Today we are pleased to share the work of Paula Riff.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I studied Japanese language and literature at UC Berkeley and when I graduated I went to live in Tokyo and stayed for seven years. At the time, I think I was in love with living in a different country and speaking the language not to mention being completely enamored with Japanese art and culture. Even though I didn’t own a camera at the time, the art I make today is definitely influenced and inspired by my experiences and time spent there. I worked for several years at a Japanese newspaper as an interpreter and before I left, the staff photographer gave me his used Pentax camera as a going away present. I had no idea then how this gift would change my life. I took a side trip to Nepal on my way back home and the first images I made were of landscapes trekking in the mountains. These photographs are in a box somewhere waiting to be freed.
Where did you get your photographic training?
I moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in extension classes at Otis College of Art and Design. It was there that I learned how to develop film and make silver gelatin prints. I set up a make-shift darkroom in my bathroom that was very rudimentary with a tiny enlarger on top of the dryer and developing trays in the sink.
I have taken a few workshops focusing on alternative processes, but in general, I mostly try to figure things out and hope for the best. I was terrified the first time I tried gum printing. I lined up the bottles of chemicals on my table and just stared at everything for a long while. I looked at the instructions and then put everything away again. I finally bought Christina Anderson’s book on gum printing and enrolled in a summer workshop at Maine Media with Brenton Hamilton and that pretty much sums it up.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
Aline Smithson is really the woman responsible for changing my creative life. Without her I might not be on the path that I am on today and for that I am incredibly grateful. She continues to remind me to make work with intention and inspires me with her amazing and generous knowledge and spirit. I feel very lucky that I know her.
Recently, we celebrated the life of Judy Sherrod as part of the Depth of Field Exhibition and gathering in Carmel and it was Judy who inspired me to experiment and try new things. Judy was the founder and spirit behind the group Shootapalooza, which is a collective of mainly women artists supporting each other creatively. She was a real trail blazer and one of a kind. I miss her so much. We would often talk about art, different artists and books and brainstorm about all kinds of things. She was incredibly smart and tremendously well read. When I first met Judy she was wearing a pair of red cowboy boots and it’s because of her that I bought my fancy pair of blue ‘cyanotype’ cowboy boots. Those were fun times.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
I spend a lot of time looking at different kinds of art, not just photography but painting as well, and I do tend to fall in love with many artists and their work. Rothko’s paintings in particular are ones that I never tire looking at and then there is nothing more fun for me than discovering a new artist whose work I get excited about. There is so much incredible art. This is a very hard question for me to answer, but I guess I would say Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait, the one where he is holding a cane with a human skull carved on top, is an image that is hard for me to forget and one I get lost in. This particular portrait of him taken about a year before he died is so strong and powerful. It is as if he is still here looking at us all. I absolutely adore this image.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
“Tulip in Black and Blue” might still be one of my favorite images and possibly the image that gave me courage to combine processes and take chances. I had fallen in love with the work of Kenro Izu and his series called “Blue” which is a beautiful body of work using cyanotype over platinum. This work absolutely took my breath away and I was inspired. Sometimes the fear factor gets in my way and I stop short of pushing myself more. Layering a piece with multiple coats of chemicals can be difficult because there are so many opportunities to mess up and then one has to start all over again!
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
The best day always includes making art. For me it is similar to breathing properly, taking time to think and stay focused in the moment. If I am able to make a smooth coat applying the mixed chemicals, then I can breath more easily at least until I see what it looks like after it is developed. It often takes me a few days of applying different colors to a print to know if I am excited about it, but sometimes there is this moment of “oh” this might work today. Then I am pretty happy.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
I have so many heroes that I would love to spend time with so this is a tough question. But I think a perfect day would be hanging out with Meghann Ripphenhoff outside in nature somewhere making large humongous abstract cyanotypes. Another perfect day would surely be in the darkroom with Alison Rossiter. Just to look at her old boxes of expired paper and watch her dip strips of paper in chemicals as she makes beautiful abstract pieces would be a slice of heaven!
But then I also think of how incredible it would have been to be a spectator in Mark Rothko’s painting studio and watch him mix paint and somehow magically build up colors on his canvas. I think that might have been a spiritual experience for me.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
About a year ago I finally purchased a UV light box or exposure unit and although I miss chasing the sun and moving my contact frame around and befriending sunshine, I do love my light box as it has given me so much more freedom. I also need good brushes for coating papers. I own quite a few and recently I bought a big paper cutter that secretly I adore!
Whats hangs on your walls?
I have started to collect a few prints of artist friends whose work I admire and luckily for me they offer affordable small prints at the end of the year sales or during Kickstarter campaigns. Living with me on my walls or on my book shelves are Aline Smithson, Richard Tuschman, Eliot Dudik, S. Gayle Stevens, Joseph Minek, Ross Sonnenberg, Melanie Walker, Michael Kirchoff, Heidi Kirkpatrick, Ryan Zoghlin, Christa Backwood, Heather Oelklaus, Kimberly Chiaris, Blue Mitchell, Jennifer Shaw, Amanda Smith, Vicky Stromee, Vicki Reed, Ellie Ivanova, Sandra Klein, Sal Taylor Kydd. I know I am forgetting some.
The walls in my breakfast nook are jam packed with art postcards sewn by the gracious Donna Moore and so many other artist friends living in different states around the country. Finally, there is a very large wall sized cyanotype that I made on the beach in Galveston, Texas a few years back where I first was lucky enough to meet you both!
Whats on the horizon?
I plan to continue experimenting with alternative processes and make pieces that are more sculptural in shape and maybe flow off the walls. A goal is to play with different papers that can more easily twist and turn and do more of the unexpected. I also want to make pieces that fill up an entire wall or hang from the ceiling, something in that vein. Who knows where this next adventure will take me, but I’m excited to see if I can make real what I am conjuring up in my head!
Thank you Paula.
To learn more about the work of Paula Riff please visit her site at Paula Riff.