Tag Archives: portraits

Stick Legs

When I first spotted the thumbnail photo for this ebay listing for a James Wallace Pondelicek nude, I thought that the lines were illustrated legs…

Turns out, the “lines” are not drawn upon the photo, but thin pieces of vegetation on the beach

The photo, titled The Bather, is rare hand signed original double-weight sepia gelatin silver photograph, circa 1924. Taken along the shores of Lake Michigan, this vintage nude was used as the cover for James Pondelicek sampler catalog.

Review: The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photograph

The Painted Backdrop By Jim Linderman

Have you ever thought about the painted backgrounds in antique and vintage photographs?

No?

Well, you aren’t alone.

Until I read The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photography, by Jim Linderman (with an essay by Kate Bloomquist), I hadn’t either.

In fact, the story of and between 19th century painters and American photography really has never been told — or, I should say, “hasn’t been explored” until Linderman came along and looked into it via his collection of antique tintype photographs.

Considering virtually every one of the millions upon millions of tintype photographs taken indoors from 1850 to 1920, (and a good number of the few taken outside) had a painted backdrop, it is remarkable  no one has ever written a book about them. This is even more remarkable given the importance of the background in motion pictures today. As entire films are produced by computer, the role of the actor has been reduced to standing before an empty screen mouthing words only later to be placed in a digital backdrop which never existed and never will. In a way, the early painted drops used by primitive tintype photographers of the late 19th century an unreal environment in a prescient manner; the thread connecting them to big-screen computer generated hyper-worlds is real but seldom considered.

He even dares to ask the question, “Could this be because photographers, even then, were so determined to prove THEY were doing the art and not the painter they relegated to the background?”

Antique Tintype Backdrop Being Painted

The author / collector states: “This is an art book about painting and photography (or vice-versa) and how they met in a certain time and place.”   Ever since the camera arrived, the debate about the merits of photography as an art form has raged (admittedly Ansel Adams helped sway a lot of people that it is), and this book and its 75 antique tintype images certainly is part of that debate. It also raises the question about whether or not the painted backdrops used behind the people in the photographs are art, folk art, or ephemera from the photographic industry.  But  it’s that last part, “how they met in a certain time and place,” which really gets to the core of things, the thrilling things, for me.  That’s where we get to the historical cultural contexts.

The book gives a brief historical overview of photography set in the context of culture, art and commerce. There’s a near ode to daguerreotypes and a rather sneering look at ambrotypes before we settle in to accept the (lowly fragile) tintypes as having won the hearts of the masses. While tintypes lack the gleam of their forerunners, the thin tintype’s popularity mirrors how the West was won: Easy, inexpensive, mobility.  The ease of mailing tintypes not only aligns with the power of rail road transportation, but in fact, photo studios sprung up near or at nearly every train station.

Two Antique Tintypes With Same Painted Backdrops

However, Linderman doesn’t end his considerations of the development of photography there; his (rather opinionated) narrative briefly covers paper prints, the Polaroid, and digital photos too. If you find the author judgmental, he is. But his thoughts are historically and culturally sane; and when it comes to art, we all have our preferences — or at least we ought to.

In many ways, Linderman’s brief text is more glorious than the many antique images he shares. For, agree or disagree with the author’s thoughts and opinions, you are rather forced to form your own thoughts and opinions. But none of us are really left with conclusions — at least those we haven’t, in part, jumped to.  As Linderman states, there’s just too little documentation, research and investigation, into what happened to painters when the camera came along — into the subject of photographic backdrops themselves — to reach any real conclusions.

The book raises more questions, really, than it answers. At least for me. But in that most excellent of ways which rather than being too light of a snack, leaving me unsatisfied, this book whets my appetite, makes me want more, leaves me with something to chew on… Technology, commerce, art, and culture collide at a crossroads, supposed “forward progress” exposing values, leaving the role of art and artists themselves as question marks… Not at all unlike the digital situation of today.

Tintype Of Painter Working On Photographic Backdrop

The very fact that we haven’t really put any effort into exploring “what happened” is a testament to how little we value photography, art, and artists, I suppose. Yet art, and more than a few artists, have managed to survive.

Collections and books like this preserve what was — not just for us all to see and enjoy, but to force us to look at what happened and to examine for ourselves just what is all involved in such technological advances and shifts in “style.”

An Interview With Ghosts In The Machines Creator Erika Iris Simmons

I so fell in love with the stunning art made from cassette tapes by Erika Iris Simmons that I just had to speak with her and learn more about her incredibly iconic works.

Erika Iris Simmons

Erika, I don’t like to ask a lady her age — especially right at the start! — but in this case I feel compelled to do so… Your works, especially the Ghosts In Machines, have a youthful pop culture quality, but the detail work is incredible, which lends me to believing you are older (at least in art years!) than I think. So, how old are you, when did you begin the Ghost In The Machine Series, and how long have you been working as an independent artist?

Thanks! No worries, I’m not shy, I’m 27 now but I started making this series in 2008, when I was 24 I think.

I was a waitress at Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando at the time, looking for interesting art projects. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on art supplies so I went through all the junk drawers at home, tearing up anything I could find, dabbling in composite art. I was fascinated with optical illusions and wanted to make something really different. I think going to work everyday surrounded by music memorabilia definitely had an impact! haha

One day I thought to use the cassette tapes in my art – when I started messing with the ribbon it curled up and reminded me of Jimi Hendrix’s afro, so that was the first portrait I made.

