I/Eye: On Photography

A conversation with Linda Elvira Piedra

Posted in Other Photographers, portraits by Sheila Newbery on September 10, 2009
Beholding Paeonia Rockii (Linwood Gardens, 2007) © Linda Elvira Piedra

Beholding Paeonia Rockii (Linwood Gardens, 2007) © Linda Elvira Piedra

Piedra’s work can be seen at the photo-eye gallery and at www.lindaelvirapiedra.com, and has been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mondo 2000 magazine, and Jackie Kay’s Darling: New & Selected Poems (Blood Axe Books, 2007), among others. Solo shows include Photo-Eye, Santa Fe (‘Passage’, 2003), Pure Land Gallery, Santa Fe, (‘The Story of My Love’, 2001) and the Nonesuch Space, Oakland (‘Photographs of A Floating World’, 2008). Here we discuss her approach to large-format portraiture, her time spent working with photographer Walter Chappell, and her more recent projects. Also included are images of some of her new work and hitherto unpublished portraits.

What led you to seek out photography as a medium? What was its principal attraction to you?

I didn’t exactly seek out photography and didn’t understand its expressive potential until I began making photographs. I think it would be true to say that my family led me to photography, because we had family photographs hanging on the walls. They were black and white portraits of my mother, her parents and grandparents. Perhaps because I was the youngest, and my own nature seemed drawn to older things, these pictures were a way for me to understand my world, what I belonged to. And I found them beautiful, the images themselves, but also as objects, the print quality, the paper. And there was something else—they had mystery. Later, in adolescence, I looked at portraits by Man Ray, Brassaï and Nadar. I was moved by photographs as portraits—the people in them made me wonder about life and its possibilities.

But the initial attraction took a long time to gestate into action. From early childhood I had a wish to make photographs and while in high school thought about taking a class, but I got caught up with academic courses. The thought that came to me clearly though was, I will come back to this, I have time.

Despite the fact that I did strongly desire to find some way to express my feelings for life, it took some time to find how. I wrote and danced, but it wasn’t complete. Not until I’d enrolled in film classes at City College in San Francisco and took seriously the suggestion of my teacher did I finally begin photography. I’d decided that I wanted to be a cinematographer, and my teacher, Dennis Duggan, had encouraged our class to study still photography first, in order to understand the materials, and light, and to understand sequencing through still images as a way of storytelling. It was the first time I think I followed someone’s advice, because I wanted to have a proper foundation and do something well. It was with my second roll of film that I saw something was happening. What I said to myself was, This is it.

A number of your portraits show that fascination with mystery, and that, combined with their undeniable intensity, gives them an otherworldly, almost dream-like quality. I’m thinking, for example, of that double portrait of you and Walter Chappell—you’re touching his chest and he’s looking at you with what can only be described as yearning—as if for life itself.

Touching, El Rito (October, 1997)

Touching, El Rito (October, 1997)

There are other portraits where the mystery takes on a playful aspect: we don’t necessarily know what’s going on, but it’s visually so arresting, we’re drawn to it. I’m thinking, in particular, of a series of portraits of photographer Daniel Murtagh.

Daniel Murtagh (San Francisco, 1997) © Linda Elvira Piedra

Daniel Murtagh (San Francisco, 1997) © Linda Elvira Piedra

Daniel Murtagh (San Francisco, 1997) © Linda Elvira Piedra

Daniel Murtagh (San Francisco, 1997) © Linda Elvira Piedra

Do your portrait compositions arise spontaneously when working with subjects, or do you start out with strong ideas about how you want to photograph a given person?

Both. Spontaneity is an important quality, it’s how I can make right use of my sensitivity, to be open to the life of my subject and the time we share together. I am not making many portraits now, but this work will always be important to me, it’s what drew me to photography, and the only thing I wanted to do for the first two years. It’s because of the importance of the people in my life—I wanted to find a way to honor them. I suffer in failing to capture the beauty of someone, more than with other subjects. I’m not speaking of the qualities of ordinary appearance, but of something inner, a quality of the spirit. I’m rather quiet when I’m photographing, and am learning how to talk more to encourage the relaxation that is part of this work.

