For this edition of Staff Q&A, we interviewed Leah Shirley. Although Leah is moving on from her position as the International Student Advisor soon, she has contributed immensely to the Education Office as well as the GS program. Leah, like many of the staff members, is a working artist. After ICP, she will be focusing on her own art projects, and she hopes to remain engaged in the ICP community.
Leah Shirley – ICP Staff
Tell us a little bit about your work.
They are made in the color darkroom exclusively. I started it when I was in undergrad for my thesis at Columbia College in Chicago, where I got a BFA in photography. Columbia has a very vigorous program, very technical in that they really stress students going through all the basics and almost emphasizing technique over content, but not all the time. So I had spent multiple years in this program, working with the camera. Because it’s very technical, it could be very assignment-based, and I got to a point where I was pretty frustrated with the act of taking pictures with a camera. I wanted to do something really immediate, not in the sense of that it would be easy or fast, but in the sense of I would be as close to the work as possible—I didn’t want to go through the mechanism.
Luckily Columbia has—as ICP does, a color darkroom, so I went in there which is a place I kind of mythologized myself—it’s a very special place. I wasn’t using negatives, so I only brought the paper, and I was only accompanied by the items in my bag. I decided to strip it down to the basics, so I would start to manipulate the filters, to mix in the color and I started doing very basic photograms. I just wanted lines, so I would get binders and books or paper, dodging tools…whatever, so they started very formal. The older ones have sharper lines, just a formal study of relationships.
As the work progressed and as I got more comfortable in the darkroom, I removed the contact, so I wasn’t laying anything directly onto the paper. The images started to be less like photograms and became something else. I was a lot more interested in the dynamism that could be created between light being expelled from the source and hitting/transferring on to the paper. As the light is exposing the paper, I would interfere with it using my hands or with other objects, to create a really soft shape or line on the paper. Then I moved back and started not exposing the entire paper, working with the negative white space. So this work has always been an investigation in our experience with color in a 2D way.
I’m really fascinated by the ways in which you can push the boundaries of what is a photograph. Because a lot of times, people look at my work, and don’t even know what to make of it, they don’t think it is photography. I tell them: “yeah, it can be a lot of different things, but at the same time, it is, at its core, photography. It is a recording of light.” The series we are talking about is called Lux, the color work that I’ve been doing in the darkroom. I take a lot of inspiration from geological texts, the work is really rooted in the elements. They are being made from light, so I started doing a whole lot of research on geology and heat. It’s about evolution, really.
You are also taking photographs of the cologram prints in nature?
That work was done in Los Angeles. In terms of ways to show the work and installation shots, I’ve never thought okay you put it in a frame, put it on a wall, it’s done and it’ll just make sense. That way of presenting photographs is fine of course, but I wanted to find a way to approach the installation where the pieces are activated by how they are being represented. So by physically putting them in nature, surrounded by rocks, dirt, the earth, I felt like that was a way to have them introduce themselves.
What does your work manifest?
It’s a question I’m still trying to answer personally. I don’t really know, but I can tell you what draws me to make the work. I find a basic attraction to the form elements of line, shape, color, how they all relate to each other and how they can evoke meanings or emotions. It’s a very basic investigation but it’s also something that everybody can relate to. Because we all have experiences, we are all informed by those relationships, we all have our own association to colors, we all have our own association to certain shapes. I think it’s something that’s very relatable. Then again, why do I do it? Every time I go back to the darkroom, I leave with more questions. That’s what keeps me doing it. Not because I feel like I’m solving problems. Every time I go back in there, there are new challenges and new revelations. That’s what keeps me fascinated.
This might be the wrong term or an irrelevant question, but do you see what you do as a dying art?
No, I think that’s a relevant question, a lot of people have asked me that. The manner in which I’m working, all arrows point to it not being around forever. Digital is here to stay, I’m sure. I’m just making the work. There’s not a thought at all in my mind about how I have to do this now because I might not be able to in the future. This is what my body and mind and everything is telling me I have to do now and this is the way to do it. I’m going to get as basic as I can with the paper, the chemicals and the light and I’m gonna go to the color darkroom. All digital prints are trying to be an analog print at the end of the day, or surpass it if they can—it’s a reference point. I couldn’t make the work digitally, it would be totally different work.
Do you feel working at a place like ICP helps you in your own practice?
For sure. I haven’t even been here that long, but just the mere fact of being around people who are making photographic work. It’s not the fact that people are making photography, it’s that this is an institution that was founded around supporting one expressing themselves, and so that is a really conducive element to absorb personally. The fact that a lot of the staff here make their own work is really exciting and fascinating and it’s really special to be a part of that. One of the greatest luxuries of being a student is that you have a built-in community and you have resources at your disposal. So when you’re not a student anymore, one of the hardest struggles is to maintain a sense of community.
Working at an institution that builds that in is completely amazing. And of course, having access to the color darkroom is also huge. New York is lucky, there’s a color darkroom here at ICP and there are two or three other places. It’s sad, either you find color darkrooms at universities or schools (because they can afford it) or in cities like New York or Los Angeles where there’s a high enough demand. Anywhere else, pretty much in the middle of the country, there’s nothing.