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Posts Tagged ‘Art Interview’

Robert Calafiore

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Robert Calafiore, interviewed by Debra Klomp Ching, about his extraordinary and colorful pinhole photographs.

©Robert Calafiore

Still Life (2017-2018), 10″x8″ unique pinhole C-Type ©Robert Calafiore/courtesy ClampArt, New York


At Length: Your work was initially brought to my attention via your Instagram feed. How important is your social media presence to your creative practice?

Robert Calafiore: A very close artist friend of mine sat me down one day and said she wasn’t leaving my house until I did two things: build a website and open an Instagram account. I did both. I was excited about launching a website and worked for a few weeks to get the first version up and running. However, I was far more hesitant and nearly unwilling to begin a relationship with another social media app. I had read a great deal about the opportunities it might provide for broad exposure of my work but still had lots of questions. My friend advocated for the app and I ventured a toe in, slowly at first, and then more and more calculated as I became more savvy. What we all know now is that it can be a powerful tool. It became clear to me, after I noticed your gallery following my work, that I had to pay attention and learn how to leverage its use. That decision was one of a few pivotal moments that changed the direction of my work as an artist. Some attention had been building, but it was the first exhibition at Klompching in 2015 that made all the difference. It wouldn’t have happened the same way without Instagram.

AL: How and when did you first come to work with pinhole photography?

RC: I have been using an assignment to build a pinhole camera in my experimental photography courses for two decades. Over time, I began to notice a change in the dexterity of my students. What was once a simple project became a grueling task. The cameras were no longer light tight, there were no straight lines and the lids didn’t fit. Students were having difficulty with measuring, cutting and assembling the parts. It intrigued me and my observations of the change grew more careful and led me to study other aspects of their manual skills. I realized that their relationship to their physical world was much different than mine. The sensitivity I had to materials, objects, space and more, was missing or different in my students. I needed to spend time reviewing measurements, using a straight edge to draw and cut lines, holding a utility knife, and using tape while manipulating parts for bonding. Of course, there is now much written about our screen life. It is this shift to an experience of the world through digital life that has altered my students’ manual skills… dexterity. I was fascinated and set down a road to use the pinhole camera myself in a new project I would create around it.

Still Life (2017-2018), 10″x8″ unique pinhole C-Type ©Robert Calafiore/courtesy ClampArt, New York


AL: What was it that inspired you to work with this process? Was it particular photographers, images you had seen, or was it more to do with the process itself?

RC: It was a combination of things. The observations I was making around my students and a passion that was growing for a large collection of family glass I was hoarding came together to spark the start of a long-term project. I wanted to take working hands-on to an extreme. I decided to build my own cameras, use analog materials, make unique prints and employ the glass collection as my main subject. The piles of glass started with a few pieces my immigrant parents were first able to buy after they came to the United States in the 1940s and began building a new life. They are the face of a classic immigrant story. Arriving with nothing and working hard to raise a family, they taught us the value of labor. I watched my parents work blue-collar jobs for over 40 years. As I grew up, they also instilled in me a desire to learn and pushed me not only to work hard but to take advantage of schooling available to me, unlike them. The irony is that as a first generation American and the first in my family to go to college… I decided to major in art. Nobody really knew what that meant or where it would take me. I wanted this work to reflect on my family history, telling my personal story but also relaying some universal narratives found in objects. Objects that hold memories and drip with nostalgia. The camera’s unique perspective and ability to transform the real to a magical and extraordinary place made everything, my vision, possible.

AL: In many respects, you’re working with the most basic form of photographing—the pinhole camera. But it’s not necessarily the most straightforward or easy device to use. What have been the key challenges that you’ve needed to resolve?

RC: The extended exposures, the need for 15 to 20 thousand of watts of light, no viewfinder, and the color paper’s slow ASA were all challenges. When I first began working with the large cameras, 40″ x 30″, about 9-10 years ago, I was photographing male nudes placed in large-scale stage sets. The exposures were at least 20 minutes. The models had a hard time holding poses, and for me, creating images that satisfied what I had imagined was very difficult. On average we shot for three to four days on one set, at least 10, 12, sometimes for 15 takes to get a final image. I worked for about three years to create 20 or so pictures, learning new things every time and solving problems at every turn. Space, props, enough lighting, processing large RA4 materials and more were all obstacles but just as much inspiration too. Process and material are as integral to my work as are the ideas that drive my practice. The experimentation, the techniques and skill, all contributed to my ability to gain more knowledge about the work itself.

