Welcome to the first post of the Wayne and Geraldine Kuhn Fine Arts Gallery blog. If you’re not able to make it to the gallery in person, this site will enable you to view the exciting work on exhibition in the space, as well as hear a bit about it directly from the artist. We hope you enjoy your visit!
We’d like to introduce you to Jenn Libby, our current exhibiting artist. Jenn Libby is an installation artist residing in Rochester, NY who works extensively with the wet-plate collodion process and found media. She uses found objects, and both nineteenth-century and contemporary photographic processes, in a transformative act akin to a process of memory. Bits and pieces—found and original objects and images of popular and consumer culture—and are abstracted. Libby transforms them, like memories, into new objects, with new realities apart from their original materials.
Her recent work employs the wet-plate collodion process to make photograms of various found objects. These camera-less images are made in a darkroom using the light from an enlarger projected onto a sensitized plate of black aluminum. Light is reflected, transmitted, and refracted by the objects positioned between the light and the plate. Opaque objects create a silhouette, while transparent objects result in an image akin to an X-Ray. Each photogram is both a record and a translation of the object. It allows us to see things that were previously unseen. Walter Benjamin called this ability of photography the “optical unconscious.”
In 2005 Libby received her MFA in Visual Studies from the Visual Studies Workshop. She teaches workshops in historic photographic processes and is an adjunct professor and Research Center Coordinator at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY. She calls this gray city home and suspects the dearth of sunshine contributes to her enthusiasm for light.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I’m from the U.P. [Upper Peninsula of Michigan] originally but I’ve lived most of my life in Rochester, NY, which is the home of the Eastman Kodak Company.
I’m a thrifter and junk collector; a gleaner. My dad took me on scavenging adventures when I was little. Ever since I was a kid I’ve liked tiny objects.
I live with a dog, two cats, and a small wooden cowboy named Marlboro Man.
How did you get started in photography?
Every summer at the Libby family camp my grandpa got out the slide projector and we all sat around and looked at the family slides and heard stories. It might seem odd but my cousins and I always looked forward to it, in fact we would pester him to do it.
There weren’t photography classes at my high school but there was an after school photo club and that is where I first learned to use a 35mm camera and a darkroom. Then in my twenties I learned a lot working at a professional photo lab where I was a color editor and custom printer.
In 1999 I took a photo class at the Visual Studies Workshop, where I eventually went to graduate school. The instructor introduced me to Liquid Light which I used to print images of bones on copper to make a life-size flat figure puppet that looked like an X-Ray. I was also gluing photos onto old 78 records so, even then I was interested in taking photography into a more sculptural realm. Then in grad school I met Heather Wetzel and she introduced me to the wet-plate process and that changed everything.
What draws you to the wet-plate collodion process?
Partly it is the sculptural possibilities and versatility of the process which allows me to make images on glass and metal. I get so excited when given the opportunity to explain the wet-plate process to someone and tell them about it’s multitude of uses.
Another reason I work with this process is that it translates reality in a way that is new to me. I love black and white photography because we can’t see in black and white. Collodion is sensitive to a different part of the spectrum than black and white film so it let’s me see things in another different way.
I was not interested in making portraits until I started working with collodion and now they are one of my favorite things to do because the results are surprising, and beautiful in their strangeness. I know to expect that bright red hair will look black, freckles will show up more prominently, and blue eyes will look white but I’m still fascinated when I see the results. And I have never been able to make the same picture twice.
Also, I love the long exposure times. I’ve done portraits that were anywhere from a second or two up to three minutes long. I’ve done quite a few indoor portraits that were around 30 seconds and I really like that length. It can be challenging for the sitter but this prolonged stillness contributes subtly to the image.
The work on display in the gallery is all camera-less images, for most people, camera-less photography is a strange and unusual concept. In your words, what is it?
“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fade” was an early advertising slogan for photography. The “shadow” in a photograph is light reflecting off of the subject, whereas in a photogram the shadow of the object is actually what is captured. Photograms are made when objects lying between the light source and the light sensitive recording material block, transmit, and/or refract light. Solid objects create silhouettes and translucent objects bounce the light around in unexpected ways.
What prompted you to work with photograms? How do you think camera-less photography is perceived?
I started making photograms in the darkroom with the wet-plate process during the winter months because of lack of natural light for in-camera work, before I had started shooting with artificial lights. When I saw the results I was hooked. Unlike a cyanotype or gelatin silver photogram, the trace of the object appears black instead of white. Shadowy figures and objects emerge from the ether. Dodging during exposure and developing imperfections create a background with texture and depth.