The series with Daniel began as an exchange. He’d asked if he could photograph me and I agreed, if I could in turn photograph him. He initially portrayed me as the wife of a curator, perhaps deceased or lost at sea, but all that was left were these letters he’d written her, and his wig. So I decided to photograph him as this man, or ghost, really. In the end, they are portraits of Daniel, the artist, made in his environments. The pictures make me laugh, and I feel very pleased by them because I worked out so many things during those sessions as far as technical experiments with multiple exposures, long exposures and becoming comfortable with the view camera for portrait work. So much was coming from Daniel at the time, I had to move quickly to keep up.

If I form an idea for a picture, it is because I have seen some sign in the person, I’ll know that something already exists, and it develops inside of me more like a feeling or state that I’m trying to return to. The portrait of Walter was born in my mind first, but I couldn’t anticipate his expression. I’m moved by your response to the picture, because Walter had a magnificent yearning for life, and he encouraged others to experience this fully.

My wish is to see people as they are, and to remain open to what they’re becoming. I quickly discovered when photographing people I thought I knew quite well—and most strongly when I started photographing myself—that the face that appeared in the image wasn’t always familiar. There is a force and mystery to each person that I don’t add to or deny. When I began making portraits I called them paintings of the interior, and still feel that in my work. I’ve sometimes felt that it was like a journey where I wasn’t entirely clear about where I was going. I often imagine pictures, and am very clear about composition, setting, and gesture, but once the camera is included in the situation, other things become possible.

I know that subjects will often express surprise at the unfamiliarity of their own image; and this very often has to do with the mirror effect—that is, that the subject is accustomed to seeing herself in the mirror and, hence, as the reverse of what everybody else sees, so the camera’s view can be startling. Still, it’s not very common to hear portrait photographers remark on this phenomenon, yet it’s clearly something that you’ve thought about in relation to your own photographic vision. Do you feel that this surprise of unfamiliarity ever works in your favor—or that it can be made to work in your favor? Do you feel that there are instances in your work where a face is transfigured by seeming to be different in some respect from its everyday self, perhaps heightened in some way?

Surprise is an essential experience in all of my work. In general, it works in my favor, or I’ve edited in favor of it. This doesn’t always feel so for the sitter, however, because sometimes the surprise of an unfamiliar view of themselves is uncomfortable. I won’t print a picture which reveals something coarse in a person, but I’m open to a view of the face without its ordinary mask. An example of this is a portrait of Lisa Gerrard [Ed. note: of Dead Can Dance].

Lisa Gerrard © Linda Elvira Piedra

Lisa Gerrard (London, 1996) © Linda Elvira Piedra

It’s the first frame of the day, and she wasn’t entirely composed. For me, her expression revealed something about her, her compassion and some of the sadness in her life at the time. She was no less beautiful, she was still Lisa, and it wasn’t just sadness, there was also a radiant peace. But it was too strange for her, she was reluctant to accept it.

This word transfigured is very beautiful. It feels like a door has opened in someone. The action of the shutter can arrest it, and in my own work, it has occurred during slow exposures. There’s an intimacy and trust that’s nurtured in a portrait sitting. I think that it’s in the quality of the exchange between the artist and subject that something within is summoned, invited to come forward.

Yes, when you mentioned the portrait of Lisa Gerrard, I actually
thought of Avedon’s Marilyn Monroe—where the expression is unprepared: in the Avedon image, it’s one of depletion, of vulnerability, but that dress still sparkles… Unlike the Monroe portrait, though, there’s something commanding in the image of Lisa Gerrard, and it doesn’t actually depend on our recognizing her. In fact, seeing the picture, we immediately wish to know more about her. And wish to know what the source of that expression is. In other words, there’s a potent sense of mystery, of melancholy, that has nothing to do with our knowing the identity of the sitter.

But you raise another interesting point of discussion: the slow exposure. I know that if you photograph on your 8×10 Kodak (which you usually do) and use only available light, the exposure will necessarily be longer than what it would be with a smaller camera under the same conditions. What do you think is added, esthetically speaking, to a portrait by this necessity—this slowness? Was that why you gravitated to large format portraiture?

