“My voice? I think I am striving for stillness, calm, simplicity. I find the busier and more hectic my life is, the quieter my photographs become.”
Vicki Reed (born 1952) is a contemporary photographer experimenting with different photographic processes such as pinhole photography and cyanotypes, for example. She’s currently based in Cedarburg, Wisconsin (USA). Vicki Reed studied photography at “IVY Tech College”, Evansville, Indiana. She has won numerous awards and has been widely published in international journals including “The World of Lith Printing”, “Fuzion Magazine” (UK), and “Fine Art Photo” (Germany).
“Ice Crystals”, a video she captured a number of years ago on the shores of Lake Michigan, was recently acquired by the National Geographic Channel. In 2012, an image from her series “The Growing Season” was purchased by the “Racine Art Museum” for their permanent collection. She is represented by “Unlimited Grain Gallery” in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
“I began my career in the photojournalism field where it was important to portray a scene accurately.
Now I am more interested in capturing a mood or emotion and so I am less concerned with producing an exact copy of what my eye is seeing. I use vintage, pinhole, plastic toy cameras and an iPhone to capture my images. I often use alternative processes, including lith, cyanotype, hand coloring, lumen, photogravure and encaustic to create my final images.
Born and raised in Maine, close to lakes, mountains and the ocean, I developed a love of the natural landscape.
Now living in Wisconsin, I continue to capture the landscape and nature during hikes and kayak outings.”
Interview with Vicki Reed
Vicki, why did you become a photographer?
After graduating with a degree in psychology I contemplated graduate school. I was not sure I was ready to dive into several years of theory based study and decided to first try something totally different and hands on.
The local vocational college had a wonderful commercial and industrial photography program and I signed up. As soon as I processed my first roll of film I knew I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was magic.
You started out as a newspaper photographer and magazine art editor. Nowadays you work as a fine art photographer. Why did you make that change?
“Now that my children are grown and I have more time. I can explore other alternative processes.”
The change was a practical one. I worked as a daily newspaper photographer for several years in Illinois and then we moved to Wisconsin when my husband changed jobs. I was pregnant at the time and motherhood did not mesh well with calls in the night to cover breaking news. I wanted to be a hands-on mom so I stayed home and took freelance jobs.
Throughout the years that I edited the magazine and did freelance work, I continued to also shoot my own work and produced limited edition black & white and hand colored prints that sold at galleries. Now that my children are grown and I have more time. I can explore other alternative processes.
You especially like to experiment with alternative photographic processes, such as pinhole and cyanotypes for example. Can you explain what you do exactly?
I have an unquenchable curiosity, so I do a bit of everything. My interests also change over time so I move between processes, equipment and techniques and subjects as my mood changes. I shoot in all seasons but in the summer time when being outside makes more sense I dive into cyanotypes and lumen prints that I create in my backyard.
“I have recently begun experimenting with 3D encaustic.”
In the winter I gravitate toward encaustic and a bit of lith printing, since being inside in a darkroom or studio helps me avoid below zero temperatures. I often use scanned images of my lith, lumen and cyanoptypes as well as digital captures to incorporate in my encaustic work. I either print the images directly on rice paper or use the alcohol transfer method to get them to the rice paper.
I then layer the images with textured papers and wax on a prepared wood panel. I can also add oil pigment to the pieces. I love the patina of the wax and how sometimes the layers partially obscure the image.
I have an infinite amount of freedom to layer multiple images and manipulate the final piece when working with this method. I have recently begun experimenting with 3D encaustic. I print my images on rice paper, fold them into origami boats and coat them with wax. I sometimes add found objects to the boats making them into “Memory Boats”.
Is there anything that pinhole photography and other alternative photographic processes have taught you about photography in general?
The most important thing that I have learned from working with alternative processes is to go with the flow and be open to whatever happens. With some of the processes I have an idea of what I might get as a result but with others it is always a surprise.
Often when I get an unexpected result with a process, it sparks an idea for something else I might like to try. The experience of working with alternative process has made me more open and freer in my straight photography as well.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
I spent a month in Africa in 1997. For one week I stayed with a couple in Kampala, Uganda who were working with the US AID agency to help reestablish the school system after much of it had been destroyed by civil war. One day I traveled to a bush school with regional administrators and a few officials who were visiting from Washington, DC. This was at the time that Zaire was falling and there were many rebel groups active on the border with Uganda.