Untitled Figure  (2008-2011), 40″x30″ unique pinhole C-Type ©Robert Calafiore/courtesy ClampArt, New York


AL: You took the unusual step of not only exposing directly to paper but exposing to color paper. Why not work with a negative and then print the results?

RC: From day one, when I saw the first print emerge from the chemicals, I was captivated. The negative image was able to see not only through and into the subject, but across it as well. It exposed something I couldn’t otherwise see. Something seemingly not meant for my human eyes. It came close to elevating the ordinary to that extraordinary place I wanted to reveal. It left me wanting more.

AL: Considering that photography is a visual art form that allows for infinite copies to be made, why is it important to you to make a unique art object? 

RC: I think I have always thought about my photographs as objects themselves. And for me it was important to make each one as individual as the moments, dreams, and experiences that inspired them. No digital tools or technology are ever used. Given the choice of endless change and progress in technology available, I instead choose to use the simplest method for capturing an image, connecting more closely with my interest in understanding how technologies like augmented reality and artificial intelligence are changing our physical relationship to the world.

Still Life (2017-2018), 10″x8″ unique pinhole C-Type ©Robert Calafiore/courtesy ClampArt, New York


AL: The result of working with a positive photographic paper is that your photographs render in negative form. This produces some surprising and lushly wild color results. I wonder if you could say something about the extent to which you employ color theory, and if there are art historical figures or artifacts that have informed that part of your practice.

RC: The color is certainly one of the qualities about exposing the paper directly that I responded to immediately. It represented a lot for me but mainly my parents’ amazing life and the place from which they came. Of course, as I made more pictures, many other influences came into play. One of the most important would be Henri Matisse and his extensive work with objects in the studio. The repetitive use of objects over time, as well as the use of pattern and still life, has been inspiring. His relationship to the objects is fascinating and provided endless material, as it does for me.

AL: Between 2008 and 2011, you made a series of photographs on the human form. Can you tell me more about this project?

RC: This is how my work with the pinhole camera began. To be honest, I was unsure about what the series would become or what specific ideas would eventually emerge. I did sense that there was something there, and it excited me. These were luscious, indulgent, over-the-top, baroque, and decadent pictures that exposed my interest in the relationship between figure and environment. Influenced by art history, mythology, religion and my personal, sometimes intimate experiences with other people.

AL: Why did you change your subject so radically, from the human form to the still life?

RC: I was unsure where I was going with the figurative work. I needed some time to live with and think about the work I had made. The two subjects weren’t so different for me either. I am equally passionate about my relationship to both.

AL: Your choice of object for the still life studies is glassware. But it’s very specific isn’t it?

RC: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, this collection began with a few pieces from my parents and grew by taking pieces from everyone in my extended family and then friends. Most recently, the collection has been added to by way of purchase through flea markets, garage sales and antique shops.

Still Life (2017-2018), 10″x8″ unique pinhole C-Type ©Robert Calafiore/courtesy ClampArt, New York


AL: There’s also a wonderful abstraction—with both the form and temporality. How does this tie in to your creative and conceptual vision? 

RC: I love the abstract passages that occur in the work. Though not abstract as a whole, finding the abstract moments in my work lends it some of the magical and otherworldly qualities that I seek to create. In transforming the ordinary to the extraordinary, abstraction within the pictures allows the subject to become more than it is. Hence the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts. Something new. Something iconic.

AL: You’ve said elsewhere that you make many more prints than what make the final edit. Is there a good amount of serendipity involved? Are you able to control the results more, the longer you are making the work? 

RC: Yes, I have become much better at controlling results. However, I have always worked intuitively and find it important to my work to allow for surprises. Listening to the work and not getting stuck on what I had initially envisioned is critical. It still takes several tries with most set ups, but I am beginning to see some of those as variations and possibly something I can use in some way.

Untitled Figure  (2008-2011), 40″x30″ unique pinhole C-Type ©Robert Calafiore/courtesy ClampArt, New York


AL: Are you continuing to work with still life—and glassware—or do you have other subjects you’ll be turning to?

RC: This summer I will return to working with the male figure. Given our current political climate and shift in cultural values, I feel like the work now has a more specific purpose. I will set out to embrace and promote our differences and provoke audiences to once again consider the benefits of those differences. And as has always been clear to me, in the end, we are more similar than different.