It’s difficult for me to answer this. When I’m photographing someone it’s an experience of beholding them. I think when you see an image of someone that draws you in this way you’ve described, it’s because that face opens up a mystery equal to the one that lies within you. The esthetic experience is something not only visual, but spiritual, it’s a breathing in.

What’s happening in my work is a kind of acceptance of my limitations, and a prayer that I might defy, or even transcend some of them through working. Most critically, it’s the light I’ve chosen, which is delicate, and I’m very aware that I can’t have the clarity I might hope for; asking people to remain still for long moments doesn’t bring that, at least not visually. I think the slowness of the exposure is felt, an emotional state builds as light is collecting, building on the subject—the light becomes a substance, even a place. Robert Creeley wrote these lines for Walter:

sweetening, silver light
become the place
we came to.

And so it’s as though I’m asking, come stay with me awhile. Some portraits I’ve made, like that of Riversong [Ed. note: Walter Chappell’s daughter], or Le Quoq Viet, have taken 45 seconds or longer for the exposure, and the light leaves a tracing of its presence, recording movement that occurs even when one is still. My intention is to work with gentleness, and my subjects have been very patient. I think I was mildly shocked to find out how long certain exposures were going to take under the conditions in which I was working, especially because of reciprocity failure, but it quickly passed when I began to wonder, what can I do with this? Can I make it even longer and still readable? What if I encourage movement? But even a single second exposure, like Our Flower, has some movement in the face, and the light is still holding the place where we began. The aspect of building and layering is something I’m working with, attempting to describe the experience of this time, and change, the passage of light over us. There is a quality of softness that I’m drawn to, and acutance. About 6 months or so after beginning to photograph, I was at the Friends of Photography Gallery in San Francisco, looking at one of Ansel Adams’ images of Yosemite, feeling genuine awe, and bewilderment, too. I said aloud, How does he do this? A woman who worked there leaned over to me and said, It’s a large format negative, and suddenly, finally, I understood. It was like someone opening a gate for me. I didn’t know what was going to be required in moving towards this, only that I saw something that I wanted beyond. It was another year before I began using a 4×5. I had a very difficult time at first. I was the one who had to be slowed down.

The first large format images I made were landscapes. I didn’t initially choose to work with the 8×10; it was Walter who persuaded me, against much protesting, that this camera would suit me. He was very excited and it was a delightful argument: The ground glass is as big as your own face! You’ll see, it’s like a tête-à-tête with Reality! I could only think at that moment of making a portrait of him. When I asked if he would allow me he replied, Well if that’s what you want to do, let’s do it!

By starting off that way, I think I could begin to sense the relationship between portraiture and landscapes, the relationship that developed when meeting the ground glass as another face.

I like that description of being ‘tête-à-tête’ with reality—of it becoming the size of one’s own face!

Tell us about how you got started photographing with Walter. I gather that you hadn’t had experience with large format photography before, and yet it’s become central to your photographic thinking, it seems. What sort of help did he give you in mastering the technical demands of the format?

I’d started working with a 4×5 camera in a class at City College of San Francisco in January 1997, taught by Michael Kolster, who had been a student of Nicholas Nixon’s. The cameras we had use of were terrifically heavy monorails, and I’d walk around and take it on public transportation in its case. This class was very good, the technical instruction thorough and playful, but the slide shows were revelatory, images of both contemporary and historical work made with large format cameras, and discussion of the camera’s effect on the image. My early pictures were technical and esthetic failures, but I had several months of working, and struggling, before my visit with Walter in June of that year. I’d met him two years before in New Mexico, at a gathering of people interested in the work of G. I. Gurdjieff. I knew nothing of Walter then and wasn’t yet photographing at all. Our meeting was only a momentary greeting. But through some serendipity—friends who shared a house with his son, Piki, whom I met a couple of weeks later—I came to see some of Walter’s images, and hear stories about him. When I knew that it would be possible to return to New Mexico in 1997, I decided to contact Walter and ask if I could come work with him for a week. I didn’t expect anything, but I had an intuition that this was important, and knew that he had achieved something I aspired to: an integration of his creative and spiritual work. He looked at my pictures and asked me, What is it that you want? I told him that I wanted to be a good printer. And he replied, I can teach you that.

