Willie Osterman, Photographer

Willie Osterman is one of the photographers whose work will be at this years Depth of Field.

© Willie Osterman

© Willie Osterman

In  2014, our call for submission was based on Inspiration.  What inspires you and how do you hope to inspire others.

Our Juror, Joanne Teasdale undertook a difficult task and chose the work of Willie Osterman.

Here is Joanne’s statement about his work:

“This album of ten photographs is my choice for the award.  When you talk about raising the bar and inspiring other photographers to be better at what they do, I feel that this body of work has done just that.  There is a lot of good photography in the submissions but this series takes the viewer into an intimacy where we experience the profound transformative effect of such an illness, a transmutation on the cellular as well as the emotional level.”

Thank you Joanne for your vision, care, and time.  It was a pleasure working with you.

The following is our interview with Willie Osterman.

Would you please tell us a little about yourself?

I am an active artist and educator.  My most recent work is using collodion and making sculptures incorporating images and artifacts. The ChemoToxic series started this process. My website has a good history of my work.

How did you get started photography?

I began in college and was quite shy and the use of the camera gave me an excuse to gain access into peoples lives and to travel. I continue to document many things in my personal life although what I show is only a small part of it.  I am often asked what I will do with all the work I make and I’m not quite sure, maybe it is something for retirement or when I can’t get around as easily as I can now.

ChemoToxic © Willie Osterman

ChemoToxic © Willie Osterman

“ChemoToxic” is a very personal series please tell us about it?

I was on a Fulbright in Croatia and six days after I returned I drove my wife Michele to the emergency room due to stomach pains.  A CAT scan revealed tumor and she underwent emergency surgery the next day.

With the realization that she had cancer our lives changed in an instant.  There was no way to make sense of the diagnosis, as she is one of the healthiest persons I have ever met.  On that memorable day (Valentines Day!) I found myself unable to make sense of it and quickly realized that I needed to look forward and not try to reason why.

When this happened it was the first time in my life that I was unable to record the events around me, as I just wanted it to go away.  I wanted no record.  I froze.  It wasn’t until after the hopeful pathology report that I was able to begin to consider documenting as we began to rebuild our lives.

To capture this transition I felt that an antiquated process would give me perspective on this when we will be able to (hopefully) look back on this “historic” part of our life together.  Also, learning the wet plate collodion technique became my ‘therapy’ while coping with the changes we faced.  A parallel process occurred.  I was learning about cancer while learning about the Wet Plate Collodion Process. An amazing metaphor evolved as I realized that as Michele’s health improved the quality of the work improved.

She began Chemotherapy on March 30th.  I spent the spring care taking Michele and making images.  She was quite amazing in her willingness to sit for up to sixty-seconds for an exposure.  I asked her why she wanted to sit for these images and she said she was also looking for a diversion so why not.  I have been photographing her for over thirty years and she is an amazing model.

So, I started to learn how to use this complicated and sometimes frustrating photochemical process, as she underwent her own ‘chemical process’ of Taxol and Carboplatin.  ChemoToxic is the term used to describe the impact of chemotherapy on the body, specifically 48-72 hours after getting dosed.  Toxic waste products are present in body (urine, stool, saliva, secretions).  The patient is told not to exchange body fluids with others, nor let children or pets play near the patient’s toilet.  When I heard this term, it kept resounding in my head.  In essence, the body is being poisoned with the intention of killing the fast-growing cancer cells.

The Collodion process is, as many know, an antiquated technique developed in the 1850s.  The chemicals used include silver nitrate, nitric acid, cadmium bromide, grain alcohol, lavender oil, and potassium cyanide among others.  The result is a one-of-a-kind image printed on a glass plate known as an Ambrotype.  I believe the created images reflect fear, hope, hard work, beauty and transformation.

This portfolio includes twenty-seven unique (one of a kind) images in twenty-one frames.  Individual image sizes are approximately 5×7 inches.


ChemoToxic © Willie Osterman

ChemoToxic © Willie Osterman

© Willie Osterman

© Willie Osterman

What affect do you hope this work has on others?

When I made the work I was totally selfish and did not care about anything other than the documentation and diversion it provided. It was, as I mentioned, therapy.  Now as times goes on and I travel the exhibit I am finding that many respond to it and unfortunately almost everyone knows someone who has had cancer.