Ghost in the Machine: Jimi Hendrix, Cassette Tape On Canvas

At the time I was reading some science books about the philosophy of the mind; that’s where the “ghost in the machine” theme came from. It was great to sit there while working on these, wondering about the meaning in the data on the tapes and how by simply rearranging the tape on the board I could make it look like a face. My goal was to not cut the tape or take any away, just arrange it.

I’ve been working as a full-time independent artist for two years now.

Have you had any formal training or study, an art degree?

No formal art training; I got a ton of art books out from the library, but mostly its just been trial and error.

The Ghost In The Machine pieces are how I first found you — the amaze me because they incorporate the spirit of the medium, the tape and film, and display the iconic images we see when we experience their performances. What inspired the works?

I never wanted to be an artist until I saw the work of Ken Knowlton. He makes incredible composite portraits. My favorite is his portrait of Einstein using nothing but black dice. It blew my mind and I thought I want to make something like that, something that would resonate with people. I just kept experimenting after that.

Ghost In Machine: Madonna

They are incredibly fluid and effortless looking, as if they just spilled out that way, but I suspect there’s a lot more to them than that. 😉 Can you tell us more about the work involved, how long it takes to make a piece — how many tapes, etc. are used?

I almost always just need a single cassette, unless the work is really big. You’d be surprised how long the tape is inside.

Every piece is different, but I usually start by drawing the basic outline, focusing on the facial details first. I go about filling in the design, either gluing the tape flat and cutting away when necessary, or folding and twisting the tape into the desired shapes. This can take weeks if its very detailed. Toward the end I try to let the tape fall into really natural shapes and “capture” that movement with dots of glue. Finally, I use epoxy to permanently mount the case.

Of the works I’ve seen, you seem to use or recycle other items to create your works of art. Do you consider these altered art works? How do you feel about that term?

I call these cassette tape or film sculptures, but the term altered art works too. It falls into a lot of categories, I think. I often hear people call them “installations.” I don’t know why.

Your Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast At Tiffany’s piece is probably my favorite, so far! I love the use of 8mm film, right down to the reel!

Audrey Hepburn Work In Progress...

Audrey Hepburn Ghost In Machine, 8mm Film

Erika Iris Simmons Artwork In Progress

Working With Film To Make Ghost In Machine

"Reel" Breakfast At Tiffany's Hair

Shadow Details

Audrey Hepburn Ghost In Machine

The Graceful Ghost In The Machine

I read at your blog that the Breakfast At Tiffany’s work was the result of a woman who approached you about doing a series of collection of Audrey Hepburn pieces… Does that mean you do custom or commissioned works?

Thanks! I’ve actually made my living for the last few years making custom pieces for people; I still do sometimes, but not as my bread-and-butter like I used to.

Does doing works that way, at the direction of others, frustrate you in any way as an artist?

Yes, every single time! haha. There is no way of avoiding the pressure of “performance.” I am not a performer and I’ve found that my work is much better when it comes from the heart and not from a need to pay rent. I find myself questioning every action. Instead, I just take the commissions that I feel a spark for. I used to have a “custom work” page on my website, but I don’t solicit those offers anymore. A lot more time for experimenting.

How much do you charge for such works? And, as you currently have no originals for sale, only prints at Etsy, how much do original works cost?

Honestly every piece is different. I sell some for hundreds, some for many thousands, so its a hard question to answer… An average Ghost in the Machine piece is about $2500. The only prints I sell are letter size and A2. But the size of the originals range from 12 by 16, up to 40 by 60 inches, so there is a wide range.

Your other works, that I’ve seen at Flickr mainly, are also composite or altered works. Do you feel that will likely remain a part of your style, or do you feel that you’ll need to move on in a completely different direction at some point in time?

I don’t really define what I do by the medium. I feel like the running theme in my head is finding a story within a single object. Recursion and nested concepts are what fascinate me, so whether I’m painting or writing or doing any other creative activity I think this theme will remain.

Portrait of former Dodger's pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, made from an authentic major-league baseball, "grass stains and all."

When you are best known for a series, or when someone spots an older series, like Ghosts In Machines, how do you as an artist feel when you move onto another series, project or style of work?

It doesn’t bother me that I will probably never “out-do” the success of this series because I know the biggest thrill is the idea and execution rather than what other people think. The images will one day be played like that song on the radio that you’ve heard fifty times too many, but I will always remember what it felt like to hold something like that in my hands before the glue was even dry, having never sold a piece of artwork, knowing that I made something special.

Its nice that people are still interested though, I do appreciate it.

Bob Dylan by Erika Iris Simmons for AARP

At The Ungulate, we hear a lot about how “success” is at least partly defined as making a living in art; yet we also hear from artists who feel great frustration in the commercial aspects of that sort of success. Aside from not soliciting custom works as much as you once did, how do you plan to address or balance these issues for yourself as an artist?

I’ve never been interested in money – I threaten to quit art and go back to waiting tables any day! ha. But seriously, making art for a living is by far harder than I expected, and I feel I’m one of the lucky ones to have so much support and exposure. But some months I still barely scrape by. Don’t get me wrong; when it rains it pours. But its hard counting on the weatherman. In lieu of commissions I’m working with a stationary company for a little rolling income. The ‘m’ word: Merchandising. We’re still putting the website together – I don’t know a date it will be live…

But you’ll let us know, right?

Of course!

Until then, we can still marvel at the other works by Ericka Iris Simmons, and enjoy spotting them all sorts of places, like the Bob Dylan piece for the AARP.