Fine Art Photographer Anna Lilleengen explores physical transience through the use of analogue techniques with vintage cameras. Seeking to capture the elusive sense of feeling and being in the landscape. We talked to her about her series ‘Tales from the Forest’ and other works.
Tell us about your project ‘Tales from the Forest’?
Phenomenologically based, my work exteriorates inner conditions and seeks to capture the elusive sense of feeling and being in the landscape – juxtaposed with a focus on the photographic process which reveals the image as created and re-engages the viewer in the image in a critical manner, full of agency.
My series, Tales from the Forest, is taken with an 1870s full plate camera. For this, I handmake negatives out of light sensitive paper, onto whose sensitive surface the crystallised remains of wet plate collodion chemical used by the Victorian owners of the camera, scratch and scrape in their original, wooden plate holders.
This creates a sculptural effect, and mirrors the physical fragility of both us and the art object. The aim is for the viewer to feel the “affect” of a beautiful, wistful image (my work is mainly landscape, and usually based in Scandinavia, where my family is originally from, though I do work in Yorkshire too) and then to be distanced or ‘alienated’ from the image by seeing its mode of production (i.e. via a scrape made by the above mentioned chemical, or through light flare into the antique plate holders, or through the photographic effects of vignetting and bokeh, that appear on the images through the particular combination of lens and camera that I have). By gaining distance, the viewer also gains the possibility for critical engagement in the work, and for the re-integration back into a whole with the work, as Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin have extolled via their theories of distanciation and the work of art.
What attracted you to this specific project and how it is different to your other work?
I was drawn to exploring states of being and emotion through photographing the landscape.
Two of my Metamorphoses series are about levity and movement. They represent a point of transition, when it becomes clear that transformation is possible and the first steps into the unknown.
Whereas Tales from the Forest was an exploration of the personal psyche, and where it meets the collective in symbol, and is represented by elemental forest, the newer work looks at movement in time. The very physical nature of the Victorian plate camera photography lent itself to looking at origins. Phenomena brought about through using such old apparatus created photographic effects such as bokeh or vignetting that both disorient and highlight the sense of looking inward.
Within this inward space, layers of past meet and shadow over the present: there is a sense of needing to decipher. Instinct is one’s only guide. Not surprisingly, this is a grief series, and the disorientation of loss creates the gateway for encountering all sorts of emotion & states of mind.
Whilst Metamorphoses are still introverted works, they engage much more with the present and with the capacity to envisage different futures in this moment. There is a necessary element of the perspective of now: of having the requisite distance from origins to power away from them, if need be.
What is your favourite and least favourite part of this project?
I enjoyed working with a point and shoot camera, as a break from the labour-intensive and time consuming processes of the Victorian camera! (- albeit, a 1937 medium format version of this: a pack-away bellows Zeiss Ikon.) It allowed me to be more spontaneous in finding subject matter – though, cost is now more of a factor: buying and having film developed is far more costly than making own negatives and developing & printing them yourself in the darkroom. So this constrains the freedom quite a bit!
Shooting in colour was also both challenge and a boon. Having worked solely with silver gelatin before, I was a little apprehensive at first about how I would use colour: I didn’t want to succomb to a temptation to try to create William Eggleston-esque colour-drenched pictures when I wasn’t used to that format. Fortunately that’s not quite my inclination, and Nordic landscapes naturally lend themselves to a more muted colour palette.
I was surprised at just how pastel and clean the Scandinavian light is when captured on film. The camera seems to see this more clearly than the eye can. Even though the colours are pale, they feel warm.
There is a sadness in leaving behind the attention to the creation of the piece, as you get with silver gelatin, especially through experimental analogue processes. There is a sculptural aspect to the Tales from the Forest prints, where the physical residue of the wet plate collodion chemistry that remains in the antique plate holders would scrape and indent onto each negative: this helped to bring home the idea of uniqueness in an age of copy and to reflect on the fragility of surface, and of physicality in general. This is something that I would hope to explicitly return to in future work.
Personally I have shied away from using some of the old plate cameras, in part based upon their reputation for being difficult to use out in the field. Could you tell us a little about your experiences using them outside the studio environment?
