“Every portrait tells a story and that story usually involves some kind of lie.”
Debra Brehmer, Portrait Society gallery director
Artist Keliy Anderson-Staley is a photographer in the guise of a 19th-century itinerant pauper. Like the photographic brethren before her, she travels from city to city, setting up makeshift photography studios, to produce tintype portraits of men, women, and children. After seven years, she has created a massive archive of faces—stoic, impassive, wild-eyed. Recently, she has begun to pair her portraits alongside found letters, textiles, and family heirlooms to create comprehensive installations called Imagined Family Heirlooms: An Archive of Inherited Fictions.
Anderson-Staley is planning to have several full-wall installations in galleries this year. In order to realize her vision, she needs to increase the scope and size of her tintype archive—and this is where you can step in. The chemistry needed to produce tintypes is expensive. Anderson-Staley is asking the KickStarter community to donate money to help fund her project. In return, benefactors will receive special gifts from the artist. She is already scheduled to be in Syracuse; Philadelphia; New York; and Portland, Maine. I recently caught up with Anderson-Staley to discuss her current project, tintype photography, and the thin line between truth and fiction in portraiture.
Tell us about your new project Imagined Family Heirlooms: An Archive of Inherited Fictions. What is it, and why is it important to you?
“Imagined Family Heirlooms” combines tintype portraits I make with found antique photographs and cloth. I also frame and install photograms of antique lace that I make as cyanotype and van dyke brown prints. The goal with these installations is to challenge the line between originals and replicas, real history and fiction, actual family heirlooms and fictional ones. Photography, I think has lead us to falsely believe the images we see of ourselves and others are the truth, and I hope with this project to point out that even the most central aspects of who we think we are—our family and personal identities—insofar as they are shaped by photographs, are sometimes no realer than fiction.
Questions about identity and representation and their relationship to photography are really important to me and have shaped a lot of my work. I am obsessed with the human face, and obsessed with finding the best way to capture it. For that reason, I think I will always be making portraits.
How has questions about identity and representation and their relationship to photography shaped a lot of my work?
I’ve been interested in how place and family can impact identities since I first starting making images. This was a key theme of my “Off the Grid” project about families—like my own when growing up—that lived without modern amenities in rural Maine. I think a lot about the way that portraits exist within a history of photography; the representational technology of the day impacts how we see ourselves in much deeper ways than I think we realize.
This photo process especially raises questions about photographic representation. So much of what we know about the life of earlier generations is determined by how they were represented. For example, we think of people in the 19th century as stern and stoic, but this was much more a reflection of the long exposure times that prevented smiling than of their personalities. As a photographer, it is always difficult to be true to your subject while still recognizing that photography is still a representational form that automatically puts a portrait into the context of a history of images.
How is this project different than your previous projects?
The primary connection of this project to my earlier work is the process. I have been making tintypes for seven years, and my main focus has been portraiture. This newer work is a little more conceptual, though, in that it is about the history of photography and the role that images play in identity-formation. Beautiful, powerful portraits are still central to the project, but when combined with the other works in different media and when framed and included in installations, they become part of a greater whole that calls into question their status as tellers of the truth.
What is the goal of the project?
The goal is to continue to create content for my installations and to continue to find venues to display it. Every installation has been different, and they are always most effective when a space let’s me play with and arrange the parts right there in the gallery. To continue making images, though, and to afford the frames and other antiques I am collecting, I will need to find new sources of funding.
You say every installation is different. How so? Do you find previous installations informing the one’s you happen to be working on now?
When installing these images, I often discover new juxtapositions and combinations (these can be based on aesthetic connections, or interesting echoes of appearance or a suggestive pairing of individuals). These tend to change when I am in a new space and have added new pieces. I like to have as many pieces to play with as possible, and what is available ends up determining how it is hung. As “family arrangements” they change and grow, individuals enter and leave the group, and even after the works are hung, I am thinking about other ways they could be arranged. I don’t see this as a project that is ever stopped or static.
You have chosen to utilize Kickstarter to fund this project. Your financial objective is to raise at least $5,800. First, why do you need $5,800? Second, what made you choose this new online media platform to raise the money?
To be honest, the amount I asked for is really the least amount I need to continue working on this project. Everything I use has become quite expensive, especially silver nitrate, the key ingredient of my tintypes. It has doubled in cost this past year, rising with the commodities markets. So all the money I receive will go into making new work. I know some people who have been successful using Kickstarter, and I thought I would give it a try.
The economy is in the dumps. Unemployment is high. Why should people donate their hard-earned money to support your project? Will backers receive any rewards from you for their monetary contributions?