The work was exhibited at Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester along with another body of work. (an ambrotype sculpture of self-portraits looking at myself wondering what “I” may have) Michele and I decided to have a fund-raiser to support the cancer center where she had her treatments and the outpouring of support (we raised over $6,000) and interest was very moving.  As part of the opening reception (where we had over five-hundred visitors)  I was going to shave my head as part of the fundraiser and we ended up with sixteen others joining in to show solidarity.  My website has a video that was made of the event.

What affect did it have on you and the subject (only if you care to share).

It documented what we went through and if you look at the first images and the final image there is an amazing transition in her spirit.  It can be seen in her eyes.  The early images show fear and uncertainty where as the final image shows confidence and strength.  Looking back on it I am very happy we created the images but when I made the image of her with the Japanese shirt on and I saw the look in her eyes I knew that the project was over and finally I felt I could put this part of my life behind.  It was too close and I needed some distance.  It felt great and empowering to realize that and accept it. Michele felt the same way and it became a milestone for us.

Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?

Oh boy, that is such a tough question as it always changes.  I remember being in grade school and being asked what is my favorite color.  I always had trouble answering it as I like them all.  It is always influenced by what I am currently researching. Actually this may be a bit surprising but often it is some of my students work.  I know many will disagree but there is nothing like being jealous of your students work.  Actually I have a piece in an exhibition in NY that was inspired by my students.  One day in a graduate seminar we discussed the idea of being over educated and freezing when you’re creating artwork because you get lost in so much theory.  I asked if it is possible to create a piece that is totally based on intuition and that night I woke up and realized I had to try it.  I was surprised and impressed with the results. (I’ve included an image below)

A few weeks ago I was in Croatia for the International Photography Festival Organ Vida (Eye Life/Health) and met several photographers who I really admire.  Two were young Russian photographers.  One was Olga Ingurazova and her work entitled “Scars of Independence” where she is documenting the affect of Abkhazia and its decision to become and independent country. The work is extremely powerful.  Another Russian photographer Egor Rogalev’s work entitled “Synchronicity” documents the situation happening in the European part of the former Soviet Union.  He is documenting the effects that transformation of urban and social environment has on human behavior and individual perception of life.  Recently I have also been fascinated by William Wegman’s “other” work beyond the dogs.  His paintings and writings on nature are quite amazing.

Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.

If I go way back to when I started as a photo student I would have to say that it is Ansel Adams’ image of Mt. Williamson in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1944.  I saw this image when I first became a photographer and it changed my life.  I was working on a research paper and when this image was presented and I froze and realized that was what I wanted to do; to travel, explore and make images like this.  I also made a promise to meet this man and through a friendship with Alan Ross, who I assisted in the production of Mr. Adams special edition prints I was able to spend time with him.  Quite an amazing experience!  If you look at my early work you can see the influence of that single image.  Harry Callahan made images that have stayed with me over time.  He had the same formal qualities of Ansel and he took them home, as I say, in the images he made of his family in Chicago.  This work helped me to appreciate that same landscape beauty at home.  I believe that is shown in the “ChemoToxic” series.

Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day for you.

To make an ambrotype takes most of a day.  I am making unique ambrotypes, which means I am only making one and using it as a positive, not as negative for making copies.  In this age of digital everything I really like the idea that there is only one.  The night before that perfect day, I get organized with my idea and check to be sure I have adequate chemistry.  I just started a new project, I am constructing an archeological dig to photograph that includes not only bones and artifacts, but also contemporary articles.  I like to make sure the composition is mostly organized then I begin to photograph.  The collodion process always gives you surprises so you must be flexible and able to work with them.  It does not mean I give up control, it means I understand the variables and adapt my concept.  This new piece will have about forty-eight, 11×4 plates that will be mounted on a wall and collectively it will create sort of a cubistic abstract landscape that includes the dig.  Lots of these individual plates need to work in unison so there are lots of decisions to be made.  I like to work slowly and enjoy the process. It is a ritual for me and quite meditative.  If I get one plate a day I am happy.  That is why I so enjoy my summers.  I don’t teach as many workshops as I used to, so as to have more time for my work.

What challenges do you face as an artist?

There is never enough time and there are too many politics in the art world.  They both frustrate me.

How do you view this time in the history of photography?

