So much to think about in your Roussel entry… First, the title of Language Acquisition has many doors to open, not the least of which is how we all learn to speak in the Tower of Babel we inhabit. I love the chemical and text interaction, the geometry and multi-dimensionality of the sewn pieces (another metaphor?). There is also an exploration of gesture, an attribute that photography doesn’t readily have access to. That it is all camera-less and made of masks, symbols and language, using contemporary hand sanitizer as a resist and your breath as an activator, is pretty energizing for me as a viewer.
Would you please tell us about yourself?
I am an Art professor and a photographic artist working with chemigrams and other experimental analog processes. I’ve traveled internationally a fair amount but have always lived in the Southeast United States. I’m the founder and former director of The Asheville Darkroom in Asheville, NC, where I also worked as an arts writer, a designer, and a freelance artist. I now live in Savannah, GA with my husband, our two cats, and a very old Live Oak tree named Lucretia.
Where did you get your photographic training?
I studied at Tulane University in New Orleans where I received my BFA focused in Photography in 2000. I went straight into graduate school, receiving my MFA from the University of Georgia in 2003. I was in the Photo program but also worked in mixed media, printmaking, and installation. I make sure my students know that I never took a single digital photography class in my formal education (only one course existed), and therefore my digital literacy is due to embracing the fact that your training doesn’t end with school. Hopefully it’s a life-long process.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
I am continually influenced by so many artists and educators, but my earliest notable influence would be my grad school mentor Michael J. Marshall. He taught me that there was indeed a space within Photography to think about materials and process, and that it was okay to explore it. Some of the first names in the photographic art world that reflected where I wanted to go were Doug and Mike Starn. Whether they were creating alt process work on delicate papers or taping together pieces silver gelatin paper, I knew I wanted to think about Photography as an object.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
At the start of each semester, I share a photograph with my students that I tore out of a textbook when I was 16 years old. I have hung it up on the wall in every home I lived in ever since — which has been many. It is a photograph by Time Magazine photographer N.R. Farbman, of a young couple fleeing Nazi Germany. I have never been able to find it online. I talk to my students about how this photograph struck me when I was 16, and how its meaning has evolved over the years as it now sits framed in my office as a 43-year-old. I could probably spend hours talking about that image, but I think what it boils down to is that it was the first photograph that I ever understood could hold its own meaning for me separate from the reality that it depicted. Photography is a medium that carries this heavy burden of “truth”. I could look at this photograph and contemplate the reality that it presented and the lessons I learn from that, but I can also see it in terms of symbols that help me navigate my own life. We bring our own baggage to every photograph we see, there is rarely objective truth. That difficult subjectivity is what we celebrate with the creation of Art, and why I refer to myself as a “photographic artist” rather than a “photographer”.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
Most recently, I would have to say “Modes of Breathing, Spring 2020”. It’s the only piece I have made to date in which I was quite literal and direct with the letterforms rather than cutting them up and abstracting them. I left the words “Don’t”, “Just”, and “Can’t” in plain view because I wanted to highlight that I created these chemigrams using my breath alone as the resist. There were numerous lessons learned – that much of my strongest work comes from processing life events rather than fabricating an external concept. The time I spent alone in a closet under safelight, methodically breathing onto silver gelatin paper, helped me reach a new level of understanding about my privilege as a cis-het white person in American society and how that was playing out in the protests over the death of George Floyd. I also learned how my artmaking materials and processes are collaborations with time, temperature, and humidity – by early July, the process of breathing onto chemigrams failed to give a visual result. It became an artwork that was truly bound to that specific window of history.
Please tell us about the work you submitted to the Denis Roussel Awards.
