Tatiana Gulenkina is making a name for herself as a visual artist through her photography. What might surprise you is that she’s doing it, in large part, without using a camera.
Instead of a camera and a lens, she creates abstract images by placing objects on light-sensitive paper, often manipulating the items as she exposes the scene to light. Her series “Things Merging and Falling Apart” was featured in Wired and the British Journal of Photography, among other outlets. In 2014, she was named one of the 30 Under 30 Women Photographers by Photo Boîte Agency and 30 Photographers Under 30 to Watch by Complex Magazine.
In her artistic repertoire, she employs digital and traditional darkroom technology, along with video and mixed media to produce fine art, along with more traditional journalistic work.
In this interview, the Russian-born Tatiana discusses her work, sharing her views on the processes involved in creating photographic images, including camera-less printing techniques. She will be expanding on this in her upcoming program at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival where she will “look at behind-the-scenes processes and inspirations that drive creativity when seemingly everything has been done before.”
Mike Lee: What inspired you initially to see the possibilities in taking the direction you have in your work? Where did it all begin?
Tatiana Gulenkina: When I first fell in love with photography, I initially was attracted to the idea of creating something from scratch, and everyone who’s ever seen the image slowly coming alive in a tray full of developer knows what I’m talking about. Attending MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art and] living in Baltimore, which, on its own, has a diverse art community, pushed me to further explore the potential of the medium and, eventually, start experimenting with camera-less techniques and process-based art.
Ironically, it happened right when I was graduating, and since a color darkroom is not something that can be set up in the back of a small apartment, I was debating whether or not to give up on this idea. But while frantically looking for (any) jobs and feeling disillusioned in terms of the post-recession economy, as well as observing how everyone in the industry is kind of jaded by a rapid transition from film to digital photography, from still images to video, from video to multimedia (and now to VR), I’ve made an agreement with myself that I’ll continue to pursue this project and find a way to support my addictive art habit through a day job, or a more commercial type of photography, or whatever it takes. Luckily, it all worked out, and even though there are fewer and fewer color darkrooms out there, I feel very privileged to still be able to make C prints.
“I’m not sure if I believe in doing something just for the sake of novelty or originality. I think the question to ask is not what could I possibly do that has never been seen before (because the second it’s done, someone else will copy it, and probably do it better) but what do I really crave to make, which in itself might be even a tougher question.”
Lee: There is a saying bandied about by other photographers I’ve talked with over the years, which is “everything has been taken.” Yet with ever-expanding technologies and processes in rendering an image, that seems not to be the case. Do you agree that there is a wealth of possibilities in not just utilizing new technologies, and also in returning to older, less-well-known (or semi-forgotten) alternative processes?
Gulenkina: I’m not sure if I believe in doing something just for the sake of novelty or originality. I think the question to ask is not what could I possibly do that has never been seen before (because the second it’s done, someone else will copy it, and probably do it better) but what do I really crave to make, which in itself might be even a tougher question. And if it’s a traditional straight-on black-and-white portrait, that’s totally valid. What often comes to my mind though, and what’s often lost in the world of digital media, is the relationship between the message and the medium. When I’m thinking about photographs, I consider them 3-D objects with the content dictating the form, and vice versa. Recall, for example, JR’s images of eyes and hands, that on their own are very simple, but in reality it’s all about the scale, the fragility of newsprint, the placement, the participatory aspect… I genuinely believe that every story has a lot of hidden potential and can be taken further, reimagined. Maybe it needs to be a hand-made book, or a 360 digital panorama. Maybe it’ll benefit from having an accompanying text, or a short film. But also…just because everyone is suddenly putting their images in the giant light boxes, doesn’t mean you should.
Lee: You have an ongoing project called “Innocence.” Could you share what inspired you to create this series, and what goes into the creation of these images? What is the story behind them?
Gulenkina: Since this is my most recent work-in-progress, I’m honestly still figuring it out. I see a lot of my peers understandably burnt out and bitter, if not nihilistic, constantly thinking about a crisis of humanity, a potential nuclear apocalypse or robots taking over the world, and while it is crucial to have a sense of urgency, nobody wants to live in a state of constant paranoia. It might sound like a cliché, but nature always had a very grounding effect on me. I love collecting plants and rocks, and it’s fascinating just to think that some of these shapes have been around for thousands of years, in spite of everything we’ve done to this planet. However, with global warming and bioengineering things are changing rather dramatically, so I was interested in combining natural and man-made materials in various collages and seeing where it eventually leads me.
Lee: Could you tell us about how you approach a series of work, and the techniques you’ve used in the creative process? An example I find striking is in “Things Merging and Falling Apart.”
Gulenkina: It’s been a long journey, and I hope to go into more details about the process itself during the talk, but it all starts with the darkness and a sheet of light-sensitive paper. I arrange different objects on the surface, or submerge them in a small tank full of water, and then do a long exposure and/or change color filters during the process. The circular images that you might be referring to are actually mandalas made out of colored sand and slowly washed away so what you end up seeing is a certain stage of the process.
Lee: You write, to paraphrase, about the illusion of memory attached to photographs. Tell us how you used the aspect of rendered memories in your images.
Gulenkina: In our image-centric culture, we generally attach a lot of value to the photos, especially of people. With social media, there is a tendency to chase the photograph more than the actual experience, just to quickly replace it with another one. As fun or as exhausting as it sounds, it changes our relationship to memorabilia and memories in general, and it’s something that I hope to continue exploring.
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.