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through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

In Focus: Fritz Liedtke

Last Spring at Photolucida in Portland, Oregon I viewed Fritz Liedtke’s stunning series Astra Velum and was instantly taken by the imagery and artistry. Subsequently, I featured Fritz in my September 2011 column for Black and White Photography (UK).

Fritz and I chatted about his work. Here’s an excerpt from a chat that Fritz and I had last Summer about his work. 

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

FRITZ LIEDTKE: From childhood, I’ve always been one of those people who loves to make things, and to make them beautiful.  From designing and building my own bedroom when I was 12, to drawing and writing and making music, I’ve always enjoyed creating.

When I was 14, my dad and I drove our little turquoise Datsun B210 around the United States, seeing 31 states in 30 days. That’s when I first remember taking a lot of photographs, looking for good composition, going through a lot of film. I kept a journal, and made a large scrapbook of photos and text from that journey. I became more and more passionate about it as time went on, taking classes, winning competitions, filling photo albums and bookshelves with photographs. I was hooked.


SB: Did you study photography formally or are you self-taught?

FL: I took my first photo class in the 9th grade, and enjoyed it.  When I was a junior, I had opportunity to drop my math class and take photo again; that was a no-brainer. My high school teacher was very influential, and helped lay a solid foundation for my career as an artist.  Eventually, I acquired a BFA from Pacific NW College of Art.  But as with any medium, there is a great deal of experimentation and self-teaching involved.


SB: You live and work in Portland? Are you a full-time photographer? Tell me a bit about your life outside fine art photography. 

FL: While I shoot professionally, I am diligent to protect my time for creating my own work; this has always been a priority.  I’m also married, live in 102-year old house I’ve thoroughly remodeled, and enjoy travel and family.


SB: When looking at all of your work, it seems you are inspired to find beauty and humanity in individuals who exhibit physical, psychological or social traits considered flawed or against the standard norm. Would you agree? If so, can you explain the impetus for expressing this theme?

FL: A survey of my work would certainly elicit this conclusion.  I haven’t set out to do this intentionally, but it’s certainly what I’m drawn to.  Recognizing my own weaknesses certainly breeds a compassion for those who struggle, suffer, are on the fringe.  Sometimes I think this is also a way of pushing back against the pressure in society to worship those who appear flawless, powerful, pretty.  It’s a challenge—but a worthwhile one—to find the beauty in everyone, however weak or ‘flawed’ they may be.  Flawed people are just so much more interesting.

SB: You state that some people view freckles as an aberration, but you find them enchanting and exotic. How did you come about photographing women with freckles?

FL: It all starts in San Francisco.  I was photographing there several years ago, and I met this girl.  She was the girlfriend of a friend of a friend, and we were all out at a bar for food and drinks one evening.  She had the most amazing freckles, and I finally asked her if I could take her portrait.  She agreed, but the only light I could find was from the sign outside the bar.  That was sufficient, and the resulting image was captivating to me.

After that, I would occasionally encounter someone with beautiful freckles, and arrange to photograph him or her.  I met people in parks, at weddings, middle schools, and through posts on craigslist.  I photographed most of them at my home; It was a simple shoot, generally, and I tried to make each image unique (I’m averse to repeating myself). 

SB: How long have you been working on Astra Velum? How many images are in this series? Is it an ongoing body of work or is it completed?

FL: The first image I shot in San Francisco five years ago, and it’s been an occasional project since them.  It’s mostly completed, but if the right face comes along and inspiration strikes, I’ll photograph more. 

SB: What does the title Astra Velum connote?

FL: I searched for an appropriate title for this body of work for some time.  The working title all along was simply Freckles, but I wanted something a little more exotic and haunting, like the images themselves.  The term Astra Velum is Latin for “Veil of Stars”, which denotes that beautiful texture these men and women are uniquely blessed with.  It also refers to the patterns in the night sky, as if each of these people is imprinted with their own unique set of constellations.


SB: You printed this body of work as Photogravures, which is an extremely labor intensive method. What inspired this decision?