In that first week, he introduced me to the 8×10 view camera, taking his camera out, showing me his technique for dusting film holders, using one’s skin to dust the dark slides, and allowing me to make his portrait. We also used his 4×5 cameras for more portraits. Despite taking classes for two years, I had to be taught a great deal, because at that time I even resisted leveling the tripod and would get dangerously torqued. I started photography in a beginning class at City College in September, 1995, taught by Polly Steinmetz, and had a Luxon, a Chinese copy of the Pentax K1000. I loved this camera. It’s important to say that I received a good deal from her and all of the teachers I had there. The problem is that when I started, I was neither skillful nor patient, I was simply so excited to be using a camera. I was working full time and taking classes at night. I went through a lot of film and was getting, just often enough, a picture that would affirm that I was in the right place. Walter started from the beginning, and took me through each step very slowly, telling me I needed to slow down to do this. Walter taught me patience, and respect for my equipment and the nature of photographic materials. He gave me procedures I still follow, showing me these things with great kindness. This part of it all, the gentle, and still playful approach towards one’s work, was most important. I could become frustrated or cross, and he would tell me: Treat yourself as you would a child. A child does not grow with criticism, but with gentleness and respect.

The fact that the view camera is so central to my way of working is because of Walter’s encouragement. I wouldn’t have chosen the 8×10 and had my reasons. But working with the camera was, and remains, a beautiful experience. Walter’s ultimate pitch was: And you’ll make contact prints! As I look back, I remember the glee in his voice when he made that pronouncement! However, I wasn’t yet sold. I returned to San Francisco determined to find a 4×5 wooden field camera which I thought was more appropriate. This could be the story of how a camel came to be a photographer. So, I did much looking, but nothing was turning up. Instead, a Kodak 2-D came to Adolph Gasser’s, consigned on the day I first checked in. I just noticed it, admired it a little. The following week, it was still there and after more admiration the clerk asked if I wanted to see it out of the glass case. So I let that happen, and left. But then, I began thinking about this camera, and went to visit it the following week, examined it and felt it. I telephoned Walter about it and he seemed very pleased and encouraged me to buy it. On my fourth and final visit, I studied the camera and, sweating, asked if the price was negotiable. The clerk very enthusiastically called the seller, in Berkeley, and persuaded this man to lower the price. The price he settled on, with tax, left me with four dollars in my pocket. It was the most thrilling and wonderful purchase I ever made. I returned to El Rito with my own camera and worked with Walter for the next three years. I think he understood that I could care about this, and was preparing me for other kinds of commitments in life. He was all about making use of one’s life and work for something more, something deeper. What Walter really imparted to me was an orientation. He gave me a way of looking, and the time and space to look. The time we spent together in the darkroom was equal to looking at prints, or the river. He understood me well, and it seems he knew that I needed the technical demands of something like the 8×10 to work on other things in myself.

Are there other large format photographers (besides Adams) whose work you feel formed your understanding in a meaningful way of what was possible with the format? If so, are there others whose work continues to fulfill that role for you now—that of making you feel stimulated by the possibilities the format/medium has to offer?

In the beginning, it was the work of Stieglitz, Julia Margaret Cameron, Emmet Gowin, and Eugene Atget that offered me an important understanding of what was possible. Later, there were others, Walter and Felice Beato, Carleton Watkins, and Sally Mann. There are others I turn to, William Clift is one, who offer an example of excellence. It is so important to have contact with this, something that shows you what is possible. There’s still so much for me to learn about the history of this medium, about those who made our work so much simpler now, and about contemporary practitioners. As much as the work, I find great inspiration in knowing the lives of other photographers, whether from knowing them personally or reading, or hearing them speak. You can see the evidence of work in the person, the stamina required to persevere, and the goodwill that prevails. What I find most moving is simply the courage expressed by so many, to keep investigating the potential of the image. It is not easy getting around with this equipment, and the determination required to get out into nature or in front of situations that are uncertain, to accept much failure, is a triumph of the spirit.

