Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work and words of Diana H. Bloomfield.
Her images show us it is the photographer not the camera that makes the art.
How did you get started in photography?
Back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, I was working in an administrative post at Princeton University. When I left a position there, I was given a small Rollei 35mm camera as a parting gift. I thought that was very sweet but was also a little surprised by the gesture. It was my very first ‘real’ camera, so I thought I should take a course and learn how to use it. At the time, I lived near Bucks County Community College, in Newtown, Pennsylvania. They had a terrific art department, especially in photography. I got to study with some wonderful photographers and teachers, and my first course was a large-format course with Nancy Hellebrand. I think I got in that class purely by accident as I feel sure a pre-requisite was needed. But I learned so much in that particular class, as well as in an accompanying darkroom class.
Knowing as little as I did turned out to be a real gift. I’ve said this before– but I think everyone’s first photography class should probably include working solely with a large format camera. They’re so manual– no internal light meter, no auto-focus– nothing, really. And nothing is done for you, so you really do have to sit up, take notice, and pay attention. You make the decisions, not your camera. I love looking at an image upside down on the ground glass, too, which taught me so much about composition. I stayed with photography because I was good at it, and it just seemed very natural to me. I think it was the first thing I’d ever done that I felt came to me easily, while at the same time offered some challenge. I also received a lot of encouragement from my teachers, so I stayed with it. And I liked that an image could tell a story.
Which photographers’ and other artists’ work do you admire?
Wow– so many I could name whose work truly inspires me– and almost all of the work is very unlike what I do. Still, I’ve always loved Bill Brandt’s early 1930‘s London images, as well as the very different and much later series of nudes he photographed– which, even today, seem incredibly fresh and inspired to me. And although he did not photograph those images (the nude series) with a pinhole camera, I feel like he could have. I read somewhere where he said he used an old Kodak camera for those, with an extreme wide-angle lens and an aperture almost as small as a pinhole. They’re wonderfully evocative and strange, with all those odd perspectives, and the relatively harsh way of printing them– lots of grainy b&w contrast– really adds to the appeal. They’re almost sculptural in the way he photographed them.
Emmet Gowin’s early work of his family I’ve always admired, too– just so memorable– and lovingly rendered. One of the most powerful series of images I’ve ever seen is Nicholas Nixon’s, “The Brown Sisters”. Only 25 images, and seen all together, they just take my breath away. I never tire of looking at, and am quite envious of, Helen Levitt’s early NYC images. I wish I’d done them. And thinking about women photographing other women, Joyce Tenneson’s work is also just so honest and powerful– very distinct. Especially outstanding is her “Light Warriors” and “Transformations” series. Aside from her amazing imagery, she is also just a fantastic teacher and always remembers and is supportive of her students. I’m also very drawn to Eric Lindbloom’s beautiful book, Angels at the Arno, which he made some years ago, with a ‘Diana’ toy camera. I pull out that book quite often and just look at the images. Again, I wish I’d made them.
Perhaps my very favorite photographer– whose work I think is incredibly beautiful and lyrical and smart, and also still seems remarkably fresh some 80 years after he made them — is the Czech photographer, Frantisek Drtikol. I was unfamiliar with his work until I saw it in a NYC gallery many years ago. In fact, his work may have been the first imagery I saw that made me want to move to a less literal way of image-making. I am particularly drawn to the nude series he created in the 1920’s– which could have been done yesterday; they still look innovative. I just love the style, the lighting, the compositions, the fluidity– and the almost art-deco look of them with all the geometric shapes and shadows he creates. With the nude series, he eventually moved from photographing real women, to photographing paper cut-outs, I think, that he used as silhouettes with the same sort of lighting and clever shadow placement.
Aside from photographers, I am also inspired by traditional print-makers. Rockwell Kent is one of my favorites from the WPA (The Works Progress Administration) era, along with Claire Leighton. A contemporary print-maker whose mezzotints I admire is Mikio Watanabe’s– quiet and elegant all.
And what about their work inspires you?