Kickstarter is designed, I think, to make sure the money you receive is not charity, but instead is given in return for real goods and services. In return for contributions, I am mailing out mini-installation packets that are drawn from my heirloom collections. Even at the lower pledge amounts, backers can expect to have some original artwork. I love sending mail art and packages, so this is really the ideal way for me to return the favor of a contribution. Even in a down economy creative people are still working, and there are still people supporting the arts. In some ways, Kickstarter is actually an inexpensive way for supporters of the arts to purchase original works of art.
Every Kickstarter project must be fully funded before its time expires or no money changes hands. How do you feel about this all-or-nothing approach to funding your project?
I think it works best this way for everyone involved. There is a sense that once a project reaches its funding goal it has been validated by the broader community. This puts more pressure on the project creator (and the backers) to make sure the goal is reached—which of course works to Kickstarter’s advantage as well (as they take a cut). It also means that when you design a project you have to very carefully set your goal. If it’s too high, you may not reach your goal. If it’s too low, the project may not be discovered. I have noticed that technology and film projects can raise quite a bit more money than photo projects. I’m not sure if this is an indication of the kinds of people who are looking to support projects or of the way these various mediums are valued. I’ve also noticed that a lot of projects generate serious buzz just before they end. Oddly, I think if projects weren’t required to reach their goals, they would get there less frequently. That having been said, the all-or-nothing approach can generate quite a bit anxiety.
You have also received support from New York Foundation for the Arts, Puffin Foundation, and Light Work, to support your current project. How is online crowd funding different than traditional models? Do you prefer one to the other? Why or why not?
They are both very different models for supporting artists. When you apply for funding from an institution, you have to carefully craft your proposal to their needs and it has to be extremely professional. The money from those organizations comes with a lot of prestige and can do a lot to advance your career. When putting together a Kickstarter proposal, I think you need to aim for broader appeal. In addition to attracting potential strangers looking for new projects, you are also appealing to your friends, family, acquaintances and casual supporters, so you need to keep in mind different audiences. A platform like Kickstarter makes it easier to ask your immediate circle for money by giving the request credibility and a clearly defined project with goals. Family might not normally give money to your projects, but when it is institutionally-sanctioned and has a tangible product, it actually goes a long way toward justifying your work and career. The hope with crowd-funding, though, is that your project will go viral and that strangers will find it compelling enough to contribute (and consequently to own a part of it).
I was impressed by your Kickstarter proposal, especially the video that you created to supplement the project description. Can you talk about what went into the pitch? (From conception to development to execution. How did you make the video pitch? I love the soundtrack by the way. Great choice of songs.)
I knew before I even began the video that the Kinks song was perfect, and as I was finalizing the video, I was searching for some mellow but exciting instrumental blues, because I felt it fit the tone of the project best. I have never made a video, so the medium was really foreign to me, and I found it really difficult. For large parts of it, I found that a slide show with the “Ken Burns” effect did the trick. I had some old footage of me working which I incorporated into the video. The hardest part was syncing up the voice-over and finding the right tone and pace for delivery. In the end, it took about a week to get it together, and actually delayed the launch of my project.
Lets talk about your work. You use wooden view cameras and original nineteenth century brass lenses with large apertures. What can you achieve by utilizing this antiquated technology that you cannot achieve using digital technology?
I shoot with my lenses wide open (collodion has the equivalent of a -30 ISO, so it is very slow), but this really shortens my depth of field. I can focus on just one plane in the face—usually just the eyes. The exposures are long, lasting 10 or so seconds, so I capture a full moment of thought. My portraits, I think, often seem to have more life in them because of this.
There are so many technical variables in the process, and there can be flaws and defects that enter the image at every stage of the process, and in many ways this makes it a perfect vehicle for portraits—it is truer to the reality of human imperfection.
I do work on images in Photoshop, adjusting contrast and even sometimes cleaning them up for publication, but you could never replicate the look of this process exactly in Photoshop. A tintype plate records the actual light that struck the individual. It is as much a mirror as an image, and it has a presence as an object, something that can’t be said of a digital file.
You create evocative portraits — frontal views, mostly centered in the frame, posed against a minimal background — that offer few clues about the sitter’s identity or the time and place the picture was taken. The images reminded me of the tintypes taken of men, women, and children, in the mid-nineteenth century. Does that association resonate with you?
Because I am working in a nineteenth-century process, I am very conscious of the historical dimension of this project. Tintypes were a common way to have a portrait made, but they were also employed for ethnographic studies, some of them quite dehumanizing. In many ways the modern idea of race grew up alongside science and photography in the 19th century. I very deliberately try not to draw attention to differences like race, because I want to challenge photography’s role in defining difference. At the same time, I want every person I photograph to stand out very sharply as an individual, to be defined as much as possible by the expression on their face.