AL: People have really started to pay attention to you and your work. What have been the highlights for you, regarding this recognition? 

RC: Wow! I still feel like I am dreaming. The most rewarding impact has been meeting so many fabulous artists, gallerists, writers, and industry experts. I have made countless new friends and connected with a whole new circle. The supporters and collectors are just wonderful. It has allowed me to continue to forge ahead with more work.

AL: Recently you exhibited at the ClampArt gallery in New York, where you’ve also attained representation. Anything else on the horizon?

RC: I am so very fortunate to have received exposure for my work. It is to be credited to many people like yourself, who offered support and opportunity over the last few years. I hope to work this summer and into early next year to finish a new body of work. Beyond the incredible relationship with ClampArt, I am working to get the work included in more reviews and critical essays as well as in front of curators who may find the work a good match for certain museum exhibitions and more.


Robert Calafiore lives and works in Connecticut, and is represented by the ClampArt Gallery in New York.

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Amy Jorgensen

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Amy Jorgensen, interviewed by Debra Klomp Ching, about the Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue series.

#9 Verity Oates (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

At Length: I was first introduced to your series Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue when we met at the Maine Media Workshops + College, and then later viewed it in person at your solo show at the Elizabeth Houston Gallery in New York. Can you start off by sharing what the initial inspiration for your project was?

Amy Jorgensen: The initial inspiration for Something Blue was my Great Aunt Edna Berg, who was a suffragette in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. A curator had asked me to participate in a show exploring intergenerational female themes, and I knew immediately Edna would be the starting point for this new work. As I began researching the details of her life and the work of early suffragettes, I discovered the recently unearthed archive of surveillance images made by the Scotland Yard in 1913.

This is a collection of eighteen images made of women who were militant suffragettes in the UK during the early part of the 20th century—the end of the Edwardian era. Over a nine-year period, just prior to the first world war, approximately 1000 women were sent to prison for their activity in the suffrage movement. Most of the surveillance images were taken while the women were in the yard at Holloway Prison, and they are reportedly the first surveillance images ever made, as the suffragettes refused to pose for photographs.

AL: How important is your personal narrative, in the story that you weave through the series?

AJ: The stories in my family about Edna are legendary; as a young person she occupied mythical status in my imagination. I never met her and only know her through family lore, but while I was navigating adolescence as a self-identified feminist, she certainly served as a role model.

She marched in the streets, used to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, debated politics loudly and fiercely, and was a vocal advocate for the rights of women. And there are small connections. My family lived in Italy for many years, and my parents would spend whole afternoons sitting with the linen and embroidery makers in Portofino. They cultivated life-long relationships with the women and had a deep appreciation for the traditional craft. These experiences undoubtedly influenced the making of this work.

Annie Bell, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen#5 Annie Bell (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: The title of the work is a familiar catchphrase, obviously conjuring up the realm of the female, specifically brides and wedding rituals. Did the title come early on in the project and how did you arrive at it?

AJ: The phrase first appears in the written record in 1876 in England, as a rhyme associated with good luck and fertility for a bride. Over time, the folklore phrase has become institutionalized in the traditions of matrimony—every bride needs something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

What I like about this phrase, whether you subscribe to it’s superstitious nature or not, is that the tradition is about a generational, intimate exchange among women. The bride is gifted various objects by mothers, grandmothers, and close friends to wear close to her body on the day of her wedding. A handkerchief is worn next to the skin, close to the heart, inside the bra, a garter belt on the thigh…. They are usually objects that are feminine, made by other women, and often passed down through women in families. It is a ritual of sharing and intimacy.

Historically, marriage was a transaction negotiated by men. A woman passes from her father’s household to her husband’s household, dowries are paid, and maiden names exchanged for married names. In the loss of one identity for another, neither of which is entirely her own, I was intrigued by the acts of intimacy shared between women and the many points of conflict associated with matrimony in terms of identity, equality, autonomy and power. The phrase seemed a perfect catalyst to explore confrontational and sometimes contradictory themes.

#3 Margaret McFarlane (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: This positioning of the work, firmly within feminist context, is further compounded by the materials used. Can you explain the meaning behind the combination of materials in this context—cyanotype, vintage handkerchief, archived imagery?

