SHOTS No. 142 - Winter 2019: FADING LIGHT
FEATURED PHOTOGRAPHER: Gabriela Gamboa
- Interview by Elizabeth Flinsch
Fade © Gabriela Gamboa
I met Gabriela when she visited my studio and I was wowed by her presence. I mumbled something about being questioned for my use of film in a digital age, and she gave me a list of ways to defend the alchemy of film photography. I knew she was a kindred spirit.
ELIZABETH FLINSCH: I understand that you spend your time between Miami and Caracas. Is there a place that feels more like home? A place that feels more inspiring?
GABRIELA GAMBOA: The flux between the United States and Venezuela has always been part of my life. I was born in Pittsburgh during exile from a previous military regime. My mother was Italian- American and my father from Venezuela, so my life has been marked by transit. My current situation has not been by choice, but due to the very dire and complex political, social and economic situation in Venezuela, people are being forced to flee, even by foot. I am very fortunate to have both nationalities, which has allowed me to work and not live the fear of the immigrant.
Miami was not a city I knew but it has always been a port chosen by Venezuelans. I was invited to give a workshop there and suddenly doors were opening and many opportunities seemed to arise so I decided to stay a while.
As far as inspiration, I find it everywhere. It is different in each place and I welcome the chance for changes. I hope my work provides reflection and questioning the way my surroundings make me reflect and wonder too. I also believe art is a tool for resilience, an avenue to overcome hardship and turmoil, both in the personal and in the social and political, so I see every place as a motivational possibility.
Who or what most influenced your early photography?
I really started photographing during my college years in Colorado, where I took my first class and went in to a dark room for the first time. And I saw two great photography exhibits: Minor White and Harry Callahan. I also saw the films of Andrej Tarkovsky, Wajda, Antonioni and Kurosawa, which were photographically stunning in the way that they were films but they were also still images. Each one could be a photograph and sometimes there was movement between black and white and color. To gather all that poetry in an image and tell a story was fascinating for me. There was also a lot of snow in Colorado and all the work I loved form these artists was the whitest of their work.
The light and stillness of snow is impeccable and has always drawn me in, perhaps because it was so alien to me and yet so familiar. In the tropics where I grew up, the sun obliterates with its light much in the same way the snow does, giving way to all the subtleties of white on white, as I had often seen in the paintings of Armando Reveron. Later on I realized I was doing this myself, especially in my nude photography. But my teachers did not like my experimentation. My photos were not ‘correct’. Not one of them was encouraging experimentation, not even in art school. I got bad reviews in class and I became very insecure about my work, specifically in my photography. When I started to work in video the rules were not strict. In fact, they had not been invented and there was no school, so I just ran with it. It was very liberating creatively. That freedom became fundamental for me. But my passion for photography remains intact, especially film and darkroom work. And I have the highest respect for the formalities of photography; they just were not meant for me.
Early on you worked in the film industry as a still photographer. How did this experience impact your work?
The film industry was a great school; I was just tossed into it when one of my teachers asked if I could work as his assistant. This was in the pre-digital era and the photography was quite challenging. My first film was a documentary made entirely of still slides; the director was experimenting before stop motion effects were not even invented. We had to climb up a mountain for eight hours with all our gear, food and rolls of film. We did this three times, until we had about 800 photos. The editing process was slow and complicated but the film won a best photography prize and I was hooked.
This was the start of my experimenting with what I call “moving still images”. It was also my first collaboration, which is still something I strongly believe in. It was the door to video art, which has become a real strength for me. I have never stopped using still images in my video, so it has influenced my work from the technical aspect as well as the creative aspect. The subject matter and interpretation is completely different, but what I learned technically was priceless. When digital came along, it just gave me faster ways to execute my ideas. But the magic of doing it all manually is irreplaceable.
Installation, performance, and video have become prominent in your work. What appeals to you about these media?
I have to echo Brian Eno here and say I think art works need to be triggers for experiences, more than objects or things to hang on a wall and be viewed by a few. I’m not denying the importance of that, but it was not satisfying for me.
This ties back to the possibilities of experimentation and moving out of the set rules. Performance was very important in my early work, though I did not call it that. I wanted to experiment in front of the camera using my body as a canvass. I wanted to be on both sides; that in itself was very interesting to me. I liked to propose the idea of movement within the still image. Since this work was not really self-portraiture, I was told it was performative. When I began using video I started performing for the camera and it was the instrument to explore the subtleties of movement and performance. I then started to combine all of these elements in my work.
