©Rhona Bitner / ADAGP, Artist’s Rights Society, New York

Photographs of circus entertainers, worn ballet shoes and spot-lit stages make up the œuvre of Rhona Bitner. On Friday, Oct. 27, students from the School of Art had the chance to speak with Bitner about these works as she visited their class. 

Bitner spoke with students enrolled in the Advanced Photography Project Seminar, which is taught by professor Lisa Kereszi ART ’00. The talk was supported by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

“I’ve had a camera in my hands since I was a child,” Bitner wrote to the News. “When I was studying art and exploring various art-making methods and tools, photography felt the most natural to me. It was my language.”

Bitner’s photography is on display at Hamilton College’s Wellin Museum of Art. The exhibition includes seven of Bitner’s photographic series, such as “Circus,” “Stage” and “Pointe.” The exhibition went up on Sept. 9 and it will remain on display until Dec. 9.

The photographic series spans 30 years of Bitner’s work. “Circus” documents a decade of Bitner’s life, during which she followed 46 different circus troupes around Europe. 

“I was interested in the parallels between how the circus is structured: The circle as mimicking our planet but also as a sacred space, and the hierarchy of the performers,” Bitner wrote. “The acrobats are angels flying through the air, the clowns represent us; we get knocked down and we have to get back up, we juggle, jump through hoops, hang by a thread, perform balancing acts.”

Bitner said that she has been inspired by other artists including Zoe Leonard for her process and structure, On Kawara for his exploration of time, Claude Monet for his methodical technique and Jason Moran for his “ferocity.” 

Place, Bitner said, has inspired her work as well. Growing up in New York gave the photographer broad access to the arts. As a child, she often visited museums, ballets, concerts and the theater.

“[I sat] mostly [in] the last rows of the balcony, which was what our budget allowed,” Bitner said. “Seeing the stage at that angle was in some way defining. That is why my work retains a sense of wonder — someone once described it as the perspective of a child peering through a keyhole.” 

Lisa Kereszi, who is also the director of undergraduate studies for art, welcomed Bitner to Yale last week. Kereszi, like Bitner, is a photographer and shared that the two artists have photographed many of the same subjects.

“Our work intersects around themes of performance and spectacle, and the spaces that house them when they are not full of people,” Kereszi wrote the News. “We somehow had previously passed like ships in the night, circling around some of the same subject matter, such as circuses and venues like CBGB’s [a New York music club].”

Bitner also visited the studios of School of Art students, as well as seniors concentrating in photography to provide them with feedback on their work.

Among the art students who received a studio visit from Bitner was Aliaksandra Tucha ART ’25.

“I’ve had a studio visit with Rhona Bitner. I was moved by how kind, perceptive, and caring she was,” Tucha wrote. “She is a true teacher. She shared how she thickened her own skin, shared about her journey as an artist. I needed it all. In moments of doubt, this is what I hold onto. Rhona is someone who made me feel courageous, which I know I am, but it doesn’t always feel so. I feel stronger now that I know her.”

Her exhibition at the Wellin Museum of Art is the first solo museum survey of Bitner’s photographs. Her work has also been exhibited at museums and institutes including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and Fonds national d’Art contemporain in Paris. 

Bitner is a 2020 recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, and she recently published a book of her photographs with Rizzoli titled “Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music.” 

When asked about whether or not she’s ever experimented with other media, Bitner hinted at future work saying, “I am an active and willing participant, viewer, reader, audience member, but I do not incorporate other media in my work … yet.”

The Poynter Fellowship in Journalism will host The New Yorker’s art critic on Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Pierson College’s Leitner House.

Update, Nov. 11: The article was updated to more clarify Kereszi’s title.

Chloe Edwards is a Photography Editor, as well as a Beat Reporter covering Arts in New Haven at the University. Originally from North Carolina, she is currently a sophomore in Branford College majoring in English.