For our exhibition The Past is Present, on view Aug 17 – Sept 22, APG's Esther Griffin will be talking with the five participating artists about their work and the way it references history and memory. First up is Deborah Orloff.
Orloff is a Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Art at the University of Toledo. She teaches all levels of Photographic Art at UT’s Center for Visual Arts, and has been a professional artist for over 20 years. Her artwork has been included in numerous exhibitions at national and international venues. A portfolio of photographs from her current series on view at APG, Elusive Memory, was selected by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography for inclusion in their collection as part of the Midwest Photographers Project.
For your project Elusive Memory, you use old family photos that are damaged to create new objects. What techniques do you use to create the effects we can see in your work?
I use a macro lens, studio lighting, and significant enlargement of the photos; that is all really. People assume my process involves a lot of manipulation but the work I do on the computer only involves some enhancement of details that are already there. It’s funny because the University’s print center is in the same building as our gallery, so one day when the gallery was in between shows, I push-pinned a print to the wall to have a look at it. One of my colleagues, a painter, came in and thought he was looking at a mixed-media piece. He thought I added spray paint and embossed the print, because it looked so 3-dimensional. That made me really happy. People often think that, as they stand next to my pieces trying to make sense of the surface. They’re sure the work is 3-dimensional, but it is not. It’s a smooth photographic surface. The level of detail just tricks people into thinking they’re seeing something other than a straight photograph - a collage of some kind - or people think the pieces are montaged in Photoshop, which they are not. But that’s fun for me. The objects I’m photographing become something completely different the way I’m presenting them. Isn the gallery they have a presence, beyond their 3-dimensional quality, and they really take on a life of their own. They become monuments to other times.
In your statement about your project Elusive Memory you write, "Photography and memory have a complicated relationship, dubious at best." What is it that you want to convey about this relationship in your photographs?
I think it’s very difficult to separate the two. I can’t personally separate my memories from photographs. Sometimes we only remember things because we have seen the photographs so it’s really hard to know whether you remember something because you have seen a photograph so many times, and maybe your mother has told you the story, or if you really remember it. I think most of us have that experience to some extent. In fact, I just finished a piece called My favorite dress which is a picture of me when I was probably 4 years old, wearing a grey velvet dress. I remember loving that dress - it was my favorite and it had a pink satin bow. So, when I found the picture of myself wearing that dress, although most of the photographic information was obscured by damage, I immediately said ‘oh, that’s me wearing my favorite dress!’ But then I thought, wait a minute, do I really remember that dress or was it my mother telling me that, time and time again, while looking at family photos? I just don’t know, and that is when the photograph and memory become co-dependent and complicated.
Isn’t there also a part of nostalgia in it? Because we usually take photos of the good things we want to remember, even with our camera phones these days, and not of the bad or mundane things?
Absolutely. In fact, Susan Sontag wrote about that extensively - how family photographs always have people smiling. You remember those times, partly because you have the visual to remind you of that time. I wonder about all of the times we weren’t smiling and the ordinary things in between those social events that were not recorded. I mean, I don’t remember a whole lot from my childhood, especially the things that weren’t photographed.
You mentioned how people take pictures constantly on their phones and one of the things that strikes me, and keeps me going on this project, is the uniqueness of old photos because they look so different from what digital photographs look like now. For me, the old photos are very much about their physicality. In addition to the surface textures that came about as the result of improper storage, they have borders that photographs wno longer have, sometimes they have dimprinted dates, sometimes the borders are scalloped, they are black and white or sepia; they just look different and we have a different relationship to thems. They were once precious objects that you could hold in your hand and that you didn’t have a thousand of. You would put it in a picture frame or in an album. The actual objects had an importance and like you said, we didn’t photograph everything - typically only special occasions, so those photographs marked something significant. They recorded family histories. I think that becomes something important to think about now, because most of us just take snapshots on our phones and we never print them or hold them and they are not as special, because there are so many of them.
So, the value of them change, you think?
When you compare the old photos: the ones that get damaged and lost and are going to disappear at one point, how does that relate – also with memory – to digital photographs, because they can be copied and stored forever?
I actually wonder what people do with their digital photos. Not professionals, but the average person - the mom or dad, the grandfather, the sister - who has all these snapshots on their phone or maybe in the cloud, but what happens to them when people pass on? Do those images disappear? Do they cease to exist after a while? The images I am working with, some of them are like 50, 60, 70 years old, and I wonder about the images people make now, predominantly with their phones. What is going to happen to those, will they survive? It’s an interesting question for historians. We learn so much about the past from photographs.
I guess memory comes into play again, because if we don’t recognize the people in the photo, it is going to be more about culture of the day than about memory.
Do you spend a lot of time on your projects?
In all of my projects I tend to work on them pretty long-term, anywhere from 3 to 10 years, and I try to find something universal. Even though in these pictures it’s my family, that’s not what the work is about. I want to tap into that something that other people can relate to. I want you to think about your own concerns about photography and memory. I think people need to relate on some level in order to engage with the work. And maybe because in my images there is so much information that has been erased through the deterioration, it makes them more relatable, because you can see your own family in them.
A final question then, who do you collect yourself? Who do you have on your wall?
I have Stephen DiRado, Lori Nix and Kelli Connell, to name a few. A lot of native American and ethnographic art as well. I also have student pieces and family photographs. My taste is pretty eclectic, it just depends what strikes me.