“This photographer invented/developed a technique involving cyanotype printed onto black and white gelatin silver paper. The statement reveals great resourcefulness in working without a darkroom in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.” Jesseca Ferguson
Melissa Wilgis work was selected as an Outstanding Body of Work in the2019 Denis Roussel Award by juror Jesseca Ferguson. We are pleased to feature her work here on Rfotofolio.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I live in a small coastal town in Southeastern NC with my husband, our young daughter and our hound dog. Currently, my regular, full-time job is staying home with my pre-schooler. My “side gig” is making photograms. I made my first in 1986 in Mr. Fecik’s photography class at Boardman High School. I don’t recall the specifics, but I’m fairly certain a clear cassette tape was involved. At the time, making photograms was simply a way to learn my way around the darkroom. It taught me how to use an enlarger and what the various chemicals do.
Leaving photograms behind, I pursued photojournalism throughout high school and college. After graduating with a BA in English from NC State University, I started working for a branch of Eastman Kodak called Qualex. I was in tech support, helping one-hour-photo lab operators fix their problems via telephone. Over the next several years, I moved further away from photography and became further entrenched in corporate America.
I finally came to my senses and left that world behind. I found some film photography classes at the local community college and took a few to get back into the swing of things. Soon I started working there as the darkroom assistant. Four years later I became pregnant with my daughter and left my job at the community college to focus on being a mom. When my daughter was about a year old, my husband completed the darkroom in our garage. The baby-monitor picked-up a signal out there, so I was able to go into the darkroom during naptime, in addition to occasional evenings and weekends. Making photograms gained traction for me during this time because it was photography I could do without wandering too far from my young daughter. She was and still is my first priority.
Why do you create?
I’m sure most of us create because we simply can’t not create. My version of that means that darkroom is like therapy for me. As mentioned, I stay at home with my daughter. When I’m with her, my focus, as it should be, is on her. I’m not so much myself, as I’m the mother of my daughter. When I’m in the darkroom, I’m myself. Of course that includes being a mother, wife, daughter, etc. But my focus is completely inward, rather than outward. Being an introvert, my brain is happiest turned inward. I joke that I love to spend time in a small, dark room talking to myself. It’s true though.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
I suppose my ancestors have had the biggest influence. I come from a long line of creative people; people who think outside the box and aren’t afraid to try things. Also, my husband goes out of his way to be sure I have time to create. I wouldn’t be at this point creatively without his support.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
Honestly, I don’t think I could single out one particular image. I tend to not pick favorites of anything–foods, colors, music, etc. A book that I love though is Broken Spirits by Eberhard Grames. I tried to pick one image as my favorite in the series, but I just can’t do it. For this interview, I’ve narrowed it down to three though; Feathers on Decorated Paper, Creeping Pearls and The White Side of a Ray. I love having an opportunity to look at nature up-close and I think his compositions are really lovely.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
I’m a thrift store junkie and make it a priority to search out photogrammable objects at the charity shops. One day a few years ago I found a women’s full slip. The details of the slip itself were fairly simple, but there was what appeared to be a cigarette burn on the front, right thigh. I wasn’t sure how it would work as a photogram, but I knew I had to try. I flipped one of my enlargers around so I could print on the floor and placed three pieces of 16×24 paper together. I loved the results and it taught me to push my limits and take chances.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
Finding photogrammable stuff at the thrift store, then spending time in the darkroom. Even if I don’t have “successful” results, time spent in the dark moving things around on paper is always good. I like examining the subjects I use in my photograms; antique garments with worn stitches and handmade lace, deceased critters with delicate wings and fascinating silhouettes, marsh grasses and wildflowers that I’ve gathered locally.
Please tell us about the work you submitted for the Denis Roussel Award.
In September of 2018, Hurricane Florence sat above my small coastal town and dumped nearly 30 inches of rain on us. Sadly, a good bit of that went into my darkroom and I wasn’t able to work in there for close to eight months. Being in the darkroom is like therapy, so I had to find a substitute.
I started making cyanotype photograms in the yard. As my mind wandered while I was working, I wondered if I could combine cyanotype photograms and silver gelatin photograms. I did a small test with some old silver gelatin photograms I had. The results weren’t great, but they were good enough to convince me to pursue the process further. At that point though, it would still be close to five months before I could get into my darkroom again. I worked on some compositions in my head while I continued to do the straight cyanotypes in the yard.
Finally, in mid-April 2019, I had my first darkroom day since September 2018. That day I made some of the initial photograms for this series. The images included here are literally my first attempts with this process. I’ve learned a lot in a short time, but I have more experimenting and creating to do.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
Anna Atkins! I think it would be lovely to skip around the English countryside and seaside with her, gathering specimens. And I’d love to poke around her herbarium and studio to see all of her amazing treasures.
How important is the photographic community to you?
Community in general is important to me. A photographic community is crucial. I happily spend the majority of my time in communion with my child, her friends and other moms. But I also need to spend time with other artists and photographers to stay fulfilled. My best friend is a photographer. We’re a wacky little community of two. She and I also meet with a handful of other photographers in town. It’s fulfilling to discuss projects and thoughts with these friends.
These connections are so very beneficial to me. I’m slowly starting to get into the photography community at-large, via social media. But I’m not good at computering or Facebooking so it’s tough for me. But I do realize it’s a crucial part of building relationships in the photography community.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
Light. I need light to create photograms.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
My aunt recently gave me my grandmother’s wedding dress from the 1940s. I’d like to make a large photogram of it, using the cyanotype on silver gelatin process.
What’s on the horizon?
Next on the horizon is a more scientific approach to the cyanotype on silver gelatin series. I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made so far. But I’d like to see if I can get a little more contrast in the cyanotype photogram portion. I don’t mind the subtleness, but I’d like to see if I can get a wider contrast range. My plan is to stick with the same paper (Ilford FB), but try various chemical recipes until I find one I like. The scientific approach might be challenging for me though. I’m typically much better at the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach. We’ll see!
Thank you Melissa, to learn more about the work of Melissa Wilgis please visit her site at Melissa Wilgis.