Tell me about your double-exposures: the more recent ones I’ve seen give an effect of exquisite richness: for example, in some of the peony images completed this past year, it’s if the plants were subtly moving in response to, or actually dancing for, the camera. The doubling or layering, as you call it, calls our attention to the movement of plant and light in relation to each other. I think ultimately we start thinking about slower, organic forms of movement—not our muscular (human) variety!

Phoenix Flower © Linda Elvira Piedra

Phoenix Flowers © Linda Elvira Piedra

Other double exposures reveal aspects of a given place, time or individual that couldn’t possibly be conveyed in a single exposure, so the ‘collage’ or layering of light adds remarkable insight to the subject. I think, for example, of the beautiful Cambodian portrait of the old man who lives entirely on a circular platform—and the platform becomes, by turns throughout the day, his bed, his table, his place of work. In the double exposure, his daughter (or granddaughter?) appears in one of his shoulders, and his foot begins to vanish. This is a startlingly eloquent vision of the man’s world, his connection with his family, his place in the community.

What does it take, technically speaking, to make portraits like this? Can you ‘pre-visualize’ such compositions?

From very early on, I’ve made double exposures. It’s one way of saying, this is in this, expressing a potentiality, or an experience of simultaneity. There is something tissue-like in this. I think about it most in relation to portraits, as a way of blending, or uniting different parts of a person. As well as attempting to do this deliberately, it has happened to me by accident. The image of the jews harp maker was an accidental double exposure, despite what I thought was meticulous care with my film holders. I sometimes pre-visualize, I know what the parts are that are necessary for an image, and then I can only hope. With the tree peonies, I made several flower images which I designated as candidates for a second or third exposure, those extra parts being portraits, or hands, and close-ups of the wood that I used as the background. I wasn’t especially careful about remembering the composition of the first image, only that it was a flower, or portrait.

If I got to the second exposure feeling I should go further, I would. While I’m calculating the effect of the additional image, the background particularly, there is not much logic involved, a fact I’m not deterred by. The negatives have generally been a little dense, although I haven’t consistently predicted the necessary ratio of exposure for each layer.

You mentioned ‘getting around with this equipment’, can you tell me about your travels with it? We’ve already alluded to one of your Cambodian portraits; what motivated your travel there? What were some of the obstacles you encountered in attempting to do photographic work there with large format gear?

I’ve traveled abroad twice with my equipment. In 2002, I had the opportunity to travel with a friend, Robert Bassara, who is a musician as well as a photographer. He had been to Southeast Asia already several times before, researching a chime called the kyzi-tzi which is used in Burmese Buddhist prayer. Out of my own interest in the region, I accompanied him on what became a three-month long journey, which began in Vietnam, and on to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Burma. Most of the travel was overland, by bus, boat, train, horsecart, car and motorbike. I brought the 8×10 view camera in a backpack which held my film and holders and the few small accessories I needed. I had one lens, the Bausch and Lomb series VII Protar, which is a convertible lens and allows for three focal lengths, although I seldom use them, and four film holders. I brought a smaller tripod, which fit into the bag with my clothing. Once working, I put the camera into a bag I could wear over my shoulder, the film holders into a tote, and the tripod over my shoulder. The whole thing was about 30 pounds. I carried my own equipment, but was very touched by the assistance I was given when we were in Burma. The horsecart driver Mon Kyi always and quietly insisted on carrying my camera, treating it with great care. He was very attentive and noticed my expression one morning when I saw a farmer with his oxen approaching this tamarind tree I’d set up to photograph. Mon Kyi said, Would you like him to stop? I found the Burmese extremely helpful and kind, and also mysterious. There is something both shy and unembarrassed about the people and photographing, especially making portraits, was easier. In Vietnam, at a place named Mung Hum, right on the Chinese border, there was a general fear and mistrust of my camera. At the same time, as long as the camera was put away, I as a person was quite invisible. It was really an experience of another world where I wasn’t a member, and no one could even see me. I had nothing to offer them. And if you’d seen them, it was true that I was nothing to look at. They were beautiful people, ethnic minorities from all over the region, for whom the national border meant very little. It was a market day and everyone was dressed up in the most elaborate costume. I felt awkward making any pictures at all, even with the 35mm. It really seemed like an intrusion. The impressions remain of an unworldly place, mist in the bamboo forest all around, the austerity of the market, and people like deer.

