Vaune Trachtman’s portfolio was chosen as a 2021 Rfotofolio Selection by Diana Bloomfield. We are pleased to share it here.
“I was immediately drawn to this work as I think it’s such a spectacular way of using old family photographs to make a shared connection. The artist blends past and present, collapsing time through photographs that are separated by nearly a century, and expertly creates imagined shared experiences and landscapes. Although this work is very personal to the artist, this “collaboration across time” seems universal to me and would, I believe, communicate with any viewer. I appreciated the thoughtful artist statement, too, which really supports the imagery. This is such a strong body of work, reaching across time and creating a wholly imagined world between past and present. This is a real testament, too, to the power of photographs. I am also impressed that these are photopolymer gravures, with the triptych being my very favorite. A beautifully conceived and fully realized project.” Diana Bloomfield
Would you please tell us about yourself?
I was born in Philadelphia. My father was an investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He died when I was five, and not long after that my mom moved me and my brother and sister to Rome for a year. I still marvel at her audacity in doing that. She died when I was 15, and I left Philly not long after that.
I moved around a lot as I became an adult. Along the way I attended a few schools and worked a lot of different photography-based jobs, including as a master printer of silver-gelatin prints and asphaltum-based photogravures, and, on the other end of the image-making spectrum, as a Photoshop specialist at TIME Inc. I loved doing all of it, but I ultimately concluded that the chemicals involved in traditional processes may have compromised my immune system, and that working 100% digitally lacked the mystery of watching an image appear in a tray of developer and the physicality of etching a plate. I wanted to find a way to bring my interests in historic and digital processes together. That search led me to the direct-to-plate photopolymer gravure process. I describe myself as a photographer and printmaker whose work honors the methods and tones of historic processes but without the toxic chemicals. I live in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Where did you get your photographic training?
Well, I received what you could call “formal” training while getting my masters in studio art at NYU and the International Center of Photography. But it actually started long before that. When I was a teenager, I really, really wanted a camera, but it didn’t appear beneath the Christmas tree, so I saved up my tip money from bussing tables and bought a Minolta x700 35mm.
I need to back up a minute for some context. My mom worked for Marlboro Music, which is based in Philadelphia and holds a music festival in southern Vermont in the summer. That meant that when I was seven or eight, I began spending my summers in Vermont, where I met the festival photographer, George Dimock (he later went on to teach art history at UNC). The summer after my mom died— this would be 1982— I was a 15-year-old kid and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself or where to go. Fortunately, the Marlboro family encouraged me to come to Vermont even though she wasn’t there. I brought my new Minolta with me, and that summer George taught me how to develop my first roll of film, and he showed me how to make a print. He was an excellent teacher, and I’m grateful for that experience because it’s lasted my whole life. He also taught me how to juggle. He is a dear friend, and we still see each other a few times a year.
As a printmaker, it’s a different path. Before going to grad school, I worked with Paul Taylor at Renaissance Press, and at John Goodman Photogravure, and also as an assistant at Wingate Studios. Working at that level made a huge impression on me, and when I left TIME around 2015, I decided I wanted to incorporate printmaking into my work. I had a retraining stipend, which helped me study with Don Messec at Making Art Safely, and I took a Green Printmaking Intensive at Zea Mays Printmaking, along with many other workshops and classes.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
I’ve mentioned a few influences already, but let’s focus on my mom. She loved movies, and I remember her coming home from work and asking if my homework was done– I knew this was my cue to lie and say, “Yes, of course.” Then she would take me to the double-feature at TLA Cinema on South Street. I was eight or nine, watching foreign films I couldn’t understand, but that was okay because I was with my mom, and we were having popcorn for dinner. That’s where I learned to love cinematography. I feel like the images from those movies are ingrained in me. That experience taught me that it’s possible to look at one still from a film– literally a fraction of a second– and still get a sense of a larger story. Today when I turn the lens around and point it at my mom and me in our seats, and I take that mental picture of us, I see in that single frame the larger story of my life.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
Sticking with the theme of movies, I’ll go with a still from Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica, with cinematography by Carlo Montuori. I can so clearly picture when the father and son go out together in similar clothes to work hanging posters on the street, the father finally having a job, the son wanting to be just like his dad. This made an impression on me because the boy was a similar age to me when I saw the film with my mom. I could easily see myself– who had recently lost a father– in his place.
But because that’s from the movies, I’m going to allow myself another image. I’ll go with Alfred Stieglitz’ “The Hand of Man,” which shows a train moving along a web of tracks in Long Island City. I like how the train is the main character here. I can hear it breathing. Sometimes it is a body at rest, sighing a cloud of steam and soot, that soon will be moving again. And sometimes it’s already moving, going slowly now, building up speed before passing either into or out of the rail yard, perhaps on its way to the country. Maybe it carries passengers, or maybe it carries coal. I like that the combination of smoke, cloud cover, and depth-of-field all work together to obscure the distant buildings, which helps me to focus on the character of the train and how I choose to personify it, or how I’ll place it into a larger story, and how it activates my own memories of trains, which become like transparencies overlaid on this one image.
I also love that this is a gravure, and that the printer made a choice about what color ink to use when it was printed. It makes me think about the subtleties and seductiveness of color and how color works on our subconscious. And I also appreciate the title of the image, which can refer both to the hands of industry on the land (which leads me to David Plowden’s wonderful book, The Hand of Man on America), and also the hand of Stieglitz in making this image of a regular ol’ train into a work of art.
