Last September, I featured Lauren Henkin in my column American Connection for Black and White Photography (UK). At the time, we chatted mostly about her newest handmade book release at the time, Silence Is An Orchard. Since then, Lauren has been extremely busy with her newest releases, Deck of Chords and The Lookbook Series: Volume I: Growth.
Our conversation below primarily took place last Spring, but Lauren was kind enough to update the latest details about her two newest projects.
SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?
LAUREN HENKIN: I started photographing while studying architecture in college. That education afforded opportunities to learn a variety of artistic mediums—painting, drawing, sculpture, furniture design, graphic design—and photography. I had access to a tiny darkroom and was lucky enough to be able to work one-on-one with an architectural photographer, who, for some reason, saw a spark of talent, and took me under his wing.
I had been photographing casually on and off since college, but things changed when my dad took me to see a retrospective of Harry Callahan’s work at the National Gallery of Art. I had given a presentation of Callahan’s work to a group of architects in college and, after learning so much about him, felt that he was the epitome of artistic ability. I knew, when I finally saw his prints in person, that I didn’t care how long it would take, but I wanted to make photographs that would equal his in beauty. They left me breathless. From there, I started taking intensive workshops and reading whatever I could find to hone my technical abilities, especially in printmaking. I took intensive workshops with George Tice and Tyler Boley, both of whom are master printers, one with silver, the other with pigment. Once I had the foundation and skills to be able to make the kind of prints I wanted, I began to build the conceptual foundation for my work—stories of impermanence, loss, and what survives.
SB: You live and work in Portland? Are you a full-time photographer? Tell me a bit about your life outside fine art photography.
LH: Yes, I’m a full-time photographer. I’m also a full-time graphic artist. I seem to work all the time. Between making images, printing photographs, scanning, writing, speaking, interviewing for Photo Radio, and now publishing books, any pre-existing boundary between work and life is extinct. My life is my work. I grew up in Washington, DC, but moved to Portland nearly 3 years ago. What little time there is outside of the arts is spent getting to know the Pacific Northwest.
SB: How long have you been creating handmade books? How did you learn the art form? Can you briefly discuss your previous books?
LH: I’ve now published three of my own books and two with collaborators. My foray into book arts began in 2009 when I prepared a book dummy for Photolucida’s portfolio reviews. I was presenting a body of work, Displaced, which was a series of photographs I took about coping with the end of my marriage. It was an extremely personal series, and I knew, once I saw it in book format, that the book was the most effective presentation medium for the photographs. I felt, from the beginning, that I didn’t want to publish a print-on-demand book. I wanted my abilities as a printmaker to become part of the story and for the hand-binding and letterpress printing to convey the feeling of a personal diary more than a traditional photographic monograph.
With a boost from the feedback I received at Photolucida, I applied for, and received, a large grant to publish Displaced in an edition of 60. From that point on, I spent a great deal of time figuring out the details by going outside the photography community and talking to other book artists and bookbinders. Inge Bruggeman, a very accomplished printer and book artist in Portland was of great assistance to me as was John DeMerritt, an incredible bookbinder in the San Francisco area.
I haven’t been trained at all in book arts. But, I can look back, on the history of my working life and trace the steps I took, the jobs I worked, the books I studied, and see how they each offered some small skill that led to my current interests. I used to be a book designer at a small museum in Washington, DC. I designed mostly academic publications there, but the process of laying out text and images day-after-day, choosing appropriate typography, and preparing files for pre-press was invaluable. As an architect, you are continually challenged with material considerations, scale, and problem-solving. I have continually drawn on those experiences as well.
After a long production process, Displaced was completed in the middle of 2010. Between the grant, corporate sponsorship, and pre-sales, I was at a break-even point right when the book was completed which enabled me to start on my second book, Silence is an Orchard.
SB: How did Silence is an Orchard come to being? You mentioned that the first image was shot in Maine and you subsequently went back to shoot. Can you detail the origin of this project?
LH: This series was born in 2008. I visited Acadia National Park in Maine and while walking on one of the many carriage roads, I found an unusually beautiful and sculptural tree (Silence 14), which is the last image in the series. The image of that tree lingered, and I knew that I wanted to return. I went back in the summer of 2009 and instead of photographing more images of that tree, I decided to study the field around it, I guess as a way of selecting one object and investigating it, to tell its story through its surroundings. Native American writer N. Scott Momaday wrote, “Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it.” Silence is an Orchard is about my surrender to that land.
