Striped Sheets, New Bedspread, 2016. Toned Cyanotype. 11" x 15"
More often than not, cyanotype work is beautiful but boring. But
not in the hands of TAMSEN WOJTANOWSKI. Where many artists working with
this alternative photographic process use the distinctive blue tone as a
crutch, Tamsen infuses cyanotype with humor, poetry and romance. Her
graphic, hand-cut negatives yield thoughtful, poignant representations
of abstracted intimacy. Tamsen earned her BS in Cinema and Photography
from Ithaca College and her MFA in Photography from Tyler School of Art,
Temple University in Philadelphia. She has had solo exhibitions at 110 CHURCH Gallery (2014), NAPOLEON (2012) and Grizzly Grizzly (2010), all in Philadelphia. Tamsen is preparing for two upcoming solo shows. Daydreaming About Us will open in May 2017 at 621 Gallery (Tallahassee), and SHITEATER will open in April 2018 at The Fleisher Art Memorial (Philadelphia). Tamsen lives and works in Philadelphia.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your early 35mm photographic essays are overtly narrative, while your recent cyanotypes are much more graphic and abstract. Is there a conceptual string that ties the new work to the old?
Tamsen Wojtanowski: The work I make has always been directly related to my personal worries and wants, and the shift towards abstraction had partly to do with moving away from a few different core friend groups. My life and work were inseparable during those early periods of film photography. I carried a camera everywhere and was always on my way somewhere, with somebody. But when I moved again to attend graduate school, I started working more in the studio instead of out on the streets. This was a time without a core group of friends, which necessitated finding a new way of working and communicating through my art.
My day-to-day was changing; life was less exciting. I was done going through puberty and had made it through my early twenties. First kisses, late night adventures, and long lazy afternoons turned into a mind full of financial due dates and anxieties about home-ownership and job placement. I cared nothing about making images about these topics. I want my work to take me away or at least act as a way to carve out static time where I can detach from all that worries me.
Diva Cup, 2016. Toned Cyanotype. 11" x 15"
OPP: How do your most recent works function as “autobiographical images with an interest in our natural human disposition of storytelling?”
TW: I consider these more recent, more abstract works as
personal fictions. Like my relatives who live down South might say, “I’m
praying on it.” My most recent works use handmade, paper negatives.
It’s an intricate, more drawn-out process from start to finish. I think
of this process— from initial idea to under drawing, from cutting to
exposure to final print—as similar to the creation of a mandala or
working one’s way through a set of rosary beads. The time I spend with
these processes are my prayers. I set a framework and a cadence, I focus
Embedded in these images are my wants, my worries and my love. They are a physical embodiment of what I need to get off my chest. They are mark-making as a way to vent frustrations, ask questions or focus on wants in a meditative way. The act of creating these prints helps me focus and lends spiritual guidance. I have always depended on art-making to keep me upright. It’s how I am able to move through the day and deal with stress. Art-making is also a means to enjoy the world and celebrate the beauty and stories that surround us.
Salvaged (Power Company), 2015. Cyanotype. 15" x 20"
OPP: When did cyanotype first enter your photographic toolkit?
TW: Cyanotype dates back to 1842. It predates the invention of
the camera or film, but not the human desire to capture what we see and
somehow keep it. Cyanotype uses a hand-applied, light-sensitive
emulsion to create photographic images. It can be used to create images
on natural materials like paper, fabric, wood, but synthetics will not
accept the chemical. For the creative and patient artist, the
possibilities of what one might sensitize could be endless. The emulsion
uses UV rays to expose the image and cool running water to develop it. I
first became aware of the process in an elective I took as an
undergraduate student. At that time, I had a common reaction. . . why
make a blue photograph? It didn’t reflect the world we live in, and I
didn’t think it had the onus of a B&W image, so why use it?
I came across the process again in my graduate studies under Martha Madigan, an artist well-known for her use of alternative and historical photographic processes. Her love and dedication to these processes was contagious. It was great timing because the world of photography was becoming more and more digital, and I had a very hard time connecting with that way of working. I began questioning what a photograph was and what it’s role in society was. I grew less interested in the truth or in documentation.
Lawn Art, 2016. Cyanotype from Handmade Negative. 18" x 24"
OPP: What makes cyanotype stand out from digital or film photography from a process point of view?
I found delight in shaking up those given expectations that the camera
would make the image, there would be a digital file or a negative, and
the final product would be a rectangular photographic image on paper or
in a book. These were replaced with new vocabulary. There wasn’t a
camera, there was an “image-making device.” No more negative, now we had
an “image matrix.” A print sure, but not necessarily on paper; it would
lie on the “image support “of my choosing.
It was some time before the process worked its way firmly into my studio practice. It wasn’t really until after I was given the chance to teach a course in alternative photographic processes at area colleges that I really got in deep and started to consider all the possibilities and opportunities of the process. The chemicals used to create the emulsion are inexpensive and stable, so they last a long time. The whole process is hands-on and forgiving. I don’t need any special tools or environments. I just need the sun and a hose or a sink. I can work as much as I want without sacrificing too much in the way of finances. . . which is really important as I make my way in the world while paying off graduate student loans.
AND. REPEAT. 2016. Toned Cyanotype. 11" x 15"
OPP: How has your use of this process evolved over the years?