I must add sound as a separate entity as well. I was simultaneously experimenting with a sound art collective, so the possibility of sound made a world of difference. All of these elements became installations, eventually, but I remember a time when they did not know where to put us or what we were doing. That was the whole idea, to break out of the stillness of the museum and the gallery. I like to surround the viewer, to invite them inside the work. My favorite works are immersive, site specific, set in places of transit, like a hallway or a metro station. It fascinates me to be able to surprise people.
I am curious about your artistic collaborations. What makes collaboration successful? Are there challenges in it for you?
Collaboration is wonderful but indeed very challenging to achieve. It can be very fruitful but the result might not be good. When you find someone – or a group of people – who is in tune with you, it is truly magical to work together; the creative process becomes the sum of everyone’s energy. I think it is very important to be on the same creative path, have a fluidity of ideas and to understand and respect each other. You also need to be very disciplined.
I worked for almost ten years with two very experimental collaboratives: Polyburo, which was basically my partner, Stefano Gramitto and me; and Musikautomatika, where I was the guest collaborator in a group of four people who worked in sound experimentation. Every day we did improvisation workouts with action and reaction and then would distill the ideas into a proposal to build upon. Once this was decided, we had very clear definitions of each person’s job; this is probably the most important part of collaboration. Then, you need to be generous, not self-centered. The work will always be the product of everyone, there are no protagonists. This is also something I love about it.
We have spoken briefly about your activism in Venezuelan politics and protests. Can you describe how political and social issues play a role in your work? Do you see your artwork as a form of political action?
They most definitely are a fundamental part of my work. I strongly believe all art is political and I am not the first to say it. Orwell stated that, “In our age there is no such thing as ”keeping out of politics”. All issues are political issues…” [-George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays]
My work has always had a critical point of view, though I practice the subtleties and nuances of criticism, mainly because it is my nature, but also as a form of self-preservation. I find it is more effective to raise a doubt or an interrogation rather than banging someone over the head with your view as if it is an absolute.
In Venezuela it became impossible to separate art from the turmoil of daily life. Most artists and intellectuals opposed the regime even before they took office. We suspected our liberties and rights were in danger, and so it has been. Everyone was an activist and almost all citizens participated in protests during these past 20 years. Artists became very critical and creative, and some very brilliant, poignant work has come out of Venezuela in recent years. During the protests, we also made a lot of creative statements, visual and performative, until it became more and more dangerous. I really hope my work can qualify as a political action and statement – that is my purpose.
Are there artists who have recently impacted your work or the way you think about making art?
There is whole group of Middle Eastern artists with whom I strongly identified a few years back and it was a crucial moment for me. They were speaking of the same issues exactly as we were, thousands of miles, languages and cultures away. It amazed me once more how we all suffer the same and many times our creative answers are so similar.
I would point out Akram Zaatari for his subject matter and the development of his work. I felt a connection to his use of archival material and his reverence for video. Once I started to read his analysis of photography and the archives, a whole new door opened on my own work; I felt someone had seen inside my head and was writing about it. More than just his work as a visual artist, all of his ideas and writing are fundamental to me.
I was also fortunate at the time to participate in a performance inside an installation by Waalid Raad and see the work of Shirin Neshat and Mona Hathoum. These artists use photography and video, so you can see the parallels.
What’s next for you?
I am truly enjoying having been chosen to be a resident artist at the Bakehouse Art Complex in Miami. I have a wonderful large space and a lot of encouragement for experimentation. This has been a major motivation for staying in Miami. For this coming year I am going to explore the area and see where it takes me and what it feels like to still be active about the issues that concern me but to look at them from a distance. After almost 20 years of living in very unstable conditions, in a daily struggle just to get food and in physical danger – and knowing part of my family is still in that situation – I have good days and I have bad days within all of this freedom and tranquility. It is very different, so I am trying to respond to this through my work, which has always been the only tool I have. ■
EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHER: Sara Silks
- Interview by Douglas Beasley
Sliding © Sara Silks
Sara writes on her website: “My work investigates concepts of fragility, vulnerability, and determination. I use darkroom printing processes, large and small format photography, and digital tools in my work. Using alternative and historical photographic processes allows me to make personal statements in my work by using my drawing and printmaking background.”
DOUGLAS BEASLEY: That is such a succinct statement. Do you find it easy or difficult to write about your work?
SARA SILKS: It is always a challenge to go back and put words to something I have created intuitively. I have certainly needed help with this and am very thankful for my friends and mentors who are willing to look at my writing and act as good editors.
