Elizabeth Opalenik is a fine art and editorial photographer whose work with the extended print, infrared films, and the mordancage process is exhibited, collected, and published internationally, residing in such collections as La Bibliotheque Nationale and The Portland Museum of Art. She has been teaching figure and alternative workshops in the United States and abroad for the past 14 years privately and for the Maine Photographic Workshops, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, Northern California Professional Photographers, Hallmark, and others. Recent clients include Nancy Lopez Golf; Michael Good Design and brochures on Kenya safari; Seychelles; and barging in France, Holland, and Germany for Sea Air Holidays. Among other commercial clients are Kodak, Gossard Lingerie, Coty Perfume, American Express, and the LPGA. She began her photographic journey at the Maine Photographic workshops in 1979 and is represented by the Stock Market Photo Agency and Benham Gallery in Seattle. Elizabeth resides in Oakland, California, where she uses her former life experiences as Accounting Manager for Continental Oil, interior designer, restaurateur, and childhood memories on a farm in western Pennsylvania to fuel her creativity.
Find out more about Elizabeth Opalenik on her web site – www.opalenik.com
This conversation was first seen in the April/May 1999 issue of Camera Arts magazine.
Elizabeth OpalenikAs a child I dabbled in the arts but I wasn’t raised to know that I could be an artist. I didn’t come from that kind of background. I was very interested in photography before I came to the Maine Photographic Workshops in 1979. When I came, I took a class with Craig Stevens. I came late to photography, but I came late with a lot of life tools, life experience. That is very helpful, especially if you are going to apply them as … I don’t want to say therapy, but photography is therapy. It can be therapy. The idea that I could translate something in my head, metaphorically, and put it on paper, through the use of photography, was so astounding to me that it didn’t even take another thought – I took that two-week workshop and I stayed a year and a half. I just walked across the street and signed up and that was it. There just wasn’t any doubt in my mind at all. It was very powerful to me that photography could be that powerful.
John Paul Caponigro It’s so immediate.
EO It’s so immediate. It was also so immediate in other terms. I remember thinking, “I’m a happy well-adjusted person.” I took this course, was given an assignment, couldn’t stop crying, and thought, “There are probably a lot of closet doors that I haven’t opened.” It was in the exploring, what I wanted to take with me, and being able to metaphorically make images that translated those things. I could take love, knowledge, childhood, all those things, in a photograph. I thought, “It’s worth exploring.” It was an instant decision for me, with no looking back.
JPC True love.
EO True love. And it’s hard. Love is hard. But I can’t imagine what else I’d do. I really can’t. I can’t imagine what else I’d do.
JPC A short list – soft focus, infrared, hand coloring, mordancage, emulsion transfer. The manipulated image is not new to you. I’m curious why you’ve got such a strong impulse towards a departure from what is ordinarily treated as the most representational medium.
EO I need the tactile. My hands need to be in it, on it. I like the feel of these materials, that’s why I work in alternative processes. It’s a tactile thing for me. I always wanted to be an artist and it still seems more of an art form to get my hands in there. I’m sure that’s part of it. In most of the processes, I do it has to do with the paper surface. I would probably be a very good printmaker. I’d probably be very happy being a printmaker because I really like the feel of the papers and the handmade aspects of it. I like hands-on. In mordancage it’s not the surface of the silver paper that I’m so interested in but the fact that it becomes three-dimensional. I learned the process from Jean-Paul Sudre. I immediately wanted to save the draping. I thought, “Ah, this is wonderful.” Again you could feel it, if you put your hands on the surface of the print, you could feel it. It’s very, very tactile.
And it’s very one-of-a-kind. I like things that are kind of one-of-a-kind. Even in the silver print because I hand paint them they’re still one-of-a-kind. I don’t ever sit down and make three that look exactly alike. I don’t color them at the same time so each one is going to be unique. It might be in the same style but it’s still going to be done as one-of-a-kind. And it’s a black and white print I don’t do the same thing in a black and white print either. I’m just not that interested in doing that. I want to make it the best it can be but that best it can depend on how I felt about it that day and that can change with time because all good photographs are self-portraits. If I’m in a black period it’s going to be darker. If I’m in a light and airy period it’s probably going to be lighter. I see it in my work. I can relate a lot of things in my life through that.
