I’d first seen the work of Carol Golemboski several years ago, when a friend of mine was showing work at the George Billis Gallery in Los Angeles, and mentioned there would be other work there that I might want to see as well. That evening I’d entered the gallery to find the walls lined with little black velvet curtains hanging in a neat row. There were of course, prints behind each curtain - anthotypes, images that due to their organic process, fade away over time. I loved the whimsical photograms, with their circus and state fair imagery, and I was struck by their precious quality. However, it was the mysterious tone of the presentation and process that really stayed with me over time. This was all Carol’s doing, and I was fascinated! I’d also see that night, black and white prints of hers that combined illustration and photography in the darkroom and used similar symbolic elements to create mysterious and thought provoking photographs. I still wanted to know and see more.
During this time, and after some investigation, I’d realized that Carol’s name and work wasn’t making the same rounds as so many other people I knew of, even though the work was clearly exceptional and many, many, people spoke highly of her. She wasn’t gone, just that there was no new work or news about her projects. I’d discover a couple of years later that while making a big initial splash in the photographic community, she’d taken time off to have children and spend time with her family. I thought this was unusual and interesting at the same time, mostly because I was in the midst of some hard core promotion of my own work, and I basically had the mindset that once you start waving that flag and sending up flares, you never stopped. Carol’s actions simply informed me that with time and maturity in both our work and person, we can use it in meaningful ways other than photography. I found this an extremely admirable quality that I didn’t see many others doing at that time, probably because I too was so immersed in my own little world.
When I learned about Carol’s time off during a discussion about our work and process during Photolucida in 2015, I was able to also find out that yes, while time was being spent with family and not making new work, she was also teaching photography. She had not, in essence, stopped at all…it was more of a redirection and juggling of priorities. She has, of course, reemerged with new work and her first monograph, and is still juggling all that one in a creative life gets to partake in. Ideas centering around time and mystery surround so much of her work, and it is for those reasons that I wanted to ask her some questions about her process. I am also happy to say that all of the images in this interview are being shown here for the very first time anywhere, and I am thrilled to have this venue to share them with all of you. I’m certain that you’ll like what you find.
Carol Golemboski uses antiquated objects as metaphors in carefully staged scenes. Her creative process, defined by the use of black and white film and darkroom printing, combines photography, drawing and photograms in ambiguous and provocative ways. Golemboski has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards including 1st prize in the 2007 Project Competition from Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and individual artist fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Light Work and the Saltonstall Foundation. Her interactive artist’s book for the iPad Psychometry won the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award for Outstanding eBook Achievement. Flash Powder Projects published a monograph of the same series, also titled Psychometry, in 2016. Golemboski’s images have been published internationally and can be found in permanent collections such as the George Eastman Museum, the Denver Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She is a Professor of Photography at the University of Colorado Denver.
Michael Kirchoff: Every photographer experiences that spark that drives them into the direction of image making. How did you get your start, and what were your early influences?
Carol Golemboski: Actually, I always thought I’d be a writer. As a child I wrote mysteries and short stories with disturbing twist endings. Then I took a photography course in college and somehow making pictures began to replace writing as my creative outlet. I later discovered photographers like Diane Arbus and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and I loved the haunted quality of their pictures. Their work helped me understand how photographs can suggest that same ambiguous, uncanny sensibility that underlies my favorite works of literature.
MK: What is at the core of your work? Is there a theme that runs through everything you create?
CG: There’s an underlying theme of anxiety over the passage of time in all of my pictures. I photograph worn and weathered objects. These items automatically reference bygone eras and remind us that many of our own objects will outlive us. I infuse my pictures with multiple layers of meaning but ultimately this fear of disappearing into oblivion informs all of my work.
MK: You make your photographs in a very traditional way by working in the darkroom, yet they are far from traditional in their execution. Can you give us a little play by play as to what it takes to create one of your originals?
CG: I collect objects at estate sales, flea markets and yard sales. Later I position them in symbolic arrangements, shooting them with either medium format or 4” x 5” black and white film. In the darkroom, I manipulate the imagery in ways that steer the viewer toward my concept for the picture. These manipulations usually take the form of scratching the negative, printing the negative through drawings on mylar, and incorporating photograms into the imagery. There’s a lot of drawing, a lot of erasing, and a lot of testing and experimenting. Each picture goes through dozens of revisions before it is complete.
MK: I would imagine that the time required in making your art changes with each image, but how much thought, planning, and preparation of all the elements is spent before you even enter your darkroom?