FL: While photographing the images, I was considering how best to present the work in the end.  I tried many different media: modern tintypes, collodion tintypes, inkjet prints, C-prints, letterpress prints, and in the end, photogravure.

I settled on photogravure because—like the images I was printing—it’s all about texture: the paper, the ink, the impression, everything about photogravure is subtly textured and tactile.

In the digital age, I feel more and more distant from the handmade quality of photography—the manual labor of developing film and dodging and burning prints. But even darkroom work—which I never particularly enjoyed in and of itself—created a product that was made by hand, but showed no evidence of it.  For this reason I’m drawn to processes like tintype, encaustic, book arts, and photogravure, which show clear evidence of the artist’s involvement with the final product.

Until now, I’ve not been a process person; I’d rather shoot and edit, and then have a print magically appear (which, of course, is the draw of inkjet printing).  But I’ve found a real pleasure in the process of printing photogravure.  While it’s the most complicated printing process I’ve ever pursued, it does have its advantages.  I enjoy the craftiness of it—cutting out handmade paper for the chin-collé, inking and wiping the plate just so, the steady rhythm of turning the crank on the press, pulling the print off the plate and catching my breath, stunned by its beauty.  I like the rounded corners of the plate, the indentation of the plate in the paper, the traces of unwiped ink at its edges, the occasional fingerprint.  Like freckles, these are not flaws, but beauty marks.

Photogravure also offers a final product imitated but not reproduced by any other photographic printing medium: chin-collé.  This method of impressing a second piece of paper in between the ink and the backing paper is a traditional technique in printmaking.  This creates a unique print, with glowing warm high values (from the warm Japanese paper), placed against the white of the backing paper. The result is a hand-made print whose depth and luminescence is unmatched by any other pho­tographic print-making process.  They really must be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

For these reasons, handmade photogravures seemed the perfect medium for a series which, at its essence, explores the beauty of surface textures: human skin and its freckles and scars, like a thin veil of stars.

SB: Can you discuss your unique printing process, the paper, etc?

FL: Making an intaglio chin-collé print consists of cutting a piece of paper—in my case, a handmade Japanese paper—the exact same size as the plate.  When inked, the plate is placed on the press bed with the Japanese paper over top of it, and on top of that paper a glue is applied.  Finally, the backing paper (which is wet) is placed in register over the plate and Japanese paper.  This stack is run through the press, which exerts approximately 45,000 pounds of pressure on the sandwich of plate and papers.  In doing so, the ink is pressed into the Japanese paper, which is glued and embossed into the backing paper. 

SB: You offer a breathtakingly beautiful portfolio of selected prints from this series in a folio. Why did you introduce this work as a portfolio rather than make a handmade or published book of the images or just offer individual prints? 

FL: I’ve always enjoyed making portfolios (this is my third).  It’s an opportunity to pull together a tight set of images into a finely crafted, limited edition collector’s item, and I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: the custom box, the colophon, any text included, all enhance the viewer’s experience of the work. 

I’m open to a book project with this work, and have a number of ideas on that front. But a book and a folio are handled and viewed very differently.  I love books, but there’s only one way to look at them: in your hands, one page at a time.  However, a museum or collector who purchases a portfolio can handle the prints individually, display the whole portfolio unframed, or frame the prints for display on the wall.

SB: What is the edition of the portfolio? Do you offer individual prints for sale? 

FL: Astra Velum is available as a limited-edition portfolio of 12 photogravures, in a custom clamshell box, starting at $5500.  The portfolio is limited to an edition of 12. Individual prints are available from the broader series, in a limited edition of 30 per image, beginning at $600 each.


SB: Where or how can people purchase the portfolio or prints?

FL: The prints and portfolio can be purchased from me directly (www.fritzliedtke.com), and from PhotoEye.com.  They are also carried by Panopticon Gallery in Boston.

SB: What are you working on now? 

FL: Thinking about photography outside of the shoot-and-make-a-digital-print paradigm opens up another world full of possibilities.  I’m continuing to explore the many options in photogravure.  In art school, I studied both photography and printmaking, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to marry the two.  I’m also working on artist book and altered book projects, and am photographing for several other ideas.  

To see more of Fritz’s work pop over to his website

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