Reflecting on the Edge
Trained in common sense, Elizabeth Opalenik was raised on a farm in western Pennsylvania and left home to the sound of peace marches and her mother saying, ‘I knew you were different from the time you were two.’ She evolved as a photographic artist from former lives as accounting manager for a major corporation, manager of a jazz club and as ‘A Ms-Placed Lady’ created her own construction business.
After a two week photographic workshop at The Maine Photographic Workshops in 1979, she sold everything, changed careers and never looked back. No regrets. Her art, like life, is a mosaic of passionate devotion for exploration.
Elizabeth is a fine-art photographer and sought-after educator who strive to bring a sense of wonder and possibility to students. Photography is the gift that has graced her with the many friendships made through teaching and traveling. Her images are collected and published internationally. Links to various portfolios and her monograph ‘Poetic Grace: Elizabeth Opalenik Photographs 1979-2007’ can be viewed at her website at the end of this article. ►
Her heart is in philanthropic projects and working in her darkroom, where she creates one-of-a-kind images, some in the Mordangage process, others involving hand painting, and platinum printing. She mixes digital and traditional media when appropriate to maximize creative possibilities, using images as stepping stones to trace pathways of the mind.
The Mordangage process alters silver halide prints made on either fibred or resin coated papers by producing a degradation of the print surface. The process is a chemical treatment which has two main effects, bleaching and a lifting of parts of the emulsion. Learn more here.
Elizabeth reflects on her life, her work and the series of images which are featured in this article:
‘We are our perceptions and I hope my vision is a reflection of the beauty that my subjects reveal. I am not interested in photography as reality, but as a journey into the possibility of what else there is; be it a memory, a moment in time or a feeling of self, vaguely recalled. In how they are made and how they are viewed, photographs are self-portraits that lie somewhere between imagination and dreams. They travel to where the mind has been and offer a fleeting glimpse into each of us.
Often my photography is a visual voice for stories left behind. My images may not change the world, but hopefully they offer a peaceful place for the soul or open one’s mind to other possibilities. Whatever the subject, for me, making art, any art, is a gift.
From the beginning of my photographic career, water has been the subject that has given me the most pleasure… and where there is pleasure, there is no losing. I am intrigued by its transformative qualities and find serenity just looking at water. It carries mystery, reflects back a life, can be a million jewels of dewdrops, brightens the dullest subject, can be the most powerful force, and yet causes reverie while gazing at its soft sensuality.
‘Reflecting on the Edge’ began last fall when I was reflecting on life. Perhaps it was that milestone age 65, or the loss of many dear friends, but one starts to reflect on career and accomplishments. Plus, photography as I knew it has been digitally turned upside down. iPads have replaced galleries, iPhones have replaced photojournalists and there is new visual acuity everywhere. I spent a lot of time looking at the water, thinking. I had access to a friend’s pool and wetting any subject for me loosens the creative block which has been rare in my life. Although I have worked with water images for more than 30 years, I felt like I suddenly learned how to see, to know how to see them. As I stared at the model in the pool, I saw the entire series in my mind and like the water, its ever-changing possibilities. One of my problems with digital photography today is that so much happens outside the camera. Perhaps as a teacher, I have heard too many instances of ‘I’ll fix it later…’ or, ‘…I’ll make it better later.’
Truth is, the world is amazing and what is in front of us everyday is incredible. Learn to see it. I have striked not to let the ‘fix it later’ way of thinking invade my way of seeing. Maybe it is just a game I play in my mind to keep my vision acute, but I like the challenges of making these images in camera and if I can make them complicated and interesting, all the better. I love the combination of digital and traditional combined and utilize both for the best artistic statement, but seeing the light and capturing the image in front of me still makes my heart throb.
I have never considered myself a color photographer, so this was also new territory for me though I must confess, after the first shoot at the pool, I immediately went out and bought myself a Nikonos V so I could do images from underwater too. But, that is another portfolio!
I also was willing to sacrifice a small point and shoot camera, being double wrapped in zip lock bags! That is how I started with underwater images in 1980. Yes, I do know they make housings for underwater use, but I am trying to stay focused with this body of work. What interests me more at this moment are the images made from above the water? They also combine my love of the hand painted image and in their distortions, images that look like they could have been paintings. The exploration into this water abyss thrills me. I spend more time these days looking at Klimt, Picasso, Botero and others. In truth, as photographers, we should always look outside our medium for inspiration. Like Mordangage, which is where I thought I was going with this project (but didn’t), the possibilities are endless. Often our paths can turn on a moment’s vision and that day by the pool, mine did. To quote Robert Frost, ‘Two roads diverged in a yellowed wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’ Ironically, that was the poem in my pocket the day I left my first two week workshop in photography that so changed my life. I feel that possibility with this body of work.
