Paula Chamlee, the Sight and Touch Behind the View Camera

Paula Chamlee is a prime example of artistic development that can emerge throughout one’s life. Born in Texas, far from the world of visual arts, today she travels the world with her husband and multiplies her activities in artistic photography, publishing, and teaching. It’s with a high standard for quality and thorough knowledge of photography that the view camera has become her medium for producing the images we discover below.

What led you to photography?

I discovered photography rather late in my life. I have often compared myself to Julia Margaret Cameron in that way.

Because I grew up on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle in a part of the world where the word artbasically didn’t exist, there was very little opportunity for cultural development in the world of dance, painting and the visual arts. We did have music and theatre. But the visual arts were very scarce.

When I went off to college, I was a theater major. After a couple of years, I wanted to see the world, so I applied to Delta airlines to become a stewardess. While flying for the airlines, I lived in Atlanta and New Orleans, and I also traveled overseas. So these things were introducing me to the world that I had longed to see.

Then I met my first husband and we lived in Chicago and a bit later overseas in England and Switzerland for a year. By then we had young children and were living back in the States.

In the meantime, I asked a painter friend if I could study with him. I discovered that I loved painting and drawing.

During that time, I was working in television as a news reporter, as a volunteer in a historical society, and then in real estate, so the painting was a hobby at first. But, I was also discovering that I was very good at visual art, even though I’d never done it before in depth.

By the time my children were old enough to be in grade school full time, I decided I could go back to school and finish the degree that I had not finished earlier.

In going back to university to finish the degree I had started years before, I could focus on my matured and more developed interests. I took classes in French, drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture, printmaking, and all of the art history courses. During that time, the art history program at the University of Alabama in Mobile included just one course on the history of photography.

So your first encounter with photography was in a historical context?

Absolutely.

I signed up for the history of photography class, picked up the text-book, thumbed through the book and said: “Oh my gosh! Is this what photography can be?” I had no idea. We’d all seen Life magazine but I’d never seen fine photography as art in the way these masters worked. In flipping through this book, I instantly was drawn to Edward Weston’s photographs and was completely smitten.

And, to my surprise, I instantly felt a connection to the medium. By that time, as a painter, I had developed a sensibility about organizing form in space. So I had a sense of how I wanted to use photography, which certainly was not as a snapshot photographer or an illustrator, but I was also completely unknowledgeable about the medium technically and historically.

I went to the library and every week I took 10, 15, 20 photography books from the library home with me. I kept doing that every week, so that by the time I did my senior thesis and exhibition, two-thirds of it was painting and one-third was photography.

There was a small photography lab at the university established by Dr. Michael Thomason who had taught that singular history of photography course, and through using that lab, I began to meet fine art photographers living and working throughout that part of the South. I began to learn from these other people. I consider myself primarily self-taught, even though I did have that small, but important, platform from which to make the first leap. And I am forever grateful to Dr. Thomason for teaching that course with great intelligence and care. He got me really excited about the medium.

Within a year or two, I built my own studio and darkroom, so that I could continue to paint and draw, but I was photographing more and more.

I started out with a 35mm camera and then I met people who had larger negatives. When I saw 6×6 cm negatives I thought that was better, so I borrowed a 6x6cm camera from my former husband who had been a newspaper editor at one time, and I started making square format pictures. Then I met someone who had 4×5-inch negatives, and again, I thought that was better. So I borrowed a 4×5-inch camera from a friend. Then I met other photographers working in large format, which led me to some photographers who had invited Michael [A. Smith] to Mobile to teach a weekend workshop. He showed only prints from 8×10-inch and 8×20-inch negatives – and that was even better!

I was really enthralled with these bigger negatives. They were very alluring because of the longer and more beautiful tonal range and great clarity one could achieve with them.

Did you paint in large format too?

Yes, I made relatively large canvases, generally in the abstract expressionist style.

What interested me about black and white photography was that is could be the first step into abstraction by removing the literalness of color. In that regard, it felt more like what I was trying to do in painting (with color). I was interested in form and how form fits into space in endless rhythmic possibilities. I came to color in photography only recently as I have pondered for years how to use it effectively and in concert with my visual concerns.

When I first discovered the 4×5-inch view camera, I looked on the ground glass and saw that everything was upside down and backwards. I thought that was perfect!

Why?

Because, I thought: “Now I can see the world for how it looks and not for what it is.” When you understand what things are, you make a judgment, you drop them into a category, and thus create a limitation on what else they can be.

I often say in my teaching that if we could see the world the way a young child sees it before they know how to name anything, then we could understand pure form.

For me, as a photographer, the view camera was perfect for helping me understand how to organize these tones without worrying about “what the subject is.” Because everything in the picture is the subject, just as every brush stroke on the canvas counts in terms of a complete picture. To this day, I let the camera discover things for me instead of forcing it to make a picture of a “thing.” I let the camera show me the world in a way I cannot otherwise see it. Thus, I am nearly always surprised, learning more, and hopefully, extending the boundaries of my visual perceptions.

Now when you take a picture that isn’t upside down, is that ok too?

Yes, when I work with a 6×6 or a 6×7 camera, I actually work on the ground glass as slowly as I do with an 8×10. It’s disturbing for me that everything is right side up, but I try to forget it so that I can see beyond the literalness.

When you work without your peripheral vision interfering (in the case of being under a view camera’s dark cloth), the picture can reveal itself in new ways. It also establishes what I think of as a magical space that helps me get into a very sensitive visual state.

The exciting thing about photography is that it is not as mechanical as some people indicate. It seems that some photographers use it in a more mechanical way because they force a picture to happen exactly the way they see it before they set up the camera. I believe that they are cheating themselves out of all the possibilities to see it differently. I think there is great benefit in letting the camera and its various lenses educate one’s mind-eye connection.

