month residencies at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, Southern Exposure in San Francisco, and Top Hat Shine in Vienna.
“If other advanced degrees in art were available, I would do it,” she said. “I love being in school and learning new things.”
Gaiser’s influences include Andy Warhol and video artist Bill Viola, who addresses fundamental human experiences such as birth, death, and consciousness. Cindy Sherman’s photographic self-portraits inspire her, as do Jeff Wall’s large-scale, back-lit composite photographs.
She thrills to the way Frida Kahlo accessed her own life story as an artistic resource, and to the German expressionist movement, including prints, posters, and film, particularly, 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. For crafting patterns, textures and landscapes, she references the work of Klimt and Van Gogh. The Dada movement, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and 1950s avant-garde art movement Fluxus also touch her creations. Her days with Zarina Hashmi, Gaiser’s first etching teacher at UCSC who worked with themes of home, maps and icons, have also been an influence.
Gaiser examines how the landscape has changed since humans inhabited the earth, and temporary changes as evidenced by homelessness, urban nomads, and economic disparities. She wonders about climate change and the effects of pollution, single-use plastics, and the problems of smoky air due to wildfires and flooding due to king tides and rising sea levels. She explores how we utilize space—what is empty and what is occupied, inequities, wealth and poverty, start-up culture, and where the money goes. Human emotions in these circumstances intrigue her as well, and how we cope with stress, pain, suffering, and mental illness.
“I document experiences, feelings, and mundane scenes, elevating them to a place of significance,” she said.
Gaiser is snapping pictures all the time. When her children were young, she took digital photos because they didn’t require a dedicated physical space. But she later amassed a library of tens of thousands of digital shots, in addition to boxes of film, slides, and video.
She most often creates through experimentation, using technology as a collaborator. Working on a MacBook Pro to organize, crop, and adjust images, her tools include a digital camera, camcorder, phone, and photo editing software to simplify formal compositions. Sequencing daily activities into various series, the work resembles pages of a book, cells in a comic strip, or stills from a film. To prepare for exhibitions, she outsources printing services, relishing the translation of digital images into prints. She dreams of making large, billboard-sized prints.
Three years ago, she rented a studio in West Berkeley as a way to be around other artists and centralize her work process. In September, she moved to a newly-renovated studio in the Glenview neighborhood of Oakland with her good friend Sandra Wong Orloff. The two artists met in the 1990s while working at Amsterdam Art in Berkeley and together they co-founded the collective Ben Dunne Presents, producing pop-up art events in Oakland. More recently, they exhibited together at Manna Gallery, participated in East Bay Open Studios, and hope to host open studios and pop-up events in their new space.
During the pandemic, Gaiser entered online shows and appreciated the opportunities that continued to be available for artists during times of lockdown. As things opened up, travel became a new resource. She’s working on photographs taken from recent plane trips, and bought a drone for aerial shots. She’s also experimenting with printing photographs in new ways by silk-screening onto fabric and paper and making books and zines.
Gaiser will continue to examine how cycles of daily life affect us over time. Familiar, mundane, repetitive actions are ever-present in our lives and shape who we are. She is curious how many of these actions of which we are conscious.
“I think there is beauty in everyday life,” Gaiser said. “I like things that are not precious, not extraordinary. As Warhol said, ‘You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.’”
As a single mom to two creative teenagers, Gaiser is an instructional designer and video producer for online education at UCSF. She is a member of GearBox Gallery in Oakland, where she will exhibit in May, and of Jen Tough’s online Artist Alliance.
For more information, visit Gina Gaiser’s website at ginagaiser.com or her profile on Instagram.