TW: I have moved through many different ways of producing the image. Using materials to create photograms of found materials, creating collages with multiple prints, using ortho-litho and digital negatives, toning prints, painting on prints, and finally, for the time being anyway, creating images using handmade negatives created with cut paper. I have also started to experiment with multiple exposures, creating layers of information and further abstraction.
I’m inspired by an interview I read with Robin Hill, who also works with cyanotype. She talks about the idea that the camera sees the world as we do. We see the light bouncing off of subjects, we see them as one thing. The cyanotype sees the light that falls around the subject or pushes through the subject. Hill talks about this as being able to “see the potential of an object.” I love that idea. The idea that things are not fixed, stuck as they are, but underneath all of these different surfaces there is potential, like a lifeline, things can always be different.
Interior, 2016. Cyanotype from Handmade Negative. 18" x 24"
OPP: How is that distinctive blue both a blessing and a curse?
TW: You have to love the blue or at least train your eye to ignore it, while still keeping it in mind because the question will always be asked. . . why blue? It can become an instant wall for some viewers. The process is viewed as old, outdated, fixed in many minds as a certain thing that can’t be anything else. So the process can distract from seeing the image. People think they know what to expect, so they don’t really look.
I have come to love the blue because it gives the process and resulting images a sense of play. It’s a bright blue like the sky or a body of water; it’s the blue of daydreaming and deep thought. And it's not a blue you are necessarily stuck with. The cyanotype process is very accepting of different toning techniques. Using a weak bleach to activate the emulsion and various household products, the cyanotype can be toned and the blue shifted to a variety of warm and cool browns or deep blue-blacks.
The blue is detached from a realistic recreation
of a subject via photographic image. Like B&W darkroom photography,
it is a way of working in tones, and I have trained my eye and mind to
see in tones. My heart lies in abstraction and fantasy. I have never
been too interested in reality. Even with a B&W image there is a
level of abstraction; the world is not B&W.
Tig Bitties, 2016. Toned Cyanotype. 11" x 15"
OPP: I see a new humor in recent works like Jay’s Mustache, Tig Bitties and Say Anything that didn’t seem to be present before. Is this an intentional shift in tone?
TW: After graduate school, I got stuck. I created expectations for myself that my work would be at least “x” in size, at least “x” complicated in process or technique, at least “x” clean or professional looking, and in that same vein - the language I was using, or the content, must remain “x” sophisticated, sterile, cold, thinking but not feeling. Certain topics were off-limits. I was worried about seeming too nostalgic or romantic, convinced these were scarlet letters and meant certain death for an artist. Unconsciously, I was limiting myself, thinking things had to be a certain way to be taken seriously. It took a lot of time and making to realize it. It also took getting a lot of rejection letters and not being offered the opportunities I thought I deserved. I wasn’t aware that I was doing this to myself. . . until I was.
Someday, 2016. Toned Cyanotype. 11" x 15"
OPP: So humor became a new possibility? What led to the introduction of text in pieces like One Thousand Percent and Someday?
TW: Winter 2015, my worldview hit a tipping point and boiled over just before the start of this last election cycle, where we are now. It seems the whole world has turned upside-down and all the farfetched, forgotten and crazy beliefs from every back alley, basement and overgrown field are being said out loud, written about in the headlines and on our t-shirts and lawn signs.
All of this, the personal and public turmoil, has made it’s way into my work in the form of humor because I didn’t know what to do with my anger or my sense of hopelessness. Feeling totally overwhelmed with all the negativity and bullshit and defeat, all I could muster was joke. And if not for that, then nothing at all. Luckily I am not one to give up, though I was close.
What they say is true: once you see behind the veil—like that moment of seeing the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz—nothing matters anymore. The old rules and expectations can’t touch you; they can’t hold you down. You are free. You are free to say and do and make whatever you want. You still have to have integrity though, so you still have to work hard, often and a lot. Unbound and ungagged, in my own small way, the text is a tool for being more direct with my work.
Our House, 2016. Cyanotype from Handmade Negative. 18" x 24"
OPP: What about the work for your upcoming solo show Daydreaming of Us? This work has a more romantic tone. It seems to be about nesting, settling down and making home. How does it relate to the SHITEATER work?
TW: So, I am currently pursuing two bodies of work in my studio practice. . . the one being SHITEATER, the other being Daydreaming About Us. Together they’ve become kind of yin and yang or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ways of working for me. The series SHITEATER is made up of reactive work. Impulses I have concerning current events and social phenomena. Work that I view as very much part of the conversation, existing in response to the real world. Daydreaming About Us is the opposite. It’s where I get to hide away, lick my wounds, imagine something different for my family and I, settling us down in an idyllic, self-sufficient, overgrown, homemade, landscape.
SHITEATER purges, while with Daydreaming About Us, I binge. I feed my emotional self. I fill up on good thoughts and sweet daydreams. Daydreaming About Us definitely lives in and comes from a more romantic space, though I wouldn’t call it more intimate than the SHITEATER pieces. Wants and worries are equally as hard to communicate, to say out loud. Daydreaming About Us voices my wants; SHITEATER voices my worries.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis.
When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in
cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is
an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006,
and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian,
Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive
installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in
SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.