We're back with another FOUND featuring Nashville photographer Heather Allen. Heather uses disposable cameras that have been soaked in all kinds of liquids to maker her art. Check out our interview below on her process, influences, favorite places to experiment, and where you can find more of her work.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a photographer who has found my niche in a form of alternative process photography that involves soaking disposable cameras in different liquids with the intention of damaging the film prior to shooting. I’ve experimented with everything from coffee to the Cumberland River to whiskey and everything in between. The results are unpredictable and often dream-like.
When did you discover that you were interested in photography?
I bought my first digital camera as a freshman in college, but my interest began long before then. I was fascinated with the way an image of a person I had never met or a place I had never been could still capture a mood and stir up emotions in me—nostalgia, longing, homesickness. I realized that a good photographer isn’t just aiming a camera and pushing a button, they’re creating something, and I wanted to learn to do it, too. I remember forcing everyone I knew to go on what I called “photo adventures,” pulling all-nighters at Lake Michigan to catch the sunrise or picking my way through broken glass and rat poop in an abandoned farm house. I had some very gracious and patient friends in those early days.
What got you started?
The experimentation with damaging film was inspired by a photographer I read about who would soak disposable cameras in different lakes, and then use those same cameras to photograph the lakes. Just like each body of water was unique, each created a unique effect on the film. I was fascinated with the concept. I had never heard of anything like it before! And, really, I didn’t realize that anyone still shot with film, apart from cheesy vacation photos at Disney World.
I was living in the dorms at my university at the time without easy access to transportation, so my first round of experiments were with whatever I could find in my room. I started off simple—one camera soaked in Sierra Mist and one in orange Gatorade. But this quickly turned into me rifling through cupboards and pouring anything liquid into one big cup—Windex, nail polish remover, etc. I honestly don’t know how the cameras survived the trauma, but these early photos are some of my favorites. I wish I had taken better care to record what I was soaking them in because I have this set of photos with really vibrant colors and a strange sort-of orange film clouding the images, and I have no idea what caused it! I’ve become much more systematic about it since then because I like being able to make comparisons. For example, Redd’s Apple Ale and Guinness are both beer, but the former causes purple-ish, amoeba-shaped splotches on the film, while the latter physically eats away at the edges of the film. The unpredictability of the results is what’s kept me hooked for years.
What inspires you?
I feel very lucky to have stumbled not only into Nashville—a city that prides itself in its local art scene—but also into a group of very talented artists, writers, photographers, musicians, poets, etc. I have always worked to surround myself with creative people because it pushes me to be more creative, so what better place to be an artist than Nashville!
Beyond that, I’ve always found inspiration from photographers who push the envelope a bit. I really enjoy the work of Duane Michals, a black & white photographer who uses photo sequences and writing to enhance his images. Apart from photography, poetry is the greatest love of my life, and for a long time, I’ve played with the idea of finding a way to combine the two, so I really admire the way Michals blends two art forms without causing redundancy. By that, I mean he doesn’t use words to describe what a viewer can already experience by viewing the photograph, but rather he uses anything from a few words to a couple sentences to create layers to his narrative.
Another photography duo who I really admire is Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, who create photographic collages in a really dreamy, surreal way, combining human and natural elements to create a commentary about our relationship with nature and technology. As an artist, I am drawn to things that are not only visually pleasing, but also those that force the viewer to reflect on the art. It can be challenging to do this in a way that is accessible to the majority of people, but these are three photographers who I feel have done it successfully, so I find myself continuously drawn to them for inspiration.
Do you have a favorite type?
Probably my all-time favorite set of photos from my personal collection of work are the ones I soaked in Guinness. Some of the images are completely indecipherable in terms of subject matter, just streaks and splotches, others have a sort of burned-around-the-edges look to them, but then there are a few of them where the beer literally ate away at the edges of the film, almost giving the impression of looking through a window into a separate dimension. It’s pretty neat, visually, but also makes me a little nervous when I think about how much of that I’ve put into my body over the years!
My runners up are probably red wine, Shiraz specifically, or rum. Both of those sets have a gritty sort of texture to them, as if something in the liquid physically scratched the film. Not including all the cameras that I’ve broken through this process, I have a collection of over 20 sets of photos soaked in different things, but I’m nowhere near through experimenting. Would white wine have a similar effect as red? What if I had tried Merlot instead of Shiraz? How does the length of time a camera is soaked affect the results of the images? I could go on and on. I have been doing this for years, but I feel like I’m just starting to scrape the surface.
Any favorite subjects you’ve done?
