"Please show me a photograph that means something. That is what I hunger for, images I have an emotional response to, or I relate to the meaning, or that makes me cry or angers me, or evokes some sort of response in me."- Diane Fenster
It is my pleasure to view an artist’s evolution over a period of time. More often it is local Florida or southern artists, but I recently reconnected with San Francisco photographer and self-professed alchemist, Diane Fenster. If you read my most recent post, The Love (and Loss) of Polaroid, I write of her haunting installation of photographic images titled Secrets of the Magdelen Laundries exhibited in 2003, here in Tampa at the HCC Ybor Campus Art Gallery.
Fenster’s Secrets of the Magdalen Laundries is a photographic installation layered with the sound environment of composer Michael McNabb. Fenster designed the installation to lead the viewer into a maze of bed-sheets, printed with images, and surrounded by original music mimicking the whispering of the women of the laundries. Medium, upon medium layered and recreating the experience of the Magdalen Laundries in a powerful, tangible experience.
“My husband first told me about the*Magdalen Laundries,” Fenster said. I read about the history, they were like prisons, (the women) thrown into the church laundries, buried in unmarked graves. Tragic. At the time, it didn’t have as long spread an understanding as now, no one I had talked to had heard about it. The film has not come out (The Magdalene Sisters). When I starting working on the series - I felt the women were asking me to tell their stories.”
Fenster created the series photographic images with the 20 x 24 Polaroid camera using a variety of processes- her work is never one dimensional - the images were printed on bed sheets purchased in thrift stores. She states, “I was creating a body of work for a solo show in a New York gallery, I knew I was taking a risk, the work was not going to be commercially viable. These were not pretty pictures to hang on a wall."
I beg to differ; they are exceptional images, as I have written, the end result was haunting, and I have carried the exhibition with me for a long time. Though I agree many patrons may not have wanted to buy images printed on bed-sheets.
The Magdalen Laundries series was one of three Fenster created with a 20 x 24 Polaroid camera. She created the blue images, pictured on this page, through a dye sublimation process. Fenster used the 20 xo 24 Polaroid negatives for the remaining images, pressing slightly undeveloped negatives onto the bed sheets, before peeling it off. “Each one was one of a kind. Since they were slightly undeveloped, they are not perfect,” Fenster said.
The 20 x 24 Polaroid camera was not her main medium. Fenster began using the computer as an artistic tool as far back as 1989. It has been noted her artwork was an important voice in the development of a true digital aesthetic. Fenster's own view of herself is as an alchemist, using digital tools to delve into fundamental human issues. Her work is literary and emotional, full of symbolism and multiple layers of meaning. Her style is an innovative combination of her photography and scanned imagery; she is well known for her photo-montages.
In 2001, Fenster was the first inductee into the Photoshop Hall of Fame as recognition of her use of digital tools. The Magdalen Laundries and those 20 x 24 Polaroid series were a number of years ago. Fenster's work has taken on many form. She is now working with alternative photographic processes and alternative media (though one might suggest bed sheets were an alternative medium).
We discussed the many transitions her work had gone through since I had first viewed it and she was recognized for her photo-montages. “I have gravitated away from Photoshop at this time, but I have to stand up for what I feel is the most important thing: the image, not so much how it is made.” Fenster said. “There is an awful lot of snobbery about Photoshop. On the other hand, you do a blind test, you show the images, and it is about how one emotionally responds to an image, not how you respond to what version of software or process that was used. That is where I think people get sort of uber hyped up with how was it made vs. the image and what does it mean?”
“A couple of years ago I did a photo Encaustic series – printed on translucent materials so I could build up layers - it was like Photoshop but analog.” Fenster said. “I really enjoyed doing that.”
But she became discouraged when her transition from the digital world to processes and subject matter she was interested in (lumen photo processing, experimenting with toy cameras, and intensely personal subject choice) was not well received. “I actually became emotionally devastated by trying to make it in the art world and not getting past only being included in digital shows. Being one of the early practitioners became a blessing and a curse. I ran into a lot of brick walls and curators that didn’t understand what I was doing. I took a long time off from creating work in the last decade.”
“Fortunately and especially with my expansion into the Toy Camera world; I feel like I have found my people.” said Fenster. The toy camera world is most closely associated with Holga and Diana cameras. Fenster has created a new body of work, shooting images with a plastic Holga lens on a digital camera, and it has been well received. She has been exhibiting again throughout the United States and internationally. “I am fortunate to get into a good number of calls for entries.”
One body of work is deeply personal, titled Asleep in the Arms of Morpheus, a social documentary series about the end of life experience. It is Fenster’s first social documentary in this medium. “Sometimes I feel like all the subjects I am interested in are weird. But all of my series are stories, something I have found about, learned about or have happened.”
She is also enjoying Lumen processing to create a photographic image, as always using her signature layering process and leaving some outside for two or three days to develop.
“I understand the challenge of photographers that get caught up in a style or a method, and end up making it over and over because that is what the public wants. I care that bringing out something that is inside of me that is important to relate. I don’t do it to be commercially viable,” Fenster says.
She has spent nearly thirty years as a graphic designer for a university by day. While she appreciates the privilege of not having to support herself solely with her artistic endeavors, I doubt having to support herself would change the subject matter or style of her work.
“Commerciality doesn’t enter my equation.I am out to tell stories; that is really what is more important to me. I am not trying to support myself with my artwork, which is a blessing and a curse. I don’t have as much time, but the market does not drive what I am doing.
But I wish I had time to be even more focused than I am. I think that is why I like the combination of digital and analog, it allows me to work a little bit faster. I wish I was doing something like wet plate or something like that – but I don’t have a darkroom set up, but maybe in the future."
I’ll be following.
*These convent industries in Ireland existed from the mid-19th century until the late 20th century. The Magdalen Laundries institutionalized women who were smeared with the reputation of being immoral, or who were indigent, and kept them imprisoned through the social machinations of the Church. These misused women lived in punitive labor, lost to both their families and themselves. Henceforth, they became invisible, concealed beyond the margins of society. Several films documented or dramatized the story of the convent laundries including, The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena and The Sisters of No Mercy. Videos of The Secrets of the Magdalen Laundries exhibition, with sound, are available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orln3YPDgJA.