Hand papermaking’s versatility as an artistic medium makes it an area without defined edges. Combination with other art processes have only just begun being explored. Let’s look at how alternative, or historical, photographic processes and handmade paper can intersect.
Lindsey Beal is an artist, educator, and dear friend of mine, who generously answered a few questions about her work, experience, and thoughts on hand papermaking and photography.
‘Lindsey Beal is a photo-based artist in coastal Rhode Island whose work combines historical and contemporary women’s lives with historical photographic processes. She is interested in the photograph as object, and often includes sculpture, papermaking, and artists’ books into her work.’
MAY BABCOCK: What is your background, and how did you become interested in traditional processes like hand papermaking and alt-process photography?
LINDSEY BEAL: I have an MFA in Photography from the University of Iowa and a Graduate Certificate from the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book. I knew in choosing to go back to school for photography, I wanted to explore the medium’s history by learning the processes. I was very interested in the processes aesthetic and wanted to return to the darkroom. I also find it very frustrating to learn photo history without knowing the processes behind the photographs—why was the first photographic image such a breakthrough? To know to what lengths early photographers had to go through to get their images, or to develop a process, is pretty important to our understanding of photographic history.
While I was at Iowa focusing on photography, we were required to take two courses outside of the art school. I knew I wanted to explore making my own paper to print photographs upon, potentially in cyanotypes (similar to the original blueprints). That summer between my first and second year, I took Ann Marie Kennedy’s paperworks course at the Center for the Book and was hooked. Ann Marie is a wonderful teacher and often makes sculptural or installation pieces, and I saw for the first time paper’s ability to be something other than a printing surface.
I like the hands-on nature to both hand papermaking and alternative (or historical) photographic processes. I often incorporate digital in some way, whether in printing negatives or in the photographic images, but for me to feel satisfied with my work, I want my hand to be involved in the process or to create a way in which to bring the photographs back to its historical roots: as an object to be held or interacted with, whether in its presentation or final form—it’s pretty rare for that final form to be 2-D prints.
MB: Your work seems project-based; can you tell us a little bit on how you begin making work? What gets you going?
LB: I use my work to explore topics I want to delve into and research, whether it is current or historical. My work is often based in women’s lives and experiences, past and present. I then use the research as a springboard for my work—I let the research germinate and then make my response or findings to it as my work. Despite its basis in research however, I don’t want my work to be didactic and strive to make the viewer spend time on the work, often by using ambiguous imagery or including information in accompanying artist books, not within the photographic images itself. It is also important to me that the process of making be tied to the work’s content—I do not want to use a process, whether books or a specific type of photo processes or papermaking, for the sake of the process—it needs to tie in somehow to the work’s content.
MB: What is the value of handmade papers, and papermaking, in terms of your art? What meaning or visual/tactile properties are you interested in, and how does it affect your working process?
LB: My training in papermaking very much informs what paper I use for my photo printing surface. Whenever I can, I try to use a hand-made paper. Even if I don’t make the paper to print upon, I have such an awareness of what to look for in a paper—its tactility, strengths, transparency, and appropriateness for various types of photo printing because of my in-depth coursework at the UICB and at Penland School of Craft. Prior to learning how to make paper, I never would have thought much about it—and it’s a really important knowledge to have, especially for bookbinding, alternative processes, printmaking or drawing. A well-made paper is the basis for so many artforms, and knowing how it’s made and why it fits your medium only adds to your knowledge of your craft.
MB: Would you be willing to further describe the process behind The Venus Series? Also, what characteristics does flax have compared to other papermaking fibers?
LB: Flax is wonderful—I love abaca and flax the most out of any papermaking fibers because of their flexibility as a paper and sculptural material—both can be opaque or transparent depending on how you use them and how long you beat the fiber. To create the Venuses, I rinsed and overbeat the flax so it would lighten and become high-shrinkage in order to constrict around and take on the shapes of the forms I used for the figures’ base. I pulled and pressed the sheets without allowing them to air-dry—they were refrigerated in plastic. Over time I wrapped my figures in the wet-pressed sheets and allowed them to air-dry. I was really interested in how the paper could be formed and dry into my own versions of the iconic Venus figures. Many of them reference books or articles I read, fashion, art history, my personal life. I have hundreds of these figures each with different personalities, stances, and poses.
MB: Another interesting element in The Venus Series is that the object, the sculpture, is secondarily experienced—you are presenting a photograph of the object, and not the handmade paper itself. Can you elaborate on these choices?
LB: I experimented with a variety of ways to showcase the sculptures to make them fit with my idea of recreating, not the Venuses themselves, but the mystery or feeling of the original Venuses. I worked a lot with light and installation. Although I love the sculptures themselves; to me, they lacked the mystery of the prehistoric Venuses I was hoping to achieve. It was often suggested that I should photograph them, but I wasn’t going to achieve that magic with film or pixels. It wasn’t until I was learning wet-plate collodion from Heather F. Wetzel, that pairing the two made sense. Wet-plate collodion was at its height when the Venuses were being discovered and was one of the main photographic process in the Civil War. Wet-plate involves pouring a sticky colloid onto a non-porous surface like glass or japanned tin and then dipping the plate into light-sensitive silver. The plate is then placed into a camera and exposed to light and the subject, then processed in the darkroom using chemistry and water. The plate is then protected by a varnish that hardens as it dries. Seeing my Venus sculpture on that first ambrotype was a magical moment. Plus, nothing beats seeing an idea for an image turn out beautifully that first time.
MB: What artistic potential do you see in the intersection of hand papermaking and photography?
LB: I originally was drawn to making my own paper in order to print photographically upon it. Since I mainly focus on historical photographic processes, where you can print on a variety surfaces, handmade paper makes sense as another surface option. With the rise of digital photography, many photographers turned to the past and revitalized these processes. For those who work in photo processes that involve paper choices or for those who print in a traditional darkroom, having control or being able to make your own paper is appealing. I think as photo paper becomes harder to find and many brands and types are discontinued, some photographers have an interest in making their own. Additionally, for those who are interested in having a hand in all aspects of photo processes, nothing says self-sufficiency than making your own paper to print upon as well!
To return to your question, I originally wanted to make paper to print upon and I eventually did this in both Van Dyke Brown and cyanotypes. However, I was seduced by materiality of the handmade paper. I found myself more interested in using paper as a sculptural material. Although I had often incorporated installation and non-traditional presentations of my photographic work, working with handmade paper was the first time I felt able to delve into sculpture. Although I have experienced welding and working in a wood shop, papermaking was the first time I felt free to explore sculpture as a medium outside of creating interactive ways to view my photographs. I was really interested in how paper forms when it dries—Helen Hiebert’s wonderful video “Water Paper Time” enforced this!
MB: Any new bodies of work, or interests that you are currently focused on?
LB: I am fortunate enough to receive a Duke History of Medicine Travel Grant to research at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library which will contribute to my next body of work. I am looking forward to delving into their medical collections, both for reference and for a project. I am also photographing handmade historical corsets with a costume maker who I am collaborating with—I have three images currently in this series and will add to them as the corsets are made—as you can imagine this will be an on-going project as each corset is made! I am interested in how women’s bodies were shaped throughout history in terms of what the underwear looked like to achieve this shape. However, I am not interested in photographing women wearing these corsets, but in the shape and & corsets themselves. Stay tuned!