I shared a recent selection of word-based pieces dealing with social and political issues in our country. I identified as a writer before I did as an artist. Words were never a problem for me, until the last few years, where phenomena such as “information exhaustion” and “doomscrolling” seemed to take their toll and silence me. As I found myself unable to verbalize the onslaught of events that have transpired, these works emerged, in which I distill my reactions into a singular word. I use stencils to create a resist onto silver gelatin photo paper, and process the prints to create chemigrams. I then cut these prints, rearrange them to disrupt the letterforms, and either sew them into singular physical pieces, or construct them into sculptural works. The abstraction of the stenciled letters mirrors my inability to find words that fully represent my emotions by rendering the language indecipherable.
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?
Nowadays I tend to find myself more of an object-maker than an image-maker. I do vacillate between the two, but either way I guess I would say I find pushing the boundaries of what can be considered a photograph the most rewarding. Most people think about a photograph in terms of the slice of the outside world that it represents, rather than the physical object that holds space in the world. That’s why I love chemigrams – they utilize silver gelatin paper without the medium of lens-based imagery, so the paper itself gets to express its own innate characteristics.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
I let go of my definition of what “working” means. Again, this is why chemigrams are so great – you can’t expect a chemigram to be anything more than what it wants to be, based on your given variables at any one moment. The last time I demanded a certain visual outcome from a chemigram, I failed miserably at the intended task, but instead I leaned into the mistakes and wound up with a really wonderful series of small exploratory works. I like a decent amount of control and precision in my life, so chemigrams are a great way for me to let go of that for a while and just listen to what the artwork wants to become.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
Expired silver gelatin paper. I need the magic and uncertainty of not knowing what I am going to get out of some donated box of Agfa Portriga that may have been in an attic for the last 30 years. I’ve also come to embrace my outdoor “darkroom”, where different weather conditions give me new constraints to work within and problem-solve. I like how weather and temperature become active participants in my creative process.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
I want to keep pushing boundaries of what defines a photograph, in whatever manner that might look like. I generally think of photography as being a light-based medium rather than a lens-based one, so I think widening the gap between light and cameras is both challenging and somewhat amusing. I also want to keep exploring materiality – applying silver gelatin chemistry to other surfaces and materials has been on my mind for some time.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
I think it has helped me embrace mistakes, wonder, and not knowing the answer to a question. That has made me wish that more people were okay with not having the right answer all the time. So much of our society’s problems can boil down to personal insecurities – most people don’t want to admit they don’t know something, or that they could have been wrong about something. Instead of learning something new, many just want to cling to their initial ideas because that’s what strength looks like to them. The result becomes anger rather than curiosity. I don’t love how that view of the world makes me skeptical and a little depressed from time to time, but it does also help me to identify and really appreciate “my people” when I do find them.
How has the pandemic influenced your work methods? Or has it?
The pandemic has done many things – for one it has helped me redirect my art into ways to talk about serious societal issues in my country. The pandemic revealed for me so many systemic problems that we face, which contributed to the death toll of the United States becoming the highest in the world. It’s also helped me identify my anxiety disorder and process that with my art, in turn leading to a healthier relationship with my artmaking priorities. Most directly, it has helped me create my new series “Deep Breath”, in which I photographed people while holding discussions about how their lives were impacted by the pandemic. This led to some new experimental techniques within the realm of chemigrams. Portraiture is traditionally not a subject I feel comfortable working in, but the uneasiness of the last two years pushed me to tackle it.
What is on the horizon?
I’m continuing to print “Deep Breath” – it involves learning how to create lens-based chemigrams with silkscreen. Other than a few images from Pierre Cordier in the 1960s, I have no precedent for how this is supposed to work, so it’s a long, laborious process that I am teaching myself as I go. Penland School of Crafts will be hosting my two-week course in June 2022 called “Lightwork: Exploring Cameraless Photography”. I am also really thrilled to be an invited artist for the Experimental Photo Festival in Barcelona, Spain in July. I will be giving a lecture and two chemigram workshops, but also will get to take a workshop myself and be a student. I enjoy any opportunity where I get to be a student again.
To learn more about the work of Bridget Conn please visit her site at Bridget Conn.