It is very exciting.  There is something out there for everyone.  Everyone is a photographer now but the really good work, as always, is hard to make.  As the world is going so digital I enjoy going the other way.  I teach at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and there is so much technology around that students in the photo arts department get swept up in it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the advances but feel a loss of the traditional methods.  Some colleagues, I believe, encourage some of this.  I mean if you look at it, as Robert Heinecken said, “the purpose of art is to give form to ideas”.  I wonder why so much work looks the same.  It’s curious to me.

How do you over come a creative block?

I work harder.  Creative blocks are a natural part of the process.  When I’m stuck, I push harder and break through to something new.  This is a necessary part of the process.  Who has not done a project and has not gotten frustrated and sick of it?  I have this special relationship with my work and any relationship is challenging at times.  It takes time, passion, and determination. Too many people give up and move on to other projects and start another relationship.  That is also why there are so many people getting divorced as well.  Too many don’t want to put in the effort and stick to it.

© Willie Osterman

© Willie Osterman

Where can we see your work, and would you like to share any upcoming projects?

At my site:
For more philosophical issues about my work/life check out my “TedX talk”:
Ted Talks“Live the Dream: Willie Osterman.”

Thank you Willie, for sharing your work and your words.



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Betty Press Gallery

Thank you to the photographers that share their work with us.

Rfotofolio logo

No portion of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without the express permission of Rfotofolio,

and the photographers. All Rights Reserved.

Art You Don’t Want to Miss

Brigitte Carnochan in the Garden of Beauty

ENGAGEMENT PEONIES by Brigitte Carnochan

ENGAGEMENT PEONIES by Brigitte Carnochan

Rfotofolio is honored that Brigitte Carnochans’ work will be in Depth of Field this September.

Brigitte Carnochan has said, “does the world need another pretty picture of a flower?” Her answer was “yes” and that she needed them too.

We feel the same, and try to feature work that brings beauty to the world.  Brigitte has certainly captured and shared beauty.  It’s our pleasure to bring you her work and words.

What  first brought you to photography?

I’ve always loved making portraits of my friends and family, but it wasn’t until I turned 50 and decided (for a reason now lost to me in the mists of time) to take a darkroom class at a local junior college that I became obsessed with making images and printing them.

What drew you to working in the platinum process ? 

I’ve loved the richness and depth of platinum ever since I first saw it, but making internegatives or using a giant view camera just weren’t options for me. Once it became possible to make high quality digital negatives, I realized that I could finally use this process that I’d admired for so long.

Wedding Poppies by Brigitte Carnochan

Lace Dahlias II Brigitte Carnochan

Which photographers and other artist do you admire ?

Ah–such a hard question, when there are dozens of photographers, if not hundreds, that have inspired and influenced my work over the years—and continue to do so. I look at a lot of photography books and go to exhibitions and websites all the time.  Even when I find the work bad or unappealing it stimulates my own ideas. Teaching is another way to see new work and new approaches.  I suppose the first work that I gravitated to was that of the Pictorialists–and then later photographers like Edward Weston, Ruth Bernhard, Imogen Cunningham, Joyce Tenneson, Sarah Moon, Irving Penn—really, I could go on and on.  I saw the Robert Mapplethorpe show at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1989, the year before I took my first darkroom class.  His controversial images aside, I fell in love with his flowers and nudes–equally erotic and beautiful.  They’ve always stayed in my imagination.

What makes a great photograph in your view?

Well, if it stays with you—over time—it has a certain power, right?  I think there are so many things about a photograph that might make it “great.”  The “decisive moment” is certainly one which is interesting to me, since I often think about poses with my models in advance–and then I find that it’s a moment of transition–unplanned and unforeseen that is THE shot.  And out in my garden–it’s the light, the wind, the angle of view.  And when I give up on the wind and light and bring it into my studio, it’s the accident of arrangement.  I often have very precise views of things—and then they don’t work and I try this and that.  And that’s what most often ends up being THE shot.

Do you ever have a creative block and if so , how do you work through it?

Painfully. I mean, who likes being at a dead-end?  But I think the secret is to keep trying—keep giving yourself assignments and going out there and making photographs.  I’ve certainly had blocks—but if you read through the memoirs and autobiographies of writers, painters, photographers, you realize that this is part of the process—and you carry on.  You keep making the effort—putting words on the paper, images on the film, pixels on the CD card.  What’s the alternative—giving up?  I suppose so, but it’s not really an option for me. Eventually, something clicks and I can move forward.

