This week’s Questions with an Educator features Rachel Wolf.
Rachel is a Portland, OR based photographer specializing in camera-less photography, and alternative/antique processes. To create her camera-less photography, she directly exposes photographic paper to chemicals and light. These primary photographic elements become the tools, subjects, and direct chemical processes that create the image. She is also a founding member of FO(u)RT Collective and deiWolf Studio. Here, she provides more details about her unique, camera-less photography, the main lessons she works to convey through her teaching, and how she prepares for large educational presentations.
We asked: Please describe your camera-less photography. How did you get into this subset of photography?
Rachel said: The darkroom has always been a place of magic and mystery for me. I have worked with photography in many ways since my early teens, but my overall desire has been to use it as a means for transferring experiences. First it was through stories, and later it has been through more artful, less narrative expressions. I made my first photogram portrait in college as a way to blow off steam while working on very technical prints. I loved the process, the blatant indexical nature of my silhouette chemically sentenced to paper. I also loved the charge I got from finding this elasticity at the edges of photography. Photography has this camera-idol at its center, the industry and its history revolve around it. Take that away and you’re off the map. Suddenly you aren’t playing by the rules, because there really aren’t any. At the time, I was focused on documentary work and I didn’t come back to the process for a few years. I was in NYC assisting and doing commercial work, and I started thinking about different ways to create a portrait. What did I want to communicate through portraiture? What was important, and how could portraits function in different ways? I started making life-size photogram portraits in my apartment, developing them in my shower and that was it. I have been consumed by camera-less photography ever since.
My camera-less work has evolved over the years from the direct representation of the body on paper, to removing the body – and working with light and perspective from the shadows it created. From there, I got more and more interested in light as my subject. I started intersecting different subject matters related to energy: light, bodies, sound waves, and chemical reactions. Today my darkroom investigations are fueled by my thoughts on light and its influence on our visual perception. How do I investigate the limits and potential of my own perceptions? Working with the alchemy of light and chemicals in the darkroom is my way of exploring this.
My work can take days to make. I have learned to be patient and listen to the work. There’s still that pull from the edge of photography, and it’s a real thrill to grant myself the permission to do whatever I feel is required in a given photographic work. The results I produce don’t generally have the kind of universal legibility one expects in photography. Camera-less photography has already gotten past the first lens, so the viewer is less rooted in the world they know, and are readied for a world of imagination. There’s a holistic fluidity in this way of working with photography. For instance, I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence lately since some of my works are chemically unstable. What does that mean for an image, knowing it’s going to constantly change? The image you put on your wall might be a different color next year. It’s changing in its environment just like we are, and it’s still purely photographic.
We asked: Has your specific camera-less photography technique altered your perception of light?
Rachel said: My process of capturing light, shadow and their dialectical movements on paper has made me hyperaware of the subtle complexities of light. Yet this awareness is not something new, it’s just something that I’m really narrowing down to. The first class that I took at college was on “Optics and Holography.” Holography isn’t just inherently camera-less, it’s a radical way of envisioning what is photographically possible. If you cut off a tiny piece of a hologram, it still contains the entire original image. That’s like working with photography at a genetic level. Experiences like these left a profound mark on me and the way that I think about light through photography.
Light is invisible until something interrupts it. We don’t see things without light, but we don’t see light without things either. In my work, I study how light reacts with different elements. Any given material is a direct reflection of a unique behavior of light. To better understand the different textures and qualities of light, I create different partners for it. Lately I’ve been fascinated with refracting white light into its spectrum, so I’ve been working with water, mirrors and diffraction grating film, among other materials.
This study has become part of my artistic process as well as my everyday life. A light ray reflecting off my window will stop me in my tracks, or the illusion of movement that particular illuminations can generate. I note and record these moments as part of my photographic research that I take back into the darkroom. So light is a huge part of what I do, but at the same time, I’m not just working with light, but also with chemistry and light-sensistive materials.
We asked: What are the main lessons you try to spread through your teaching and speaking in the photography field?
Rachel said: Passion. It is passion that comes through in our work and whether we are conscious of it or not, passion attracts passion. Passion is the quality in a work that makes one stop and look, and ultimately feel. In a world where we are bombarded by images all day, how do you get someone to stop and be present with your work for more than 5 seconds? I tell my students to get out of their head and come back to their heart. We think about what we want to say and how to say it in our work, we research, practice and hone our skills. But at the end of the day, we need to stop the mental chatter and come back to our heart. What is driving you on a sensory level, what are the underlying feelings that you want to communicate? If we steep in our own presence, we locate those deeper yearnings that permeate throughout our lives, but largely go unseen.
As image makers, we have a responsibility to be aware of the history and context into which our images will be embedded. What connotations might an image have attached to it? Even if that is not the conversation one wants to have, it is important to know what conversations might be brought up. We have an ethical responsibility to be conscious of how our images might affect those around us. The pervasive idea of truth in photography only makes it more important for this awareness. We are truth seekers and myth makers, but however you see it, images still yield a lot of power. If we want to artfully add images to the world around us, we should not take the responsibility lightly.
We asked: How do you go about preparing for a large educational presentation? What are some strategies that you have found especially useful?
Rachel said: I tend to go overboard at first. I do a lot of research and cull together all my sources. I also have to write out everything I want to say. Writing is a large part of my process, and is how I get to the heart of what I want to talk about. But then, once I get it all together, I let go of the script. The script is a method for solidifying my ideas and creates a framework for me, but I have to go into a classroom or presentation without expectation. I have to be present to the people and energy of that day. From my experiences as a student and a teacher, I have found that the best way for people to learn, to get excited and grasp an idea, is to let them figure it out themselves. It is not for the teacher to only lecture and tell the students what to think, but to cultivate how to critically engage, making space for expansion and exchange. The classroom is a place for inspiration and for us all to inspire each other. I come to class with the ideas I want my students to think about, and through discussion, activities and prompts, I work to create an environment where we are all teaching each other.
We asked: What inspired you to be a founding member of the FO(u)RT Collective? Please describe what this collective is and what it took to get it established.
Rachel said: The other 3 members of FO(u)RT Collective are friends I met in graduate school. The creation of the collective was organic. We founded FO(u)RT after graduating as a way to support one another in our individual art practices and critical discourse. We wanted to keep up the rigor, support, and community that we built in graduate school. In addition, we felt we could do more work within our community working together.
What FO(u)RT does is constantly shifting, but one of the main components of our collective that is really consistent is that we are dedicated to critical discourse around our practices. We host a monthly critique for the members of FO(u)RT and other local artists to support each other in our creative practices. The encouragement we can give each other as artists is invaluable– together we have formed an environment to inspire and support each other.
We also engage with our community in other ways. We have mounted various exhibitions together, from showing public art on a farm, to staging the typical, contemporary white cube. We all work with different media and towards varied expressions, but have a resonant voice. In addition to sharing and showing our own work, we’ve also hosted other artists, performance nights, art/music events, and curated other gallery spaces–all with the aim of contributing to our community. My work with FO(u)RT, like my work as an instructor, is also similar to my personal studio practice. I prepare myself, bring that prepared self to the space where things can happen– and then find the point where my self leaves off, and the other opens up. Then I see what happens.
Find more of Rachel’s work on her website.
If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with an Educator and Questions with a Pro series.