There were ordinary things during the trip, like maneuvering around guards at Angkor Wat, who on some days said tripods were not allowed, or only Germans could use them, and going up the tiny staircase on the outer wall up the third story, or changing film in bathrooms in midday with only the dark cloth over my head to block the light. Rising early, to work in morning light, or to avoid heat, or crowds was something made surprisingly easy by the fact that many people are already awake at 5 a.m. or earlier and there was always someone willing to take you somewhere in these early hours. But the obstacles I faced were often more interior ones, like shyness, which has no place in photography. I made a second trip, again with Robert Bassara, in 2005, also of three months, and took a 4×5 Graflex. The smaller camera was a bit easier, and I brought a wheeled cart which was the greatest improvement of all. The metal camera was more sensitive to the vibrations of travel and I ended having to replace some screws that worked themselves loose along the way. These kinds of things never felt troublesome there, however. That trip was different; I got sick early in the journey which changed the rhythm and tone of things. The ground glass broke in Burma, in Rangoon, and the adventure of getting a new one made was really fantastic, I have to say. You wouldn’t believe the shop, a tiny place crammed with mirrors, all the men barefoot in sleeveless shirts, and they ground the glass by hand. Everyone was so respectful, even for this little piece of glass.

An important part of these travels was just seeing how some of these people felt about photography. For the Burmese it always implied a ceremonial occasion and people tended to adopt a rather serious face. And this is disarming, for the Burmese smile and laugh very freely. Photographs were not common objects in the countryside, and were made mostly to document rites of passage, events of religious significance. On the second trip I was able to bring back portraits to the people I’d photographed in Pagan, Burma, which was very meaningful for me. The man who had waited so patiently for me under the tamarind tree, Win Nye, didn’t recognize his image. He’d never had a photograph of himself, and he didn’t remember being photographed. And more, he didn’t recognize the tree or even his animals. I was showing him a strange world.

We met a few photographers in Thailand and Burma. Those in Thailand, Chamni Thipmanee and Gun Susangkarakan had studied in the United States and were making very beautiful work in black and white. Thailand is a very sophisticated country and this is possible there. In Burma, there is a woman in Naung Oo maintaining the portrait studio her father started back in the 1940s, using the same camera, having adapted its 4×5 back to accommodate 35mm film. She mostly receives requests for identity card photos. I regret that I did not make a picture of her alone in her studio room, it was such a quiet and simple space.

What sorts of projects have you been engaged in most recently?

The last couple of years have been preoccupied with photographing the tree peony. This started in 2001, or rather it truly began in 1997 when I first saw Walter’s images of these flowers, made in the late 1950s at the estate of William Gratwick. I was mesmerized by this beauty, the image, and the flower that I had never seen before. Walter said very simply, It’s the tree peony. You know it as the flower of Chinese painting. This was true, but I had never believed that this flower existed, but was something mythic, used as a symbolic ornament like the phoenix. As soon as I knew it existed I wanted to grow it, in order to photograph it. I acquired the first plant in October, 1998, and it flowered the first spring, and again, the second, although I wasn’t ready to photograph it until 2001. I was simply watching it grow. As time passed, I acquired a few more plants, but missed their blooming time while traveling or from stays in California. They preoccupied my mind though, and I kept feeling more and more that I must photograph them and go myself to the Gratwick Estate to be able to see many of these flowers. I knew that I wanted to use the 8×10, for it matches the scale of the flowers—some of them are really 10 inches wide, as big as your face. I felt somehow that these flowers completed something in my work, which was important as a way of integrating its different parts, and which would enable me to begin making some meaningful sequences, or at least enable some understanding for myself. The symbolism of the flower is rich. It expresses love and friendship, femininity and spiritual aspiration, or cultivation. These are the elements of my own work. The flower and its development have given me images to form a greater understanding of my own nature, the patience required for slow things, for uniting love with work. They are at the heart of all of this.

