What is a photogram?
It's light recorded onto the paper — which is also the definition of a photograph — but there's no camera. It’s the oldest photographic process. You could put an object on top of a piece of cardboard, take that object off 30 minutes later, and you'll see a mark on the cardboard because the sun bleaches it. But I build these complex layering systems, almost like a printmaker, and expose each part separately.
Have you worked as a printmaker before?
I’ve done printmaking, but I consider myself an experimental photographer. I think of myself almost like a pseudoscientist or something — I’m constantly trying to push the boundaries of what photography can do. In general, I feel like I'm doing one of the most pure forms of photography. Others would disagree with that, because some people are like, “Is this even photography?” But even though it's like light painting, I still arrived there through photography. I'm just bypassing the camera.
And now I’ve got collage elements going on, and drawing and painting and sculpture getting into it — and who knows what will happen next, because now I'm making those works at Wassaic where basically the whole piece is about that bleeding light on the wall. There's no art at all, it's just light. It’s so exciting to see that, because you see it all the time in your life. Like, you suddenly see light coming in on the floor and think, That’s so precious, that little moment.
I mean, I can't count the amount of times I've been, like, sitting on the subway in New York thinking, Am I gonna cry at the way that the light is hitting the inside of this gross-ass subway car? What is happening to me?
Which is to say: it makes me glad to know that someone out there has found a way to capture that kind of thing.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Even if you have that moment and you take a picture of it and try to show someone later, it’s not the same. Light like that emanates some sort of special interior energy. It's an external phenomenon, but because those are usually calm, quiet moments, they’re connected to the inner world.
What does your process look like in the darkroom?
I do a lot of drawing out of my images, and researching how I'm going to put something together before I get going on it. I have to have a strong image of how they're going to look before I get going. It can't really be intuitive, or it will fail — just because the paper can only take so much light, and not too much, really. That's why I said it's a little bit like printmaking, because there's an order, and if you don't do it in the right order, then you can’t expose part of it, or you have to expose part of it twice, or a layer won’t line up.
So I sit in the dark with a low light on and think about every step I'm going to take before I do it, and figure out what obstacles might arise. I have certain rules of where everything goes — especially with my knife, because I have to cut a lot of things in the dark. Sometimes I'll set little markers of tape out on the table so I can feel along, and I know once I touch the tape that I need to move forward with my hand and do something. Or I walk around my surface table to make sure there's nothing for me to trip on.
And then I turn off the lights and I make the piece. It's more of an execution. Usually it's pretty zen. Once I'm in it, it's like 15 minutes. I just take the steps that have to be taken.
How has that process changed your relationship to the darkroom and your negatives? I guess sort of what I'm getting at is, like, when you take a photograph with a camera you know roughly how it's gonna end up, but when you're building the negative, you don't have that original reference to a scene you’re looking at.
I mean, when you come from film, a lot of times what you thought you were gonna get wasn't what you ended up getting until you start to really know what the camera is doing. But I like that the photograms I make reference only themselves — they don't reference something else in the outside world. Like, a landscape piece might be a combination of a few different places put together, but it's really no place.
What the work gives to somebody else and what they receive from it could be an infinite amount of things that I don't know. Once I create it, I just let it go. I may pre-plan what I'm going to do exactly, but once the work is there, I take a read from it: Now what do I see? I let it talk back to me and tell me what its title is, because then I see that piece as something that’s outside of me, so I'm relating to it not as mine, in a way. I like the viewer to know what it's called, but I still can't even control how they see it. Photography is like that, too: what one person sees is so different than what another sees in that exact same space, and that's so interesting.
How do you think about the boundary between representation and abstraction in your work, then?
I'm thinking about abstraction and representation all the time. I like this balance in between the middle of them.
I'm interested in this idea of quantum vision — where you see something one time, and then you come back and see a different thing the next time. I focus on that a lot. Like, I’ll try to zone my head out and see everything at once so that I don't look at the subject, but through it. It's almost like repeating a word 50 times in a row until it becomes not that word. Abstraction can do that. You kind of mess with the viewer so that, if they actually spend time with it, it will give them something.
How did you think about the installation process for the show?
The way I laid it out in my mind was based on the colors, so that it created a rainbow flow through the space. But that was much more intuitive. I think of it almost like playing music. Like, when we got into space, I immediately placed my favorite piece on one wall, but then ended up having to shuffle it around.
Just out of curiosity, what is your favorite piece?
Curtain of Consciousness. I made all the other pieces at the same time, but I selected them around that piece.
I'm just interested in this idea of a moment where the curtain of consciousness rips down, and you have this larger step through space as your spirit. It’s a moment of growth. So you may go to a museum and look at art all day, and if you just have one thing you love, that made it worth it. Or even just having a day where something happened that sparked inside of you. I feel like that's the moment where the curtain of consciousness lifts — like you're connected to everything else, but you had some sort of mystical sight.
You’ve also talked about your work in relation to other worlds as well. Can you say more about that?
I'm just thinking of how everyone has their world. I'm interested in people's inner worlds just as much as people's outer worlds — in what you can and can't see, and how much we don't know about the cosmos or our own brains. I definitely believe in other worlds, and sometimes when I'm creating work, there’s, like, this energy from some other place in time or some other place in the multiverse. Some sort of connection that is not really knowable. Almost like a channel.
And when you're looking at the work, the way that I'm pushing the images, you just don't know your scale. You could be tiny or you could be giant, and anything else outside of the frame is left for your imagination. You know?
Totally. This isn't necessarily related to your work in particular, but art I think is quote-unquote good is usually art that gives me some sort of encounter with the unknown. I appreciate when I'm forced to reckon with how much I don't know, and push against the boundaries of what I might even possibly think about that thing.
I don't know what the question is there. [Laughs.]
I mean, I think the encounter with the unknown is important. And I think that in a lot of the work that I create, I'm aiming to have something that you recognize, but you can’t recall. Like, I understand it. I'm not sure how, but I do. My hope inside of viewing my work is that you're gifted something that feels like you are onto something. That you have an aha moment or a creative breakthrough. A quantum leap of thought.
Liz Nielsen is a Brooklyn-based artist whose works have been exhibited in New York, Chicago, Paris, London, Budapest, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Her photographs are printed in the analog color darkroom with handmade negatives and found light sources. Each photograph is unique, ranging in size from 100" x 100" to 8" x 8".
Liz earned her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2004, her BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002, and her BA in Philosophy and Spanish from Seattle University in 1997. Nielsen's works have been reviewed in The New Yorker, The Financial Times, The British Journal of Photography, The New York Times, LensCulture, FOAM magazine, and ArtSlant among others.
2021–2022 Winter Residency Review Panel
All Out / All In