What originally drew you to work in alternative processes?
I was never a fan of traditional darkroom work. I printed well enough, but I just didn’t enjoy the darkroom. That never held any fascination for me. I never had a good darkroom space, where I could work easily and freely, so printing became nothing more than a dreaded chore. I also grew weary of the constant discontinuation, seemingly without warning, of some truly outstanding commercial photo papers.
Twenty plus years ago, I was in a gallery where someone was exhibiting some gorgeous platinum prints. I was just blown away by the luminescent quality, the almost unimaginable tonal range, and the quiet softness of those prints. I then discovered that platinum prints could be made in ambient light-- no darkroom needed! I also liked that watercolor papers could be used, instead of commercial photo papers. I could find no one in my area to teach it, so I taught myself. As long as you have perfect negatives, it seems, you’re good to go. But I did struggle along for a while, mainly in search of that ever-elusive perfect negative. While living in Manhattan for a short couple of years, I had a chance to take a weekend course at ICP, with James Luciana, and it was like turning on a light switch. James is a great instructor, and I learned everything I was doing wrong and was encouraged by what I was doing right. That particular printing process seemed to mesh well with my images, too. And the process of printing itself, of creating those hand-applied prints, just suited me so much better than traditional darkroom work. I certainly felt I was more in control of how I wanted my final image to appear.
Listening Vessel, cyanotype over platinum
Describe your planning and photographic process. What inspires you to use one form
of printing versus another, for instance?
I still print in platinum, but more often than not, I print in gum bichromate. I also mix processes, using gum over platinum, cyanotype over platinum, or platinum over pigment. So I feel like I have an array of printing processes that I could choose from-- and, of course, so many more out there that I would love to learn. Typically, though, I tend to look at an image-- even when I’m in the process of taking the photograph-- and I can tell which process would fit the image better than another. Of course, I’m sometimes surprised. And since the negative (or digital scan) for platinum needs to be different than for gum-- all of which can be manipulated to a degree-- I often think that the (rare) perfect negative I might have is just screaming out for platinum.
Often, though, I’ll choose one image and print it in various processes. I’m intrigued and surprised by how those choices translate. I find myself mostly printing in gum, though, simply because I find that process so much fun to do and so open to interpretation. Creatively, the possibilities in gum printing seem infinite to me. The painterly quality of gum also seems to mesh well with my images.
Gaia, cyanotype over platinum
You have said that for you, photographs are all about the past, and your work is very
dream-like at times. How does this influence your subject matter, especially when
making a statement about the present or the future?
What was it that Faulkner said? “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Maybe this obsession with the past is an inherently Southern one. But I really don’t believe you can make images that are meant to be statements on the present, or future, without the past intruding. It’s there, hovering-- all around us, all the time. That intrusion (of all things past) gives meaning to everything else. A statement about the future means nothing if not measured by the past.
And the sense of the past remains timeless to me. So-- in an image, for instance-- I might be making a statement about the present or the future, but I strive for that sense of timelessness that really seems dependent on the past, in whatever form-- even if that form translates as fractured memories or dreams. I’m also very conscious, when making an image, of a sense of time-- of time gone by, of time lost, of time moving on-- and the sense of loss that goes along with that.
The past-- our memories of it-- is often highly subjective, and certainly subject to some revisionist history. And, of course, the act of photographing and of how we make that final image, is all open to revision and manipulation, too-- just like how we remember. Choosing to print in gum bichromate, for example, is a way to interpret an image in a wholly different way from what was initially seen.
So while this might sound convoluted, I feel that the past is completely entangled and interwoven in everything we do-- so much so, that to untangle or separate that from the present and future would be an impossibility.
Dancer, cyanotype over platinum
You have taught many workshops over the years. How does teaching others inspire your work and vice versa?
Being a photographer can be a loner business. I photograph alone and print alone. Unless we join some like-minded photo group that meets periodically-- whether online or in real life-- we tend to work in a vacuum. I know I do. So teaching allows me to get out of my own head for a while. To teach someone who is both interesting and interested is enormously fun for me. I love to see their imagery and hear them talk about what motivates them-- to see what they’re doing, and learn why they’re doing it. I find that fascinating. To have enough expertise to be able to teach someone what you know, to be generous with that information, is of enormous value. I find it uplifting. And to see a student make a successful print-- or to simply watch them learn about the process-- is inspiring in itself.
We all learn from each other, and I always feel energized, especially when teaching a pinhole workshop, or a printing technique. I often discover new ways of looking at certain images because of the fresh perspective of students. Those, in particular, who choose to take an alt process, pinhole, or toy camera course tend to be creative types, and that’s both inspiring and energizing.
Girl on Beach, cyanotype over platinum
Finally, we ask this of all our artists, what does success mean to you?
I was in this conversation recently with a small group of people, and someone asked the question, “If you won the Powerball lottery tomorrow, would you continue to do what you’re doing now?” Without hesitation, my immediate answer was yes. I later gave that question a lot more thought, and my answer was still yes.
About two years ago, we renovated what was an old (circa 1927), nearly crumbling, detached garage and potting shed in our back yard and transformed it into a 600 square foot working studio. I was able to keep much of the original structure, including those wonderful exposed rafters, laden with character-- which I love-- and some small amount of the original heart-pine flooring which I had made into a sliding barn door. I put in a big sink and a wide work surface, great lights, and a wood-burning stove-- all the right stuff that just works and makes you feel good about your creative environment-- something I never had up until a couple of years ago. So it’s just a perfect space for me, in every way-- a dream come true, really. And every morning, I get to walk out to my back yard, coffee in hand, beloved border collie in tow, and go to work at a “job” I love to do.
I’m continually inspired by my working environment, by what I constantly see around me, by students, and by those artists I know whose work is so unique, and those artists I’ve not yet met, but whose work I know and also greatly admire.
So I basically get to make art all day long, and through the night if I want. Most importantly, I still have ideas. How amazing is that? More amazing still, is that people want to see my artwork, and sometimes they actually buy it to put on their walls. And people will ask me questions, just like these, and put it on their blog. I’m bowled over by every piece of that, really.
I could go on and on. I have a great supportive husband, for instance-- and an incredible daughter-- and a brilliant border collie. I’m not really all that young, and yet I’m still out there running every (other) day. So, you know, all of this feels a lot like success to me. It was a bit of a journey to get here, but I love my life, and I love what I do.
Middle Island, cyanotype over platinum
Diana H. Bloomfield's work Vignettes is on view at The Kiernan Gallery through June 1.