Q & A: Debra Howell, "Adaptations"
“The process of 'adaption' for many humans takes certain predictable forms; it includes acceptance of the changes we encounter moving forward, as well as recognition and acknowledgement of that which we are losing or leaving behind.” - Debra Howell
This is not a quote about politics (or depending on the reader maybe it is), rather part of an artist statement on Adaptations, a new series of work from New Orleans artist, Debra Howell. Her photography work was recently on display, including her complimentary series, Relics at LeMieux Galleries, one of my favorite galleries on New Orlean’s Julia Street.
New Orleans is full of distractions, but I was unexpectedly halted at this exhibition of photography. At first glance, I thought the artworks were paintings, an observation often repeated by visitors to the gallery owner. The work was presented framed but bare, no glass between the viewer and the work.
The images of interior spaces showed fluttering curtains, and abandoned “relics” of previous residents; yet the watery vistas through the windows seemed out of place requiring closer examination. In some cases it appears the rooms are almost sinking.
Howell states, “As an artist, I have often gravitated towards the micro. In New Orleans, while we have always lived in a watery world, I wondered how we might live in a future manifestation of ‘home” that would be surrounded by so much more water? I have explored that question in Adaptations, using our historic houses as possible means to our salvation. They are already survivors, after all. And because we are merely the temporary caretakers of those houses - that are older than ourselves and will hopefully be standing long after we are gone - I chose to make them the subject of these 'survival portrait’ narratives rather than their humans.”
The subject matter is New Orleans, but the finished works would be at home in any environment.
Howell is a consistent creator of work, despite having the proverbial day job many artists do to make a living. She has previously created fabricated photographs, mixed media collage series, and Lightbox installations. For years she has photographed landscapes. This is a new series of work for Howell, the direction seemed to even surprise her.
“Like many artists," Howell states, " I use my artmaking as a way to explain the unexplainable; to investigate the mysteries of life through art, to reconcile myself to the world by making sense of it and exerting some control over it: and to weave the selected fictions of truth and memory that surround us into peculiar but acceptable reality, which has always been and always will be a very subjective concept.”
Her new interior spaces are beautiful; I was particularly taken with the matte finish and the unexpected exteriors and colors. Howell also photographed the small abandoned objects in the represented rooms and created a separate installation titled, Relics. The books, typewriters and common household objects are isolated and presented with a completely different photographic process.
Below is a Q and A with Debra Howell where she answers questions about her processes and this new body of work:
JC: The works appears to be a painting at first glance. What kind of process did you use to create this work?
DH: It is Interesting how many people apparently thought they were paintings: I think it is the matte surface. And the fact that people can tell almost immediately that they are not quite real spaces, so they don’t register as photographs at first glance. But I think a lot of it is the surface. I use a very matte laminate, and it removes any barrier between your eye and the image, like glass or any kind of varnish would. You are looking at a surface, a very matte surface that looks like something touchable.
JC: Is this a new process for you?
DH: These are light jet prints. The light jet printer is a self contained photo printer developer machine that really not many commercial printing places have anymore. They produce actual photos, a photo printed on Fuji paper and they can go up to any size. That is partially why I like that printer because you end up with an actual photograph and not an ink jet print which is becoming more and more the norm. I have laminated these light jet prints for years.
JC: Is it a more expensive process?
DH: Probably about the same, but I think you are limited in what you can do with ink jet photos. I think they are more sensitive, you have to mat them traditionally or put something on top of them to protect them. It is amazing how sensitive they can be. I have for a very long time not liked having some sort of surface, like glass, between the viewer and the image. I like the illusion that you could step into the print and go off on a nice little journey.
JC: Well, I think you accomplished it with this series.
DH: I have done exterior landscapes for years, these are my first interior landscapes in a while. And that had been one of my goals, that feeling that people could escape into them even if it is psychological. But these light jet prints using the super matte laminate is pretty new. I discovered it by accident, in the past it had been more of a semi matte appearance. My printer also has the contract for the Mercedes Benz graphics in the Superdome. Mercedes Benz requires this extreme matte laminate, because they photograph shiny black cars. So I accidentally got one (of my works) printed and laminated that way. At first I was disconcerted, then I really started to like it, now I do everything in that laminate.
JC: How old is this series?
DH: It is all pretty new. For the last couple of years I was taking a series of photographs in one house that a friend of mine had owned for decades. He had finally reconciled himself to selling it, and had to start clearing it out. My goal, as I was taking photographs of it, had been to take photos when it was completely empty before the sale. But it was never completely empty. I had about five photo sessions over the course of a year, a year and a half. So in some ways that house became the inspiration for the whole series. The Subsidence piece was the first piece and I did that in 2015.
JC: Are all the images of the same room?
DH: For the most part. I think there are two different rooms from that house used. Then another room from a second house. There are eight images of those interior spaces.
JC: You have three separate works that feature a Stereoscope.. They appear more environmental?