Have you discovered other artists you admire that also have a link between photography and painting?

Edward Weston was clearly a strong influence of mine from the beginning. Weston understood the artistic life, an integration of life and work that I believe is essential. He was associated with painters like Henrietta Shore, from whom he learned some things. She was doing some rather radical things in painting, and he wisely picked up on that.

In my opinion, any photographer who is looking at or associated with many other mediums has a richer understanding of the visual world. They can then bring that richness of understanding into their own work. Certainly music, books, conversations, and other enriching sources are growth-enhancing as well.

When we are in Paris for Paris Photo, for example, we go to see as many painting exhibitions as we can. I still get most of my influences on how I make a photograph from great paintings. I don’t know how it works, but I know I’m constantly feeding my brain these bits of information that somehow spark the next thing I do.

I’m thinking of the book you and Michael A. Smith did together about Chicago, and it’s rare that people combine painting and photography in one book – is that something you do often?

No, it’s something I’ve just started doing because when Michael and I got married in 1990, I gave up my painting and photography studio in Mobile, Alabama, and when I moved to Pennsylvania we didn’t have a separate studio space for me. Over all this time we’ve been trying to make that happen, but it’s a big building project – we also needed another building for our seminars, archiving all our photography projects, our library, and various other photography-related activities. But we finished my painting studio first and I’ve been in the studio now for about 2 ½ years. That has enabled me to have a place to lay out my collages, my assemblages, my drawings, and so forth – to have a place where I could play with the materials. I need big space – I need to make a mess! So it couldn’t be in our house, which is all photography.

When we did the Chicago project, Michael and I were commissioned together to photograph the city. And for the first time, I had this new studio space. So Michael encouraged me (as he had done before) to combine my drawings and paintings with my photographs specifically for that project. I needed that little push.

It’s a long format book to accommodate Michael’s 8×20-inch photographs. And since we were being published in the same book for the first time, and because of budget reasons, it worked out very well to have my combinations-one or two 8x10s combined with a drawing, for example. It made the sequencing and the formatting of the book come together very nicely.

Combining painting and photography, is this something you plan to do again?

Well, I hope so. At home, I’ve been doing some drawings with Sumi ink – a dense, black ink that you can use with an interesting variety of brushes – sort of like calligraphy. I’ve made a lot of drawings that are very much like some of the still-life botanicals that I did a couple of years ago in the studio. I had no idea that those two things were coming together with the same rhythms and visual vibrancy. It’s really quite interesting how they interact with each other.

When we opened our studios for a special tour last year, I exhibited these calligraphic drawings on either side of one of the botanical photographs.

I also have some botanical specimens that I’ve collected and plan to make some photograms of these to go along with the photographs and more drawings.

Also, for the Chicago project, I brought home a big box full of beautiful, curving, dried twigs that I’d collected from the lakeshore. I found them gorgeous and calligraphic, curving almost like a letter C with many delicate variations. So I made a series of 15 assemblages and I photographed each of them. They are printed large, digitally, and they look totally three-dimensional – like they’re floating in space with the soft shadows complementing their forms. Then I did one long assemblage of the twigs, which I then photographed. The hardest part was photographing them.

The studio work and drawings are leading me to new things. Though I’ve been photographing 26 years now, I feel like I’m just getting started.

The photographers you consider as masters, are they the same ones everyone else considers as “masters”? 

In general, I think the photographers who have received the most fame and recognition after a long period of time are the ones that have stood the test of time, and this is the way it is in most mediums. And of course, many great talents get overlooked in every period. Although there are loads of new photographers who are making good works, I don’t know them all. We certainly have many friends who are very good photographers, some well known, others are not so well known. As you know, recognition depends greatly on a photographer’s exposure to writers, critics, gallerists, and curators. In today’s world, the people that galleries and auctions promote seem to find a place of high recognition that may or may not be deserved.

The world of photography is full of men and women who are being very innovative and who are pushing the medium in lots of directions. So, as far as “masters” go, I don’t know who will be considered a “master” over the long haul. I am just looking at as much as I can in order to see what I can learn.

Which recognition would you like for your work?

I prefer museum shows, but I welcome many varied opportunities to get my work in front of an audience, and hopefully into the collections of museums and collectors. Actually, I want enough recognition to be able to keep making the work.

How do you describe your photography? Is one of your goals to have people enjoy your photography?

I don’t know that I would say the goal is to have them enjoy as much as to just see it and respond. As an artist, you feel like you have something to say, something to give. When this feeling goes away, you’re probably repeating yourself, spinning your wheels.

I believe that I do have something to say. I don’t know that anyone will “get it,” but it’s not my job to make sure they “get it.” My job is to make the best work I possibly can.

I don’t work with ideas as much as I do with feelings. The ideas are already there, so for me it’s important to keep my brain a bit quiet so that the deeper expression from my feelings and intuition can be used in my photography.

Going back to your question; my photography is what I want to give to the world, because photography has given me the chance to see these things, interpret them, and hopefully express them in a way that is meaningful. The audience can receive it however they receive it.

Was photography something you originally did for yourself or for other people?

I have always made the work for me. If I made it for the world, that would be a commercial job. And I did a few commercial assignments in the beginning, and would still welcome them. But for my art, if I let the audience influence or determine the work, then it’s no longer me.

I had a museum show a couple of years ago where many people said they were deeply moved by my work. That’s a great feeling to know that you’ve given your audience something they value. It’s certainly a joy to have good comments about one’s work, but I am never motivated to make something because I think someone else will like it.

And hopefully I have something to say that’s useful.

Useful in what way?

Useful for the audience. It has already served me by giving me pleasure in the process.

Interview by RD