There is no denying that an old plate camera can be tricky to use outside of a studio environment. My full-plate camera, dating back to the 1870s, is both cumbersome and heavy. It consists of a large hardwood box, bellows, a frosted glass back, a large brass lens and three of the original solid wood placeholders. In addition to these, I carry an extra weighty tripod with me to try to counter the camera’s weight and steady it on uneven ground. Even this is not failsafe, however, and the camera has on occasion toppled, or I have tripped, then had to fix the camera as best as possible. I try to be as careful but also remember that it is a working tool – I’m very privileged to be in the position of continuing the use of such a venerable camera.
Further challenges: being limited to taking the number of pictures I can take to the pre-prepared dark slides I have with me. The camera came with 3 double-sided wooden plateholders. These are double-sided, so I prepare and fit 6 negative plates in the darkroom beforehand. So for each labour-intensive walk into the forest with all the equipment, I can take six pictures. It is an ever-shifting balance between being discerning in my subject matter choice with a more experimental, risk-taking approach to the actual picture.
With digital photography you can check your shot instantly and it doesn’t matter how many pictures you take. With this analogue approach, there is no telling whether the picture has worked until the picture has been developed. The organic nature of the camera, and how it has aged in its 150 year life means it has its own quirks and idiosynchrasies. Quite often photographs turn out quite differently to how I intended them. To be honest, there are important lessons there – and in analogue photography in general – with control vs. not control, and in just allowing the process to work as it will. I have started to collaborate with this and to try and facilitate the creation of artworks that reflect the apparatus, the place, the time and the material. Alongside with my intention and choice of framing the subject matter, it does not need to be any more complicated than this!
You mention that you shoot predominantly in Scandinavia where your family is from. Is there a reason for this apart from the familial connection? (and surely that makes working with plate cameras even more difficult from a transportation viewpoint)
There has been much written about the North and its light. I was fortunate to be invited to present a paper on my practice in this context at Northern Light conference at Sheffield Hallam University last July: http://www.northernlight.photos/
I spend a lot of time in Scandinavia – usually during the summer, but sometimes in winter too. There is a quality to the light that makes photographing there very special. From late white nights in June / early July to the rising mists of late August and September, there is a lingering quality to the Northern summer light that can make it appear almost viscous. The air can appear to have the quality of being full, capable of containing light and possibly even of amplifying it.
The wide open spaces and sparse population of many parts of Scandinavia is striking to someone used to living amongst people as here in the UK .. the sheer solitude of some spaces can be very ‘loud’ – it can easily feel epic and elemental. There is an imperative to create, to respond to the strength of place.
Yes, taking the plate camera on-board a flight is a nerve-wracking experience. I have only done it once – I was too scared of damage (or worse, it going missing) to put it in the hold, so I tried packaging it down small to go into an on-board carry-on: about as easy as I’d imagine trying to pack down a baby elephant, would be. I’m not keen on travelling with it unless it’s by car and ferry!
It’s interesting how you’ve chosen to show the entire plate not just the ‘round image’. Could you take us through your reasoning for that choice?
It never occurred to me not to show the entire image: the shadows and the light. Coming from a darkroom background, it’s my experience that even the dark parts of an image have variations and degrees of light in them. These degrees may be the result of the limitations of the medium, for example, light flares from the old wooden plate holders. But these markings of the process show most clearly in the dark surrounds of the image. In addition to being beautiful, I believe they serve multiple purposes – from seeming to point like arrows towards the central part of the image, drawing the eye in, to sometimes appearing to emanate light like rays from an out of range star. Sometimes, a negative plate will jam in the plate holder as I’m shutting it after an exposure, resulting in an entire side of the image appearing drenched in light. It may be unplanned, but it’s striking and eerie. It’s much the same as paint – the light pours onto and over each image in its own patterns, which I am happy to highlight, rather than try to edit away.
The darkness of the surrounds also serve to anchor and ground the central vignetted image. Both on an emotional level – the work is strongly motivated by grief, and the effort to integrate it – and considering physicality and materiality, the darkness is the root that allows the rest of the work to rise and flourish.
Why forest imagery for the human psyche?
The work exteriorates inner conditions and I find being in the woods a natural fit for this.
