Today’s big news is not what this post is about, but it does serve as a bit of a reminder, whether comforting or not, that headlines and sound bites are not the bulk of our lives.
On a December morning almost exactly a decade ago, Maria Alexandra Vettese and Stephanie Congdon Barnes each posted a still life on the then-new photo-sharing site, Flickr. Though the two women had never met, they were struck by the way the photos seemed to echo each other, and the friendship that followed grew into a year-long photo collaboration, a blog with a worldwide readership, and today, a new book.
We are celebrating with a Q&A with Maria (MAV) and Stephanie (SCB).
One of our favorite things about A Year Between Friends is the seasonality of your projects and recipes, and how your very different environments affected your tastes. Can you tell us a little about your lives as makers? What are you working on now as the holidays approach?
MAV: I live very much in tune with the seasons and I love seeing Stephanie’s life pace along similarly. I know I will see her paper snowflakes coming out after Thanksgiving and her tabletop Christmas tree shortly thereafter. It’s a comfort to me to see these traditions in her life 3,191 miles away. Right now, I am preparing to host Thanksgiving (for 15 adults and 10 children!) and thinking about what I want to make Luna Rose, my baby, and my friends or family for Christmas. My making usually centers around photographs (photo books, framed images), food (cookies or granola in a beautiful jar) or naturally dyed goods (a set of cloth napkins or towels). I don’t work too far ahead and will take each holiday one at a time.
SCB: Since childhood, making things has been a part of my daily life, but the process of documenting my life for A Year Between Friends helped me see how my activity and focus flows with the seasons. After a summer spent out in the world—traveling, exploring, gathering inspiration and supplies, now I am settling in for the shorter days when I spend more time indoors at home. Making a little time every day for craft is essential to me whether I am learning a new skill or chipping away at a long-term project. I am doing a lot of mending, both with wool (as shown in our book) and some simple patchwork on favorite garments. As the holidays approach, I am starting a few hand-sewn projects as gifts for close friends and family, including something special for MAV’s daughter.
You both started blogging in 2005, which if we look back is a time period that produced game changers in more fields than one (the advent of Dooce, and Gawker, Julie Powell, and Deb Perelman). What is it like to be part of the group of first bloggers? How have things changed, how have they stayed the same, and what do you think will happen to the medium in the future?
MAV: It’s interesting to see you categorize us next to names like Dooce and Gawker. While we did start blogging around the same time as many bloggers who are now “internet famous,” I think of us so differently. We are not better or worse, just different. The plain fact is, we are just not as popular as the rest. We never took on sponsors, we don’t spill our guts or publish tons of photographs from our personal lives. We have been doing this for a decade in a rather low-key fashion and I think we prefer it this way. I think we have changed with the times, somewhat, but we still value our space at 3191 Miles Apart. We still try to cultivate a home there where we can share quiet and important moments. The medium of sharing has gotten faster, quicker, more immediate. People don’t want to read a long, wordy post (or I should say, most people?). They want something quick; a snippet. They can find that at 3191 Miles Apart, and in our books, through the photographs. That feels good to us. But we will always want to offer a space, through the web and our books, where people can take a bit more time to themselves, or time to share with a friend. We still see what we do as a whole as creating a place of pause, something a bit deeper than a snippet. Or, at least I hope people see that. I think it would be hard for us to get on the fast track like many other bloggers from our time have. I guess we are a bit old-fashioned.
SCB: I think we benefitted from the boom in the popularity of blogs back then, but agree with MAV that we have always been a bit set apart. We chose to not ride the tide of sponsorships and advertising and have forged our own path. Our project has always been about our friendship and having an outlet for our creativity, and thanks to the supportive community surrounding 3191 Miles Apart, we make it work. The advent of smart phones has definitely changed how bloggers share in the last ten years. Some of that change has been hard for us to adjust to, but other aspects have been welcome—we love the simplicity and immediacy of Instagram, for example. Back when we started with A Year of Mornings, taking a picture of your breakfast was an odd thing to do, now it’s the norm!
MAV, you write in A Year Between Friends that for this book, “It would have been easier to just share the photographs but this time around, we wanted to give more.” How did it feel to share some of these life events? Was there anything that was too close to heart, or anything to be afraid of? What did you enjoy the most?