All of these images are digitally made with a Nikon D700 and a variety of Nikon lenses, depending on my distance from the model or angle at which I am making the image. Images are made in camera and are printed on Awagami handmade Japanese papers with four deckled edges. I have also explored making my own paper as a truly handmade photograph has always interested me. Minimal Photoshop except to do what I would do in the darkroom, burn, dodge, adjust color balance, and spot. In a few images where I needed an edge contrast, I have applied an action, but my joy comes from creating the images with the fabrics, light and model. I am even rethinking those few as they might dilute the entire process. We’ll see. To each, her own reality.
f11: Welcome to f11, Elizabeth. Thanks for joining us.
EO: Thank you for inviting me to do this article.
f11: Let’s start with your discovery of photography, and the power that this must have had over you to make such massive changes in your work life.
EO: I was in my early 30’s, living in Westport, Connecticut, and perhaps a year into being newly single. I had been interested in photography and had an SLR and rudimentary darkroom for my personal pleasure. Friends were going to take a workshop at the Maine Photographic Workshops so I decided to enroll also. They didn’t go, but it changed my life. I always felt that I was a fairly stable, healthy minded soul, but after one particular assignment, I couldn’t stop crying. I decided there must be some closet doors that I had not opened and that photography could be my vehicle instead of therapy.
f11: So one day you owned a construction company, and the next day you were somehow in photography?
EO: In my previous relationship we were Ms and Mr Handyman…it was the 70’s after all. When we separated, he took the truck and the tools and I took the sports car. Once I had worked for myself, I could never go back to a straight job. Fortunately I learned that lesson by the age of 25. A lesser construction business was easier to handle out of the car and I became ‘A MS-Placed Lady’ doing more interior design, wallpapering, painting and small construction jobs. I was pre Martha Stewart on a mission to empower housewives that, they too, could do all these things. Today, you see lots of women in the business of construction. Then it was a little more unique, but my farm upbringing prepared me to handle most things. It also served me well when I became involved with the Maine Photographic Workshops. They were a young organization then and offered me work scholarships and a job on the staff. In exchange I helped to create housing spaces and atmosphere within the workshop. During weeklong workshops, students couldn’t help but be inspired and creative in some of the rooms we created. This year the workshops, now called Maine Media Workshops, are celebrating their 40th anniversary. I have been part of that place for 35 years, teaching with them for at least 30 years. I still find myself straightening curtains, re-arranging furniture or adding a handful of flowers as I pass through a room. Each summer, it is like going home.
f11: Did you chase commercial work or concentrate solely on the art of photography?
EO: I think I always wanted to be a photographic artist, but started down the path of commercial work to support myself. I was fortunate in the jobs I was offered to do the kind of work I liked. I enjoyed the collaboration of working with a team of creative people but hated the ‘business’ of finding the work. I loved the problem solving, but after a head injury and the fact I could barely remember to put film in my camera, I knew my days of working commercially would be numbered. I couldn’t handle the stress and my destiny lay elsewhere.
f11: How did you acquire the skills and learn the processes in that full immersion, jump in the deep end, career change?
EO: I think if you have confidence in yourself as a human being, you can do anything. Some folks do it better than others and some do it with more flair. When I left home in 1969 I put a map on a lazy Susan, spun it and moved to where my finger landed…Connecticut. I went to the World Book Encyclopedia that we had, read about Connecticut and left. How sane is that? I took the job with a corporation, and started down that path. Five years later, I like to say ‘I called in well…’ and have worked for myself since.
f11: Then the move towards teaching, did that come naturally?
EO: One of my first photography teachers in Maine, Kate Carter, was killed in a car accident. In many ways, I stepped in to fill a void left by her death in 1984. It was no doubt my destiny as I seemed to be in that role in life. I have a high school education and though I graduated with honors, to discover teachers and teaching again at age 32 was powerful. Craig Stevens was my other teacher in Maine. He talked about the poetics of space, the history of photography and asked you ‘Why?’ about so many things. Both he and Kate were great role models. I started assisting Kate and Craig the summer of 1983 in Provence and it became a natural progression for me. Foreign workshops also fit my personality.
f11: What part does that play in your life today, and how much of your time does that occupy?