AJ: I chose the cyanotype process for a few reasons. It’s a historic 19th century process popularized by Anna Atkins, the first female photographer and the maker of the first photographic book. The cobalt blue is a deeply rich and seductive color, and because it’s a photographic solution that can be painted onto fabric, there is an element of the hand involved in making the image, in much the same way there is an element of the hand involved in the extraordinary embroidery work on many of the handkerchiefs.

Each surveillance image is printed onto a vintage handkerchief. These are objects that were made and worn by women, and often gifted for the wedding ceremony. Suffragettes commonly signed and exchanged handkerchiefs as a symbol of solidarity, using embroidery techniques to scribe their names or initials. In the 1970s a handkerchief surfaced with the signatures of 68 suffragettes imprisoned at Holloway Prison in 1912. Each name was embroidered, it’s an extraordinary document.

The parallel narratives of the matrimonial ceremony and suffragette surveillance imagery, provide a departure point to examine the role of patriarchal structures in history and contemporary culture.

Mary Raleigh Richardson, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen #11 Mary Raleigh Richardson (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: How important are the identity and personal stories of the women depicted in the photographs? Is there a key figure that interested you when making this work?

AJ: The work makes sense if you understand the general experience of the suffrage movement: however, these women have such compelling personal stories the details of their lives certainly add depth to the series. They ultimately came to the conclusion that militant participation and civil disobedience (bombing, arson, vandalism) were the only way forward to secure the vote for women. They were arrested on multiple occasions, imprisoned at Holloway, force-fed, participated in hunger and thirst strikes, beaten, and lived under the cover of aliases. Their experience conjures the phrase penned much later by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a text about colonial women, “Well behaved women seldom make history.”

Mary Raleigh Richardson (#11) was arrested for slashing Diego Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus” at the National Gallery in London. She did so in defiance of the government’s treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She stated, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Long before John Berger introduced the concept of male gaze into the art lexicon, there was an intuitive awareness of the power of the male gaze. It was this destruction of artworks by Mary Richardson (#11), Lillian Forrester (#14), Evelyn Manestas (#10) and Annie Briggs (not pictured) that triggered Scotland Yard to make the eighteen surveillance images.The printed images with corresponding numbers on each card were handed out to detectives and gallery staff, an interesting historical parallel to the most-wanted playing cards used during the US invasion of Iraq. Surveillance, by construction, is inherently about the act of looking, and the first surveillance images ever made, were created because a woman acted in violent defiance of the male gaze.

In another example, Jane Short (6)—an alias for Rachel Peace who was an embroiderer—was force-fed three times a day for several months during a hunger and thirst strike. The experience left her in a fragile state and she spent the remainder of her life in and out of asylums. A well-to-do member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Lady Constance Lytton, took responsibility for her life-long care. I was struck by the suffering of so many of these women in prison as they were violently restrained and force-fed, but also by the solidarity they shared as a community.

Lillian Forrester, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen  #14 Lillian Forrester (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: How and where do you find the handkerchiefs? Do any have a personal connection, for example, belonging to a female ancestor? 

AJ: In the early printing stages all of the handkerchiefs were sourced from friends and family members, so each one was an heirloom object passed through the family. However, after a while I began to exhaust that resource; not everyone wants to give up all of their great grandmother’s hankies. So now I scour online estate sales and E-bay. However, I do make sure every edition includes a few heirloom handkerchiefs with a known history, as it’s an important part of the project for the objects to convey intimacy, both through their physical presence and lived history.

AL: There’s also an undercurrent of the taboo aspects of the female condition—widely explored within feminist art—that bind the female to her gender. For example, the use of the cyanotype on the handkerchief is reminiscent of menstrual flow on cotton. Is this connection a reach, or do you see this as an additional layer of the series?

AJ: Much of my work is situated in conversation with the body. In this series one can think of the handkerchief or cloth as being akin to the body, in both spiritual and feminist terms. Historically in visual art, the female body is most often acted or gazed upon, whereas I am interested in exploring the body as active and participatory. As the cyanotype solution spreads and soaks into the cloth, it mimics the staining of blood during the menstrual cycle. And while the cobalt color is obviously different, the patterning, saturation and mottledness of the final image is meant to convey a link to bleeding. The act of making this reference is a confrontation of the taboo, as much as women’s experiences outside of what conforms to convention remains unseen and unspoken.

