By layering exposures and filtrations of light onto photo paper in the darkroom, artist Liz Nielsen creates innovative dimensions, landscapes and objects seemingly out of thin air. This photogram process – an historical photographic method championed by seminal figures like Anna Atkins and Man Ray – takes on a crucially contemporary perspective in Nielsen’s work. Instead of static scientific documentation, she’s interested in exploring intangible theories of quantum physics and alternative worlds.
Nielsen’s pieces occupy a space in photography that is rarely explored with such vigor: the cameraless image. By associating colors with the themes and emotions she sets out to articulate, her final pieces invite viewers to overlay their own experience onto her topographies, shaping her work around their own relationship to the selected hues.
Drawn to how the artist associates certain colors with emotions, places and objects, I reached out to Nielsen to speak about her lifelong connection to color and light, how she developed the scientific knowledge for creating this work, and what she hopes viewers discover in each of her pieces.
LensCulture: What initially struck me the most about seeing your works in person for the first time was their glossiness and texture – there’s way more that goes into these pieces than what first meets the eye. Let’s start by talking about how you make your work, because it’s cameraless and not always immediately identifiable as photographic. What materials are you using and how are you deciding what you want the final pieces to look like?
Liz Nielsen: Part of the work that I make is, in a sense, the traditional photogram. I say this because photograms actually started as scientific documentation, where people would lay something like a flower on top of a piece of light-sensitive paper so that light from above recorded the shape of the object.
So, I do a lot of this, except the objects I lay down on top of paper are other papers – things that are opaque. I work with other types of layering effects that can block out light so I only expose some parts of the paper at a time, and lift off other bits. I also use anything transparent that I can get my hands on – even candy wrappers.
For example, “Water Shapes” and “Night Glaciers” have this texture that I created with this cellophane Christmas wrapping paper that you buy in rolls. When you lay it right on top of your paper, it creates a totally different effect. There are all these little ways to block out certain parts of the light spectrum at once, but most of the final pieces you see are comprised of anywhere between one and fifty exposures. I’m laying down a lot of light, but it’s just bit by bit. There’s a lot to remember and a lot to rehearse; it’s not just intuitive. And that’s just because it’s hard to control light, and I think that’s part of what makes it such a beautiful force.
LC: So what did your career in art look like leading up to this point? Did you first venture into photography shooting in a regular way, or were you doing something entirely different?
LN: I actually started out as a painter and a printmaker, and then when I got into photography I started doing black-and-white, and I was so hooked that I did it for five years straight and said I would never do color – I was really into it. I did switch to shooting in color with a camera eventually, and I still shoot with a camera, but I consider it to be more of a practice. I’m constantly training my eye with visions of what I see, and I do that photographically by taking pictures of designs and other stuff. A lot of times I even see the designs that I’ve already made, but imprinted on the ground, because once your mind is aware of these patterns, the things that you’re thinking about manifest in front of you – you start seeing them everywhere.
LC: And when did you start moving from shooting in color to experimenting with something more abstract?
LN: I guess I started getting into abstractions in 2001. I remember it clearly because I was really interested in both the negative and the positive, and at the time I was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and we had access to a P4 machine, which is a device that allows you to print slide film. So, I would print positive film on that, and then I would print negative film on the RA4 machine. In between those two, I would be using the same negatives. For example, sometimes I would use a red positive, print it as a slide, and then I’d print it in the negative machine and it would turn cyan; I would print the exact same negative in two different outcomes.
This is when I started thinking about how light shifts and changes, and then I got into shooting light into my camera and counting wavelengths. I used to use little body rave lights and things like that – anything I could hold that would change and shift. I went into my closet and set up this stage of all black, non-reflective velvet, and I would put on black gloves and do these performances in front of my camera with the lights while the bulb was open. I left these long exposures, but it allowed me to start noticing that when a red color hits the film, you can give it eight times as much light as a blue or purple because the wavelength is so long. So I wasn’t just looking at timing with the aperture – I was also looking about what kind of light was coming in, and what its colors were.
LC: And then there was clearly a shift into something totally cameraless. Was that a conscious decision or more circumstantial?
LN: When I moved to New York in 2011, I no longer had access to a lot of equipment and still wanted big negatives, so I thought to myself, “I’ll just make my own negatives.” So I did, and then I got deeper and deeper into it. At first I could only make cyan, but then I started learning how to deal with layering transparencies and layering and mixing the light right onto the paper, and it just evolved from there. It’s still evolving, actually. I’m still doing new things right now, and they are mostly failing, but I know they will stop failing as long as I keep up with it.
LC: This definitely means that your working process in the darkroom is the most significant part of your practice. Can you tell me a bit about the headspace you get into? Do you need silence? Do you need to be alone?
LN: I definitely need silence. In fact, a lot of times when I’m making larger pieces, I need someone else in there with me to assist, and when they ask me a question, I’m like, “Oh shit! I can’t remember if I exposed this part or not!” After working in total silence in the dark for a while, I get super peaceful and by the end of a piece it’s like I’ve been meditating the entire time. I’ll come out of this flow after an hour having had no idea that I just exposed 60 things.
