“Any harmony is momentary, any strife soon left behind.”
Jeanne Wells (born 1957) is a photographer based in Maine (USA).
She’s working with traditional and alternative photographic processes and takes “lyric photographs”.
Jeanne Wells is an autodidact in every process except wet collodion, which she learned from Keliy Anderson Staley, and polymer photogravure, which she’s studied with Clay Harmon as well as Josephine Sacabo and her assistant, Meg Turner.
“I want to show you the world as I know it: broken or whole, rebuilding, appearing, disappearing.
I am not so interested in a photography which shows the viewer what we see – but rather how we see. Imperfection, perfection, tiny detail. Any harmony is momentary, any strife soon left behind.
Rather than the conceptual, I choose the organic, the intuitive, the concrete objects of the world around me as they present themselves.
Perhaps as a reaction to the easy perfection of new technologies, or perhaps because of the expanded potential for the work to evolve and morph and find its own voice as I go along, I have returned to very basic methods. Big cameras, film, plates. Grinding chemicals, mixing them by hand, flowing emulsions and applying pigments with brushes.
The perfection I seek is an emotional perfection rather than technical perfection, constantly changing and asking to be redefined.”
Interview with Jeanne Wells
Jeanne, why did you become a photographer? And what does photography mean to you?
I became a photographer because so many things can only be expressed with images, and these unnameable things were the things I was interested in expressing.
Why are you particularly intrigued by traditional analog and alternative photographic processes?
I’ve never been interested in mirroring or recreating reality.
Combine that with someone who would rather work with their hands than sit in front of a computer, and you get someone like me.
I love the smell of film. I love the look of collodion flowing across the plate, the feel of ink on a gravure plate and damp paper on my cheek.
I guess it’s the visceral qualities that keep me bound to these old processes.
A photographer has many “tools” at hand to bring across his message: lenses, lighting, framing, color treatment etc. Can you elaborate a little bit on the techniques you used for this particular project in order to link form and content?
I use a Rolleiflex66 and a manual light meter for most of my film work, and this was what I used for the “Botanica” series.
I rarely change out the 80mm lens and only occasionally stop it down. I use the ground glass viewfinder on it, and work low to the ground and close to my subject.
I move around looking at everything on the glass, focusing and re-focusing until something – nearly always an almost unbearable beauty – gives me a kick in the gut, and then I open the shutter.
I think that for someone like myself, the real tools, once I have my negative or plate, are the processes. Hand applied emulsion, polymer photogravure, lith printing, and wet collodion are the processes I use the most.
In other words: How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
When I’m shooting, it’s entirely intuitive and circumvents the intellect for the most part. If you’ve ever played a musical instrument well, you will know the feeling as the hands do what is written on the score without anything needing to go through the brain.
There is no thinking. The hands just know what to do: one hand clicks the shutter speed down, the other opens the aperture as an automatic response.
In the darkroom, I sometimes know immediately what I want the final print to look like, and that dictates my process.
Other times I like to experiment, see how a negative looks one way and then another before I make my final choice.
These days I am generally working on series which are all of the same process, so even though I’m not experimenting as much, my years of experimentation and learning different processes are paying off.
What reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at you photos?
I would like to take them to a place of stillness, of beauty, with just a touch of mystery or emotional texture to hold them there for a while.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
No one photographer’s entire body of work inspires me, but I cobble together a body of inspiration from the work and lives of photographers like Josef Sudek, Keith Carter, Imogen Cunningham, Abe Morrell, Raymond Meeks, Ruth Bernhardt, Emmet Gowin, Dorothy Post Wolcott, Charles Jones, just to name a few.
What’s your favorite inspirational quote about photography?
“Rarely am I tempted to speak of originality. I far prefer the formulation, ‘I am the origin of this work.’”
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I use the Rolleiflex sl66 for the majority of my work. This is not the little twin lens reflex most people associate with the word Rolleiflex, but a big brick of a camera with a bellows that tilts and shifts on the front.
I use a Sinar Norma for 4×5 and 8×10 work. For wetplate work, I have a 10×10 made by Star Camera Company, another handmade 5×7 wetplate camera.
Sometimes, just for the heck of it, I use my phone and make handmade prints from digital positives or negatives.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
APUG and alternativephotography.com are both great sites and have archives worth spending a lot of time reading.
What book about photography would you recommend?
I still rely on Steven Anchell’s Darkroom cookbook. I’ve never been one to buy any kind of prepackaged chemistry, so it’s a great help. I’ve scribbled my own recipes and variations into it over the years.
For black and white shooters, a basic zone system book is good – it’s a great method to learn and make your own so that you can forget about it and get what you want from your film.
Also, John Coffer’s “Doer’s Guide” is invaluable for anyone working with wet collodion.
We have had some great writers about photography. John Szarkowski and Robert Adams come to mind immediately. Also John Hollander and Roland Barthes.
I think they’re all worth reading. I also enjoy reading books by painters, and have been working on Agnes Martin’s collected writings this past year.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to get started with photography?
- Nourish yourself. Find ways every day to keep yourself in love with what you do and support you as a creator: friends, groups, solitary retreats, whatever. Read, go to museums, make sure you include drawing, painting, fabrics, music, poetry in your life & use a variety of disciplines to feed your art. Don’t be tricked into thinking that the internet is enough, it isn’t. Or that photography is enough – in my experience, photographers who only look at photographs make pretty boring photographs – or photographs that look like other photographs.
- Guard against bitterness. It destroys more artists than any other disease.
- Shoot a roll of film (or find a digital equivalent) every single day your first few years, it will teach you.