Children were being kidnapped from schools and being forced to join their ranks, the boys as fighters, the girls as sex slaves. When we arrived at the school’s driveway (a rutted dirt road) we were greeted by flower petals scattered in the road. Barefoot children lined both sides and began singing as we drove by them. As the officials toured the school I noticed a woman in colorful dress standing in the doorway of a nearby burned out church building.
I approached her and introduced myself, asking if I could photograph her. She introduced herself as Margaret September. She had three young girls with her who she was planning to register at the school but she was waiting for the festivities at the school to be over before approaching. She explained that their parents had died of Aids (rampant at the time) and they had come from the city to live with her.
When she became aware that I was American she took my hand and held it in both of hers, thanking me for helping her country. She said that she had eight children, five of whom had died. She said that aid from our country had saved her other three. As a mother myself contemplating her loss, I was unable to speak. Definitely the most moving moment I have had, though several others have come close.
What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures? In other words: What is it at all that a photograph can say? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
“In a busy life, photography forces me to slow down and see and that is exactly what I hope my work offers to the viewer.”
There are some mornings I wake up and ask myself: “Does the world really need another photograph?” We are so bombarded with the visual in all aspects of our lives that sometimes it can be overwhelming. I contemplate setting my cameras aside. But then I see an interesting shadow on the side of a building or the graceful bend of a blade of grass and I find myself reaching for my camera to explore and record what I am seeing.
It is simply something that I need to do. In a busy life, photography forces me to slow down and see and that is exactly what I hope my work offers to the viewer. If viewing one of my images can make them pause for a moment in their hectic life, take them to a different place, slow their heart rate or make them see something that they had not noticed before, that would make me happy.
Why do you consider it important to still be working the traditional analog way?
“When I work in the wet darkroom it restores photography to magic for me.”
Though I sometimes work in the digital realm and use Photoshop, there is nothing that approaches the excitement of seeing an image appear in a tray of developer. Though I know the science behind photography and film, when I work in the wet darkroom it restores photography to magic for me.
What can you learn from analogue photography that helps you to become a better digital photographer?
“Film is more precious and less forgiving.”
The tendency with digital photography is to shoot a lot of images and weed out those that do not work after they have been already captured. Or to think: “That can be taken care of in Photoshop.” Film is more precious and less forgiving.
The process of developing and printing in a wet darkroom requires a significant investment of time and money. Film forces you to slow down, pay careful attention to the light and composition. I work mostly in medium format so I have 12 frames on a roll of film, each one very important.
I try to do it all in the camera so I have less work to do in the darkroom. This slow approach and strong attention to light and composition is what I try to also take to my digital work so I do not have to spend a lot of time at my computer correcting things in Photoshop.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I have been influenced by many photographers and artists. I have a strong group of female friends who are artists and their strength and integrity in their work always inspires me. If I had to pick one photographer I would pick Albert Lincoln Call, a photographer in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
He is virtually unknown but his work hangs in our home because he was my husband’s great-grandfather. He owned a commercial portrait studio in our small community in Maine, was a volunteer fireman, and loved growing lemon trees in his small greenhouse. However his real passion was photographing the wilderness of Maine. He packed mules with photographic equipment; 4×5 wooden cameras, tripods, film and glass plates and trekked into the backwoods of Maine long before the area was turned into a state park.
I share his same love for my native state and the beauty of the natural landscape but not his same passion for climbing. I am terrified of heights. He climbed mile high Mt. Katahdin with the equipment on his back several times (at least once in his seventies) and those are some of the images that are in our home, still beautiful after more than 100 years.
Though I never met him, I was introduced to hand coloring through him as many of his images in our home are hand colored and that provided the gateway for me to manipulating/ experimenting with images and exploring alternative photography. I am not sure if he was solely responsible for my deciding to go into photography but I definitely feel his presence when I am in the darkroom watching a print come up in the tray.
Several thousand of his negatives and images are archived at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine. They are still pretty much undiscovered. If I lived closer or were rich I would have them all scanned and preserved as most of the negatives are on fragile nitrate film.
What’s your favorite inspirational quote about photography?
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera (…) they are made with the eye, heart and head.”
How would you describe your photographic voice and way of working?