Late Leaves I by Brigitte Carnochan

Late Leaves V by Brigitte Carnochan

Valley Grasses IV

Valley Grasses IV by Brigitte Carnochan

Would you tell about your editing process?

I use Lightroom now and so I just rate things—go through several times picking the images from a particular shoot I like and pulling them into Photoshop to work them up.  And maybe in the end I don’t like them after all—that’s the beauty of the digital world—you don’t have to invest THAT much energy into something until you make a negative for a platinum image or you work it up precisely for a digital print. … The digital world is amazing to me.

Would you tell us about your workspace?

I work in two children’s bedrooms in our house, connected by a bathroom.  It’s very convenient—but too small, of course.  Fortunately, our children are grown, so we don’t need the bedrooms.  My darkroom is in the garage.  It works out fine most of the year because I live in California and the temperature is moderate most of the time.

How does your art affect the way you see the world?

Once I took my first  photography class  in 1990, I began to see the world completely differently—how could I not?  The first assignment was to photograph “light”.  I’ve never stopped being grateful for that insight into a way of seeing the world.  Just being attentive to light has changed my ordinary life–not just my photographic life.  In fact, my husband also will point out “a certain slant of light” (to quote Emily Dickinson), which makes it that much more terrific.

How important is it to your art form to have a “creative community”? 

Very important.  And I’m very lucky to have lots of interesting and talented colleagues and friends all around me.  I’m involved in several small groups of friends with mutual interests—3-7 people who get together to socialize and enjoy art events—one of the great pleasures of being in this community.  From another perspective, I also enjoy seeing what my former students are up to.  Years ago one of them in the Stanford Continuing Studies course I taught, set up a Yahoo group so that the students in the various classes could stay connected.  Over the years the group has grown and meets every 5-6 weeks or so to exchange ideas, pass along information and share work.

Would you tell us about your series “Leaving My Garden”?

For years I’ve grown most of the subject matter in my photos—the flowers and the fruits generally come from my garden.  But in the last couple of years I’ve gotten interested in the leaves and grasses—even the weeds—I see outside my garden or in some of the amazing estate gardens we have in this area.  Some (when it’s legal) I bring back into my studio to photograph and others I photograph in situ, so to speak.

These subjects began to attract me at about the same time that I began to work with platinum/palladium images, and the two—process and Image—have grown together.  I love platinum’s extravagantly long tonal range, depth, and permanence—and the subtlety of the warm black, grey, and brown tones are perfect for this subject matter.

Is there another type of photography or subject matter you would like tackle?

Well, I definitely want to continue to work in platinum/palladium, and I’m at the very beginning of a new series of nudes.  There’s a definite story I want to tell with this body of work, but it’s so early that I can’t even formulate it properly yet. This is always the exciting but also frustrating time for me—when I’m experimenting and struggling to find the best way to express what’s in my head.  Sometimes it comes easier than other times.  My FLOATING WORLD series came to me almost ready-made.  This current idea has proven a bit harder in the birthing stage.

Any advice or just a statement you would like to share with us?

I rarely let a day go by without doing something related to photography.  If I’m not actively engaged in shooting or printing or post-processing, I’m thinking about an image I’ve been working on, or a statement about a body of work, or a way to teach something better.  Or I find time to finally get through an on-line tutorial or look at blogs or websites, catch up on the photo magazines that I subscribe to.  I know any number of people who are unhappy in their jobs (or don’t have a job!) and that makes me feel like the luckiest person alive to be able to wake up every morning and do what I’d be doing if I were on vacation.

Thank you  Brigitte for sharing your art and your time.

Valley Grasses and Thistle by Brigitte Carnochan



Valley Grasses V by Brigitte Carnochan

 Thank you to the photographers that share their work with us.
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Chasing the Afterglow with Blue Mitchell

Full Moon © Blue Mitchell

Full Moon © Blue Mitchell

Blue Mitchell’s’ work will be showing in Depth of Field.
Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work of Blue Mitchell. 
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I currently live, work ,and play in Portland Oregon.  I’m a Montana native.  Most of my family is from northern California but my grandfather headed up a mining company in Montana and transplanted his family there.  I’m a good balance between Montana and northern California and find my current home in the northwest a good balance of the two.
I enjoy hand crafted photography, long nights in the studio, coffee, good bourbon, and that twinkle in my daughter’s eyes.

