Q: How has the use of photography in your work changed over the decades?
New York, NY
A: From the beginning in the mid-1980s I used photographs as reference material. My late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups using his Toyo-Omega view camera. In this respect Bryan was an integral part of my creative process as I developed the “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings. At that time I rarely picked up a camera, except to capture memories of our travels.
After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, and more. I wanted and needed to learn how to use them. Starting in 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big chromogenic prints in the darkroom.
Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition and color I had developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Surprisingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition at a gallery in New York. Bryan would have been so proud!
For several years now my camera of choice has been a 12.9” iPad Pro. It’s main advantage is that the large screen let’s me see every detail as I compose my photographs. I think of it as a portable, lightweight, and easy-to-use 8 x 10 view camera. My iPad is always with me when I travel and as I walk around exploring New York City.
It is a wonderful thing to be both a painter and a photographer! While pastel painting will always be my first love, photography has distinct advantages over my studio practice. Pastel paintings are labor-intensive, requiring months of painstaking work. Photography’s main advantage is speed. Photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a print on a wall – can be made in minutes. Photography is instant gratification, allowing me to explore ideas much easier and faster than I ever could as a painter. Perhaps most importantly, composing photographs keeps my eye sharp whenever I am away from the studio. I credit photography as an important factor in the overall evolution of my work.
Comments are welcome!
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?
A: My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive.
First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter. I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice.
My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work. As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too.
One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next. Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.
In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows. Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.
In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera. In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.
Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper. They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York. Now I go to Duggal. Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.
Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper. The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead.
Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting.
Comments are welcome!
Pearls from artists* # 21
* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.
A painting covers its tracks. Painters work from the ground up. The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them. Writers, on the other hand, work from left to right. The discardable chapters are on the left. The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the work’s middle, and hardens toward the end. The earlier version remains lumpishly on the left; the work’s beginning greets the reader with the wrong hand. In those early pages and chapters anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings, and laboriously learn a setting now false.
Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work. If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms. He will retain them. He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, though they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust. Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared – relief that he was writing anything at all. That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork. But no.
Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it in the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?” The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
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