JPC The word “romantic” seems to hover around your work. I wonder how would you define romanticism?
EO Last week that was my course up here, The Romantic Photograph. I asked my students what that meant and every person had a different word or something else they applied to it.
JPC What were some of the responses?
EO It depended on what they were thinking about. For one person romantic was the beach scene with the sunset. For somebody else, it was touching. Somebody was madly in love with cars so for them romantic was a beautiful old T Bird. Usually, it was something that made you think about being somewhere else. So it’s really what you bring to it.
I find my work more sensual than romantic. I have a hard time defining the word romantic. We all think of Hallmark cards. What I try to say to my students in those classes is just because you put a soft-focus filter on it doesn’t make it romantic. I don’t use filters. I may use infrared film. For me, it’s more about sensuality than romantic, in the old fashion sense of romantic with flowers. I think of Hallmark cards, though Hallmark has changed – I teach creativity workshops for them too – it’s that feeling of being overly done. I know that my work is not about that and that class is not about that.
EO Sentimentality. Right. I don’t feel that my work is sentimental. I feel that it’s sensuous. I feel that it’s serene.
JPC “Reality” has a subjective component. Many moderns have a bias that in their knowing cynicism reality is hard, that one is not quite engaged in the fullness of life, it’s “truth”, if one doesn’t pay tribute to the harsher aspects of “reality” – the tough stuff.
EO And it’s fine to have the tough stuff. But … I had this conversation with Larry Fink one day in France when he was there as part of the workshop I was teaching for Maine. We were talking about the moment when you would take the picture. I would choose to wait until the person put down the fork, stopped chewing the food, and had a nicer expression. Where if Larry were taking that picture, his have a much harder edge than my photographs will ever have, he’d take the moment between the fork to the mouth or a mouth full of food. We all look like that in reality, at times. That’s a reality. It’s when you choose to push the shutter. There’s enough hardness in the world I guess I just don’t want to always be part of it. There’s a place for both photographs. Somebody has to point out the other stuff too and I love Larry’s work. But it’s just a very different approach to when you would push the button. We had this conversation and I remember taking a Larry Fink picture of Larry to prove my point and pinning it on the wall and saying, “Well there it is Lar.” If you’re cynical then the glass is half empty. And for me, the glass is always half full. So it depends on how you view it.
I had images of nudes underwater in waterlilies on one of those most peaceful days in one of the very first shows I ever did. I did them here in Maine, Annie Kurutz was my model. They were beautiful. I had my camera in the bag underwater looking at the light, for me it was about the lighting, it was about the repetition of a pattern of these beautiful waterlilies floating and her bikini bathing suit top floating. I did this whole series of these underwater images of semi-nudes which I loved. It was this incredible, incredible day. Richard Procopio took that work to his class and asked, “Who took these pictures?” Somebody said they thought it looked like she’d been raped, that they were violent, obviously, a man had taken these pictures because of the bathing suit top floating. I was astounded.
JPC Where do you think that variance in interpretation comes from?
EO Have you ever had six people out to dinner and had them all try to figure out who should pay the bill or how much it should be? Ask six people “Where should we go to dinner?” Everybody brings something else to it. Just try to get anybody else in the world to agree. Everybody brings their own life experience to it so that’s really what the viewpoint is.
Somebody did a test once. They came into a gallery I was at, they ran in and said that something had been stolen, “Did I see this person come in?” They were there and then they ran out. Then they came back ten minutes later and asked me about the person who had been there. It was college kids doing a psychology test. In fact, they were only in there for twelve seconds and I said I thought they were there for a minute or two. It wasn’t. My visual memory and what had actually transpired were very different. Anytime there’s an accident everybody has a different idea about what they saw. It’s your reality. And my reality is totally different.
JPC And sometimes they collide in very interesting ways.
EO Yes. Yes, they do.
JPC If we’re communicators it calls into question are communicating? If we have an intention is it carried out? Or have we made an empty vessel for endless interpretation?
EO Well I think there’s a lot of interpretation about everything. I don’t mean to seem vacant but I don’t know that there’s a message in any of my images. They’re a peaceful place to put the mind.
JPC A statement of being.
