Karen Bell ‘s portfolio Travanca do Monte was chosen as a 2020 Rfotofolio Selection .We are pleased to share her work here on Rfotofolio.
Would you please tell us about yourself?
In the world we live in, I am now considered a senior citizen. That makes me laugh, as I still feel (and frequently act) like a kid. I’m a native New Yorker, lover all things associated with the natural world: birds, bugs, trees – oh yes, and humans.
Where did you get your photographic training?
I went to undergrad school at Ohio University, with my eye on being a government major, but not really knowing what I wanted to do. I had always had an automatic camera, brownie, instamatic, etc, but never a 35mm. That changed when my parents went to Hong Kong on a business trip. I asked them to bring me back a camera – the Canon Ftb. That was late 1971. An early boyfriend was a photo major. He taught me how to develop film in a closet in our dorm (really). I didn’t take my first official photo class until the last part of my junior year. By then, I was hooked, spent my entire senior year taking as many photo classes as the school would allow. Arnold Gassan was teaching there then. Craig Stevens (Maine Photo Workshop, etc) was a grad student at the time, as was D. James Dee, who went on to be known as the Soho Photographer.
Moving back to NYC, I continued to photograph and take master classes at the New School (where I later taught for over 21 years). I studied with Lisette Model and Philippe Halsmann – two real pistols.
I started an MFA at Hunter College, working with my friend Mark Feldstein, and assisting Roy DeCarava, then went on to get my MFA at RISD, 1981-83. Aaron and Harry had retired by then, but Aaron loved hanging around the school. Not Harry. (Siskind and Callahan). While there, I had the pleasure of running a visiting photographers’ program, instigated by then Head, Gary Metz. I had the pleasure to work with Lewis Baltz, Larry Fink, Judy Dater, Robert Heinecken, among others.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
Hard to pinpoint who had an influence on my creative process. If you’re referring to photographers, early on I was really taken with Frederick Evans, but then also Ralph Eugene Meatyard. The former for the way he romanticized architecture, and observed light – the essence of photography, and the latter for the sheer other worldly quality of his take on childhood, so foreign from my own. If you mean people, other than dead photographers, I would have to say my artist friends. I have learned so much about seeing from the many painters, sculptors and photographers I have known over the years. Too many to name.
My business for 30+ years was photographing art – all forms of art. An exhausting profession, but I learned a lot about seeing what others were seeing. Another very important part of my creative growth has been my association with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). My first residency, in 1990 was eye opening. Being submersed in an environment where everyone is so focused on their art was inspirational. Poets, composers, visual artists of all stripes – together in a supportive environment. The conversation was exciting, stimulating and memorable. I have been fortunate to return multiple times over the years. It’s competitive to get in – but so supportive once you’re there.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
So many photographs have stayed with me, as I have been around photography for a very long time. One that comes to mind immediately is by Andre Kertesz, “Chez Mondrian”. A simple, elegant image of a vase, a winding staircase, a hat and an old doormat, if you want to break it down into what is physically in the photo. But the light. The composition. Nothing is out of place. Everything has meaning.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
A very early photograph of mine – not visible on the web or anywhere else except here in my studio – taught me a lesson about addressing people, specifically children. I was photographing with a 4 x 5” camera, in an old abandoned home near Athens, Ohio (this is undergrad days). My good friend Eileen, a special Ed. major had befriended a local family and their friends. We used to spend time with them, sometimes taking them on field trips. Not sure why or how we got to this place, but two of the kids sat for me, playing with a large piece of plastic on an old beat-up sofa. It was the gaze of the older kid. Direct. Attentive. Assured. It taught me to never under value the dignity of anyone, no matter what their social situation may be.
Please tell us about the work you submitted to the Rfotofolio Call.
The work I submitted to the Rfotofolio Call takes me back, in a strange way, to that very lesson. I co-direct a small workshop/ retreat for painters and photographers in Northern Portugal. Sadly, we missed 2020 and will now miss 2021, thank you pandemic!
We stay mostly in a small farming hamlet – a place that straddles 2, maybe 3 centuries. Subsistence farming combined with the internet, if you will. The people are amazing. After 6 or is it 7 years, I still don’t speak more than a few basic words of Portuguese. No matter. The community has come to embrace our presence and are constantly amused by me trailing after them with my camera. Like the young girl in my photo of 1971, there is a profound sense of dignity in the bearing of these very hard-working people.
This must sound strange, me talking about photographing people, as most of my career has been focused on nature and the landscape in one form or another. But it is the people of Travanca do Monte that engage me every summer. And, when I get back there, I will continue to run after them in the morning fog, in the middle of the day while they dig up their potatoes, and in the evening when they have time to catch up with each other, at peace with their existence – or so it appears to these foreign eyes. Too romantic a take – they live a hard life, but there are always plenty of smiles and sincere greetings – that’s all right with me.
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?
Seeing is my favorite part of image making. Sometimes I miss the gestation period of film – the time between seeing something, snapping the shutter and actually seeing what you captured. Sitting at a computer is not my favorite part, though I am committed to the digital image, so I deal with it
.How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
When nothing seems to work, after cursing loudly, banging my desk, I generally go for a walk. Living in my part of NYC, even during a pandemic, there are always many people around. Not necessarily the calming experience I would like to have, but here I am, so I work with what I’ve got. As I always have my iphone with me, I may see something that piques my curiosity and I snap a few images. Eventually I sit back down and get on with it. Or I cook.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
The tools of my trade have changed dramatically over the years. I was never an equipment hound. I used what I had, and only bought what I think I really needed. I loved my Canon FTB, then I loved my Canon F-1s (plural, I had a couple of them). Then I loved – adored – my Mamiya 7. Had a love -hate relationship with my 4 x5 cameras, same with my early digital cameras. They’re all gone, except for one old F-1 and a Wista 4 x 5. I’m sentimental about those 2. I now use a Fuji XT-3 and my iphone 8 – soon to be a 12 Pro. I have a troubled back, so carrying any weight has become a serious issue, so my essential tool has become my iphone. And a hat.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
I used to make small hand-made books using my images printed on paper of all lengths and folded into a variety of shapes. I’d like to return to that and explore other ways of incorporating images in unexpected ways. Meaning? Maybe fabric. I did a series of images layering inkjet vellum and inkjet paper. That was a real challenge. Fabric may be a larger image as I really don’t like to sew. LOL.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
Art keeps me calm. Art broadens my horizons. Art is my energy. Art has introduced me to more diversity than I ever could have imagined as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. Art scares the daylights out of me but keeps me centered.
How has the pandemic influenced your work methods ? Or has it?
Ah, the Pandemic – capital P. As I am over 65, I have stayed to myself for close to a year. I initially thought I would get so much work done. That didn’t happen. I spent several months out of the city, living by the ocean. That meant staying warm during my daily walks, seeing only birds and an occasional human at the grocery store. I never stopped photographing – I can’t go more than a day or two without taking a few photos, but I was working willy-nilly, no plans, other than walking and seeing what the Ospreys were up to that day. I had an old laptop unable to load my current version of Photoshop, so my raw files wouldn’t open. It was frustrating. I found it hard to plan. I still do. But I’m working on it.
What’s on the horizon?
The horizon – see above. I’m trying to make some plans, applying for a residency, thinking about travelling, for whenever that happens, doing my taxes – hah – going out for long, cold walks. Giving my aged mother a big hug, and, generally, keep on keeping on.
To learn more about the work of Karen Bell please visit her site at Karen Bell.