I’m kind-of a nature child, but I’ve found that my favorite photos are ones that combine nature and man-made objects. I shoot on disposable cameras, which only have about 27 shots per camera, so every photo is valuable to me. Because of this, I don’t approach a shoot the way I would with a digital camera, where I can take a thousand shots of each subject and only keep a handful. I typically carry a camera around with me wherever I go for a month or two at a time, capturing whatever I see that strikes me in the moment. More often than not, that’s an abandoned train car, a sagging barn, or the cracked curb of a dead-end road. There’s something very poetic to me about the idea of nature reclaiming humanity.
We work so hard to create things that will last forever, but eventually everything returns to where it came from, and I think that’s both sad and beautiful. Many artists, I feel, are a form of scientists who examine the human experience, and this is just another dimension of it.
Where are you favorite galleries?
I’ll admit, embarrassingly, I am not familiar with many local galleries. Most of the art that I’m exposed to is the work of individual artists who I discover through word-of-mouth.
Are you working on anything now?
Always. My latest project is to try to capture a city with cameras soaked in liquids that are specific to that area. In Nashville, I’ve shot with a Cumberland River camera, and currently I’m about half way through a disposable camera that has been damaged by Percy Priest Lake. I visited my hometown in Michigan a few weeks ago and went around the Lansing area and the west side of the state with three cameras that had been soaked in beers from local breweries.
Up until now, my experiments have been pretty unfocused, but I like the idea of adding a new dimension to the photos by capturing a city in liquids that are unique to that city. I’ve also been working to acquire cameras that have been soaked in each of the Great Lakes. Having spent the first 23 years of my life in Michigan, I hope to never have to suffer through a midwest winter again, but a big part of me still has a deep-seated love and appreciation for where I grew up. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop missing the Great Lakes. So far, I have two of the five—Michigan and Huron—and I’m just waiting on my sister to go on her Upper Peninsula vacation with her family to get my Lake Superior camera. My constant state of crippling nostalgia will help me find a way to acquire the last two, I’m sure.
Where can we see your work?
My living room, mostly, or stacked against the wall of my bedroom! I’ve been really working over the past year to have prints made of my work, which can be viewed or purchased through my online portfolio.
What’s next? What do you hope to do with your art?
I really just want to push myself to continue with the experiments. I feel like the possibilities with this particular process are limitless, and I want to explore as many as I can. I hope to use these projects as a way to travel to new places and experience new things. I love the idea of going to a new city, soaking a series of cameras in liquids that are unique to that location, and then spending a few days capturing the city with those cameras. I would also love to do more portrait work with these cameras. I shoot a lot of portraits with my digital photography, but haven’t really bridged that gap with film yet. Nashville is the right city to be in for this, though, I feel.
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What's been your biggest challenge?
Lately, my biggest challenge is figuring out how to keep the cameras from breaking! I went through three broken cameras before I was successful with red wine, and almost every camera soaked in beer either results in a wheel that wont turn or a shutter that won’t open. They typically work fine while they’re still wet, but as soon as the cameras dry and the stickiness sets in, there’s no telling.
There’s nothing more disappointing than getting ready to take that perfect shot, and then realizing that the camera is a dud! I have about four or five cameras in my house right now that I was able to shoot a handful of photos before they broke, but I’m sure pretty soon any stores in the area that still develop film are going to have a picture of my face hung up on the “do not serve” wall for the state of the cameras I bring in.
Whats your creative process?
My creative process is kind-of all over the place. Because I shoot from any given camera over the span of about a month, I typically have a few going at once, in varying stages of completion. I have three with me right now! Usually as soon as one roll has been developed, I pick up a new camera and start the process over again, which ensures that I’m never without at least one camera going at all times.
The most important part of my creative process, however, is pushing myself to work on my art consistently. It’s really easy to get sucked into a routine and to let my creativity take a back burner, and honestly that’s one of the most toxic things I can do for my art and really my happiness in general! If there are days that I’m not able to make it out to shoot, I try to write, or read, or see what my friends are working on, or anything that keeps my brain working. Like anything else, creativity takes practice.
What time of day do you shoot pictures?
Typically the best time to shoot is early morning or in the evening because the light is less harsh, warmer in color, and generally more flattering on most subjects. Admittedly I have a hard time pulling myself out of bed in time to witness the early mornings, but I really do love those evening shots, with the backlighting and long shadows. This reflects heavily in my work, as well.
Any favorite collabs you’ve done?
I haven’t done much collaborative work yet, but I am definitely open to it! I am all for the idea of artists working together to create something that neither could have individually, and what better place to work with other artists than a city with such a rich variety and appreciation for local art.
All photos are by Heather Allen. Find more of her work here.
FOUND is a monthly series by Original Fuzz Magazine. We aim to discover visual artists from every corner of the world, no matter the background or creative vision. We believe that all art is as important to our culture as music, words, news, science, even religion. FOUND celebrates the visual and those who create it, serving as a platform for the creative pioneers who embody Original Fuzz and our products.
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