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Miranda Lichtenstein began taking Polaroids during a residency at Monet’s garden in Giverny. Using wilting flowers as her subjects, Lichtenstein wanted to document the difficulty that goes into maintaining a garden. The results are carefully composed still lifes that capture fading moments in time, on view now at the Gallery at Hermès in New York.
WHITEWALL: Your photographs seem precisely composed, making use of shadow and often obscuring the process. How do you create this effect with Polaroids, an instantaneous type of film?
MIRANDA LICHTENSTEIN: I use a 4×5 Polaroid back on my Linhof 4×5 rail camera, which is a great studio camera, so the composition is quite controlled, although I use natural light, which adds an element of chance as far as the shadow is concerned. I’ve used Polaroid film long enough that I have a sense of the color shifts that might occur given different lights and temperatures, so I can mine these effects.
WW: Many of your images feature traditional still life objects such as flowers, vases, or fruit, giving the photographs an almost painterly element. How do you set up these scenes?
ML: I started working with still life objects while living on a residency at Monet’s garden in Giverny. I was interested in Monet’s garden as a giant tableaux and how much work and control went into maintaining this rather wild looking garden. There was a false perception in terms of how the garden looked versus how it was maintained. I began painting a shadow I would cast of the discarded plants and flowers I collected from the garden in order to produce a backdrop, against which I would photograph the same flower with its misaligned shadow, or at times another plant altogether. The idea came to me after seeing the shadow paintings in the tool shed, indicating where each garden tool should be hung. Consistently the tools were hung on the wrong painting, so the rake would be on the shovel, etc. It was the pithiest example of a failed system.
I’ve moved on to staging compositions that are solely represented by their shadows, and photographing them through paper screens I collect. I started this work in Japan in 2010 and am still expanding on it.
WW: You’ve said, “I’m interested in instilling a sense of wonder in the viewer in an age when very little surprises.” Why do you think a sense of wonder has been lost?
ML: Re-reading this quote I sound hopelessly romantic, which is not the case. I do think that young photographers still encounter a sense of wonder in the darkroom and I’m all for keeping this process alive as long as we can. But if you are born with an iPhone in your hand, the decisive photographic moments that once were a jolt are now second nature. This isn’t a bad thing per se, it’s just a new way of looking at pictures. But it does lack wonder or surprise. The majority of images are now seen on and even made only for the screen, so I’m interested in paying attention to the surface of a photograph. A Polaroid has an etched quality that is different from a C-print or a digital photograph. My recent work, which I call “Screen Shadows,” call attention to this as well, by focusing on the details of the screen’s surface. There is a perceptual merging of the foreground and background, as well as a collapse between the analog (the paper screen) and the digital (I now shoot with a 5D). I hope that it suggests a certain displacement of the subject of the picture, but also of where you the viewer might be configured in relation to it.
WW: For this series you used flowers that had just begun to wilt. Why?
ML: It’s easy to forget how much labor goes into maintaining a garden, particularly one that has become an industry like Giverny, so I was responding to this by working with the flowers that were no longer suitable for view. At the time, I was also thinking about Karl Blossfeldt’s amazing study of plant life. I always admired this work, and other photographers who worked typologically, but it was counter intuitive for me. So in this way shooting something somewhat pathetic, like the wilted flower, that could no longer be indexed since it had lost many of its living properties at that point, felt a bit like a send up for me. I’m not sure if anyone else would see the humor in this, but it was my way of pushing against a trope in photography that had been an influence at one time.
WW: You also created new Polaroids specifically for this exhibition at the Gallery at Hermès. How has your process evolved?
ML: Well for one, using still life subjects such as flowers and plants was very much a reaction to living in the countryside, so the later work no longer uses objects from nature. Once I started shooting in my studio in New York, the compositions became more architectural, and the objects I work with are always transparent so I can work with both reflected and refracted light.
The Polaroids that I made for this exhibition are pictures of my own pictures. I have 50 inch prints of the “Screen Shadow” images I’m making in my studio, so when I got a few last boxes of Polaroid, I liked the idea of re-photographing my work, making a unique (and much smaller) print of something digital. It was satisfying to see subtle differences in the color, and to have something come around so full circle.
WW: Do you have any other upcoming projects?
ML: I’m currently collaborating with my friend the artist Josh Blackwell to create a hybrid of photographs with his intricately hand-sewn plastic bags, and I will begin work on a film I’m making this summer. My latest photographs will be at Frieze this May.
Miranda Lichtenstein: Polaroids is on view through June 4 at the Gallery at Hermès, 691 Madison Avenue, New York.