Writing is as much of a process as creating the work. It has gotten easier with more practice and help from others. I would like to share two things that I have received as good advice recently:
1) Keep a writing journal as I work
2) Try to write to the “non-photographer” who might be reading about the work.
Well, three things...
3) Keep it short.
Congratulations on your Center award for teaching photography! You are also quite active in exhibiting and getting work out into the world. How do these overlap?
Thank you, Doug. It was a great honor to be recognized by Center in Santa Fe as an educator.
I have always felt that teaching is an art form in itself and I try to model my approach based on my own favorite teachers and mentors. I find now that teaching is a great way to practice my craft nearly everyday with a discipline that I may not have had as a young artist. It certainly has given me the confidence, patience and financial help to navigate the world of exhibition and fine art photography!
The balance becomes difficult when one of the paths requires more time and attention than the other. Tough decisions have to be made about what I love and need the most. I have had to cut back on teaching to make time for my art and dreams.
Your projects ‘Studies of Women’ and ‘Natsukashii’ seem very different thematically but seem to play off of each other quite well. How do you see them as similar and different?
The Studies of Women series began as a cathartic means to an end. A turbulent and emotional time in my life seemed to work its way to resolution through my metaphors and storytelling over a period of time. I feel relief and exhilaration as the pieces develop for me, even now.
Natsukashii, while monochrome and similar in composition, is more of a peaceful meditation that is reflective of a response to nature. The calmness and silence of each piece is one of a collective memory, rather than storytelling.
What does Natsukashii mean and what is this series about to you?
“Natsukashii” is a Japanese word that stands for the state of “feeling nostalgic” or “fond sweet moment.” From my childhood on, there have been small moments engraved in my visual memory when time stopped, and a sense of being one with the world was unerring in its certainty. I was always an explorer and never afraid to be alone in nature, and the images in this series have been a reverie and a meditation for me, reminding me of some of those etched moments in my memory. I have always tried to capture the feeling of beauty and suspension in my photography and art practice.
I love the texture of the paper showing through in the images. How did you come to this process?
I happened upon a sample pack of paper one day that had this paper in it (unryu washi). I used it to print an image of some dried roses that I had shot through my Mother’s magnifying glass. It knocked my socks off! I wondered what some of my landscape images would look like on this paper and it is still knocking my socks off. I am so grateful for the magical serendipity that seems to have blown into my life in the past few years.
How important is the printing process for you in general?
I do my own printing. It is important for me as an artist to be able to control the vision of the work from beginning to end. Many of my prints involve darkroom processes that I just love; those have provided me with new inspiration just by the nature of their imperfections.
I think it would be an accurate description to say I am a visual artist using photography as a tool, and like my drawings or prints, I have to be there in the work from start to finish.
What inspires you? What keeps you going when it’s difficult?
My life has had its fair share of difficult challenges, including a mother with cancer during my childhood and a disabled sister with a brain injury. I am only nowable to focus on creating my work so each day is a true gift and I always find joy in some part of it.
I am influenced and inspired by my mother’s intellectual curiosity, her love of geography and travel, her independence and her dreams. I still feel her approval for most of my better-considered decisions and I know that I am her legacy.
I would not be doing the work I do today without the inspiration from strong women artists whose work I first saw in Verve Gallery in Santa Fe in 2013, Josephine Sacabo and Elizabeth Opalenik.
I have also met so many great people in the photography community that I trust and who constantly work beyond measure to create a better place for us as artists. Their dedication inspires me.
How does this community impact your process?
I value the community of artists I have around me and know that I can ask for their help or companionship whenever I need it. Like most artists, I work in solitude, and choose often to hermit myself away to work. This community understands and supports me and I am very grateful.■
ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Jim Denomie
Edward Curtis, Paparazzi-Black Hills Golf and Country Club oil on canvas © 2007 Jim Denomie
Ojibwe painter Jim Denomie’s work mainly focuses on political, social and cultural issues, both current and historical, often with biting sarcasm and great humor. As a dear friend, I know Jim to be a lover of photography and supporter of many photographers. I enjoy seeing his image of Edward Curtis, often chasing Indians with a camera, make its way into several of his pieces.
Jim says “Edward Curtis, Paparazzi, popped into my mind one day and I just started laughing. So I made a number of paintings referencing Curtis’ observations about native culture. But where Curtis staged his compositions to omit any evidence of the modern times he was working in, I portray native people living and working in contemporary settings.”
White culture’s depiction of Native people has long been a curious mix of stereotyping and projection. We often see ‘others’ how we want to see them not as they are. Jim’s art helps direct this scrutiny inward. ■
More of Jim’s colorful work can be seen at