EO: For a while my time was divided into thirds. 1/3 commercial, 1/3 fine art and print sales, and 1/3 teaching. When I began in the 90’s, not only teaching for other workshops, but conducting my own on a number of continents, it took a lot more time which also needed to be juggled with getting married and moving across country. I nearly quit entirely during the transition from traditional to digital. Workshops weren’t fun for me in those early years when people stopped talking about content and only wanted to talk pixels and ‘how did you do THAT?’ I got tired of saying, ‘Just because you can do THAT in Photoshop, doesn’t mean you should. A bad picture in most cases is still a bad picture.’ Fortunately that learning curve is smoothing out, and my workshops have again become about images, content and life. To be effective at anything, I think you need to devote yourself and I would say I have devoted myself to teaching these past 20 years, but now I am doing less and working on my own projects along with some philanthropic work. I can’t leave it entirely because I love the people I meet and the connections I make. Workshops and teaching have opened the most doors in my life and given me the opportunity to truly love what I do. It also keeps me in the loop of what is happening in the photographic world even if I do run back to my darkroom.
f11: You’re lecturing in Australia this September, tell us about that, and is this your first trip to our part of the world?
EO: I am so excited to be coming. Before I put that map on the lazy Susan that got me to Connecticut, I almost moved to Australia. I vaguely recall someone offering plane tickets to get women out there. That and the Peace Corps intrigued me. Since I never went, it feels like another check on the bucket list. Any place with so many beautiful water possibilities has to be wonderful. When I backpacker through Europe many years ago I met so many folks from down under. They would all be traveling for a year at a time and I remember the great sense of humor and zest for life everyone had. I look forward to having some wonderful exchanges while teaching a workshop titled ‘Finding the Ethereal Within’ as part of the Ballarat Biennale. I will be the keynote speaker at the Alternative Process Symposium and then will teach Mordangage through Gold Street Studios, also in Victoria. From Sydney I will travel with Dawne Fahey from the Fier Institute to Lightning Ridge for an Outback journey workshop including the Opal fields and Bangate Station. Part of this workshop will also include days digitally printing our images with a master printer, Dr Les Walking. I am really looking forward to the sharing of a lot of ideas and creativity.
f11: Tell us about your equipment choices, what is your main camera outfit and what does this contain?
EO: I have always believed that cameras don’t take pictures; people do, so I don’t continually get the latest and greatest. I can’t seem to part with any of my film systems, but have been a dedicated Nikon user most of my career. Digitally I primarily shoot with a Nikon D700 and I also have a D200 converted for infrared. My favorite lenses would be the Nikon 20-35mm, a Nikon 85mm f1.4 and the 105mm. Less is more for me if I am walking around. That’s the reason I was given legs, isn’t it? I still love my Leica M3 and its lenses, a 28mm, 50mm and 90mm which also now fit a Panasonic Lumix that I sometimes carry for ease. At home, for film I fall back on my Pentax 6×7 or Mamiya 7. I have the iPhone 5, using it for snaps with the Hipstamatic App.
f11: Are you all about available light, or do you use lighting, and if so, what’s your approach to creating your own light?
EO: I am all about seeing the light and making it work. I will use reflectors, my white shirt or anything I can put my hands on to bounce or diffuse the light. I have Lowell Tota lights and soft boxes if necessary, but prefer to work naturally.
f11: How about post-production, I take it this is something you’d rather avoid on the computer — in favour of doing this ‘hands on’ in the printmaking process?
EO: Yes, I am sure you have heard me moan this past week while preparing this article. I will always opt for making the image in camera as much as I can. I tend to change the white balance to suit my mood, create the image for how it ‘feels’ at the moment, rarely look at the histogram and I am very aware of my edges, old habits die hard. Cameras are so technically smart these days that the best advice is to learn how your equipment works, then forget it. Take advantage of the myriad possibilities in front of you that you can capture creatively. That is what works for me, because I would rather do my creating that way. It is a personal choice and sometimes I am in awe of those folks who can sit all day tweaking pixels. Life is not perfect, as human beings we are not perfect, and I am not in search of the repeatability of the same perfect output every time. On the other hand, I have been known to spend 8 hours straight working on a Mordancage image one drop of water at a time. Go figure.
f11: So, to printmaking, which seems to be a great love of yours — tell us about this facet of your photography, and do you think photographers need to be more involved with this final stage of the process?
EO: Again, this is a personal choice, and one that I do see a lot of photographers missing. I am not ready to give up holding a little gem in my hand and I don’t mean iPad, though it too is a little gem. There is so much beautiful imagery being made today, but it passes so quickly through the media, that much is being missed in search of the next spectacular moment. I love the tactile feel of a beautiful paper or the surface of a darkroom print. True to my nature, I am also trying my hand at making my own papers, but have found this Awagami Bizan paper to be beautiful. I love the deckled (rough or feathered) edges which are also part of the statement for me.