I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Maine. It is the place that, for me, most evokes the idea of “home.” It has been a place of personal growth and a comfort in times of despair. It was where I learned to see, and where I want to be consoled someday if my vision fades.
It felt natural to go back there and photograph. It was extremely quiet, where the sound of reeds blowing in the wind was like a river—a burial ground but also full of life. When I returned to the spot I found in 2008, I decided to build a small portfolio of images by documenting the perimeter of this solitary place. In and out of the light and grasses, a place for quiet. I knew that it would end up being my second book—I wanted to take others on the path I had followed.
For this book, I wanted to do something a little different from Displaced. Displaced is a novel, a long, slow-building story of loss and renewal. Silence is a short story. I wanted it to feel more organic, less of a conventional case-bound photographic portfolio and more of an artist’s book, which led, for example, to my printing the images on Japanese kozo paper along with other design and aesthetic decisions.
SB: What does the series Silence is an Orchard mean to you personally?
LH: It means many things. Personally, artistically, and even financially, it was a turning point.
I make quiet work, photographs of the ordinary. If I can convince a viewer that it’s worthwhile to invest in looking at images of one field, to challenge them to see the beauty that I do, then there is great satisfaction for me in that, both for artistic growth, but also from cultural and environmental understandings as well.
When I started publishing, I chose to make handmade books because I felt, conceptually, that it fit my work perfectly. I have realized, since going down this path, that there really aren’t many photographers out there making handmade, fine press books. Unbeknownst to me, I was doing something more unique than I realized and that has enabled me to widen my audience further than I anticipated. The attention given to the books both from the photographic and fine press communities has brought my work more notice, more shows and access to other artisans working in this medium that I may not have had.
When I was in Nova Scotia photographing Displaced, I had in my mind that I was gathering materials for a book. At that time, self-publishing was not as viable as it is today, so I wasn’t really sure if I was kidding myself. With the publication of Silence is an Orchard, I have reached a level of certainty that I can produce books of my own design, my own imprint, and know that there will be an audience for them. That knowledge, and security, now affords me more liberty to take risks and to publish more frequently. There is no greater gift an artist can receive than that of freedom to do what they want, and this book has given me that.
SB: Can you discuss the involvement of the four other women in this project and how you all came to work together?
LH: I am a strong believer that working with other artists, who share your design aesthetic and possess high levels of artistic capabilities, inevitably elevates your own art. At this point, after working with others so closely, I can’t imagine not collaborating in some way. I know my own limits. I’m a good writer, but not a great one. I’m certainly not a qualified bookbinder or letterpress printer. I knew I wanted to incorporate the best of these disciplines and when the time came to enlist the four other women who participated in this book, it felt like a natural undertaking because I already had a clear idea in my mind of who these other artists were.
When starting, I didn’t know there would be so many artists involved. I definitely wanted to work with Inge Bruggeman again and she was the first person I requested be involved. Then, I asked Sandy Tilcock to bind the books. Sandy is a phenomenal box-maker, binder and printer. Kirsten Rian is a Portland poet, curator and a good friend of mine. We’ve worked together on numerous projects and she offered to write a poem which became “Fieldnotes,” the only text in the book.
I struggled with what to do for the cover. Something didn’t feel right about putting one of the images on the front. What I wanted was to imply what was to come, but not give it away. Inge had introduced me to the work of printmaker Sarah Horowitz. I had followed her work for some time, and felt that she shared my love of the organic. I met Sarah, and after talking with her about the project, I felt comfortable about having her draw and print an original etching for the covers. I gave her one image (Silence 14) as inspiration to work off of. There were no proofs to see, no edits, no changes. She had one shot to get it right as she was drawing directly onto the copper plate. It was a risk and I’m sure some wonder why I would have a book of photographs with an etching on the cover. But, I feel now, seeing what she printed, that it was the right decision.
SB: I have noticed a large amount of photographers making handmade books in the Portland area. There is even one of the few galleries dedicated to book arts (23 Sandy). Do you feel there’s a reason for this particular art form being frequently practiced in your area?
