In Conversation: Alyssa Minahan

Alyssa Minahan utilizes photographic materials, including unfixed gelatin silver paper and large format negatives, in non-traditional ways to express ideas integral to the medium of photography, specifically its complex relationship to time, space and memory. Alyssa recently released NOTES, a handmade artist book published by Datz Press. Alyssa has exhibited her work at numerous galleries and museums, including the Datz Museum of Art (Seoul, South Korea), Center for Creative Photography (Tucson, Arizona), Pingyao International Photography Festival (Shanxi, China), Photographic Center Northwest (Seattle, Washington) and Boston University Art Galleries (Boston, Massachusetts). Alyssa has exhibited her artist books at AIPAD, Printed Matter’s New York Art Book Fair, Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair and in Silvermine Galleries’ 67th Art of the Northeast exhibition juried by David Kiehl, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In addition, her work has been featured in Harper’s Magazine, Art New England and Phases Magazine. Alyssa is the recipient of the 2017 Massachusetts College of Art and Design Graduate Teaching Fellowship and is currently a Lecturer of Photography in the Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College.

NOTES

NOTES is a visual poem on the impermanence of our lived experiences and the beauty to be found in its acceptance. When I began making this work, I had suffered a profound personal and physical loss. At the same time, I was seeking ways to describe the liminal period in my sons’ lives between boyhood and adolescence, specifically their emotional and physical independence from me as their mother. To give form and meaning to these experiences, I turned to the materiality of the photographic medium, creating objects that challenge established notions of process and permanence.

The objects in NOTES – emulsion lifts, unfixed and partially fixed photograms, gelatin silver prints, film and chemigrams – continually shift and change, sometimes deteriorating into nothing while other times evolving into something more beautiful. Multiples of the same image – a cloud, inverted as both its positive and negative – reflect both chance and possibility. A fingerprint left on the emulsion of an unfixed chemigram acts as a witness to human presence. These unique photographic objects, with their imperfections and variability, are evidence of the only constant – change.

Kyra Schmidt: Alyssa, I am thrilled to work on this with you! Your series NOTES is delicate yet poignant, combining camera-less imagery with straight and altered photographs. The images resonate like a rhythmic poem in an authentic, unfettered and spontaneous way that I think even the Beat poets would pay homage to.

What moment, idea, artist, or reading first inspired you to explore this creative inquiry that embraces chance, openness, and the transitory nature of the photographic medium? How did this process manifest?

 Alyssa Minahan: Hi Kyra! Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to discuss my work with you. 

Although NOTES was inspired by multiple ideas converging at once, the origins of working in such an experimental way began as a graduate student at MassArt. I had entered the program making images of my two sons with the intention of describing the liminal period in their lives between boyhood and adolescence. My hope was to convey the feelings of loss and wonder I experienced as they became more independent and less reliant on me both physically and emotionally. I felt that the photos I was making were too static, so I began to think about the ways in which photographic materials could describe durational time. At the same time, I enrolled in a landscape photography course with Barbara Bosworth. Barbara encouraged her students to take risks in their work, make mistakes and then embrace those mistakes. This was the beginning of NOTES and many of the objects I made in Barbara’s class are included in the book.

Another idea I was thinking about while making NOTES was the layering of experiences and how chance plays such an important role in the direction of our lives. I frequently referred to a quote by Julian Barnes in his novel Levels of Life, “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.” Ultimately, NOTES is a visual poem on the impermanence of our lived experiences and the beauty to be found its acceptance.

Kyra Schmidt: How do you decide on a final image? Or sort out “the keepers”. Why it is important for you to work in this manner?

 Alyssa Minahan: This is a great question as I produce a large amount of work, most of which gets tucked away in light-safe boxes for years. In my studio practice, I work intuitively with an openness to where the image will lead. I love the idea of chance inherent in photography, the magic of not knowing how light and subject matter will converge within the parameters of the frame. Since I make photographs in various ways – analog, digital, camera-less – I strive to create links through color, formal elements and subject matter. I am a harsh critic of my own work, so when I make something that I connect with emotionally or physically, I know that it is a “keeper.” 