But because that’s an object, I’m also going to allow myself one of a person, in this case Imogen Cunningham’s “Portrait of Frida Kahlo.” I like looking at this and seeing one artist, Frida, looking at another artist, Imogen. For each of them, was this portrait session like looking into a mirror or looking through a window? When I look at this picture it is like a conversation without words.
There are lots of people working today who affect me similarly.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson.
“Headless,” from my series LIMBO.
After college, I lived in Seattle for five years. One day at Pike Place Market I found a used Minox 35mm camera at a rummage sale. This really changed things for me. It’s a very small camera, about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It’s so small you have to cock the shutter twice to advance the film. I started using my Minox at night with grainy high-speed film to take pictures of people dancing in clubs. They were moving, and so was I (as was Steiglitz, by the way; he was on the back of another train).
The images from that period in my life aren’t just about the movement of the subject– they’re about my movement as well. This was significant for me at the time; it helped me realize that the photographer has a presence in a photo. This photo also helped me realize how much I like film grain, and that I’m interested in the mystery of the larger story around an individual image. I began referring to the Minox images as being “pictures from Limbo,” because they seemed to be coming from an in-between, otherworldly place. I later shortened this to simply LIMBO.
Please tell us about the work you submitted to the Rfotofolio Call.
I submitted work from NOW IS ALWAYS, a series of direct-to-plate photopolymer gravures.
This work was begun during the Great Depression when my father shot a few rolls of film near his father’s drugstore in Center City, Philadelphia (he was born in 1914 and was in his 50s when I was born). Nearly 90 years later, my sister found the negatives and gave them to me. Working from his original negatives, I’ve combined the people from his neighborhood with my own images, many of which were shot from windows and moving vehicles. While making this work I feel as though he and I have gotten to know each other as adults. We speak to each other through our cameras.
There is obviously a personal aspect to NOW IS ALWAYS, but I want the work to be more expansive than a dialogue between the father I didn’t know and the daughter he knew only as a child. In NOW IS ALWAYS, I want to create a feeling of collapsed-yet-expanded time. Yes, I want to see what my father saw, and yes, I want him to see what I see. But I also want the viewer to look at the past, and I want the past to look right back; I want the viewer and the subject to each feel the gaze of the other. And by combining images taken almost a century apart, I also want to seamlessly integrate layers of technology and image-making history: his 1930’s point-and-shoot, my iPhone, his silver-gelatin negatives, my Photoshop files, our shared sunlight and water, and the traditions of ink, elbow grease, and an intaglio press.
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding.
I love that with the DTP process I can achieve the tonal richness of the earliest gravures without their toxicity. I love that I can conjure the pictorialists and engage in a conversation across time about what photography can be. I love that this process requires physical effort– the rubbing of plates, the turning of the press. I love that working with paper and ink is tactile and elemental. And I love that this process makes so much sense to me and who I am.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
Well, I’m generally a happy person. So that helps a lot. And I’m also really into process, which also helps, because trying to master the DTP gravure process is very, very challenging. I definitely have some tough days getting things to work just right. But I like figuring things out, and I’m sort of tenacious that way. I figure the struggles are part of the path, and they have their own rewards.
In terms of actual advice I can offer, I think it’s good to have a few different projects going at the same time. Have one that’s your main project, and also try to have a few other things cooking on the side. Give them enough heat that they aren’t just sitting there doing nothing, but are actually alive and have a little bit of momentum. That way if you get blocked or whatever on your main project, you can switch over to another project and it will be ready for you. Maybe that project then becomes your main project, or maybe you get a little perspective that you can bring back to that first project to get it moving again.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
Music! Making plates and printing them requires so much preparation, precision, and pacing that it can feel like a marathon. Music helps me stay alert and vary my tempo. Also, since I’m interested in making images that feel dreamlike and removed from time, I like listening to music from lots of different genres and eras. When an image feels at home with Edith Piaf, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Funkadelic, Hank Williams, and Bob Marley, I know things are working pretty well.
That said, I recently received a grant from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to buy a large format press so I can scale up the size of my prints. That press will be essential, for sure.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
Definitely. I want to make a book. I also have an idea about 3D images that I’d like to explore.
I’d also like to do book covers. My picture “Smoker” is the cover of Grant Faulkner’s book “All the Comfort Sin Can Provide,” and I’d like to do more of that. That would be fun. And maybe some album art.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
As a photographer, I am always on the lookout for moments that feel like they contain something larger than themselves. The picture I want to take is of a moment in time that is full of other times. That’s what my photographer’s eye is looking for. I usually use my cellphone for this, because I like small cameras. I’ve never been a big-camera, big-lens kind of photographer.
How has the pandemic influenced your work methods ? Or has it?
It has. Fortunately, it hasn’t turned my life upside down. I haven’t been able to travel as much as I’d like, which has effected how many pictures I’ve taken. But that’s okay. Not being able to accumulate images means I’ve turned towards the pictures I already have, and inwards to the pictures in my head. My work methods have also changed because in the absence of so many other activities, I’ve been going to my studio nearly every day for two years. I work a lot. Doing this has given me continuity, focus, discipline, and perspective. It’s helped me take all those pandemic lemons and make some pandemic lemonade.
What’s on the horizon?
Good question. Well, on the short term horizon, I’m looking forward to my month long fellowship at Vermont Studio Center, where I’m hoping to start a new body of work. After that… we’ll see!
To learn more about the work of Vaune Trachtman please visit her site at Vaune Trachtman .