Photograms have been made since the early days of photography. Talbot called them photogenic drawings. The earliest photographically illustrated book was Anna Atkins’ book of cyanotype photograms of various seaweed specimens. In the 20th century more photographers rediscovered the process and approached it from a completely different angle. Atkins’ images were made to be references—botanical records—whereas, Man Ray and Christian Schad were using them to make abstract compositions. Photograms are well-suited to both tasks.
There are contemporary artists creating beautiful work with camera-less photography but I don’t think the process is as well-known or as popular as photographs made with a camera.
Give us a glimpse into your process.
Since the wet-plate process necessitates a literally wet plate, I do not place my objects directly on my plates but rather on a piece of glass just above them. Light bulbs and glassware can be tricky because they want to roll. Most of the objects are things I already had. The circle photograms started with glass canning jars and other lab ware and then I started hunting for small, circular glass objects at flea markets and thrift shops. The circle photograms in Seeing is Forgetting evolved out of the ones in Record which is why there is some overlap in the two series.
How is the process compared to other processes you’ve worked with?
It is easier for several reasons. Since it is all done in my basement darkroom I don’t have to run up and down stairs for every exposure. The plate doesn’t need to be loaded into a plate holder and the exposures are consistent and short. So the plate from start to finish takes less time than if I were making an in-camera image.
From where do you draw your inspirations? Are there any artists that have been particularly influential to your vision and development as an artist?
Found ephemera, vernacular images, archives, wunderkammer. Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Christian Boltanksi, Jan Svankmajer. Film. Stop-motion animation. The first time I saw The Cameraman’s Revenge by Ladislaw Starewicz I was stunned—actually it still amazes and delights me. Somewhere in all this is a link to my work. Re-animation, perhaps. I collect things, re-imagine them, and give them new life.
Preserving memories appears to be a recurring theme in your work; what is it about this subject that intrigues and sustains aspects of your creative endeavors?
I have a terrible memory and it frustrates me. I grapple with the dichotomy that photographs are thought to represent memories, moments frozen in time, yet, I can look at a photograph from my childhood and know that I have no recollection of the event documented even though I am clearly present in the image. The photograph remembers but I don’t.
I think of photographs and objects as triggers for memories. They are mementos and souvenirs to be collected as devices to help the mind recall people and occasions. I love to think about how photography, around for such a short portion of human history, has changed how people see, think, and remember.
As someone who works predominantly with historic photographic processes, how do you see digital technologies integrating in your work? How do you feel about seeing an image you created that was once a small precious object in such a large scale?
I have employed digital images to make some of my artist books, but this is the first time I’ve exhibited digital prints on a wall. I prefer working in a darkroom over a computer but sometimes digital is the right tool for the task.
In the case of Seeing is Forgetting, I liked these tiny celestial or cellular looking images and I was curious to see how they would look enlarged. I printed out a 16”x16” print and liked it, but decided it needed to be bigger. I still love the intimacy of the small objects but I also find the large prints to be exciting in a different way. By changing the scale I remove the image further from the object that made it.
The images in Record are generally identifiable objects. With Seeing is Forgetting I am transitioning into the abstract and hoping the viewer will look at the image and not at the object.
Your titles reference multiple interpretations of you work, both in process, subject matter, and meaning, how do you come up with your titles?
I love titling things even though I struggle with it. It is an entry point for me to contemplate the work. I love words and I spend a lot of time looking up definitions when I’m working on a title or an artist’s statement.
Working titles for the circles were After Duchamp and then False Star Maps until I finally settled on Seeing is Forgetting. It references a book by Lawrence Weschler called Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees about artist Robert Irwin. When I hit upon it it felt right and made sense to me.
As for Record, that title was inspired by the image of the 45 and the fact that I felt like I was making records of all these objects. Recording devices of the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in physical objects with physical impressions. You can touch them and see them. You can have a roll of 16mm film in hand with no projector but you can still see the succession of tiny images! You can’t do that with digital recordings.
Where do you see this work heading? Do you have other projects you are also working on?
I have struggled with various chemical problems working with the wet-plate process during the past ten years, and at times I’ve vowed to give it up, but it’s not time yet. I have more film developing hangers to fill and I like the idea of expanding Record. And I would like to make some more of the large prints which will entail experimenting with more translucent circular objects.
I plan to continue making portraits. I am about to get a studio space that will make it much easier to work with backdrops and I’m very excited to get started on that.
You can see more of Jenn Libby’s work at www.jennlibby.com