With her work spanning photography and art, artist Rebecca Miller captures change and her unique perspective of the world we all inhabit. In our conversation, Rebecca talks about why she is still drawn to film over digital and the discipline it involves. Her work centres around nature, architecture and the current turbulent political atmosphere in the world. She also has pointers for artists starting out, getting their work out there and dealing with rejection, a vital part of an artist's evolution.
Could you talk us through your creative process?
I usually start with the concept – what questions do I want to visually answer or what ideas do I want to communicate to the viewer. That will then lead me to the type of medium I use to make the image, be it a straight photograph or mixed media work.
As for my process with straight photographs, considering first the base concept of the work leads me to what type camera I’ll use - be it large format film, medium format film, DSLR, or camera-less darkroom images. Digital technology has opened up so many possibilities to photographers, but there is still something quite valuable about using film and working in the darkroom when creating works. While digital photography can give you an immediacy and manipulation that is not possible with film, the film has a physical presence and a completely different working method that forces you to slow down when creating the image. The tactile qualities of a gelatin silver print and the discipline it takes to print also separates analogue and digital technology from one another. I enjoy all types of photography though and work with whatever photographic technique communicates my ideas in the best possible way.
With that said, I have always loved photography as an art form, but a lot of the time it feels to me too separate from the human touch, too mechanical. That lack of humanism is what has drawn me to the use of mixed media on top of the photograph within many of my works. Expression of an emotional state, either mine or my subject’s, is one of the underlying themes with a lot of my works and mixing the photograph with other materials to create a singular image is usually how I translate expression. With my mixed media images I generally start by shooting film, print the negative, manipulate the print in some way such as drawing, painting, or collaging it, re-photograph the manipulated print, enlarge the new film image in the darkroom onto resin coated paper, and then draw and paint on top of the enlarged photograph. Visual layering, both physically and conceptually, relates to different levels of meaning within the works.
You have exhibited extensively throughout your career, what advice would you give an artist who is just about to exhibit their work for the first time?
Get your work out there as much as possible while doing it in a professional manner. Whether you have your first show at a café or gallery, present your works and yourself in a way that puts your best foot forward. Excellent works that are displayed poorly can distract the viewer from the work; put the time and money into finishing works with frames or other methods that refine or present the object in a complete manner. Be flexible and creative when it comes to installing your works and don’t be a prima donna; high maintenance attitudes won’t advance your career if no one wants to work with you.
Learn how to document your work. Poor documentation that does not represent your work in an accurate manner can prevent you from being given exhibition opportunities.
Network. Although I love to think that great art will be valued by all just by being seen, usually it takes a lot of time and effort to get noticed beyond the exhibition setting. Take chances by sending your works out to galleries and publications, enter juried exhibitions, and keep in contact with people who show interest in your work. Use the Internet and social media as much as possible to make further connections. Establishing yourself as an artist won’t just happen if no one sees your work so introduce it to as many people as possible.
Be true to yourself and grow a thick skin. Not everyone will appreciate your work so don’t let rejection dissuade you from making images you are passionate about. Accept critical feedback when it comes to your work and try not to take criticism as a personal attack.
What elements draw you towards a photographer that you land up collaborating with? Is there something specific that you look for?
For me, a shared curiosity and aesthetic vision are the foundations of successful collaborative projects. The abilities for the give and take of ideas and approaches to the creative process are also crucial. I’ve been working in collaboration with another artist, Tom Russo, for several years now to create large-scale photograms. Half of the fun is just discussing our ideas, and we have a great deal of respect for one another’s concepts. We’ve created a wide variety of images from some objects – be it musical instruments to live animals. One of us will say ‘why don’t we make an image that is about X?’ or ‘let’s try using object Y’ because we are interested in how (or if) it will translate to a photogram. Sometimes we have no idea how the finished piece will look, and we don’t dwell on that because it is more about the process of creating, solving problems, and the discoveries we make along the way. Quite frequently we spend a large amount of time just moving objects around and discussing the compositions we want to create before we even take the photo paper out. Patience, trust, respect, curiosity and a good sense of humour are all qualities that I specifically look for when collaborating with another artist.