My voice? I think I am striving for stillness, calm, simplicity. I find the busier and more hectic my life is, the quieter my photographs become.
How do you plan and execute a shooting?
Coming from a background of working at a daily newspaper where my subjects were not chosen by me I did not get into the habit of planning a shoot. I had to assess a scene quickly and move around to get the best composition, lighting, etc. without interfering with what was going on.
That has followed me into my approach today. I prefer natural light and will chose the optimum time to shoot for the light if possible but other than that I do not do a lot of staging or planning.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
Technically, I would say using the very simple lenses that are found in vintage and toy cameras. I love the look and unpredictability of them. I worked for many years with much more accurate equipment and I knew what I was going to get when I clicked the shutter.
Now I prefer simple, uncomplicated equipment, including camera-less or lens-less approaches. This approach provides me with a challenge to create interesting images and helps me achieve my conceptual goal of capturing a mood, or emotion rather than an exact copy of what I am seeing.
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?
“I never knew what I was going to be shooting from one day to the next and I grew to love the randomness of it.”
Working as a photographer at a daily newspaper before the advent of the digital age has had the most significant influence on the photographer I am today. It exposed me to all forms of photography: portraits, aerial, sports, disasters, features, industrial. I never knew what I was going to be shooting from one day to the next and I grew to love the randomness of it. Because there were many slow news days, it trained me to find something interesting to photograph no matter where I was.
I had little control over lighting conditions in a breaking news event and often was on a tight deadline, so I had to become proficient and efficient in the darkroom, getting usable prints from very challenging negatives in a very timely manner. I did not submit contact sheets but was trusted to submit what I thought were the strongest images from my assignments so I also learned to edit.
Buying a Holga camera and taking Tim Rudman’s Lith Printing course collaborated in changing my approach to photography. It made me move more toward capturing a mood rather than an accurate portrayal of a scene and propelled me into the world of alternative photography.
An encaustic workshop with Jill Burkholder moved my work into mixed media and sculpture.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
A good eye, awareness of his or her environment, the ability to anticipate and of course, passion and patience.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
It needs to create an emotional connection with the viewer, have a timeless quality.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I use vintage cameras that I find at local flea markets. If I am able to get film into them, I use them. I also use pinhole and toy plastic cameras such as the Diana and Holga. Though much of my work is analog, I do use a Panasonic digital camera and my iPhone. I have several inexpensive tripods for my pinhole cameras.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I am not sure that I could narrow it down to one. As my interests change, the blogs and websites I follow change. Alternativephotography.com is of course a great source for technical information and sites like “The Art of Creative Photography” give a great overview of the diversity in photography today.
What book about photography would you recommend?
There is an endless amount of information available on the web and in book form to guide you through the technical aspects of photography but for the internal aspects of art making, I would recommend “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
Often we focus too much on the technical side of the art of photography. This book deals with what goes on in your head; the self-doubt, fears and struggles of creating a satisfying image. Every artist should read this book!
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
I would advise them not to expect to make a living immediately. It is a very challenging business that takes time to build. I would tell them to choose an area of photography that they are passionate about to follow as a career and then find someone who would be interested in mentoring them. I would also advise them to learn some marketing and business skills as that is knowledge most artists/photographers are lacking.
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 there been times when you have felt overwhelmed, not up to the task of capturing what you are experiencing?
A: Yes, many times. Though I am a photographer at my very core and want to capture an important moment to be able to share with others or to be able to revisit again in the future, there are times when I know that what I capture on film will never equal what was captured in my brain or heart.
“I hope all of us photographers can recognize those occasions when it is best to choose to live in the moment and record those images in our heart rather than on film or in pixels.”
On those occasions, if I am lucky enough to recognize them, I smile, put down my camera and embrace the moment to the fullest, without regret. Two distinct occasions that I remember involve the night sky. One was standing on the Serengeti Plain, sipping hot chocolate and listening to zebra braying while staring at the vast array of stars – not knowing if there was a pride of lions nearby.
The other was recently on New Year’s Eve when my husband led me and friends out onto a frozen lake in below zero Fahrenheit temperatures at midnight, far from city lights to view the clear crisp sky. I hope all of us photographers can recognize those occasions when it is best to choose to live in the moment and record those images in our heart rather than on film or in pixels.