Rachel Wolf specializes in camera-less photography, alternative/antique processes, and immersive environments through light-based installations. Rachel is an educator and speaker in the field of photography. She has exhibited her work internationally, including; New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Seattle, Portland, and Germany. Recently her work was acquired into the City of Portland’s public art collection and she has been the Artist in Residence at Rose Villa in Milwaukee, OR. Rachel is a founding member of FO(u)RT Collective, a multi-disciplinary arts collective that creates/curates exhibitions and events. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Rachel earned her BA from Hampshire College and her MFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art. Rachel can be found in her darkroom in Portland, OR.
The art of alchemy is the transmutation of matter, a process wherein something is changed from one state to another in order to achieve a higher or more valuable form. My work takes from the alchemists this idea of transmutative elevation, which in my projects are achieved through color and chemical action. My principal method of working involves directly exposing photographic materials to light and chemicals. These essential matters become the tools, subjects and chemical process that create the final image. I choose to return to these irreducible elements, the invisible tools of analogue photography, in order to produce a new, tangible photographic subject.The images that result from this transmutative process invite us to consider our notions of what a photograph is, must or can be. Perhaps they are not merely representations of something else in the world, but can be themselves that something of the world.
Jen Bacon: Could you talk about the path that led you to cameraless photography? What moment, idea, artist, or reading first inspired you to explore the photographic medium in this way? How did your process manifest?
Rachel Wolf: Photography has this camera-idol at its center, the industry and its history revolve around it. Take that away and you’re off the map. Suddenly you aren’t playing by the rules, because there really aren’t any.
For me, the darkroom is a place of magic and mystery. I have worked with photography in many ways since my early teens, but my overall desire has been to use it as a means for sharing experiences. First it was through stories, and later it has been through more artful, less narrative expressions. I made my first photogram in college as a way to blow off steam while working on very technical prints for my thesis. I was printing 6 foot prints and stacking tables in a classroom to get the enlarger far enough away from the floor to blow the image up that big. It was an arduous process that could only happen in the middle of the night while the building was closed. One night I was having difficulties and decided to step back and play. I laid down on the paper and made my first photogram portrait. I loved the process of fixing my silhouette to paper by means of light, and mopping on chemicals for unique development. I also loved the charge I got from finding this elasticity at the edges of photography.
At that time, I was focused on documentary work and I didn’t come back to the process for a few years. Then I was in NYC working for Annie Liebovitz, and I started thinking about different ways to create a portrait. What did I want to communicate through portraiture? What was important, and how could portraits function in different ways? I started making life-size photogram portraits on the floor of my living room, developing them in my shower and that was it. I have been consumed with camera-less photography ever since.
Recently my work has become focused on light, perspective, sound waves, and chemical reactions. My darkroom investigations are fueled by my thoughts on light and its influences on how we see. Working with the alchemy of light and chemicals in the darkroom is my way of exploring this.
JB: When is your process complete? How do you decide on a final image? Why it is important for you to work in this manner?
RW: I can’t say that there is a hard and fast rule because my process is constantly evolving. Light and chemicals are my primary tools but the way I wield them changes depending on the project. A piece can be made in a flash of light or evolve over days of chemical reactions. I have learned to be patient and listen to the work, to be present with what is actually manifesting in the moment. Sometimes the intention I have at the beginning of a piece transforms along with the actual (al)chemical process. What I love about working this way is precisely that I am not in complete control, creating space for the unexpected, for the unseen to reveal itself.
JB: Would you call yourself an ‘experimental’ photographer?
RW: I think all photography is experimental. Even the most conventional, conservative, or commercial forms of photography that you can imagine is still bending light and shadow in a dance of trial and error. I love to experiment, play, and make a mess. I have only gotten to where I am in my practice by trying new things and forgetting the rules that pervade photography and its history. Photography was birthed by imagination and experimentation and has been reinvented since day one; I can’t think of another medium in such a constant state of evolution.
JB: Do you have issues with the ways in which we as a society consider photography? Can you offer a new definition, apart from its traditional consideration?