LH: I do, yes. First, there is a large books arts community here and it’s growing. In fact, I believe 23 Sandy is the only gallery in the United States showing book arts that has such an emphasis on photography, and Laura Russell, the gallerist, has been instrumental to educating us all on this art form. Second, Portland itself is large enough to have the resources to support it’s artistic community (Powell’s Books, the largest used and new bookstore in the world, is in Portland, along with wonderful independent book shops showing contemporary art books like Ampersand Vintage and Monograph Bookwerks), but small enough to where I’m pretty aware and know personally many of the other artists working in this medium.
Raymond Meeks, who has been very inspiring, helpful and encouraging to me, moved to Portland almost exactly when I did. Having him here, as available and giving of information and resources as he is, and having access to his books is a huge advantage to those of us who are trying to learn and push this medium forward. Our community is small, but talented and active, enabling us to talk, share and in many ways, push each other farther than if we were each working independently.
Finally, I would add that much of the inspiration I’ve had has come from book artists that aren’t photographers. I quickly ventured out of the photography world to talk to other book artists in Portland like Inge Bruggeman and Rory Sparks, both of whom have helped me tremendously. There is a very active book arts community in San Francisco as well which adds to a wider regional influence and opportunity for education.
SB: What is the edition of the book? Do you offer individual prints for sale?
LH: Silence is an Orchard is an edition of 30. Yes, I definitely offer individual prints for sale. I treat my prints and books as almost two different mediums. What works for the book (size, paper, toning) might not be appropriate for the prints. For example, with Displaced, I printed the images in the book at 7” x 7”, but the prints start at 12” x 12” and go up to 30” x 30” which offers a very different viewing experience.
SB: Do you always photograph with a book in mind as the end result or do you create images for other purposes?
LH: I thought that after completing these two handmade books that I would inevitably photograph with a book in mind. And that’s probably how most of my projects will be. The more difficult question for me now isn’t whether a body of work should be a book, but what kind of book should it be. I think it really depends on how dependent the individual images are on being seen in the context of an entire series versus independently.
SB: What have you been working on since Silence is an Orchard?
LH: I’ve been working on a new body of work called Growth which recently showed at Newspace Center for Photography. Like my previous projects, this series, which began in 2009, connects an internal experience with the external. It focuses more on the urban landscape, with images of trees, weeds, shrubs and other vegetation growing in places where they shouldn’t be. At times invasive, at times, reclaiming, it’s hard to know whether to champion these subjects or whether to get out a pair of garden shears. For the last eight years I’ve struggled with health issues related to invasive growths in my own body. By photographing these plants growing, thriving and struggling to renew some part of the urban landscape, I’m finding an unexpected beauty and peace with the unwanted growths in me that have prompted two major surgeries over the last two years and most likely more in the future.
I just published the first of a new series of small books. The Lookbook Series will serve as an introduction to new portfolios as I intended them to be seen—in print. The first in the series, Volume I: Growth was just completed and I’m really happy with this format for presenting new work.
I also partnered with Kirsten Rian again to produce Deck of Chords, a playing deck of cards that combines my images from another unpublished body of work titled The Lines Between Us and her poems. This was an incredibly fun project to work on together and the response has been phenomenal.
In addition, for the first time I published the work of another artist. Under my imprint, Vela Noche, I published a book of black and white images of Dale Schreiner’s titled Thereafter about his struggle in coming to terms with the unanswerable questions that follow a violent crime and the forced acceptance of events beyond our control. This was a huge accomplishment for me. I’ve never published someone else’s work before, so there was a different and exciting challenge to bringing that work to life, with the end result being something I am extremely proud of.
SB: Do you have any exhibitions, events or upcoming books/projects?
LH: I have a solo book show (my first ever) coming up in May of 2012 at 23 Sandy Gallery (http://www.23sandy.com/) here in Portland which I am preparing for. Hopefully, I will be able to present two new handmade books, one of an existing series called Still Standing, Standing Still, and another of completely new work.
I will also be doing more teaching in 2012 which I really love. I have two how-to self publish workshops coming up, a two-day version in April at Lúz Gallery in Victoria, BC and a week-long experience at the Maine Media Workshops in July. I’m also teaching an intensive portfolio building workshop at Newspace Center for Photography which begins in January.
SB: Where or how can people purchase these books?
LH: Lúz Gallery, Wessel and Lieberman in Seattle, and Ampersand Vintage here in Portland have all of my books available for viewing and purchase. Carte Blanche in San Francisco, also carries Deck of Chords and The Lookbook Series Volume I: Growth.
Buyers can also purchase directly from my imprint, Vela Noche.
To see more of Lauren’s work pop over to her website.