In all of those I’ve mentioned, their one commonality, it seems to me, is honesty. Their images translate as very honest, very real — not self-conscious or a false note among them. They’re evocative, powerful in their own way– and timeless. They also seem fresh, inspired, and original– not at all derivative.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
Just one? The very first image that comes to mind — an image I think about all the time, really– is Bill Brandt’s, “Dancing the Lambeth Walk,” which he made in the late 1930’s, in London. I’m not exactly sure why that particular image has always stayed with me, but it probably has to do with the seeming spontaneity and the gritty sort of printing. There are a couple of other images I could mention that have stayed with me, too– but you did ask for only one– and Brandt’s photo was the first that came to my mind when I read your question.
Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day of photography is for you.
My perfect day of photography might be to wake up to a cold day with snow coming down like crazy (which, of course, is not all that common in NC)– so let’s make that pouring rain–and my husband, Peter, gets up early and goes out to my studio, which is in our back yard, and he gets a wood fire started in the wood stove out there. And once the fire is roaring and it gets warm, which doesn’t take long, I go out there with my sweet border collie, Tucker, who settles down with his toys. Maybe Midnight, our twenty year old cat will stay out there curled up by the fire, too. I just print all day– probably gum printing. This is all done to the sound of music from a tube amp a friend made for me and rain on the studio’s metal roof.
By the end of the day, before it gets dark, the rain has finally ended, and Peter, Tucker, and I go for a walk. It’s warmed up outside a little, and the light is that late afternoon soft watery kind of light, with just the right amount of remaining sunlight peaking through the clouds. I’ll take pictures all along the way, of course. When we return from our walk, we’ll go back into the studio and have a glass of sherry by the fire. We’ll look at the ‘perfect’ prints I made during the day and talk about all the photographs I’ll make and print tomorrow. That’s probably a pretty perfect day right there– made only better by having our daughter, Annalee, home, too– in which case, I’d also spend some time photographing her.
I could come up with some other scenarios, though they probably all revolve around spending a day in my studio just printing and listening to music and taking a break to play or run with Tucker. Oh– and maybe in-between all that printing and enjoying the wood fire and the music, someone will — out-of-the-blue — call to tell me I’ve just been awarded a big grant or a big solo show somewhere, or they want to buy a slew of my work– or something equally amazing.
What drew you to Pinhole Photography?
I was teaching a beginning photography course at the NC State University Crafts Center– a basic “how to make better pictures” kind of course, which I taught for nearly fourteen years. As the years rolled on, and more and more people started bringing in these very expensive and overly complicated digital cameras with all the bells and whistles, we started spending inordinate amounts of time on discussing which dial to turn– or what this or that dial or knob did. We were just never getting to the fun and creative aspects of photography.
Of course, I knew that photography just isn’t that complicated– or certainly shouldn’t be– so I tried to think of a way I could demonstrate how very simple a camera really is, and how the act of photographing itself could and should be as easy as the simplest camera– and that the hardest part, really, is coming up with ideas and concepts. So my first thought was to bring in a pinhole camera and show them how this light-tight box, made out of black foam core, with a small opening as the aperture– worked the same as any camera– that to make interesting images, you don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of money on a camera you don’t understand, or even on a fancy lens. I made some images with the pinhole camera and showed them how a basic camera really works. I think it showed them that the photographer is really in charge of his or her imagery, not the camera. And somewhere along the way, I really loved working with the pinhole camera myself. I loved the long exposures, odd perspectives, and the almost filmic quality– all that fluidity and movement– that was missing in my still images from other cameras. The lack of sharpness meshed with my visual narratives that always seem connected to memory, or like fragmented dreams.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
Well, I always have ideas, still— for which I am very thankful– but the challenge is to translate those ideas photographically in ways that are fresh and yet also timeless. No matter what I’m working on, I feel my vision is a consistent one, so I think the real challenge is to not become derivative, even of my own work. Other challenges are more about the business of art (or should I say the art of business?). Despite the popularity of photography, or maybe because of it– that sense that photographs are not really part of the fine art world– that they are somehow not as valuable, on all levels, as the almighty oil on canvas — I have always found to be frustrating. So there’s the challenge to educate people about what it is that I do, and that this particular art form is just as valuable and meaningful and powerful as any painting or piece of sculpture– that in no way is it a lesser art. And, often, a single photograph– like a good book or a passage from a well-written book– can tell you so much, possess an immediacy, and just leave you awestruck.
