“I realize that you can’t capture everything with a camera and sometimes just taking the time to make a memory of that moment is best.”
S. Gayle Stevens (born 1955) is a photographer working with traditional photographic processes.
She studied photography at “School of the Art Institute of Chicago” and is currently based in Downers Grove, Illinois, USA.
“I am a wet plate collodion tintypist. I create wet plate tintype photogenic drawings of plant and animal specimens collected on walks near home and travels. The silhouettes are a memento mori; an acknowledgement of lives passed, a rendering of fleeting shadows. I am intrigued by what is overlooked in daily life and these objects are cherished for the unique beauty of their sparse remains.
“The slow methodical process of mixing chemicals and pouring emulsion on plates, allow me the ability to manipulate my support to create background narratives.”
“Cabinets of curiosity” inspire my work, natural history collections from the 17th century; they were the precursor of museums. The original meaning of “cabinet” was a small room; these rooms housed collections of plants, preserved animals and minerals. My collection contains diverse plant and animal remains.
The granddaughter of a Mason, I relish the alchemy of collodion. The slow methodical process of mixing chemicals and pouring emulsion on plates, allow me the ability to manipulate my support to create background narratives. Through this process the shadows of past life are transformed. The silhouettes are pictograms, a common language.”
Interview with S. Gayle Stevens
S. Gayle, you like to experiment with alternative photographic processes. What fascinates you about them?
Alchemy. I love mixing the chemicals getting messy, black hands. I liked making mud pies when I was a kid. I have to touch stuff, muck around.
You are especially known for your photogram works. What intrigues you about this particular process and how do you apply it artistically?
Photograms are shadows of what was, silhouettes of surrealism. Making wet plate positives the images of the objects are black so they appear as shadows. It’s rebirth, a second life for the plants and animals I find.
I like that.
In one of your recent projects you are dealing with the subject of self-portraits. How did the idea for that come up?
Two fold. Most of them started out as tests. Secondly, I was at an opening and a man I had spoken to before said that I was such a happy bubbly person and my work was so dark. I had not really thought of my work being dark but I started to think what if the darkness inside us all was revealed? So I played with emerging darkness, hidden personas.
Portraiture is a genre traditionally used to explore issues of identity. What do your photographs tell about yourself?
Actually it probably shows more playfulness than anything.
Why do you consider it important to still be working the traditional analogue way? And what can you learn from analog photography that helps you to become a better digital photographer?
Well I am not sure I do work in a traditional analogue way. I work in a nontraditional analogue way. Anyone who pours their own film is probably not traditional.
I like hands on. I consider the shots I take. I don’t take 500 images to make sure I get 1 good image. I rely on my vision.
What do you think about digital photography?
It definitely has its purpose. Most commercial shoots would be a major headache without digital. Clients want it the minute you shoot it.
In the long run, do you think digital photography will take over traditional photographic processes and make them disappear?
We live in a world saturated with visual imagery. Keeping that in mind, do you think it’s still possible as a photographer to be unique these days? Or do you rather consider it to be more important to create an own style adding your personal twist to something that has already been done before?
Isn’t creating your own style being unique? Certainly creating your own style is of the utmost importance.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
My most memorable moment shooting pictures was when I was the photographer at the Fancy Food Show and was shooting Julia Child. An icon! I love to cook; I’m a foodie.
“I went downstairs and made a plate of the newly dead mouse.”
My most memorable moment creating an image was when I was finishing Through My Looking Glass. I needed some more plates to finish the “story” and my cat, Charles, brought me a mouse.
I looked at it and thought I better get that outside before I get more flies in the house. And that was the tipping point it was, mouse-flies. I went downstairs and made a plate of the newly dead mouse and then found some dead flies in the porch and made a plate as if the flies were circling the mouse. I was done. Charles wants credit!
Philosopher Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
I realize that you can’t capture everything with a camera and sometimes just taking the time to make a memory of that moment is best. I love the minutia. And I want to collect all the minutia so now I’m a hoarder.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
Sitting on the floor when I was a kid looking through a huge box of photos and wondering who, what and where and being fascinated.
Bob Hirsch’s book Photographic Possibilities and trying all I could.
Pouring my first plate in France Scully Osterman’s ambrotype workshop at F295 Symposium.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: Have we lost the ability to see?
A: Yes. In the sense we take in so much information, so quickly and without thought that we no longer observe. We need to slow down…