Wavepool – The qualities of surface and light, two components that are inextricably tied to the medium of photography, seem to consistently be at the core of your work. Why do these ideas excite you?
Nicole White – Excite is a term that doesn’t seem appropriate for me. I think that if a person makes photographs that they are continually aware of those aspects of the medium, even if only subconsciously. They are inescapable, which is perhaps why they have slowly moved to the foreground of my concerns. I’d rather confront them head on then attempt to negotiate with them later. Light and surface are intrinsic to photography and fascinating in and of themselves. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in making images – because I am – but those two elements play a heavy role in the making of all of my work whether I produce an image or something more in line with a material study.
Rather than being excited about those symptoms of the medium, I’m highly cognizant of their presence and use that awareness to manipulate those characteristics.
Wavepool – How do you see your projects existing in the grand scheme of your practice? Are they intended to be independent or would you prefer there be a constant, evolving dialogue going on?
Nicole White – I’d like to believe that every artist is continually poking at one question that changes shape with each iteration of their work. The wording may shift and the approach may vary over time, but at the crux of their practice they orbit around the same galaxy. At least, that seems to be what I do…
So, I suppose the short answer to that is, there is an evolution of sorts to my work, and just like evolution, there is the occasional offshoot that doesn’t survive.
I have no grand scheme; if I had that I’d probably get frustrated when things didn’t fit properly.
Wavepool – How would you describe your galaxy right now?
Nicole White – Sprawling. I have several projects that I’m moving between as time allows. There’s something very nice about having an “alternative” to turn to when you have been working with one concept/idea/process for an extended period of time. At the moment, I’m photographing the collection at the art museum at the University of Kentucky a few times a week, making images of the Kentuckiana area where I currently live, and finishing some Light Studies work for an exhibition in Lexington next month. It’s extremely satisfying because I can work in several different manners and I don’t feel as if I’m relegated to one mode of working or thinking.
I’m also doing some writing as well. To continue with the galaxy theme, I think I need to regularly vary my distance from the central ideas that I work with, and one way for me to accomplish that is through curating and writing. I have curated a show that opens in late August at Zephyr Gallery in Louisville entitled New Narrative and have written an interpretive essay that hopefully will add another layer to the exhibition.
Wavepool – What are some characteristics of your process that you believe to be critical to your development and the production of engaging work?
Nicole White – I am a messy photographer. There’s an inherent neatness to photography – cleanliness is one of the first things we learn to impose upon our practice: clean borders, no dust, well exposed images, perfectly processed prints, handling our work with gloves, etc. I want to create a space where a dialogue can be present regarding the thing depicted in the object I’ve created and sometimes that means that I intentionally break from tradition to alter the experience of viewing a photograph. Whatever shape that takes – double exposures, fingerprints, mold – it is critical to the reading of the image (or non-image, in some cases). That said, there are instances in which I will trek out into the world and make a perfectly exposed large format negative, but that’s because the work requires it at that moment.
I also have a real concern that photographic history be a critical component of my work. This might be some new anxiety I’m experiencing now that I am a teacher and engaging with people that are half my age but most of it probably stems from my background in art history. I require my work to have a direct engagement with the contemporary moment along with ideas, processes, and histories that support and complicate my decision-making.
Wavepool – What contemporary artists and/or ideas do you see your work being in dialogue with?
Nicole White – I think a lot about contemporary painting and the gestures and materials involved in making a painting now. Repeatedly photography (or photographers) return to the lack of gesture – or visible hand – in their final product and while I feel that there are inherent, and more hidden, gestures in the photographic process, I can understand why we keep wanting to find a way to show evidence of making; an unmasking of sorts. It’s very apparent to me now in contemporary photographic practices with the intense return to material studies, intentional technical errors, and examination of process.
And because of my background in art history, research is a continual source of material for me. Currently, I have been spending a good deal of time thinking about retouching and the variance in approaches to retouching over the past century. Especially now, when retouching and “imperfections” are highlighted in photographs (think Jessica Labatte’s Spotting work), I’m curious about how retouching was approached as a tool to not just correct imperfections but to possibly change the viewing experience. At the UK art museum, I’ve been looking at Pictorialist photographers’ works that are heavily retouched on the surface; in some instances parts of the image have been drawn in to add some descriptive detail. There’s a fascinating quality in the decision-making involved that I find very compelling and can relate back to contemporary practices.
As for specific artists, I’ve been looking at a lot of artists that use photographs as the basis for something larger than a singular image – Zoe Leonard, for example. But I also just visited the Liz Deschenes exhibition at Mass MoCA and was taken aback by how sparse the images were, but how intense the physical engagement was with the pieces (which were installed in stand-alone frames in the middle of the room).
Wavepool – Tell me more about that shift in experience when the photograph is manipulated. When the read of an image is affected, is the conversation directed at the medium itself, or does it approach broader themes as well?
Nicole White – I would hope that the conversation is not solely about the medium. I don’t want to have that conversation without there being something more specific within the work as well. The material choices are calculated and meant to bring a more specific dialog to the thing that is on the surface of the material. For instance: I have a piece entitled Histories that is just one piece of black and white silver gelatin paper that I found wedged between the wall and the darkroom sink at UK. While it is almost impossible to have a conversation about this piece without addressing the material and its instability (and somewhat quasi-antiquated nature), the thing that I am more interested in is the recording of gesture and time. The fingerprints and staining are the marks that document multiple experiences and specific people. Of course, it is the make-up of the material that makes it possible for this work to exist, so the material is critical, but it is the mark making that is what makes the piece substantial. This goes back to my thoughts on painting as well – the hand is evident in this piece in the most direct way possible.
To see more, please visit Nicole’s website.