How do you over come a creative block ?
I hesitate saying this, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had a creative block. I do sometimes finish a series, or think I’ve finished one– and I’ll say to myself– ‘Oh well. That’s probably the best (and last) series I’ll ever do.’ But then another idea always surfaces. And, of course, most of the series I work on seem to last indefinitely– are ongoing– so I’m never at a loss and can switch back and forth, from one to the other. I never get bored. I use lots of different cameras and print in various processes, so if I ever feel blocked, I would just use a camera or a process I haven’t used in a while. Sometimes taking a workshop on something that’s unfamiliar and out of my comfort zone can really energize me, too. And I love looking at other people’s work, so just getting out and going to a museum can be inspiring, as well as talking to friends who are also artists. Or, really, just going out for a walk or run– there’s so much to see out there– and so much more to learn.
I’m also a writer or, I like writing which for me is akin to photographing. One seems to inform the other, so being creatively blocked just seems like a foreign concept to me. I’ve been a life-long runner, too, and while that sounds like it doesn’t have much to do with creativity– just getting out there and running really also keeps me thinking all the time– about ideas and what I want to do and learn next. Additionally, a good run is amazingly energizing. I suspect if everyone took up running (or a yoga practice, which I only just started myself this past year)– the term, ‘creative block,’ just wouldn’t exist, and everybody would just generally be so much happier.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
Well, I’m not sure my art really does affect the way I see the world; rather, the way I see the world affects my art. So much of how I view the world is really based on memories. I feel the past is always with us, and how we (or, at least, I) view the world is all tied up with an inescapable past– and our fragmented memories of that past. Whenever I talk like this, someone will invariably bring up the fact that I’m a native Southerner, and the past is a ‘problem’ only we seem to have an obsession with and for. I’m not sure if that’s true, but most of my work is connected to the past and all those beautiful, fugitive memories. So, in that way, the way I view the world definitely affects my art.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images ?
Most of my images are narrative– the figurative work especially– sort of metaphorical portraits– and, singly or together– I would like for viewers to see a story in the images, or become so inspired as to create one of their own. I would hope that they evoke something in viewers that re-awakens their own beautiful memories.
What is on the horizon for you?
I’m not entirely sure, but I’m confident whatever it is will be stimulating and inspiring. I always have exhibits coming up, and I continue working on new ideas and printing. If I look ahead to five years, I’d love to have a book of my work completed, either as a hand-made limited edition, or as a traditionally published book. Of course, I would welcome a fellowship, and I’d like to learn ever more historic printing processes. I enjoy teaching workshops, so I’ll continue with that, too. To see other people get as excited learning about pinhole or these historic printing processes as I do, is inspiring in itself. And, really, I’d love to just keep working and being able to generate new ideas that I can translate into meaningful imagery.
Where can we see your work?
My work is represented by Tilt Gallery, which is located in Scottsdale, Arizona, and by Adam Cave Fine Art, here in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can also see my work at my studio here in Raleigh, and I am honored that some of my images are included in various publications and several recently published and greatly informative– and beautifully reproduced– books on alternative processes, including Christina Z. Anderson’s, Gum Printing and Other Amazing Contact Printing Processes, published in 2013; in Jill Enfield’s, Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques, also published in 2013; and will also be included in Christopher James’ long-awaited upcoming third edition of The Book of Alternative Processes, hopefully due out sometime in the Fall of 2014.
Thank you Diana for sharing your work and words with us.
To learn more about Diana Bloomfield please visit her site at, dh bloomfield photography.