Breathing life into old photographs
Every picture (literally) has a story in artist's new book
WILLIAMSTOWN — Artist Laura Christensen's typical canvas isn't made from linen or cotton stretched across a wooden frame. Her canvas is more delicate; moments captured by a photographers lens and frozen in time.
With paint, she transforms them, breathing new life into long abandoned photographs, their subjects forgotten and languishing in bins of antique stores.
"In some ways, I'm rescuing them. My interactions with them make them new. I collaborate with old photos and make them new for new audiences," Christensen said in a telephone interview with The Eagle.
She's developed her technique since the 1990s, when she first happened upon it in graduate school. Since then, the work has evolved. The subjects of the photos have become characters, who have stories that need to be told, she said.
The need to give voices to these characters, to tell their stories became the basis for another collaboration, this time an anthology of stories from authors both local and from afar.
After four years of work, the book, "Then Again: Vintage Photography Reimagined by One Artist and Thirty Writers," is close to becoming a reality. Choosing to publish the book independently, Christensen launched a Kickstarter campaign on March 31 with a goal of raising $30,000 by April 30.
Should the campaign be successful, she'll be able to publish 500 copies of the book and her supporters will collect their rewards, ranging from a PDF of several chapters to copies of the book and prints of her artwork, depending on the level of sponsorship. (A $12 donation gets a PDF booklet of seven to eight chapters; $90 will get you a print copy, your name in its 'Thank You Section" and the PDF booklet, while a $500 pledge guarantees all of that, as well as a second copy of the print book and a framed print.) On Thursday, the fundraiser surpassed $17,000, with pledges from 108 backers. For more information, go to http://kck.st/2TL0bz2.
Christensen recently took a few moments to answer a few questions about her artwork, how "Then Again"came to fruition and why she chose to use Kickstarter to fund its printing.
Q Your artwork involves transforming vintage photos into new artworks by painting on them. How did you develop this technique?
A It's one of those stories you hear artists tell; how they "came upon it by accident." I always wondered if those stories were true until I had my own. When I was getting my MFA, I collected vintage photos for their cardboard frames. I used the cardboard frames for the drawings I was doing at the time. I had all these vintage photos sitting around and I began playing with them, drawing on them with colored pencils. In my mind, what I did was one step up from using a marker on a magazine, putting on a mustache or blacking out a tooth.
I thought it was funny and whimsical. During a studio visit, I explained what I had done. When I showed the work, you could have heard a pin drop. They took it very serious. What I thought whimsical and funny, others took very seriously. It taught me that old photos have meaning and value. I learned that people conflate the real person with the photographic image; how potent and powerful they are. I began to explore more, to paint on them instead of using colored pencils.
Q What impact did that early critique have on your work?
A The important thing I learned was that this thing, this photo, had its own life; that I'm collaborating with it. I began working with photos that have been discarded — from antique stores and yard sales — that had lost their chain of personal connection.
Q How did "Then Again" come about?
A Five years ago, in 2014, I was part of the group exhibition, "Written Response Required," at the Albany (N.Y.) Public Library. The curator, Judie Gilmore, invited authors to write a response to the individual pieces in the show. Hollis Seamon wrote this stunning short flash fiction response to my work. I was really blown away. The story was amazing and intense. When you put the two together, my art and the story, they became this third thing. After a while, I wanted more of that. A year or so after, I asked some local authors I knew, if they thought this was feasible, how do I do this? I spoke with authors Jim and Karen Shepard and Paul Park, all three who are professors at Williams College, who all said it was a good idea and helped introduce me to other authors. My husband, Greg [Scheckler], who also is a writer, introduced me to a few more. Most of them said yes. Then I read a lot of short stories, and if I found an author who I thought would be a good match, I'd send them an email asking them if they'd be interested. Some said yes. It just grew and grew in size to 30 chapters.
Q Once the authors had signed on to your project, how were they paired with your artwork?
A I would give them a selection of five to eight pieces of my art to choose from. It was important to me to let them choose a work they were inspired by.
Q This book is an anthology. Are the stories connected in anyway?
A My artwork connects all of these stories, but I wanted another thread of connection. I would also give [the authors] a few characters to choose from; names of characters in other stories throughout the book. I wanted the book to feel like you're looking at a photo album of people you don't know. If people pay attention, they'll see repeating characters throughout it.
Q Why did you decide to publish independently?
A It's a pretty expensive book to make, with more than 30 full color photos and all of the authors who are involved. I wanted to maintain creative control and get it out into the world. I wanted to find a publisher who could handle the artwork and maintain my creative vision.
Q You've chosen to use Kickstarter.com to raise $30,000 to publish your book. Why?
A In researching it, I found that its mission is to help create things. It's different from other crowdfunding sources, as Kickstarter is all or nothing. If the community supports me, the book gets published. If we don't reach the goal, I get nothing and my supporters' credit cards don't get charged.
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