DH: The Stereoscope and the Magnifier are more environmental. Those objects also came from the interior of that house. But again, just what they were in terms inspired a differing direction. They are related and yet separate - I took those (images) outside the house on the banks of the Mississippi River.
JC: This brings us to the Relics Installation.
DH: Everything (the objects in the images) that was part of the Relics (installation) came from those two houses.
JC: There was a real dichotomy between the presentation of the relics and the Adaptions images. Why did you choose to present them so differently?
DH: I have done decal pieces forever, the Relics (images) are all decal pieces. The idea ( in my mind) was those were the sort of things that might wash up on a riverbank, of a civilization that was no more. These were the kind of things that get left behind when a population becomes refuges, or when they have to move on from where they are presently. That is why I kept them as decals because they are like little skins, like the skins a snake would shed. And I loved that about them, converting objects into fragile transparent skins. I remount them onto rag-board and with the frames it makes a point about these objects. In themselves important, but they are probably getting left behind.
Relics is more of an installation than individual pieces. Part of the inspiration was a photograph from an exhibit at the New Museum on collecting. The walls in the exhibit were filled with these small framed pieces of various sizes. And I realized that was exactly the affect I was after, the obsessive presentation of all these objects. I had originally wanted more, but this is what was complete. That is why they were hung in mass so you felt more surrounded by them.
JC: Did you plan to have a specific number?
DH: I had started off with one hundred, which was kind of arbitrary because they ranged in size, and I think I ended up with about eighty.
JC: They have a different finish?
DH: They look wet. That is part of the decal process. In this case it was a photograph that was printed as a laser color copy, and then the image on paper was coated with acrylic gloss medium and allowed to dry, and soaked in water to remove the original paper. You end up with this sort of translucent skin of image that is just on the medium. That is what I remount on the rag board. Then you coat it again, and it is kind of shiny, and it has bubbles in. It looks like it could have come out of the water.
JC: Returning again to the matte photographs: I love the unexpected blue color of the curtains.
DH: That was real, it wasn't altered by me in any way.
JC: Yet the view through the windows in the images appears to be from a different environment.
DH: The view through the windows was different in each one. I am often adding and subtracting things from the images, anyway. The idea is they look real. I like the element of not quite real to be much more subtle. I want people to think actually they are real and then slowly come to the realization they are not quite real.
I like that, it is just so old fashioned. I have a very classical (art) education, lots of studio art, lots of art history. And like many artists I am drawn to a certain period in art history, that I constantly go back to, like the 1700s, the Dutch painters, the Iconography Age I call it. Because everything painted in a painting had a meaning and I like that. It is like reading a painting like a book. And the paintings all tell a story so people who maybe couldn’t read at the time, a lot of people then weren’t literate, but they could read the stories in the paintings in the churches in such a way because they recognized the meanings behind the objects in the paintings and the people. So I always go back to wanting these images to tell stories that often have to have the blanks filled in by the viewer but nonetheless they capture you a little bit because they are narratives and they tell stories and you have to figure them out a little bit.
JC: Of course, water is a factor in this series.
DH: We are kind of obsessed with it here. It is not just the river, all cities that have a river, people tend to be obsessed with their river. It is not just the river, it is the future of water, dealing with water has just been a factor of life here.
JC: Is this work a new observation? You said you have consistently photographed landscapes.
DH: Ironically, this was a flashback or throwback. During graduate school a lot of my work was about survival, like nuclear survival, Back then it was still the cold war and we really worried about nuclear weapons in the wrong hands. My work then was much more humanist, the geriatric nude was my common subject matter. Interestingly, I felt I was going back to the same ideas, just without the people, but about the places and where the people would have been had they still been there. And in the meantime, I had been doing landscapes for fifteen years or so, and all having to do with escapism. Now being able to use these landscapes as opportunities for flights of fancy about being in another world, is in some ways I have come back, just in a different position.
JC: Are you going to continue this work? How big is the series going to be?
DH: That is a good question. There are other directions I want to keep going including a completely underwater world.
JC: I see several of the works are sold. Will you make additional prints?
DH: I never do editions, because I never know exactly how they are going to come out. That is the downside of the light jet printer. It’s chemicals, just like printing in a darkroom, the chemistry changes with each print. My MFA is in printmaking, so my feeling is if you are going to do an edition it has to be identical. So everything in the show is artist proofs. Artist print one. If I reprint one, it would be artist print two. But I cannot imagine doing more than five.
JC: Are you a native of New Orleans?
DH: I wasn’t born here, but I went to school here. New Orleans is of these towns where if you go to junior high or high school here you become natives. That is what resonates, people don’t care where you went to college but they will inevitably ask where you want to high school. It tells you so much about the people, what part of town they lived in and it becomes an identifying factor.
New Orleans is definitely an identifying factor in Debra Howell’s work, but not a limiting factor. I hope you will view more of her work at: www.debrahowell.com or see it in person at LeMieux Galleries in New Orleans.