LC: I want to talk a bit about your relationship with color. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been associating certain colors with anything from emotions to numbers, and as someone working so consistently with it, I’m sure this is also the case for you. When do you recall first acknowledging this fascination, and how have you seen it evolve?
LN: Gosh, I have definitely been attracted to color since I was a tiny kid – especially transparent color. I used to get an allowance for doing chores, and I would spend it on food coloring so that I could put it in water inside plastic bags to hold them over my eyes, just so I could see the world in front of me in different colors. I always remember being drawn to these jewel hues. So, in a way, it was definitely color, but more specifically it was colored light – luminous color. When I was younger, if I went into a room that was too bright – say it was all yellow or something – I would immediately get this feeling of panic, thinking “I can’t breathe! It’s too yellow in here!” So there have definitely been times where I’m overwhelmed by color because I feel sensitive to it.
I don’t know, color is just so beautiful! Sometimes I just look at blues and greens and purples and think, “Oh my god – blues!” It’s so dorky. I was also listening to the podcast Radio Lab on NPR and they started talking about animals that had the ability to see more colors, like the mantis shrimp. If I could see like a mantis shrimp for one day, my mind would be blown – I’m always thinking about what’s out there in the non-visible spectrum.
LC: Have you read Bluets by Maggie Nelson?
LC: Oh my god, you’d love it. It’s about the author’s obsession with the color blue in relation to a breakup. I remember reading this very emotional part and looking up from the page sitting in my aunt’s living room, and she had this collection of antique blue glass bottles and figurines in the window and the light was hitting them and I had to put the book down – it was too much.
LN: That’s amazing – I love the color blue so much. I feel like I always want to make more blue work, and I can never pinpoint exactly why. There’s something so calming about blue too. Now I need to read this book!
LC: We’ve talked about color a lot, but I also want to speak to you about the actual content in your images. When we take photos with a camera, we record the thing that’s right in front of us. But your practice is interesting because you’re making something that is technically intangible – these cosmos or other worlds or imagined forms – into something tangible.
LN: Light is an incredible and unique medium; it is both precise and unpredictable. It bleeds, but it can also be contained, and I love that it is both a particle and a wave. In my current work, I’m focused on creating images that pay equal attention to the foreground and the background – to the negative and positive space. I love the idea of focusing on two things equally at once. The equal focus on the background and the foreground allows the eye to “look through” rather than “look at.” This is a concept in quantum physics – that something can be both here and there, both this and that at the same time, but in different respects – and this is what I try to make tangible. I like the looking through, because the “through” is a third space – not a foreground or a background. It relaxes the mind and allows us to transcend from what is in front of us.
LC: How do you decide what these initially formless subjects, like emotion, look like? How do you make them into something concrete?
LN: As you can tell, I’m also interested in creating things through abstract shapes and colors. I’m making art that meets the viewer halfway. By layering shapes and colors, a subject appears, and it might be one thing to me and another thing to you. I try to make art that has a subject, but also doesn’t. I like taking away an object’s subjecthood so that it can be re-named, reassigned and reinvented. This also connects to relativity – that things are what they are relative to a constant, and that constant is you, the viewer.
LC: Then what would you say is the most satisfying connection for you to witness between a viewer and your work?
LN: I like thinking that the viewer comes to the work with what they have inside of them, so they often relate to something in a totally different way than I do. For example, “Whispering Stones” is a pile of stones to me, and I make a lot of stone stacks and stone arches. But, I had a conversation with this artist Annie Ewasakio, who paints cairns, which are these human-made stacks of rocks along hiking trails where other hikers leave supplies and notes for passersby. The cairns protect materials from animals and other natural elements, so they aren’t just markers for your hike – they also contain these little secrets. I was making these piles of stones in the darkroom and then when I spoke to Annie about the cairns, I started thinking, “Oh, my stones are going to be whispering stones.” I just love when people see different things.
LC: And what are the phenomena you find yourself focusing on in the darkroom right now? What can we expect in your new work?
LN: Portals are currently a big theme in my work. They look like echoing triangle shapes. I like to think of them as “hotspots” or areas with an energy charge. They can appear or disappear at any time. For instance, when a truly incredible idea hits you – like a creative breakthrough – for a moment it charges you, and then you slam through it as if a golden doorway in your mind just opened up. It’s that ah-hah moment. Your brain lights up and your energy shifts; you feel electric.
I’m also throwing myself even more into this spacey, cosmic look. As you can probably tell, I’ve always been interested in deep space and quantum physics, so I love creating these backdrops of something bigger, and taking photography into space like I’m a traveller beyond Earth. We live on an incredible planet, but it’s still so small. I just want to keep exploring this and seeing how I can make it appear in front of me in my meditative darkroom state.
—Liz Nielsen interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj