Liz Nielsen is a Brooklyn based photographic artist who continues to work in the analog color darkroom. In 2016 she had a solo exhibition with Danziger gallery, and in 2015, she had 3 solo photo exhibitions: Night Garden at SOCO gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina, Magic Lantern at Laurence Miller gallery in NYC and Wolf Moon at Denny gallery in NYC. Liz’s work has been shown internationally this past year at the Material Art Fair in Mexico City, at London Photo, and at the Toronto Art Fair. Her recent exhibitions have been reviewed in the New Yorker, Charlotte Magazine, and Beautiful Decay. Nielsen received her MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois, Chicago and her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Liz works with NextLevel Galerie in Paris, France and Danziger gallery in New York and with SOCO gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The analog color darkroom is a magical place where a pitch-black environment allows only the vision of the minds eye. Without the use of a camera, I build my own negatives. Transparent shapes are cut out with a scissors, and layered on top of glass. Dust is often present. Handmade cardboard puzzles of shapes are pulled in and out to make multiple exposures. Painted light bleeds and is contained. Alongside of the enlarger light, I use flashlights, bike lights, laser lights, cell phone lights, rave lights, and toy lights. I enjoy working in this way because everything is variable. It is nearly impossible to create the same image twice making each photograph unique.
When looking at one of my photograms, one is left to discover their own subject. Images can be portrait, still life, and landscape all at the same time or none of these things at all. An infinite amount of representational subjects sit inside each abstraction leaving the viewer to continually return to their own subjectivity or connect with the artist’s intuition through titles like: Teleported Totem, Vending Machine, and Double Ice Cream Cones.
Q&A with Liz Nielsen
by Emily Burns
Hi Liz! Can you give us some insight into your process? Do you plan your compositions beforehand or do you work intuitively once you enter the darkroom?
I’m a big time planner before I arrive in the darkroom yet in the moment I tend to improvise. I draw out most of what I am going to do beforehand in my sketchbook. Plus, I have a lot of materials to prepare for each image so there are a lot of constants going into a piece; Yet, because I am working with light, the results often present surprises. For instance, if I’m aiming for green, I may end up with a little yellow border that is unexpected. Usually colors next to each other on the spectrum show up unplanned and I love it!
What is the primary difference between a photogram and a photograph?
This is an easy hard question and the answer for me is about uniqueness. If we are talking purely analog and not digital, photographs usually have a negative that can be printed more than once. And most photographs made in the darkroom today are projected from an enlarger so the negative size differs from the paper size. Photograms on the other hand are one-to-one mark making so the negative is the same size as the positive print. Also, the negative may be very loose and is placed directly on top of the light sensitive paper, it is impossible to do it the same way again.
You mention in your statement that you use handmade negatives—do you always use them and what makes a negative handmade?
In my current work, I do not use a camera, and I make my own negatives. They are made in several ways. Really, a negative can be made out of anything and can be exposed in many ways. Along with the enlarger light, I use flashlights, bike lights, laser lights, cell phone lights, rave lights, and toy lights. I build cardboard puzzles to be taken apart and put together in the darkness. They cover part of the paper and expose part of the paper. Different colors of light are combined to make the opposite colors on the paper. It is a performance and a memory game. I also build negatives by layering transparent shapes on top of clear acetate or plexi-glass. This is a bit more controlled in its result, yet the negatives are exposed with uneven and angled light to create hot spots, dark spots, depth, and gradients.
How did you start working in this way? Can you describe your evolution as an artist? Have you always worked as a photographer?
I began making my own negatives to understand how color worked with light instead of with pigment. I also wanted to challenge myself to make my own compositions in a different way then I do when I find them through a lens. I enjoy the variability of light and the difficulty in controlling it. For me, it is a lot like painting.
I began as a painter in fact, yet I have been making photographs for over 20 years now. I started as a black and white “street photographer” and then moved into color and the after a short bit of time in color, I became very interested in cinematography and the power of suggestion. Compositions that held symbolic information like in melodramatic films or film noirs gripped me and I really became interested in dislocating time and space inside of photography. This eventually led me into abstraction. And now, I am in a place where I am working again a bit with representation or maybe straddling a line between the two. Light is part of this and light manifesting as images became another interest of mine as it was close to another dimension, a consciousness, or a visible subconsciousness.
Since each of your photograms is a one-time shot, how do you manage failure? Do you have photographs that don’t work out as a result of this process?
