“Every picture tells a story…”
To us each photograph has at least three stories, one known only to the photographer, another for the subject in the photograph, and yet another story for the viewer to learn, based on their experiences and imagination. Rfotofolio is honored to share the work and words of photographer Elizabeth Opalenik.
Her work helps put beauty back into the world.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I was raised on a farm in western Pennsylvania and left home to peace marches and my mother saying, “I knew you were different from the time you were two.” Spinning a map on a lazy susan landed me in Connecticut where I spent the next ten years managing an accounting department, restaurants and jazz clubs and having my own construction/design business. That “Ms-Placed Lady” took a two-week photographic workshop in 1979 at the Maine Photographic Workshops and essentially never left, staying for over a year in 2 three-month resident programs and as part of the summer staff. So began my journey to becoming a photographic artist. No looking back, no regrets. I think when you have a passion that is how it works. I kept Westport, CT as my home base while I developed my photographic life, returning to Rockport, ME each summer to help at the Workshops, ultimately teaching there and in their France program.
I think being around workshop energy was the biggest influence on my work and has fueled my passion as a photographic educator in many places for many venues. In 1992, I married one of my students, a kindred soul named Enrique Martinez, and in the spirit of new beginnings we moved to California, where I am a photographic artist/educator with a passion for philanthropic projects
There have been commercial and editorial clients along the way, and I love the problem-solving in those situations, but I am drawn to the creativity and seductive energy found in the workshop environment and still drawn to creating one of a kind images in my darkroom.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Inspiration is everywhere…in nature, painting, sculpture, life. I try to find something in every day that is inspirational and has the possibility to send me down another path. In the right light, everyone can shine.
When did you start to develop a personal style?
That is hard to say. From the very beginning I have been drawn to work with water and the beauty found within a subject. Perhaps we just replay the same themes over but in different ways. I do seem to be consistent in how I frame and see the world, but my interests are varied. It could still look like 36 people held the camera for one roll of film.
How did your “Reflecting on the Edge” develop?
I began photographing models in the water in 1979. Throughout my career, images that resembled the work in “Reflecting on the Edge” would show up for me, but were never the full intent of the way I was photographing then. I would put them aside and think “One day I will get back to this….there is something there…” Then last October, I was working in Beth Moon’s pool and I just “saw” it as something complete and set out to make the images. For the most part, what you see is what I have created in camera. Like many things in life, one must learn how to see what isn’t there to learn how to see it.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
Never enough time as life and the “business” of photography fill many days. But I feel so blessed to be in this chosen profession. I also think the biggest challenge all photographers face today is that everyone is a photographer. Many are better than others and like thick cream, those will rise to the top, but we are saturated with imagery and instant gratification. It’s sad to see galleries replaced by iPads, serious journalists replaced by iPhones and folks racing to post the next image without thought. On the other hand, there are amazing images being made everywhere these days, just not enough places to display them.
Who are some of the artist that you admire?
I have spent many summers teaching workshops in France and I think I have learned most from the french photographers through observation. My home is filled with Jean Pierre Sudre images and I am always inspired by them and his sense of possibilities. I am grateful he shared his Mordançage process with me. Others would be Cartier Bresson, Lucien Clergue, Sarah Moon, Willy Ronis, Denis Brihat. I love the reportage work of Salgado and Tomasz Tomaszewski. Beth Moon’s “Thy Kingdom Come” series touches my heart. With the new pool work I am looking at painters like Botero, Klimt, Picasso. The list is long.
How do you overcome a creative block?
Keep working. It is part of the creative process. Or take time to gaze at something in beautiful light…and then wet it! That always opens a path to creativity for me.
Would you tell us about your workspace?
When I moved to California, I converted the detached garage to a darkroom/workspace and added french doors that look onto the garden and a beautiful red bird house that gives me pleasure. The dining room was always my other workspace but a few years ago I added a glass room to the darkroom and that faces the other garden. I am surrounded by other people’s beautiful art, a collection of bird nests, branches, shells and found objects. I feed the birds, squirrels and visiting cat on the glass roof. It is theatre with an interesting point of view. It is important to have a peaceful place to rest the mind.
Please tell us what a perfect day of shooting is for you?
I suspect it would involve water. I am so inspired in that medium whether I am photographing a person, object or watching the veils on a Mordançage print floating in the tray. For the last few years it could also be working in South America on the Amazon or in Cartagena. There is that water again but in a very different venture. I receive great satisfaction using my talents in a meaningful way and working on the projects with the eye doctors has been amazing. I suspect I will be seeking more “perfect days” with NGO’s.
How did you first become aware of MMI? (2013)
The beauty of teaching workshops is your life becomes intertwined with people from all parts of the globe. Often, they are doing amazing things as was the case with one of my former students, Dr. Joe Fammartino, a retina eye specialist. He had been working with Medical Ministry International for many years running projects which left no time to document the amazing work being done. I had become good friends with he and his wife, Toni after discovering we were raised 10 miles from each other in western Pennsylvania. Over dinner, I volunteered for the project in Colombia to help tell the story and offer images for fund-raising. I invited a Spanish-speaking student, Rita Villanueva, to join me. Together we would follow 6 to 10 people back to their villages, so others could truly understand the impact they can have.
What type of work do they do? (2013)
MMI aims to establish long-term programs and facilities to help address the needs of the less fortunate. Currently they conduct over 100 short-term projects (usually two weeks) in 22 countries. Teams of volunteers work on projects involving vision care, dental, orthopedics, physical therapy, water and sanitation among others. Each team will build upon the previous teams work and after a few years, their goal is to establish a permanent care center.
What is your personal connection to this good work?(2013)
As a child I used to practice “being blind”. Not sure why, but as a photographer, my sight is certainly precious to me. I still have the braille alphabet card. After the first project in Colombia, in which a team of 50 saw nearly 6000 people in two weeks, I was hooked. Being part of a team that can help restore sight, whether through eye glasses or surgery, is a very rewarding experience. With all the bad things in the world, it is good to witness the kindness of humanity towards one another.
Do you hope to document this work in the future?(2013)
I love this kind of work and for the past three years have seen my focus lean from fine art more toward the documentary philanthropic phase of my life. I have gone to the Amazon with MMI and back to Bocachica, Colombia to visit the villagers from the original project. Ironically, I started my career in 1982 working for United Cerebral Palsy Games for the Disabled. Those games in Denmark also included blind athletes, and the one I remember most was a man named Tom Sullivan. Last week, while teaching in Santa Fe, I recalled Tom to the Fammartino’s and the impression he had left on me even 30 years later. Ironically, they had recently met at an event where Tom Sullivan had been the motivational speaker. Small world, as he is now interested in the work being done by MMI. Will I continue to seek these projects? Most definitely, yes.
Every picture has a story, whether it is yours or someone else’s story that inspired you to make the image. Photography has opened so many doors in my life, from students and connections to world travel and all the joy that brings.
Truly, all photographs are self portraits.
Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your art and you time.
To learn more about the work of Elizabeth Opalenik please visit her site at, Elizabeth Opalenik.