What are your thoughts on the current political climate in the U.S? Are you working on any political pieces to express that like you “Making Lemonade” series?
Divisive, superficial, angry, passionate, frustrating, and polarising are how I would describe the current political climate in the U.S.
I began the Making Lemonade series in 2012 because that presidential campaign’s propaganda materials (from the Internet and non-official campaign sources) seemed so slanted towards blatant racism and xenophobia. I wanted to take objects of hate that were so readily available and neutralise their acidity. It was unsettling to me as to what kinds of negative materials were circulating about candidates who were running for the highest public office in our country; and the materials I collected were disturbing, especially knowing some Americans believed the completely fabricated rhetoric of hate with those items.
When the 2016 election began to ramp up, I figured the fear people feel towards the economy and terrorism would transform to new types of defamation, which this time around translated mostly to materials based on sexism and ageism mixed with sophomoric to repulsive attacks on physical appearance. What surprised me though this past election was what materials were available on the official website of one of the candidate’s, in addition to the items I collected from other non-official sources, and how vile some items were when it came to sexism. I’ve acquired a lot of materials over the past year and will slowly start to transform them into something else that either is as absurd as the appropriated item or an abstraction beyond recognition of the original image.
Those transformations are a laborious process, so in the meantime, I’ve begun a spin-off to Making Lemonade, which is called Dirty Laundry and is a series of large format black-and-white photographs of clothing items collected during the 2016 presidential campaign. The goal is to show the contradictions with both candidates such as how Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan of “Stronger Together” fell flat when she called Donald Trump supporters “deplorable” – a group whom she should have been trying to sway to her side instead of insulting and ultimately energising against her. How Trump was relentlessly touting his “Make America Great Again” hat while having a documented history of sexist and anything but “great” comments about a variety of human beings. With this past election, it seemed that any legitimate ideas for forwarding thinking of important issues such as equality, economy, education, or foreign policy were lost in the superficial noise of sound bites. It is still my hope though that the American people and our elected officials will put their differences aside and work together so that decency, humanity, equality, and common sense will help us move forward.
What excites you the most about art?
The possibilities. I love seeing new art that challenges my perceptions about life and aesthetics. As for my art, the process of creating something from the thoughts or the questions I have is the most exciting to me. Translating what is in my head to a physical object can be energising, demanding, sometimes annoying, and ultimately fulfilling.
Could you talk us through your series of photographs called “Dear Alfred”?
As an educator, I show Alfred Stieglitz’s (1864-1946) Equivalents series to help my students understand abstraction in photography and how Stieglitz strove to give the viewer an emotional response over an intellectual analysis of the subject matter with those images. Perhaps it’s been a subconscious influence by his work, but I’ve always enjoyed photographing cloud formations. I never made the connection until I was on a road trip travelling through a particularly curvy and hilly section of northern Arkansas. The sky was bizarre – filled with bulbous and ominous clouds, which was proving to be a major distraction to driving. I was so mesmerised by these clouds and finally came across a section of road at the top of a hill where I was able to pull off and photograph the sky. At that moment I thought ‘what would Alfred think about these crazy clouds?’ From that point, I began the series Dear Alfred, which is an imaginary correspondence with Stieglitz exchanging images and discussions about his concept of equivalence in photography as a medium.
Do you think it’s hard to stand out as an artist today?
Yes and no. Artists who stand out to me make work that is true to themselves regardless of the marketability of their images. Not being redundant or regurgitating another artist’s concepts or style can be difficult because there are so many images already out in the world. For me standing out from others usually comes down to each artist’s personal views of the world around them: how they conceptualise, interpret, and visually communicate their ideas can draw upon shared human experiences that are then expressed in their unique ways.
We would like to thank the lovely Rebecca Miller for taking time out to answer our questions. This interview first appeared in the March 2017 Issue of CreativPaper Magazine.