How did you get started in photography?

I took a class in college in 1998.  That’s all it took.  It was love at first… develop.  We got engaged, had a few rocky years of splitting up and getting back together and then finally sealed the deal up with a marriage in 2002.  The honeymoon period lasted for 3 years … flirting, experimenting, and maturing together.  We’ve been happy ever since.

Which photographers and other artists work do you admire?

It’s a very long list, so I’ll keep it simple.  Off the top of my head:  Teun Hocks, Starn Twins, Rocky Schenck, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Christian Boltanski.

Rear View (Holding up the Moon) © Blue Mitchell

Rear View (Holding up the Moon) © Blue Mitchell

Sky's Escape © Blue Mitchell

Sky’s Escape © Blue Mitchell

And what about their work inspires you?

This list is some of the photographers that inspired me early on in my photography studies.  I’ve always been drawn to photography that uses alternative approaches and mixed media.

If no one saw your work, would you still create it?

Of course.  I do make it for myself.  It’s how I challenge myself to address my spirit, our earth, our atmosphere, our little universe, and the connections between us all. Sounds kinda new age, must be my upbringing.

Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day of photography is for you.

My work, like many artists, is all about process.  My intention when starting a project is just to shoot things that I’m drawn to emotionally.  I have no one way of capturing images — I use many tools (cameras).  I labor over what the work should look like in the end which requires a lot of experimentation with printing, presentation, and substrates.  I use an acrylic lift process for most of my work.  In a nutshell, it’s a pigment print transfer onto a variety of substrates (wood, metal leaf, papers).

The perfect day is when a piece is finished and I title it, sign it, and frame it.  Done.  Mission accomplished — satisfaction.

The Illumination © Blue Mitchell

The Illumination © Blue Mitchell

Would you care to share the inspiration for your newest work, “Chasing the Afterglow” ?

This project started  a few years ago when I found that my creative time was limited to the evening, during twilight, and late into the night.  I’ve always enjoyed the night and especially when there’s a moon present.  As a goal, I decided to photograph every full moon night (of course I shot every chance I had whether the moon was full or not).  The subject matter varied though depending on the moons location and visibility.  Of course I shot many full moons, but I also captured what goes on under the moonlight.  When the moon was not visible, I spent that time working in the studio on creating my own twilight lores.  This studio work also allowed me to add a more abstract narrative to the project and gave me the freedom to add hand drawn elements with still lives.

With the rapid changes in how people make and view a photograph how do you view this time in the history of photography?

It depends what we’re talking about really.  People are writing books on the subject — It’s exhausting really.  If we’re focusing on fine art photography I don’t actually think much has changed other than the tool options.  This is the biggest difference between a fine art photograph and let’s say painting.  Photography is more susceptive to technology advances.  It is mechanical.  Whereas traditional painting is less impacted by technology.  Because cameras are mechanical I don’t feel the evolution of the photograph will ever end.

How do you overcome a creative block?

I have the luxury of producing a photography print publication, as well as curating for an online gallery.  These projects are a great escape from my own work (actually at most times, takes priority).  I work with so many creative and exciting photo-artists through these that I’m continually inspired by them.  It is a double-edged sword though, at times, it seems impossible to have an original idea.  Call me naive but it’s only recently that I realized that it IS impossible but that does not take away from the reality that we should make work that makes us happy anyway.  That’s the most important piece and pretty much the point for creating in the first place.

How does your art affect the way you see the world?

My art is a reflection on how I see the world, not the other way around.

Is there another type of photography or subject matter you would like tackle?

Plenty!  I started this journey in film making.  I’d love to go back to it in some way, some day.

Fusion © Blue Mitchell

Fusion © Blue Mitchell

Thank you Blue for sharing your work and words.

To Learn more about Blue Mitchell  please visit his site.  Blue Mitchell Photo

Blue Mitchell is also the publisher of Diffusion Magazine  and Plates to Pixels Gallery.


Thank you to the photographers that share their work with us.

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Mississippi The Place Where I Live, Betty Press

Mississippi: The Place I Live © Betty Press

Mississippi: The Place I Live © Betty Press

Would you please tell us a little about yourself?