Trees and woodland have fascinated people in all ages and cultures – witness folkstories and Grimm fairytales for evidence. For me, growing up spending weeks or months alongside wild forest in Sweden, there has been a strong sense of this forest exerting a palpable, almost physical pressure, on its surrounds.
I remember years ago learning how many indigenous cultures have a rite of passage where a youth is required to spend 3 or 4 days entirely alone on a mission in the wilds – what is encountered in on those surely terrifying days, when there is no-one else to rely on, but yourself and your own instincts and knowing to guide you. It’s considered that what these youths bring back is wisdom, and self-reliance, with which they can contribute to their communities.
What I see when I look at the forest, as an elemental extreme, is a source of this kind of nourishment. It represents the subconscious, and further, the collective unconscious, as Carl Jung termed it, a place which represents similar things to people from many different cultures. Symbol works well, and allusion to fairytale or common myths, to access these pools of knowing that lie dormant just beneath the surface of our busy conscious minds. It is a place you can go, physically or even through my pictures hopefully, to access those parts of yourself and bring them back for use in within the wider community.
There is of course the idea of getting lost in the woods, and of the dangers that may lurk there, but they co-exist with the nourishment that springs from contact with our dream selves, so really this ambivalence is something to be opened up to and explored. Perhaps getting lost temporarily could be the best thing that ever happened to you, in the sense of giving you access to untapped resources?
I found that different times of year gave very different experiences of being in the forest – from the busyness and promise of early summer to the eerie silence of early Autumn. Dealing with grief, I found solace ultimately in the regenerative cycles of the forest: trees rotting fully down, new little microcosms on the forest floor, springing up after storm damage or clear-cutting. Personally, I needed to explore a sense of decay and lifelessness, and it’s exactly out of this that the new life seems to spring – so, full cycles. The forest is a perfect ‘safe place’ to explore this, even as it may actually be increasingly unsafe due to the rising number of wolves and wild boar spreading across the region!
You’ve exhibited your work. How did you chose to present the images and are their any photos or online articles people could go to if they would like to know more.
Work from this setting has been shown in Sweden on a few occasions – a solo show at Galleri Björken in Sunne and at Uppsala Fotofestival, amongst others – and in the UK in several places and contexts. For the Human Nature show at Leeds Gallery, the work’s environmental credentials came to the fore, showing with other artists concerned with nature and the environment. Across the North Sea at Lotte Inch Gallery in York showed my work in a two-man show with Fay Godwin’s peerless silver gelatin Yorkshire landscapes from her 1979 Remains of Elmet collaboration with Ted Hughes. An Arts Council funded show at Sunny Bank Mills showed large scale giclée prints from Tales from the Forest hung in an unrefurbished textile finishing room in the mill, alongside framed silver gelatin placed on industrial tables. C-prints from my colour series, Metamorphosis I, were propped up on chairs from the room, on giant easels or against columns, to allow people to walk around and own the space around the images.
Have you studied photography or art? If so where and when?
I studied for my MA in Time and Image Based Media at Harrogate College, sometimes known by its former name of Harrogate School of Art & Design, in 2010 – 2012. Part of Hull College group, the degree was however underwritten by Leeds Beckett University – which in turn was known as Leeds Metropolitan University at the time. It gets complicated!
What drew me to this particular course were the extensive technical capacities of the department – both in digital, but especially for analogue photography – and the skills, dedication and passion of its team in the experimental, technical field, but also the strength of its critical theory tuition. Housed in the old ICI buildings on Hornbeam Park in Harrogate, there were rooms upon shadowy rooms filled with traditional photographic equipment: enlargers, chemistry baths etc. All being used and available for experimentation.
What is your connection to the North East?
I was brought up in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. I received my first camera from my godmother when I was five and took my first roll of film with it by the banks of the river Nidd in the Yorkshire Dales, not long after.
What is it about the North East that attracts you?
Fighting spirit, wonderful heritage, elucid light, Viking genes?? There’s something tantalising about the quality of light in summer nights that draws your eye to the North.
Where can people find you online
Aesthetica magazine interview.
Galleri Björken, Sunne in Sweden – my facebook gallery
Across the North Sea at Lotte Inch Gallery, York
The Possibilities of Chance at Sunny Bank Mills, Leeds
Northern Light exhibition at SIA Gallery (Sheffield Institute of Arts)