EO I don’t feel like I’m asking deep questions. Maybe I’ll evolve to that. I still feel like I’m very new to photography. But there’s a place for this.
JPC When does a nude becomes more than a body?
EO I think there’s a real difference between nude and naked. John Berger talks about it in his book Ways of Seeing so I always use that book in my class and in this last workshop they asked me if I would give them an assignment to go home with. They had done self-portraits in the class so their assignment was to send me a naked self-portrait, as opposed to a nude self-portrait. And they had to do a naked portrait of someone they loved. When I say naked that person can be fully clothed–it has nothing to do with nudity. I think that’s when it goes beyond.
JPC Do you think you can make naked pictures of places?
EO Yes. You can make naked pictures of places. Given the choice, I would rather have it be a naked photograph. I’d rather have it be a naked portrait than a nude portrait. And that’s hard to do sometimes because there’s not a lot of time in these photographs. It’s like photographing a rock. There are times when that rock is going to sing, it’s going to say more than ‘rock’. I mean you get that in your photographs.
JPC Often. I think we’re touching on things that a great majority of photographers are looking for, the naked truth, metaphor or extension, connection, a sense of direct contact …
EO … to the object. I don’t want to make my nudes objects, but like a rock, they are a subject. It doesn’t mean that they’re an object.
JPC Right. But it also implies peeling away our preconceptions of the thing and coming fully into an appreciation of its fuller reality, its sense of being. We may not be able to define what that being is but we can experience it. That’s one of the marvelous things about images, their non-verbal quality avoids caging in an experience with words. Like music, we can come straight into contact with it.
EO Right. I had an interesting question in my slide show this week. This wonderful girl at the workshops from Russia, every question she asked of every artist was interesting and insightful. I just loved her questions. She asked me after commenting that all the bodies in my work were perfect and beautiful, was it necessary for me to have this perfect body all the time in my pictures? My answer was that probably the most rewarding photograph I’ve ever done and the one that means the most to me is a photograph of a nude of my mother in which she’s also naked. She was 84. My mother doesn’t have the perfect body but she has a beautiful body. And she’s a beautiful person.
JPC I would guess that you found the beauty in her and that you had been acquainted with it for some time.
EO Yes. And that’s what you try to get in everything. It has nothing to do with that outer shell. I try to teach with that same viewpoint with my students. Everybody has something beautiful to offer. It’s you as the artist that can find it, that’s where your talent lies.
JPC In a sense I think that’s a quest for wisdom. There’s always Plato, “Truth is beauty, beauty is truth.” Some think beauty is passé. I think the fascinating thing about photography is that the discipline asks us to look at reality very closely and to discover new beauties we wouldn’t have ordinarily considered. Look. You’ll be amazed at what you find. After all these years aren’t you amazed at what you find?
EO Oh, I’m astounded.
It’s interesting now to go back and look at old contacts doing this 20 year retrospective for the school this past week I’d to go back through all my old contacts to pick one from each year that I felt was not necessarily a good photograph but a stepping stone to the next level. I went back and was looking at twenty years worth of work of contact sheets, most of it unprinted. It’s amazing what I discarded then or didn’t know enough to know it might have been an interesting image. I think it will be really interesting to go back and print some of that because I’m bringing a whole other personality to that work now.
For me, photography is like a sketchbook. A contact sheet for me is a sketchbook and a journal. It’s my thought process through the day or through the week however long it took me to put that roll of film through that camera or through that moment with somebody in a portrait session. It’s a sketchbook of that person, of many aspects of that person that I am photographing. I like it for that too. I like to make a contact sheet just to have it.
To remember, to think about what you were thinking then. I’ve kept journals throughout the years, not as diligently as I wish I had, but I have kept journals throughout the years. To go back and look at the journals and think about the process that I was involved with at the time. That’s why this twenty-year retrospective for me, it’s not a retrospective, it was my image from every year, but I also wrote something about it. It was really interesting to look at the photographs and look at the context from that period of time and think about the next step, where I was in the journey, and one key thing that might have changed me, that suddenly made me take another path. I could remember key images each year that did that. In hand painting, I think about the Tuscan farmhouse table, suddenly my painting changed a watercolor technique. I remember a photograph of sunflower fields and having spent all my time in France, in Van Gogh’s land, one day I was standing there and in this particular image, I discovered yellow. I remember thinking in my head and writing in my journal, “I’ve just discovered yellow.” Suddenly I discovered all the nuances of yellow. Going back and looking at the old photographs and thinking, where was I and what I was thinking then. It’s fun to go back. It’s fun to go back and revisit. It’s probably even more interesting to go back with a more knowledgeable mind to see what was there that I missed.