I grew up in Nebraska on a farm, near a small town and had a very conservative and religious upbringing. But I was always reading, loved maps and looking at photo and art books. I also always knew I wanted to travel. So once I got to university and on my own I was eager, and ready to explore and experience the world.

How did you get started in photography?

Though always interested in photography it is not something that I studied professionally beyond a few courses here and there. I came into the profession mid-career when my journalist husband was sent on assignment to Africa in 1987. Before that we already had a love affair with Africa.

After my husband quit his first job with USAID while we were in Tanzania, we hitchhiked for eight months across Africa, moving thru the Congo, central Africa, into Nigeria along the west coast to the Ivory Coast and then turned north to cross the desert to Algeria, west to Morocco and finally ending up in Europe. I can’t believe I wasn’t a photographer at the time though there are still a lot of visual images imprinted on my mind from that trip. In 1985 my husband received a Knight Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I spent that year at the Art School auditing courses in photography.

In 1987 when we were assigned to Africa I was ready to start my photographic career as a freelance photographer. We lived in Kenya for eight years, traveling all over East and West Africa. My photographs were published in most major magazines and newspapers. I worked on assignment for many NGO’s plus UNICEF and UNHCR. I dedicated my second camera to my B&W personal work. I started exhibiting this work in 1992 and have been showing it ever since. It has been widely published and collected.

In 2011, I finally realized my dream of self-publishing my African images in a book titled I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb. Over 2000 copies were printed and it sold out in less than three years. The University Press of Mississippi later picked it up for distribution.

Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?

There are so many. During my years as a photojournalist in Africa I tended to mainly look at other journalists’ work, e.g. Sebastião Salgado and master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. As I moved away from strictly journalistic work and more into documentary work I looked at Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Once I came to Mississippi, I began to look at the photos of Eudora Welty. She inspired me with her understanding of place. She wrote: “Place never really stops informing us for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better.”

Did you have a mentor?

I did not have a mentor but I got a lot of help along the way, especially since I didn’t have much formal training. In Africa John Isaac, who was a UN Photographer at the time, helped me a lot. This led to many incredible assignments with UNICEF and UNHCR. Among the most memorable was being the UNICEF photographer for Audrey Hepburn on her Goodwill Ambassador trip to war-torn and famine-stricken Somalia in 1992. Those photos have been featured in many books later published about her life. I also photographed Harry Belafonte on his UNICEF trip to Rwanda in 1994.

Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?

This image by Mirella Ricciardi, from Vanishing Africa that I saw before going to Africa and which left me with a desire to go there and take photographs. I loved the silhouette, the gesture, and smoky atmosphere of the cattle camp. The fact that this dream came true never ceases to amaze me.

Another photo that I appreciate and which became more important to me after we moved back to the States in 1995 is this one by Robert Frank. He captured a trolley car scene which looks like a filmstrip showing civil rights history in one photograph. Robert Frank’s, Trolley New Orleans.

I have always been an observer in my photo taking. So being a street photographer like Gary Winogrand or on a road trip with Robert Frank has always appealed to me. As Elliott Erwitt so succinctly said, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place . . .  I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

If you could spend the day with another photographer living or passed who would it be?

I think it would be with Robert Frank. I would like to tag along on his photo trips across America and see how he got those amazing photographs that still inform us about our American culture.

Mississippi: The Place I Live © Betty Press

Mississippi: The Place I Live © Betty Press

Mississippi: The Place I Live © Betty Press

Mississippi: The Place I Live © Betty Press

Tell us about Mississippi: The Place I Live.

I never expected to live in Mississippi, the Deep South. And I think after having spent so much time in Africa and continuing to visit there almost on a yearly basis I had some trepidation to how I would adjust to living in the South. Both my husband and I felt so much at home with the African way of life that we tried to recreate it here in the States.

We were outsiders in Africa being Americans but in Mississippi we felt even more like outsiders though this is part of our country. It’s a weird and uncomfortable feeling.White and black communities are very segregated here and we float between the two feeling somewhat uncomfortable in both. Fortunately the university community is a bridge that brings the communities together somewhat.

