An Interview with Christa Bowden

Untitled (moth study), 8 x 8", platinum palladium print, 2008.

Christa Bowden’s exhibition, Still Flight, opens Monday, January 11, and runs through February 14.  We are delighted to be showing this work and recently asked Christa a few questions:

How does your choice to use contemporary photographic processes (scanners, digital files, and archival inkjet printing) in conjunction with 19th century processes inform your work?

I have been using the flatbed scanner as my primary camera since 1999, when I was in graduate school at the University of Georgia. My early explorations with the scanner were primarily figurative, juxtaposing sections of the human body with natural objects. The human body has slowly worked its way out of the imagery, but the natural objects have remained. It was not a clean break between different bodies of work, but rather a natural progression. I think that this leads me to look at my current work not strictly as still life, but rather as constructed (as opposed to found) imagery. This is a common factor with all scanography, since the artist must always define how the subject is placed within the rectangle of the scanner. Although the moths are visually different from my earlier figurative work, the process has remained much the same.

In terms of 19th century processes, I began incorporating these into my work in 2007. The college where I teach, Washington and Lee University, has a short spring term. When I needed to develop a photography course that would fit within a 6-week format, an alternative process course was an obvious choice. I never thought that the course would influence my own work, but I found through teaching that I loved the hands-on nature and limited predictability of the processes. It was such a stark contrast to the years that I had spent making work with Photoshop and inkjet printers. Getting a perfect print with an inkjet printer is relatively easy for me. Getting a perfect platinum print is a challenge for me, and therefore substantially more rewarding when I make a good one. No two prints are ever exactly the same, and I find this interesting as well. This is especially true with ambrotypes, which are one-of-a-kind. This concept was entirely new to me as a photographer, where all of my ideas about my work had previously been built upon the notion of repeatability.

Since you work in so many different photographic processes, in which ways do different photographic outputs (inkjet, platinum-palladium print, or ambrotype) affect the intended contents of your work? And do you consider some more effective than others?

I don’t know that I view any one process as more effective than the other, they are just different, and I love each process for different reasons. I appreciate inkjet prints for their precision, detail, and flexibility of scale. I appreciate platinum & palladium prints for the range of tone, and the nature of the chemistry to sink into and become a part of the substrate on which it is printed. Unlike an inkjet print, where the image seems to sit on top of the paper, the image and paper become one in a platinum & palladium print. I appreciate ambrotypes because they can make any subject mysterious and seemingly fluid, as if floating upon the glass. I also love the preciousness, one-of-a-kind, and sculptural qualities that ambrotypes have.

There are also purely pragmatic reasons for using one process or another for an image. For example, I have yet to find a translucent vellum paper that is compatible with archival Epson pigment inks. For this reason, I began making platinum and palladium prints on vellum. It was Christopher James who suggested to me that I print some of the moths on vellum, to add more dimensionality to the subject, and create a relationship between the paper and the moth wings. I found that layering a platinum & palladium print on vellum over a pigmented inkjet print created a level of depth and dimensionality that I simply could not achieve with either a single inkjet print or a single platinum & palladium print. I love the idea that I can take a 19th century process and a 21st century process and incorporate them together to achieve my desired effect.

What advice do you have for those wishing to begin working with the ambrotype process, and are there any specific books or workshops you recommend?

I was fortunate enough to learn wet plate collodion from a friend who had taken a workshop with Mark and France Scully Osterman. The Ostermans are masters of this process, and I would suggest that anyone who is interested in making ambrotypes take a workshop with them. Mark Osterman also wrote an excellent reference book, The Wet Plate Process, A Working Guide, which is available on their web site.

For artists working in alternative photographic processes, a network of peers is essential. The f295 organization is a group of alt process artists, and their symposiums and workshops are great. I would suggest that anyone who is interested in any kind of alternative photography join this organization.

And of course, anyone interested in alternative processes should own Christopher James’ The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes. This is essentially the bible of alt process technique, and is very detailed yet easy to read. I have been able to teach myself a number of processes straight from his book. Christopher also teaches several beginning and advanced workshops each year, and his workshops are very intensive, yet a lot of fun. Christopher is a true scholar of this area of photography, and is not the least bit proprietary about his research and discoveries.

From the series: Roots & Nests

Other artists such as Jayne Hinds Bidaut, Joseph Scheer or Mike & Doug Starn have made work with moths that resembles yours in many ways (media used or subjects photographed).  Which artists or ideas or others would you say have influenced your work?

The Starns are a huge influence for me, and two of my favorite artists. I do not presume that I will ever achieve their level of artistry. Every new project that they undertake seems to blow my mind. I couldn’t possibly list all of the ways that they have influenced me, but most have nothing to do with moths as a subject. I adore their experimental approach to photography. They have done so much to move the medium beyond the idea of a matted and framed flat print on a wall. Their exploration of transparency, depth, and multiple layers of imagery is incredible.

I love the work of Jayne Hinds Bidaut. Her tintypes are stunning. I feel that I have something in common with her, in that she utilizes a 19th century process to reinvent and add mystery to the visual appearance of natural subjects. I feel that I have less in common with Joseph Scheer, who takes a more realistic, color, and specimen-based approach to photographing moths.

Perhaps a less obvious influence for me is the work of Michael Kenna. His simplicity and perfection of composition, minimalism, and juxtaposition of light and dark tones have all been a big influence on me. His work has taught me the importance of a simple line in a photograph, and how to use negative space as a critical component of the image.

There is a rich history of photographing moths and other insects.  In what ways does your work extend this dialog or venture in other directions?

Many subjects have been photographed again and again, despite the relatively short history of photography relative to other mediums in art. It is one of the toughest challenges for a photographer to take these well-tread paths and figure out how to do something that is not too derivative or redundant. Much attention has been given to these subjects for good reason: they are visually very interesting. The best that an artist can do is to educate themselves on what has been done before, and attempt to evaluate a subject in a new way without being too derivative. I do not know if I always achieve this goal, but I certainly try.

Specific to my Still Flight body of work, one of the goals of the project is to explore and evaluate where photography is today, versus where it was shortly after its beginning. I am fascinated by how process and scale can affect a particular subject. Looking at a moth in a tiny, precious 7 ¼ x 7 ¼” ambrotype, and then looking at the same moth in a huge 40 x 40” inkjet print from a scan, will provide two vastly different experiences with the same subject. I want to challenge viewers looking at my work to think about whether a contemporary digital interpretation of a subject is superior to an antique interpretation. Is bigger and sharper always better? How can a process transform a subject? I hope that people looking at my work will ask these questions, and if not, simply appreciate the beauty and difference that each process brings to the subjects.

Personally, I think that photography is in a wonderful and exciting place right now. With the resurgence and scholarship occurring in antique photographic processes, combined with the constant advancements in digital imaging, photographic artists have an incredible set of tools at their disposal.

Many thanks to Christa for taking the time to answer our questions.  Be sure to come by and see the rich combination of ambrotypes, pigmented inkjet prints, and platinum and palladium prints, layered over pigment prints.  They need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

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