A couple of years ago I wanted to put those images in my slide show as a teaching tool because I think everybody needs to know that the people that you’re learning from started out as novices also. I certainly did. And I think it’s good to show that to your students, to be vulnerable with them in that way and not be “the teacher”. And I was looking back of my contact sheet of that assignment and I realized there was this incredible image on there that I didn’t know enough to print. It looked like one of Emmet Gowin’s photographs of his wife. It’s very simple; it’s like a line drawing. It took me fifteen years to come to that reality. It’s like going back to the paintings that you did as a child, that were so innocent – we all hope that we can go back and make those same images now.
JPC Primal direct responses.
EO Real honesty. I think that that’s a keyword in photography, I think that is really imperative – honesty.
JPC Tell me about the sensual pleasures of image-making. I think you’ve been telling me the whole time but I’m sure that you can celebrate it more.
EO Well, I think that it is a sensual pleasure – image-making. It’s not just the finished print that is sensual in terms of the tactile qualities of the materials that I use. I’m seduced by the light, all the time.
I was thinking about this coming over here, that I’m just coming off the road of the teaching and not getting to do much personal work for the last few months and missing it and thinking about how much I’m looking forward to some down time now to do some of my own work. Then instead of beating myself up I started thinking. I’m always looking. I may not always take a picture every day. I was thinking of a quote from a golfer – of all the analogies, but since I shoot golf which most people don’t know, I photograph for the LPGA, Nancy Wilkins, Arnold Palmer so I come in contact with golf-related things, it seems so far away from what I do – he said that every day you don’t practice is one day longer that it’s going to take you to be good. And it’s the same with photography, every day that you’re not out there taking pictures you have to shoot. Now Jay Meisel shoots every day. And I don’t. There will be gaps of time when I’m not physically photographing. But I am always looking. Even now, just the way you look, I’ll line you up. I’m not taking a picture of you but I suddenly know that you’re better in this frame now than when I’m sitting here because that doorway is bothering me. So I’ll move myself to look at you and have you be in a space that’s right for me.
For me, it’s always about the light. Light is incredibly sensuous I think. That’s why I have such a hard time in the winter months, I can’t live in places that don’t have beautiful light. I love my house in California but I lose the late afternoon light about two hours earlier than sunset and it makes me nuts.
JPC Lack of light is a hard thing to get used to in Maine. But even the smallest bit of light can be thrilling. On a December night, when you are inside in incandescent light, so yellow, looking outside into evening indigo, almost a lavender, if you step outside night turns to a cool pthalo blue, looking back inside everything is gold. Once back inside twilight’s lavender again. Simultaneous contrast. Fascinating.
EO I love all of the different aspects of the seasons but I have to have that beautiful light. I love fog. But, I’m not somebody who will get up at 4 every morning to go find it. I think that’s why I shoot with infrared because I can be out there at noon and I can translate that harsher light to something that is pleasing to me.
The act of looking for me is a sensual pleasure. My cleaning lady used to come to my house and find dead flowers and she would say to my roommate “Do you think I could throw these away? Or is it art?” There was always stuff around and it would always be rearranged and I would always know she came in and moved something on the mantle because visually I have to be pleased when I’m looking at something. In my mind I’m always taking pictures. But I could photograph that same scene ten times and still not get what’s in my mind. Perhaps what I’m seeing just doesn’t translate. But it is a pleasure.
By the same token, if I believed all the ads, I should be able to just pick up a camera and get it. That’s the pr from manufacturers. They want you to believe that you just push a button and that you too can make these images. I said to you yesterday, “Put an artist behind a computer and you’re going to get art. Put a technician behind it and you’re going to get technical images.” It’s inside. It all has to come from inside you. It has to come from your heart.
For me it’s always about the light. Light is incredibly sensuous I think.