I still love holding a book in my hand and I love all the alternative processes in their one of a kind, handmade possibilities. Please understand, I love a beautiful digital print too and the skill it takes to interpret what you saw and how it made you feel. Today we have so many tools for post production, but they are still just tools. For me, the art is in the personal interpretation. Perhaps we are on overload with all the visual stimulation and the time it takes to just manage the files. I think the desire for contemplation is driving the return to some of the alternative processes. The world is moving too fast or maybe just too fast for some of us. Didn’t I say photographs were self portraits? I like meditating on the possibilities, one image at a time.
f11: You’re using the Mordancage process for some of your work, tell us more about this?
EO: I fell in love with the Mordancage process the first time I viewed the works of Jean-Pierre Sudre at his home in Provence. I was fortunate to learn it from this master but have spent most of my time perfecting my twist to the process which is often about saving the delicate floating silver veils that lift from the surface of the photographic print. I use these veils to ‘dress’ my subjects and add a three dimensional quality to the piece. Each piece is unique, as often the spidery veils are moved by drops of water and they often resemble etchings or Man Ray polarizations. Choice of process and imagery have to work well together, and while it was my intent to make the images in ‘Reflecting on the Edge’ as Mordangage pieces, I found they did not translate to the process. They want to stay as paintings in color, but I am creating other images underwater that I think will become a different Mordangage project.
f11: What challenge does photography still hold for you?
EO: I am still seeking those elusive images that take your breath away. We have all made many beautiful images, but ones that we will be remembered for at the end of our careers…not many, not many.
f11: Are you quite a solitary worker, or are other people involved in your creative process?
EO: I have mostly been a one armed paper-hanger all my life. Commercially, I liked the collaboration, but even then, I was often asked to interpret the assignment and did it on my own. I think for many photographers it is a solitary process. That is why I like the exchanges made in teaching. It is also important to have peers that you trust for feedback. I am blessed to have two photography friends here, Beth Moon and Brigitte Carnochan, who I meet with monthly at least. We share work, ideas and processes and communicate quite regularly on all things. My husband, Marty Martinez, is also passionate about photography and a great resource for bouncing ideas around with.
f11: Which people have been most influential on your photography and your creativity in general?
EO: I think my associations with the workshops I teach have been the biggest influence on my life and career, especially my early years with the Maine Photographic Workshops and The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. They opened doors and gave me the opportunity to meet the photographers of my generation, to share meals and stories with them and to watch nightly slide show presentations on their work ► and their lives. With MPW I began going to Provence every summer to teach and that expanded to Tuscany and other places. The exposure to European art and their way of life had an immense impact on my vision as I would meet the foreign photographers at the festival in Arles. It was there that Lucien Clergue introduced me to the Corrida, which also spawned another body of work. I traveled to Cuba and Mexico teaching with SFPW and help produce the National Geographic Expeditions workshops they organized in Venice, Provence and Tuscany. In those classes I had the pleasure to co-teach with many of the best National Geographic instructors. All these opportunities have formed the photographic artist I am today. Being around the workshop energy has allowed me to walk through many doors of creativity.
f11: Who is the one person who you’ve learned the most from as a photographer?
EO: Since my primary passion in photography is the Mordancage process, I would say the biggest influence was the French photographer, Jean-Pierre Sudre, who I mentioned in an earlier answer. I learned the process from him, but more importantly I witnessed his passion and dedication to his art. He had found the answers to life in the simple things surrounding him and it showed in the creations he made.
f11: Complete this sentence: Photographers are, without question…
EO: Photographers are, without question, some of the most fascinating people I know. They are the visual storytellers of life.
f11: What aspirations do you have for your photography and for the teaching side of this, over the next couple of years?
EO: My aspirations would hopefully be, to make a difference. Perhaps that is still to come in the philanthropic projects I now seek. As a teacher I hope that I have inspired someone along the way and that it made a difference in their life.
Perhaps my photography has given some pleasure, and where there is pleasure, there is no loss.
f11: Thanks for being with us, it’s been our pleasure.
EO: I have loved the dialogue and emails that we have shared during this process. Thanks for your insightful questions and informative magazine.
TS www.opalenik.com www.elizabethopalenik.com www.poeticgrace.com www.vervegallery.com
Learn more about Elizabeth’s tour of Australia here: http://ballaratfoto.org/elizabeth-opalenik-workshop/ http://ballaratfoto.org/seminar-alternative/ http://www.goldstreetstudios.com.au/ workshops/?ee=128 http://www.theworldfamily.net/lightning-ridge-the-opal-fields