I have many negatives that never get printed and some mediocre photographs that sit in a box or get destroyed. Yet, there is so much planning on my part that my photographs are not as intuitive as one may think, and the results I get are pretty close to exactly what I intended to make. I literally tape off several sections of the darkroom to mark set points of action where I pick up lights and put things down and stand in particular spots and bounce lights off of certain walls. I practice my performances in the light before I turn off the lights so that I get it as right as I can.
The colors in your work are so vivid and pure—how do you navigate color and how do you plan for specific hues?
Honestly, practice. For example, I used to not be able to make pastels and now I can. It’s like music. Sometimes I make rock songs composed of C’s, D’s, and G’s. But now I often throw in colors as if I were playing 4-fingered bar chords. RGB makes white so that is an easy wipeout of color.
I am so blown away by the subtle edges and soft gradients you are able to achieve. What are the most seductive effects of your process that keep you interested?
Many of the gradients are made from directional lighting, meaning instead of lighting the paper evenly from above like in the case of using an enlarger, I light from the side, or from particular angles, or diffuse my light.
Do you make work that is “secret” or that you don’t show with other work?
I do have several side projects going, and the primary one is my text drawings which I do inside of my sketchbooks. Sometimes I screenprint the drawings onto t-shirts. I call them visual manifestations because I believe they help me bring my goals to life. For instance, one of the text drawings is called “solo show”.
What is a typical day like for you?
I am an early bird. My days vary greatly. Some days I work from my apartment, some days I go to my studio, some days I go to the darkroom, some days I work on Elijah Wheat Showroom with my partner in life and business, Carolina, and some days I go look at art in the city.
What is the Brooklyn and New York art scene and community like? Is this important to your practice?
Being in Brooklyn and in New York is really important to me community-wise and also because I feel so alive here creatively. There are so many serious artists here and everyone can have their own thing.
Do you feel like it is necessary to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so how do you get there?
When I get to my studio, I usually have a lot to do so I make lists and then spring into action. When I was a younger artist, I used to go to my studio and sit there and think about what I might want to do or make, but now there is no time for that. Thinking time is something I do when I’m walking or not sleeping or taking the train. However, if I ever do feel stumped, I just start cleaning and organizing and that usually leads me to ideas.
What are the most important components of your studio or darkroom?
My viewing wall. I need to look at everything after I make it to see if it works or not, and if it does, I like to place it for myself into a dialogue with the rest of my works.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
I sometimes listen to podcasts or music but most often I prefer silence.
What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
I go see a lot of art and I take cell phone images of works that resonate with me. Then I usually open my sketchbook and write down why or draw an image of what the work gave to me. However, painting tends to be my favorite and most inspirational medium that I look to when I need a little fire to play with.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I happen to be super into self-help books. I am always trying to become my best self so I am inspired by motivational authors. One of my recent favorites is Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning. I bought this book on audible and I’ve listened to it more than 5 times. Currently, I’m reading Irish author Belinda McKeon’s second novel called Tender which has me hooked. It is a story about a deep friendship interwoven with love and obsession.
Any advice to recent grads who are interested in getting their work out there and exhibiting?
Going to shows is the best way to get into shows. Meeting other artists at openings eventually leads to studio visits and then to group shows and then to solo shows.
You started Swimming Pool Project Space in Chicago, and have also recently started an exhibition space called Elijah Wheat Showroom in Brooklyn. Can you talk about what prompted you to launch these projects? What is the mission of Elijah Wheat?
In 2008, Carolina Wheat and I started the Swimming Pool Project Space in Chicago. We ran it for 3 years and then moved to New York. We recently reopened a new gallery project here in Brooklyn. It is called the Elijah Wheat Showroom and is named after our late son. The mission of Elijah Wheat Showroom is focused on underrepresented artists. We both enjoy working with artists and love to be engaged with our community.
You must be an extremely busy person, balancing your studio, the gallery, other curatorial projects! How do you manage your time and balance all of these different aspects of your career?
I like having my feet in a few places at once. It keeps life exciting.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Keep making your art no matter what. No matter how busy you are, keep making it. This is how you get to where you want to be. I can’t emphasize this enough… keep making your art.
What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
Nicole Eisenman at Anton Kern.
What is your relationship with social media? Do you have a favorite or least-favorite platform?
Instagram is my favorite. I spend a little time on it every day.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
Next shows are: Dublin, Ireland at Pallas gallery in August; Brooklyn, NY at BAM in September; and in February 2017, I’ve got solo shows in Paris at the NextLevel Galerie and at Horizont Gallery in Budapest, Hungary.
And I’m doing a residency in Budapest for the month of September at the Budapest Art Factory. This will be my very first residency ever.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Liz and her work, check out her website.