As soon as I saw your portraits, I could hear the sitters whisper: “Who am I? Where am I going? What will become of me?” Is there a particular response you’re hoping to provoke in the viewer? Or is it about something else?
I think the best portraits in history fully capture the person as they are in that moment, and because of that, you can’t help but think of them as having a past and a future. They are just an image, but the real life of the person is somehow there in the eyes.
Photography long ago usurped painting as the central medium utilized in portraiture. It opened the door for the masses, inviting the average citizen to serve as the primary subject of portraiture. Your tintype series, which utilizes long exposures, employs strategies used in painting as well as photography. How much of the series is indebted to photography, and how much of the series is indebted to painting or performance art?
Tintype photography was the first photographic process that allowed middle class people to have portraits of themselves which is why so many of us can find them in our own family collections. Painted portraits had been reserved for aristocrats and rich merchants, but now anyone could have images of themselves and loved ones. But early photography was a lot more like painting, or really, a lot more like science, with a lot of tinkering going on with materials and chemical formulas. I love this aspect of the process, and the fact, that like so many art forms and crafts with long histories it has to be passed down. I worked with a mentor, and now I teach workshops. In terms of performance, producing the image is a bit of a show, with me moving the big camera, and then the big dramatic reveal of the image as it turns from a negative to a positive.
When you find a subject, what are your first steps? Do you stand behind or next to the camera during the length of the exposure? Do you leave the sitter to his or her own thoughts? Do you talk to them? What sort of interaction do you have?
The interaction with my models is really important to me. I love to talk with them while working, to explain the process, and even to bring them into the darkroom to watch their image change from a negative to a positive. The camera is huge, so I need to move around it, pulling the slide at the back and walking to the front to remove the lens cap to make the exposure, and the sitter has to remain still for a good 10 seconds or more. I don’t let anyone talk to them during the exposure, and they sometimes struggle to stay still. Setting up the shot, though, takes a long time, and this is a great opportunity to get to know someone. I find when they are more relaxed, and even if I get to know a little bit more about them, the portrait ends up being stronger, and hopefully ends up being a truer likeness.
Does your relationship with your subject, and how he or she accepts the idea of your project, influence the resulting work?
I think because the process is so novel for most of my sitters, they are always really excited to be a part of it and to observe me in action. It’s strange, but in an era when we each have more pictures of ourselves than ever—on Facebook and memory cards, etc.—people are still always amazed to see themselves in a tintype, as if they are seeing their portrait for the first time—a little bit perhaps like it was in the 19th century.
The novelist Don DeLillo addresses the role of portraiture in his book Mao II. In Mao II, Brita, a NYC photojournalist, is commissioned to photograph Bill Gray, a reclusive author. During the photo session, Bill shares his thoughts about portraiture: He [Bill Gray] said, “Something about the occasion makes me think I’m at my own wake. Sitting for a picture is morbid business. A portrait doesn’t begin to mean anything until the subject is dead. This is the whole point. We’re doing this to create a kind of sentimental past for people in decades to come. It’s their past, their history we’re inventing here. And it’s not how I look now that matters. It’s how I’ll look in twenty-five years as clothing and faces change, as photographs change. The deeper I pass into death, the more powerful my picture becomes.” Do you think there is a morbid quality or sentimental objective to your own portraits?
That is a fantastic quote. I also often think a lot about what Roland Barthes had to say about portraits and death in Camera Lucida.
I collect a lot of antique tintypes at junk stores, and I am always amazed that these photographs have been given away. Although photos preserve our image forever after we are gone, this doesn’t mean our memory lives on. If someone’s portrait has been thrown out, does that mean they are no longer a part of their own family’s story? Unless someone keeps that portrait and can give it a story and fit it into a genealogy, it doesn’t necessarily have a meaning except as a likeness of someone who must have lived once. In other words, without a story, a portrait is just the face of a stranger.
My project, though, plays with the sentimental role of portraits. Who we are in photographs, as DeLillo says, depends on how we will be seen, but how we see ourselves depends on how we look at old photographs—of our parents, grandparents, etc. Nostalgia is a key part of my installations, but because they are fictional family portraits, the nostalgia is always half-ironic.
Any last words?
I took a chance with the KickStarter thing, and I am optimistic it will get funded. At the very least, though, I am excited that I have been able to get this project out to a whole new audience. I am traveling a lot this summer and will be showing this project widely in the upcoming year. With the new support of my Kickstarter backers, I should be able to make a lot of new work.