I decided one way to be more at ease with living in Mississippi would be to explore the state by taking road trips around Mississippi. It’s a large state, mostly rural and agricultural. We found this road atlas with all the small towns listed on it, even ones where nothing much is left except for a church, some abandoned stores or a filling station and a few homes. We started visiting towns with unusual names such as Love, Darling, Expose, Compromise, Free Trade, etc.

Sometimes my husband came with me and sometimes I went alone. I had a Obama bumper sticker on my car, which made me kind of nervous, but I didn’t want to take it off. When we found people working in their gardens or sitting on their porches we would stop to talk. People tend to be very friendly and hospitable in the South so usually it was easy to get a conversation started. My husband collected stories and I took photos. Due to my interest in Civil Rights I have been mainly interested in the black/white relationships. Though the two live very separate lives they tend to get along pretty well, at least, on the surface. The sad part is that they are very polarized politically. And since whites tend to vote in greater numbers and are in the majority, blacks have less political power and their needs are not as well addressed. Mississippi rates last in the nation with poor education and health care.

Another thing I have tried to do is understand the past, which I find still affects most people here. Again whites and blacks see it quite differently. Whites say that society has moved beyond the Jim Crow past and the blacks say not far enough. Exploring and photographing is a personal journey for me – to better understand the past and present of the place where I now live and to shed some light on this misunderstood state.

If no one saw your work, would you still create it?

I would continue to take photos, as it is a real passion of mine. Also I love to tell stories. Even when I am traveling for pleasure and not working on a project I love taking photos. In my mind I am always observing and composing photos. Today I love the fact that I can take photos with my ever-available (as long as I have battery power) IPhone and share them with friends and Instagram followers.

Please tell us about your process and the perfect day for you.

As a photojournalist I was trained that photographs should be sharp, in focus, and well exposed. But now, having experienced more of life, this seems less important. Thus I work a lot with medium format plastic cameras and old cameras such as the Holga, twin lens reflex, and Hasselblad, to capture evidence of the past in the present with cameras used in the past. The resulting imperfections, the soft focus and light leaks serve as metaphors for how landscape, race and religion have played a part in the complicated history of Mississippi and still affect lives today.

A perfect day would always include seeing and experiencing art, as well as getting a good cup of coffee and food. For example when we were recently in The Hague, Netherlands we visited the Escher Museum, then the FotoMuseum for an exhibition by Dutch Photographer Anton Corbijn, who took B&W photos of all the major musical groups (except the Beatles), including the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Depeche Mode, Tom Waits, etc. There we had coffee in a very modern, contemporary café setting. It was a great place to talk about what we had just seen and maybe catch up on WiFi. Then we hurried off to an art movie at the Den Haag Filmhuis where we saw a strange but fun movie called “Frank”, definitely one we would not see in our small town. We ended the day with a gourmet dinner. The only thing that wasn’t included was listening to some live music which in a perfect day I would have included. But you can only do so much in one day. Living in a small town I miss the things you can do in an urban environment but I am happy to live in a quieter place with a garden I can putter around in.

What challenges do you face as an artist?

Now living in a small city I miss some of the benefits one would get from living in an urban environment with greater opportunities to show and share my photographs. I often feel that I am working in a vacuum. Keeping in touch with other artists and showing work on-line has become very important to me. Also going to photo conferences and portfolio reviews help.

What is next?

That is another hard question. Since I was very successful in publishing a photo book of my African images I would like to publish my Mississippi work in book form. I would also like to continue to get that work shown. In addition, I have several other older projects that I am still working on and would like to do something with. One is called Young Rising: Cultural Findings in African Cities. Another is La Dolce Vista, a photo book of images taken in Umbria, Italy which I made with my former photo student Philippa Stannard. It is currently a Blurb book on demand. It attracted hundreds of viewers in an exhibition in a 15th century church turned into gallery in Perugia, Italy in 2014. We often spend summers there studying Italian and reconnecting with Italian friends.

Also I like experimenting with different types of photography. I really liked working with Polaroid film and was upset when they stopped making it. For years I made small Polaroid transfers of my best color work. They are little art pieces and have been quite popular with friends and private collectors. Now I have started taking instant photographs with old Polaroid cameras using film made by the Impossible Project.

Mississippi: The Place I Live © Betty Press

Mississippi: The Place I Live © Betty Press

Thank you Betty for sharing  your work with us. To learn more about the work of Betty Press please visit her site at Betty Press.

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