In 2007, I was able to go to Pavilion, New York, to photograph in Linwood Gardens, the garden Lee Gratwick has continued on her family’s property. There’s a special atmosphere, it’s a place where one senses a great deal of love—you know, where people have really loved what they were doing. And it’s one of the most romantic places I have ever been. (There were pipers in Highland dress playing for the flowers!) Lee has maintained and augmented the plantings and they are like rooms. That same autumn I moved my plants from New Mexico to Berkeley, where they are now in pots behind my studio. I’ve photographed them the past two years, first against the weathered wood on one wall of the courtyard, and this year I brought them inside my studio to look at them in the light from the window. The time spent in the company of these plants has been some of the happiest.

Unnamed Gratwick Tree Peony (Linwood Gardens, 2007) © Linda Elvira Piedra

A flower at sea, a flower from afar, unnamed Gratwick tree peony (Linwood Gardens, 2007) © Linda Elvira Piedra

I haven’t yet made the pictures I think I might, which is to say, I’m not finished photographing these plants. I’m not yet able to see that these pictures work together as a group, but am beginning to feel more that they’re leading me to something else, that they’re making a bridge to new work. And I don’t know what this is, but the work with the tree peony has opened up something. I’m beginning to reconsider my work in El Rito, where I worked with Walter, and continued to photograph until 2007. Not all, but most of these pictures were made after Walter’s death. That time is finished, and I’d like to review my negatives and print a series to commemorate it. In July, I photographed along the Connecticut River in Vermont, and am very interested in these pictures.

Connecticut River Landscape © Linda Elvira Piedra

Along the Connecticut River (Lunenburg, Vermont, 2009) © Linda Elvira Piedra

You’ve talked about the importance of darkroom procedures and some of the physical aspects of working in large format. Has the availability of digital printing in any way changed your way of working or opened up new opportunities?

For a long time I resisted digital technology altogether. I was very slow to see the potential of digital printing and perhaps just as much, I was unable to consider having anyone involved in my work. I’m accustomed to doing things for myself. I’ve come to feel over time that I’ve become a skillful printer, and a true joy arises in me when something is working. I can at this point depend on certain things in my technique, but I’m experimental and one part of my work has always been to ask, What else is possible?

Last year I began working with Stephen Stinehour at Stinehour Editions, to realize some of my images as 16×20 pigment ink prints. I’d never made any enlargements of my 8×10 negatives before, or any other enlargements of that size, but it was some of the tree peony images that seemed first to invite that possibility. I selected two, and the image of the waterfall, as well as the portrait, December 13, which is a 35mm negative, thinking of this first series as a sequence. The negatives were drum scanned and printed on an Epson printer. I’d seen some of the prints that Stephen was making two years earlier and found them beautiful, but it took some time before I could feel that I was ready to approach this medium. This project has been tremendous for me, a real stretch, and very rewarding. Seeing the images larger has been exciting, and in one case, the Phoenix Flowers, I don’t think I’ll ever show it as a contact print. The image succeeds in a way that I couldn’t produce in a silver enlargement. The image December 13 was originally a little print, only about 4 inches high, and later I made it 8 inches. Walter had said, I think it could be bigger. At the time I thought, it’ll be in a medium I’m not yet working in. The greatest change this is making is in trusting someone to collaborate with on my work, and this process opens and educates me. These new prints don’t aim to copy the contact prints, they interpret the image anew. While it makes some of my work easier, I don’t think it’s very easy arriving at a finished print. This method of printmaking is no less challenging. Right now, my work in this new medium is in communicating as clearly as possible and being open to its potentialities. I’m encouraged and enriched by this, and have four new images in progress.

Have there been other photographers besides Walter along the way who’ve been important in helping you develop your way of working or seeing, or who’ve been influential in some way?

There have been many who’ve helped me, but I’ll name here William Clift, Peter Johnson, Paul Caponigro, Barbara Goodbody, Kent Barker, and Ed Ranney who have in one way or another offered friendship and helped me to grow.

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