MAV: I was not afraid of sharing as much as I was afraid of exposing. I think there is a difference. I am a private person but I also have a lot to say and am not afraid to say it. We decided to share our lives from a full year (2015) but certainly we didn’t share everything. I did have to share some big things because I wanted to, not because I felt forced to. That felt really good to me. I’m honored to have an audience to share in this part of my life and my friendship with Stephanie. As the year went on and I grasped what I was going to have to share, I knew Stephanie would be there to have my back. She cheered me on all year and I did the same for her. Working on the book together was an incredible touchstone for me. I enjoyed the commitment. I enjoyed showing up each month to do the work. I loved the rhythm of the whole process. I am a huge fan of marking a full year so our “Year Of” concepts have been thrilling for me no matter what happens during that year.
SCB: When we committed to documenting the year, I worried a bit that we were inviting disaster, and life did throw us some curveballs. MAV and I are both private people, but also very open to new experiences and connections. We never would have met and started collaborating ten years ago without that exact openness and vulnerability, so I am always able to see the benefit of sharing. That said, I value my relationships and the trust that friends and family place in me, so that is always foremost in my mind. The gift of this book for me was being able to explore my feelings surrounding parenting teens and the changing role tradition and rituals play in our family as I prepare for them to leave the nest. I was also just so moved by MAV’s strength and resilience over the course of the year and her ability to share that experience with me, and ultimately, all the readers of the book.
At some point in early adulthood, it suddenly seemed like a lot of people were telling us it would be hard to make real friends after X point, or that the friendships wouldn’t be the same (this article stuck, in particular). We don’t think that’s true, necessarily, but your friendship story seems particularly miraculous—you met on Flickr and have never lived in the same state! What makes your very real friendship work despite the physical distance between you?
MAV: I think our friendship comes down to one word: trust. We built trust over a shared visual language. We did not over-think it. There was not a moment where we could stop and say, “is this person my real friend?” because we were already involved in a year-long project and then another one. We were committed to each other because we respected and adored each other’s photographs. From there, there were visits and getting to know each other more. Each of us let our guard down over time. Even now I always tell people that Stephanie is very private and I feel honored that she shares with me. I always feel that I am standing a bit taller after we talk on the phone and she gives me her sage advice or tells me a story from her life. Her friendship is one of the most important of my life yet it’s one that I put the least amount of time into, if that makes sense. I know, however, that I could call her at any moment and share anything with her. I love that feeling. I also know that she understands my photographs, which are incredibly important to me, just as much as I do. I think we both have an eye for seeing things in each others images that others don’t have. Trust is why our friendship is so dear. We do not share the every day through words, we share it through photographs, making, cooking, caring. It’s simpler. It feels like home, like an extension of myself and what is important to me.
SCB: MAV expresses my feelings surrounding our friendship so well! It is absolutely about trust. Sometimes it takes years to build trust with a friend, but we were thrown into this creative partnership where we had to show up every day and share a little bit of our lives, so that trust was built quite quickly. It is very unique relationship in that way! As I meet new people and form new face-to-face friendships, I sometimes wish I could jump-start them in the same way!
SCB, you write that doing this project “creates a heightened awareness of the passing of time.” How does the process of documenting your daily life affect your daily life? Do you ever struggle to find the time, or are there any rituals or habits that help? What would you recommend for someone hoping to create a similar kind of document?
SCB: Documenting my life in a structured way has been such a gift to me, as an artist and as a human. I do believe in the ritual of time-based projects whether it be photographing your morning, keeping a gratitude journal, or having a weekly craft goal. An essential part of the process is sharing that work with someone else. I often struggle to find the time or just feel that my work is not good enough, but the trust and commitment that I have with MAV, as well as the community of people that follow 3191 Miles Apart, propels me forward. It is important to show up. The advice I give is that it is all about the showing up. The work you do is secondary to the showing up, but you will see benefits in your work over time. You don’t have to document it all in a book or even share it online—a commitment between two friends can be enough!
We might be a little biased, but we promise this conversation has barely scratched the surface of this generous, beautiful book. Learn more, or order your copy of A Year Between Friends here.
All photographs in this post © 2016 Stephanie Barnes and Maria Vettese.