RW: How do we consider photography in our society? I’m not sure there is a concrete answer, it’s more of a moving target, but I can share a few thoughts that I’ve been having lately. I think it is exciting how accessible photography has become and how the photographic toolbox keeps expanding in both digital and analogue directions. This accessibility has allowed people to communicate in new visual ways, creating new languages. Of course there are both sides to every lens. Photography permeates our daily lives and many aspects of our image saturated culture. It is such a powerful tool and one not to be used lightly. We have an ethical responsibility to be conscious of how our images might affect those around us. The pervasive belief that a photograph depicts truth only makes it more important for this awareness. The debate of digital vs analogue is antiquated and boring. The more interesting question is, how can you use all these tools to create the dialogue you want to be in?
JB: During your career, where do you see a moment of open opportunity that accelerated your professional practice? Any words and/or advice for emerging or established artists?
RW: I have come to feel that there are certain qualities or ways of holding my art practice that help both in terms of the day to day, as well as with the larger vision or arc. Patience and endurance are necessary, and these are the opposite of the acceleration that the world seems to get caught up in.
So far my journey has been a winding one with starts and stops, excitement and heartache, and small steps forward. A foundational time was when I was living in Boston after college and assisting Harriet Casdin-Silver, a pioneer of art holography. She was an incredible, smart sassy woman who took no prisoners. She didn’t do what others were doing, or what people told her to do. She did what she wanted, how she wanted to and paved her own path – which is how she became such a profound artist with a career spanning decades. She really took the time to be a mentor, she talked to me as an equal. I was working with photography however I could: commercial, fashion, any gig I could get. She encouraged me to fully inhabit myself and not to get caught up in what I was told I was supposed to do, or how others were doing it. If I hated fashion photography, why was I doing it? The realities of making a living as an artist seemed insane but working with her inspired me to keep going. It was possible.
The logistical side of my professional practice has benefited from a deeper understanding of finance and by establishing my own company. You are not only an artist, but also a business. You pay taxes, create contracts, negotiate, market your work, etc. Learning how to manage all these things can be daunting and is not necessarily what we get taught at school.
Passion is another important piece for me. It is our passion that comes through in our work and whether we are conscious of it or not, passion attracts passion and cannot be faked. Passion is the quality in a work that makes one stop and look, and ultimately feel. It’s a lot of labor to sustain an art practice, so if we aren’t passionate, if we don’t love it, it’s not sustainable.
JB: What is in store for you next? What projects are you working on and where can our readers see you and your work next?
RW: I have work up right now in a few places in Oregon: The HiLo Hotel in Downtown Portland is showing my work in their lobby. I also have work up at LightBox Photographic in Astoria, the Also Arts Gallery in Troutdale and the Rental Sales Gallery at the Portland Art Museum.
I’ll be opening a show next month at PNCA entitled, PenPal Photography. I created this exhibition with Peter Miller, a photo/film professor at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany. The idea came from the desire to connect photo students from across the world the way penpals used to connect with letters. The eleven students from my Analog Digital Dialog class at PNCA sent works to Germany, which were exhibited in December at Galerie 52 at Folkwang University. At the opening, via video conference we connected the students in the gallery and my classroom. Eleven students in the gallery were able to each “claim” a piece in the exhibition they wanted to respond to photographically. The resulting work is in the mail to me now and we will be hanging the work of the PNCA students alongside their Folkwang counterparts work for the show here. The opening is February 6, come and check it out!
I have a few other collaborations and personal projects in the works for later this year. This spring I am publishing a set of meditation cards called The Illuminated Love Oracle. This project is the culmination of years of collaboration with Jessica Rose and Jennifer Dawn. An oracle deck is different from tarot in that it does not use the major and minor arcana. We have created a forty-four card deck with my images. My collective, FO(u)RT is working on a lens based exhibition from non traditional photographic materials. My most recent collaboration is a multimedia exhibition investigating the sublime and beauty with David Oates – inspired by his most recent book, The Mountains of Paris: How Awe and Wonder Rewrote My Life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence lately since some of my works are chemically unstable. What does that mean for an image, knowing it’s going to constantly change? The image you put on your wall might be a different color next year. It’s changing in its environment just like we are, and it’s still purely photographic.