Emma Powell was the 2023 Denis Roussel Award Portfolio Review recipient as chosen by our juror Christopher James.
“Your wonderful selection of images, from When It Rains, is a solid exercise in using the ability of layered photograms as a visual language to explore memories as they relate to objects. For me, the works are both playful and disturbingly surreal… disturbing in that the combinations of images inspire unexpected associations in the viewer, e.g., a writer lazily enjoying a rest in a field but in danger of being impaled by writing instruments falling from above… an image of writer’s block! As well, the woman wading through a body of water while holding an umbrella and seemingly unaware of the contents of the silverware drawer falling down on her (a lot of metaphorical association with the responsibilities of curating an inherited home in this image. Of course those interpretations may not match your intentions but you can never know where your viewer’s imagination or life experiences will take your work. There is, for me, a definitive “through the looking glass” experience with your work. Very strong.” Christopher James
Would you please tell us about yourself?
I am an artist living and working in Colorado. Since my first introduction to alternative
photographic processes in 2005, I have employed a range of techniques through several
different projects. I consider the physical crafting of the prints to be an integral part of my artistic practice. I have found creative inspiration in developing hybrid approaches that merge current digital technologies with early methods.
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Please tell us about the portfolio you submitted to the Denis Roussel Award
When It Rains is a series of cyanotypes on fabric combining photographs and photograms into single surreal images. These artworks reflect on loss, anxiety, and the materials we collect.
In late 2020, my partner and I moved into the house where he grew up. We began sorting
through the belongings of his father, who had recently passed away. Each object suddenly had a new nostalgic significance heightened by loss. As I began incorporating these materials into my artwork, each image developed a new narrative. This act also gave the objects a newfound purpose while creating a record of them.
Please tell us about your process.
I create these images by placing objects directly onto digitally printed negatives while exposing the light-sensitive cyanotype-coated cloth. The transparent negative prints a photograph on the material, while at the same time, the objects block the UV light, which produces an additional photogram. I hope to expand the visual narratives through the interplay between these two approaches. Throughout this ongoing series, I also playfully experiment with the scale and quantity of familiar objects to create visual connections and metaphors.
What is the most frustrating part of the process?
The most frustrating part of the process is when the wind does not behave while I am trying to expose a large cyanotype with light photogram objects. This unpredictability can result in disaster or unique results that I might never have dreamed up.
Do you enjoy the process itself or is it just a means to an end?
One of the aspects of this series that I enjoy the most is the problem-solving needed to make all the components work together. I design images with large dark sections to create space for the photogram objects. In these dark areas, the negative is transparent and will not obscure the photogram. Timing also plays a role. Sometimes, I remove objects during the exposure, resulting in a ghosted photogram. The photograms can be less predictable, which heightens the element of chance.
Do you have a mentor or a teacher that has helped your journey?
I have had many artistic mentors. The professor who first introduced me to alternative
processes was Bridget Murphy Milligan. She gave me a lot of freedom to explore photographic processes while in college. I also collaborate regularly with my mother, Kirsten Hoving. We often shoot together and give each other valuable feedback as we develop our individual pieces.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
When I am going through a time when nothing is working, I first get a good night’s sleep and try again. Then, I start to pinpoint potential problems and test each variable. I might mix new chemistry with slight adjustments, testing each time. I print new negatives, try different papers or materials, and change my approach to exposure. Sometimes it becomes clear who was the culprit, and other days it remains a mystery and a part of the process. I find I have specific images that regularly print like a breeze, and then there are the problem child ones that always require extra coddling.
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?
I find the reveal when the processed image appears the most rewarding. However, at that
moment, I am still in process mode and often unsure of the results. It is not until a few days
later, when I can step back and take a fresh look that I can appreciate the image.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
Other than the required camera and digital printer. I use a simple plastic squeeze siphon to
empty large trays of chemicals or water. This way, I avoid trying to hold and pour a large tray of liquid into a small funnel. Also, a basic sweater drying rack makes a great print drying rack.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
I am always excited to learn processes or techniques I have yet to explore. I am also currently interested in incorporating more tangible materials in my work. Such as different types of fabric, some with iridescent or textural qualities. I suspect art with unique physical properties will be appreciated more as AI becomes increasingly common.
What’s on the horizon?
In a few weeks, I will be going to Cumberland Island with a group of photographer friends to gain new inspiration and make images. I find this time in the wild uniquely invigorating and community-building.
Thank you Emma.
To learn more about the work of Emma Powell please visit her site by clicking on her name.