This is the ninth in a series of interviews with artists participating in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The third OBPC exhibition opens on March 23, 2013, and will run through February 23, 2014. It will feature the works of forty-eight artists in many forms of media.
Q: What is your name, where are you from, and where do you live now?
A: My name is Keliy Anderson-Staley. I grew up in Guilford, Maine, where my family lived in an off-the-grid log cabin. After college, I spent ten years living in New York City, and I currently live in Arkansas.
Q: What medium(s) do you work with?
A: I do some collage and sculpture, but my work is primarily photographic. I use a variety of processes, including the wet-plate collodion process, which I use to make tintypes. I also work with color film, cyanotype, and digital photography.
Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.
A: The wet-plate collodion tintype process was one of the earliest photographic methods. It was used in the 1850s and 1860s by portraitists and the photographers, such as Mathew Brady and Timothy O'Sullivan, who documented the Civil War. I am especially interested in the work of those photographers in the period, such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Felix Nadar, who pursued it as a fine art.
I use antique brass lenses, large wooden view cameras, and several chemical concoctions that I mix up myself according to historic recipes. It is called “wet-plate” photography because the whole image must be exposed, developed, and fixed while the image surface is still wet.
The image is made on a metal plate inside the camera, so the resulting image is one-of-a-kind unless it is reproduced by digital means. I sometimes blow the images up for visual effect (like the piece in the Outwin Boochever exhibition). I like marrying the old process with the new to make an image that is contemporary, even though it is made with an older process.
Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.) and how does it contribute to your art?
My photographic projects still tend to be fairly installational, with the sculptural arrangement of the images adding to the meaning of the work. I earned an MFA at Hunter College in New York City. My upbringing informed a lot of my early photographic work, including the work I did in graduate school, and my first major project, Off the Grid, was a semiautobiographical study of families living without modern amenities in Maine. My abiding interest in people continues to drive my work in portraiture.
Q: How did you learn about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition?
A: I became aware of it during the last competition cycle, and I knew a couple of artists who had work in the exhibition.
Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.
A: I submitted a portrait called Kevin that I made in 2010 while at a residency at Light Work in Syracuse, New York. I photographed dozens of people from the community while I was there, and Kevin was among them.
Q: Tell us about your larger body of work.
A: This image comes from a series called “[Hyphen] Americans.” The project is composed of more than 1,000 portraits. Each individual in the project defiantly asserts his or her selfhood, resisting any imposed or external categorizing system that we might bring to these images.
Shot over eight years, these portraits were made all over the country. I intentionally withhold the demographic information that would have accompanied such images in the nineteenth century, opening up the possibility to reconsider the place of each face within history. The viewer connects directly with the sitter without any mediation beyond the image and the process. Thus, the individuality of the sitter is highlighted, even as history remains the principal subject.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I am currently developing a book of my tintype portraits that will be available later in 2013. The book, titled On a Wet Bough after a haiku by Ezra Pound, will be published by Waltz Photo Books. I am also working on a series called “An Archive of Inherited Fictions” with support from the Howard Foundation. This new project examines the ways that we use both images from the past and heirloom objects to define our sense of identity and heritage.
Q: How has your work changed over time?
A: I used to focus more on narrative-based photographic projects, but my work is now more conceptual. I like both modes, and I think photography is well-suited to both, but I like projects that make photography the subject of inquiry as much as the vehicle of it.
Q: Who is your favorite artist?
I'm inspired by so many artists—in all media—that it would be hard to name just one. The artists I consider most influential include Carrie Mae Weems, Christian Boltanski, and Robert Frank, especially his later work.
Q: If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?
A: Hannah Hoch or Kurt Schwitters. I love their collage work, and I really love that period of art (1920s Europe). I am also really drawn to the collage work of American artists Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Q: What is your favorite artwork?
A: It would be impossible for me to name any one work. I saw a few works of art in late 2012 that are still really in my thoughts—The Clock by Christian Marclay and Asterisms by Gabriel Orozco.
Q: What inspires you?
A: I go to as many museum and gallery shows as I can. I am always looking at photography and art, and I am continually inspired by the new work I see. I also find the process of making a portrait to be quite inspirational. I am really fascinated by people, and by faces in particular. I love the interactions I have with people as I photograph them, and their response to their tintype as they watch it develop. Making a portrait is a collaborative venture, and it is while I am making portraits that I feel fully engaged in the creative process.