AL: And of course the cultural/conceptual space of domesticity is visible. 

AJ: Absolutely. On one hand this work is very much rooted in the domestic realm, the handwork, matrimony…. Yet there is also pushback. While the materiality of the project is very feminine it raises important questions about the cultural and economic value of women’s work, and perceptions of domestic ritual and space. The delicate object, or the domestic space, can also function as a form of protest and confrontation.

Maud Brindley, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen#8 Maud Brindley (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: Each photograph is unique, printed by hand onto an individual handkerchief. The labor of your hand is evident in the application of the cyanotype solution. Is this evidence of authorship important to you? How does this relate to the subject? 

AJ: If we return to the title phrase, Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, it’s about connection and exchange. I see the application of the cyanotype solution, by my hand onto the handkerchief, as another layer of exchange and intimacy embedded into the object. The embroidery, the white work, the lace: All of this work was traditionally done by the hands of women. In brushing the cyanotype onto the handkerchief, in leaving the mark of my hand, I see myself contributing to the history of the object. A gift, if you will, to the next person who holds it close.

AL: When you exhibit the work, the handkerchiefs are pinned to the wall. How does this form of presentation add to the overall concept and message of the work? Are the pins dressmaker pins by any chance?

AJ: The handkerchiefs have an exquisite delicateness and materiality to them. In the exhibition context, each handkerchief is pinned to the wall in the upper corners with small pearlized dressmaker pins. This allows gravity to pull on them slightly, creating a soft sway in the material, giving them dimension and tactility. Because there is so much detail in each handkerchief viewers like to get close to them, and someone’s breath or movement in the room creates a reactionary movement in the handkerchiefs. I wanted the work to feel alive so that the connection between past and present becomes fluid. For collection and permanent hanging, framing and glass sometimes becomes necessary, but there is an element that is lost when they are placed behind glass. Handkerchiefs were designed to be held.

AL: The series is editioned as unique artworks with variations. How many pieces are in the series and how are collectors buying the work? Is it in pairs, multiples, singles? 

There are eighteen images in the series, and it is editioned as 5 + 2 AP with variations. Every handkerchief is different, and the staining of the cyanotype chemistry is unique to each one. The primary interest is in individual images—I think people identify with a particular suffragette’s story or image.

AL: Have you printed the complete edition, or do you continue to print over time? Why is this?

AJ: I print the editions over time, really out of necessity, as it takes so long to source the handkerchiefs. In every collection of eighteen I like to have a combination of old, new, and borrowed pieces, including a few heirloom pieces with a known history. I also think about how the physical characteristics and aesthetics of each handkerchief pairs with the images and histories of individual suffragettes. It’s partly intuition; sometimes I simply know that this suffragette must be on this handkerchief. And lastly, I look at the collection as a whole. There is a lot of shuffling around on large tables to find the right balance.

Evelyn Manesta, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen #10 Evelyn Manesta (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: What are the common responses to the work? Who is responding most effectively—curators, critics, photo editors?

AJ: To date, the most effective attention is coming from photo editors, who recognize their audiences are interested in themes of surveillance, power, suffrage and the relevance of these issues today. The work resonates strongly with contemporary women, regardless of where their personal politics fall on the spectrum of conservative to liberal. I think they identify on an intimate level with both the historical struggle of the suffragettes, and the current dialogue surrounding women’s equality.

A couple of art dealers have posed the question of the art market. More specifically, art about women does not sell; men buy most of the art, and men don’t buy art about women. This speaks to the heart of what Something Blue is about—changing the structures of patriarchy and equality for women. It is a question surrounding the value of domestic space and work. There is still much work to do.

AL: Where would you like to see this series situated in the long term? For example, it seems that the artworks could easily find a home in a museum’s photography collection, a collection on the history of the struggle for women’s equality, etc. 

AJ: I would ideally love to see a complete set of eighteen collected by an institution with a specific focus on women’s art or women’s history. Conceptually, I like the idea of the work being viewed in a broader context of the women’s movement.

AL: Do you have any exhibitions planned for the future? 

AJ: I have a solo exhibition in the fall and am putting together new work exploring the intersection of violence, power, and the body. My research into the early militant and radical practices of suffragettes has certainly informed this new work and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.


Amy Jorgensen is a visual artist working across photography, performance and video. She lives and works in Utah, United States.

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