Photographer Meghann Riepenhoff travels without a camera. Instead, she packs paper that has been coated with a solution of ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide. And instead of traditional photographic prints, she creates cyanotypes—the result of a printing process that involves exposing the two iron salts in solution to ultraviolet light. Cyanography was developed in the mid-nineteenth century to produce photographic negatives for the mercantile world. Blueprints are an early example. However, artists eventually saw the potential of the innovation.
To create a cyanotype, a suitable medium such as fabric or paper is covered with the chemical emulsion and kept from the light until onsite. The photographer composes an image by manipulating the ultraviolet light that reaches the light-sensitive surface. One of the earliest practitioners was the botanist Anna Atkins, who, in 1843, published Photographs of British Algae, cyanotypes of seaweed arranged on treated paper. Riepenhoff lists Atkins among her influences, and much of her work, fittingly, involves the effects of water on the cyanographic process.
Two of Riepenhoff’s major projects, which are represented in the following portfolio, are Littoral Drift and Ecotone, both graphic representations of the liminal space between water and landscape. Littoral drift is the process of gradual accretion and reduction of coastlines by wave and tide action. The result is a (shore)line undergoing constant change while creating boundaries, which, in turn create ecotones where diverse biological communities coexist. How better to “see” this than to enable the water and the material it carries to produce an image? Riepenhoff calls the process a collaboration, and she achieves it by positioning the coated paper so that water will interact with it—at the shoreline, she placed the paper within the reach of waves or tides and for Ecotone, draped it over objects in the landscape to record the effects of snow or rain.
Back in the studio, the naturally occurring result will determine a work’s final presentation. The results are at once enigmatic and strikingly beautiful. In some, three-dimensional objects carried by the water have expanded its aftereffect by inscribing images on the paper. Others, in Ecotone especially, reveal the objects the paper was draped over. And finding advantage in cyanographs’ proclivity to continue to process over time, Riepenhoff is creating polyptychs composed of photographs that record the progress of the images that were originally exposed. With her “collaborators,” Riepenhoff has made art that is autogenetic, spontaneous, and with a minimum of human intervention, to explore the very human questions of time, impermanence, and the sublime.
Originally from Atlanta, Meghann Riepenhoff is now based in Bainbridge Island, Washington, and San Francisco. She received a BFA in photography from the University of Georgia and an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute. Her work is held in the collections of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. Riepenhoff’s awards include a Fleishhacker Foundation grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and recognition as a Critical Mass Top 50 Photographer. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Banff (Alberta) Centre for the Arts and the RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco, and an Affiliate Artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California.
Riepenhoff and I discussed her work by email in October.
Douglas Carlson (DC): What drew you to Anna Atkins’s work?
Meghann Riepenhoff (MR): Atkins, like so many women, was nearly omitted from history. But thanks to people like Larry Schaaf and Joshua Chuang at the New York Public Library and Nancy Burns at the Worcester Art Museum, her contribution to the history of photography is getting much-deserved attention. I was attracted to Atkins because of her exquisite work, and then doubly interested in her when I learned that she made the first photography book as a woman in the 1840s. She was an amateur botanist, but she used photographic materials in her own way, to show people a new way of imaging the world around us. Her work also represents the first connection of photography to the shoreline. Where Atkins took specimens from the shoreline and made prints with them, in my work the environment is both the subject and the process of the prints.
Atkins also pointed to an interesting part of the human experience—which is the urge to categorize, delineate, and perhaps contain the environment. As we grow more and more aware of the damages we’re causing to the planet, we have an opportunity to operate with more integrity.
DC: What was your early work with cyanography like? Would you say that it was a case of a process in search of projects, or were the ecological statements you wanted to make just waiting for the right mode?
MR: I played with cyanotypes while I was a student at UGA, but otherwise dove straight into this way of working with the materials. Once I had Atkins in mind and was feeling the urgency to reflect the environment, I moved quickly into this way of working. I knew I wanted a very tactile, physical recording of waves (at first, then later all kinds of landscapes and environments). I thought if we could reestablish our connection with the environment, perhaps we could move closer toward a balanced relationship with it.
I also think it is important to point out that photography is not exempt from problematic environmental impact. Kodak made a superfund site in a Great Lake. We use paper, heavy metals, et cetera in the production of images . . . AND at the same time photographers’ images have been key in shifting environmental policy and getting protections put in place. Within the art field, we can see a microcosm of the whole truth—that each of our actions has an impact, and that we have some choice in navigating what our overall impact looks like.
DC: As an aside, or maybe this is central, do you feel a special affinity with Prussian blue?
MR: Blue is the color we register for the sky and the sea, places we can’t really occupy except perhaps in images and occasional journeys into enigmatic depths of space. Blue can suggest immateriality, distance, vastness.
Rebecca Solnit wrote, in A Field Guide for Getting Lost, “For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.”
DC: The narrative behind projects such as Littoral Drift and Ecotone is essential for a complete appreciation of the works, yet simply looking at them is wholly satisfying. How do you see the relationship between meaning and visual appeal?
MR: My intention is for the visual properties of the work to be substantial in their own right, and for the accompanying titles and text to enrich the experience. Some of the ideas I’m working with, like the complicated and problematic relationship between humans and our environment, or impermanence, are loaded—emotionally, culturally, politically, et cetera. So I want my work to be a kind of a prompt, perhaps an entrée that offers beauty in the face of difficulty.
DC: Since you are seemingly at the mercy of natural forces, what sorts of interventions have you used to get the results you want?
MR: I describe natural forces/elements as my collaborators. Sometimes it is copacetic, and sometimes the prints and I are overcome by the immense powers of the landscape. While I’m making decisions throughout the process, about where to put a print or how to expose it, I’m constantly navigating a surrendering to the elemental forces surrounding me.
DC: To return to the cameraless technique: as an artist, what advantage does it offer over the beach walker with an iPhone or a professional photographer with more versatile (and more expensive) equipment—assuming the intent is to convey a sense of place?
MR: My images are incredibly literal—they record the bumps and debris and all kinds of markers of process. It could be said that they’re more accurately expressing the conditions of wildness than, say, a high-resolution digital image. They’re minimally mediated photographic representation.
DC: For me one of the most forceful aspects of your work is that you allow the developing process to continue so that images change and eventually disappear. I’m reminded of Andy Goldsworthy’s constructions that he abandons to return to their elements. How does this eloquent statement of impermanence figure into your overall artistic program?
MR: To get technical about it, the images aren’t going to disappear, but rather to vacillate and shift according to environment over time. All cyanotypes, even those that are fully photochemically processed, can lighten subtly in strong UV light. Practitioners sometimes joke that cyanotypes need “beauty sleep,” where they are put in darkness to bring the richness back into the blue. I exploit this material property and exaggerate it by leaving latent chemistry in the pieces, which makes them much more expressive in their potential to change.
So much of the conversation around photography is about making images archival. When we talk about the idea of “archival,” we’re thinking in the human time scale, and operating as though images are somehow exempt from the very nature of life itself, which is change and ultimately death. I want to point to the nature of imminent change and geologic time, to forces that are much larger than us, to the mysteriousness of change, which can evoke pain and peace and the sublime and beauty.
Images appear courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York, and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.
All images are dynamic cyanotypes. © 2020 Meghann Riepenhoff.