My photographic work focuses on fictional narrative. I create art that visualizes curious scenarios in order to convey a message or feeling instead of a record of a moment. I utilize a range of hand-applied photographic emulsions in order to visualize the distance between fantasy and reality, as well as to make prints that appear as objects instead of windows. The photographic processes I use are chosen intentionally to evoke another place or time that is removed from the every day, adding layers of narrative meaning through historical references or material qualities.
I first directly addressed photographic storytelling in my MFA thesis, A Life Reviewed: George Eastman Through the Viewfinder. For this project, I explored the relationship between biography and art. To tell the story of the life of George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, I digitally photographed subjects seen in the viewfinders of old Kodak cameras. By photographing antique cameras, I integrated Eastman’s greatest legacy into each image. A Life Reviewed combined historical research with a nostalgic imagining of the past. The project was an account of a human life, pieced together after the fact. Each image related to a place within Eastman’s story, as well as my own journey to discover Rochester, New York, and its importance in the history of photography. I was honored to have this body of work first shown in what were once George Eastman’s private quarters at the George Eastman House, now the George Eastman Museum, one of the premier photographic collections in the world.
Building on this interest in narrative, in a subsequent body of work, In Search of Sleep, I used metaphor to create stories within each image. This series of blue cyanotype prints is linked through a cohesive use of as myself as the recurring figure. With images taking place in the shadowy realm of my childhood bedtime stories, the fictional context allowed me to explore real-life questions, from personal dramas to romantic doubts, culminating in a visual lullaby.
During the process of making single images for In Search of Sleep, I began to consider devising a continuous storyline that moved from one image to the next. My current body of work, the fictional narrative Svala’s Saga, is a culmination of many elements I have been experimenting with for years. Because of the complexity of developing an extended narrative with myself also as the model, I decided to work collaboratively. Together with photographer and art historian, Kirsten Hoving, we invented a photographic fairytale that we shot on location in Iceland. This collaboration allowed me to act as the character throughout the project, interacting with the landscape on a dramatic level I had not reached in previous projects.
Even though I have used myself as a model beginning with my undergraduate thesis, The Impermanence of Life and Light, I do not think of my work as self-portraiture. For that series, I studied nineteenth-century spirit photography and created related wet plate collodion images, which were layered with meaning from my own experiences as I grappled with the death of my grandmother. I began thinking of myself as a fictional character in In Search of Sleep, acting out a wider range of concepts, subtly changing the character for each image. Taking this approach further, Svala’s Saga chronicles a particular character, our imaginary Svala, for whom we have we have created a more concrete identity by keeping the same costume and motivation throughout the series. Unlike In Search of Sleep, where the narratives were often enclosed in a single image, the storyline in Svala’s Saga is based on the journey of a single character and the world she inhabits, as told through sixty interrelated photographs.
Svala’s Saga has also offered me the opportunity to engage with environmental themes I had only touched on previously. Conceptually, in addition to narrative, Svala’s Saga addresses the urgent issue of species extinction. In a previous body of work, An Elegy for the Honeybee, I researched the sudden disappearance of honeybees, known as colony collapse disorder. I created wet plate collodion photographs of bees to understand their importance in our culture and visually convey their vulnerability. Svala’s Saga harnesses the power of fiction to explore similar environmental issues on a larger scale. The positive response that Svala’s Saga has already elicited confirms that there is a place for fiction in the discourse of environmentalism.
Although the on-location photography has been a collaborative effort, I have been responsible for all the post-processing and printing of Svala’s Saga. I chose to print Svala’s Saga using the chemical palladium process coated over a digital/pigment under-print, a process that has been called “Pigment over Palladium.” The resulting images have subtle color with a degree of texture, similar to early paper photographs. This hybrid technique lacks the immediate historic reference of other vintage processes. Instead, it evokes hand colored photographs or painted illustrations. This is well suited to the fantasy nature of this series.
I am not alone in my approach to historic processes. At a time when photography is extremely accessible, there is a community of fine art photographers who are exploring historic and alternative (post-factory) chemical processes in order to create prints with individual character. Most of these processes stem from the earliest photographic discoveries. These techniques can be mixed from raw materials and applied by hand onto a range of papers or materials. The chemical combinations result in emulsions that are less sensitive to light than modern film or digital sensors. Some chemicals respond to areas of the light spectrum in different ways. Photographs made this way often do not look like the flawless full-color images of the Internet and advertising. Instead they are prone to imperfections and the artifacts of their handmade origins. This loose approach to technique can result in images that visualize an internal dialog rather than document a specific moment.
I use alternative photographic emulsions because, unlike digital, they give me to freedom to explore experiential methods of image-making. I am one of a growing number of artists who have turned to non-digital or hybrid processes to critique of the removal of the hand of the artist inherent in digital technologies by overtly declaring the material process in the finished product.
The manipulation of photographic processes plays a distinctive role in my work. For each project, I carefully consider what the photographic process will add or reveal in the images. Each photographic process has a different color and tonal range that can dramatically shift the mood of the image. I also examine the conceptual aspects of the photographic chemicals used, such as silver, iron, platinum, as well as additional chemicals such as wine and tea in my cyanotype images. For An Elegy for the Honeybee I created a developer to process the images made with honey. When choosing a process, I take into account the physical characteristics, such as the transparency and metallic sheen of wet plate collodion on glass.
I am interested in pushing the conventional use of these techniques. For example, in An Elegy for the Honeybee I returned to wet plate collodion, which I had used for several previous projects. This time, instead of using glass plates as the surface for the photograph, I coated chemicals onto acrylic that I had cut into shapes with a laser cutter. At the same time, I experimented with laser engraving on the surface of the plate and utilized the transparency of the clear acrylic to emphasize the fragility of the bee specimen I was photographing. While wet plate collodion is normally created in-camera with no film, other processes require a negative to be the size of the final image. For cyanotype, and pigment over palladium, as well as other processes, I use digital negatives printed on a plastic transparency.
I incorporate digital manipulation in my work in order to expand the narrative possibilities. Digital collage allows me to make scenes that would be impossible to capture in reality. My use of a chemical process to produce the final piece distracts from the digital manipulation in the negative. The surface texture and style allow the viewer more easily to accept the new perspective because it looks more like an illustration instead of reality. I am drawn to historic processes because they enable me to visualize the temporal distance between the images I create and the world around us. I create art that visualizes a space between the past and the present. This allows me to examine history, as well as to invent my own fictional spaces.
Emma Powell is an assistant professor of art at Colorado College. Powell graduated from the College of Wooster, and received her MFA in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology. Her work often examines photography's history while incorporating historic processes and other devices within the imagery.