Kyra Schmidt: In your artist statement you relate the transitory photographic object to the liminal moments or feelings – both beautiful and terrifying – that consume our lives. NOTES as a visual poem speaks to these sensations that are hard to define with words. Do you ever find yourself frustrated with the disconnection between photography, meaning, and reception?

Alyssa Minahan: I appreciate how you describe those liminal moments as both beautiful and terrifying; I find that the two often go hand-in-hand. I think a lot about the durational flow of time and the invisible losses that occur endlessly. The recognition of beauty in those losses allows me to be present and accepting of what I am unable to control. This is especially true of being a mother, particularly as I move through the various stages of my children’s independence from me. I find that I am able to describe these complex ideas and thoughts through the sequencing of images or by manipulating photographic materials in a way that intrinsically points to loss and the ephemerality of our lived experiences. I always come back to this quote by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible; it is not it that we see.” Ultimately, I want to create work that allows the viewer to imprint their own meaning. 

Kyra Schmidt: More and more often (and I have to say this excites me, personally) I notice artists across all media working with the delicate and unseen. I can’t help but consider this as a response or warning to the condition of contemporary culture. A sort of tiredness from the fast-paced, information-driven, yet distracted masses. Would you say this has influenced your work?

Alyssa Minahan: Yes, it has definitely influenced my work. As an educator, I encourage my students to focus on the craftsmanship of the final photographic object whether that be an archival digital print or a gelatin silver print. Generally speaking, we are so comfortable consuming images online that we often forget to focus on the finished product. I’m also interested in our general pursuit of ‘the best’ or perfection, which is elusive and vague and, most often, unattainable. By creating work that ultimately disappears or has obvious flaws, I hope to challenge traditional notions of photography, as well as invite an ontological discourse on how the medium can translate our experiences of seeing and being. 

Kyra Schmidt: You recently published NOTES with Datz Press. Congratulations! Did you find it difficult to sequence NOTES as a book?

Alyssa Minahan: Thank you! I am deeply grateful that I was able to work with Datz Press, a Korean-based publisher of handmade artist books. In its original form, NOTES is a box comprised of unique photographic objects, including lumen prints, emulsion lifts, unfixed and partially fixed photograms, gelatin silver prints, film and chemigrams. Once I knew that I would be working with Datz on a trade edition of NOTES, I chose to let their team have full creative control over the design and sequencing of the objects. Although I normally have strong opinions on how I want my work to be viewed, I implicitly trusted Datz during the book-making process and I couldn’t be happier with the final result. The book incorporates many ideas from my studio practice, including the layering of images, a focus on materiality (each book includes one unique object and utilizes six different paper types), and an emphasis on creating conceptual links through color, form and repeated imagery. 

Kyra Schmidt: What is in store for you next?

Alyssa Minahan: I’m happy to share the release of Tide and Air, a collaboration between Barbara Bosworth, Danielle M Dean and myself. Designed by Emily Sheffer and published by Dust Collective, the book is a meditation on the passage of time and the photographic qualities of air and water. 

In addition, I am working on a limited edition of TRACE, an artist book that layers double-sided unfixed gelatin silver paper with large format negatives and archival pigment prints. The unfixed paper, which has been left unprocessed by traditional darkroom chemistry, remains sensitive to light, shifting in hue and saturation depending on the environment to which it has been exposed. 

And lastly, I am working on creating a set of limited edition hand-made artists books released each month via my website. These books will incorporate ongoing work from my studio practice with various book-making techniques. I’m looking forward to sharing more information about this project soon!

Thank you for your thoughtful insights and questions, Kyra. It was a pleasure to speak with you!

 

To view more of Alyssa Minahan’s work please visit her website.