CG: It may sound extreme, but sometimes a single photograph can take months or even years to produce! I never seem to have enough time to pursue all of my ideas; pictures can remain on the back burner or in a partial stage of production (or as a fleeting thought in my head) for a ridiculously long time. There are negatives that I shot a decade ago that I still haven’t converted into final prints. The truth is that I don’t always know how I’m going to manipulate an image when I’m shooting it. Once I have a good negative, I make a full-size print, pin it up on my studio wall, and stare at it for days (or months) before I determine how I want to manipulate it. I rarely have the whole picture planned out from the start (and even if I do, it usually doesn’t work out the way I conceived).
MK: Normally I would ask someone who spends so much of their time in the darkroom if they have any reservations about embracing technology. You, however, had taken what you do and brought it to the world in the form of a pretty outstanding iPad app. Unfortunately, I understand that it is no longer available, but can you tell us a little about the decision and the process in designing a technological side of yourself?
CG: I worked with designer Roxy Davison to create my iPad app. She wrote all the code and researched all the tricky technological elements, but I had to significantly increase my own rather spotty knowledge of video and Photoshop to provide her with the necessary files. It was an interesting experience to create something that encouraged physical interaction from the viewer. I enjoyed coming up with digital features that would never be possible in a physical book or a silver print. I also learned the hard way just how fast the technology changes. It’s true the app is no longer available and honestly, I’m not sure how I’m going to proceed with it. Currently I’m sort of thinking of it as a limited edition book that has simply sold out.
MK: Fans of your work can also find your book, Psychometry, available. Were the aspects of putting this together similar to how you created the iPad app of the same name? As an artist, do you have a preference to one over the other?
CG: The process of working on the book was very different than the app. With the app, I had complete creative control. We intended it to be an interactive experience that gives insight into my background and influences as well as my process. The book was designed to be more of a traditional monograph. For this project, I worked with editors David Bram and Jennifer Yoffy, formerly of Flash Powder Projects. They did the final edit, while other creative decisions—the layout, the inclusion of a story by Shirley Jackson—were made jointly. The book provides the images but intentionally doesn’t offer any explanations. In my mind, the iPad app and the book serve different purposes and offer very different experiences.
MK: Do you engage in or see value in social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram for promoting your work to new audiences?
CG: It still always feels weird to promote my work through social media, but I do see its value. I recognize that many of my Facebook “friends” are photographers and genuinely want to know what I’ve been up to in the darkroom. So I try to provide periodic updates about my work and career without being a jerk about it. I don’t, however, have a twitter account, nor do I want one. I created an Instagram account years ago but have never actually posted on it. I do recognize the importance of social media for self-promotion in this digital age but I use it more for keeping up with friends, colleagues, former students and other photographers than for posting about myself (perhaps, I acknowledge, to the detriment of my career).
MK: Your images are full of symbolism and metaphor, and I’m curious if while working on your images, do you even find yourself discovering details about your own psyche that you had not intended?
CG: My work certainly helps me discover things about myself. However, I almost never recognize these psychological clues until well after I’ve finished a piece. It’s not unusual for me to work intensely on an image and be somewhat oblivious to its actual implications until I examine it in hindsight. And sometimes I never really know the root. It’s like interpreting a dream—I can conduct a surface analysis but the underlying motivation may be something that only exists at a subconscious level. I think this is probably true for a lot of artists who work intuitively.
MK: Do you have any other creative pursuits, or has photography become the one obsession that always takes precedence?
CG: I started writing short stories again this past year but then got so involved with image-making that I put writing on hold (again). I have this idea that I might write a novel one day. I suppose that’s a cliché but nonetheless it’s a dream that I want to pursue. I find cooking and gardening to be very fulfilling but I can really only concentrate on one creative activity at a time. If I’m really active in the darkroom, my family ends up eating a lot of take out and my garden gets overgrown of weeds.
MK: Working in photography, designing books and apps, and teaching, all add up to be very time-consuming, yet your life and family do not take a back seat to it all. How does one balance things and handle the time management aspects of a creative life?
CG: As I suggested, something’s gotta give. I don’t know that I always do such a great job balancing work and family life. In fact, sometimes I really struggle with it. In the end, I think it’s more about prioritizing and deciding what’s truly important. Although I would love to have a spotless house, in my current life, that’s just not realistic. The trick (I think) is to accept the fact that you’re probably going to have to let some things go, and then enjoy the rest.
MK: In the past, you’ve made work using the anthotype historical process. How differently do you approach this work knowing that it has a limited lifetime? Is there a path you’ve taken to preserve these images as much as possible?
CG: I don’t know of anything that will preserve an anthotype other than keeping it out of the light. Before I exhibited my anthotypes, I had the prints professionally scanned to match the originals as closely as possible, so now I have a record of what they used to look like (and I can make digital prints of the images if need be). When I exhibited the originals, I hung them behind black velvet curtains. Each piece looked like a little theater and viewers had to pull back the curtains to view them. The prints did change after being shown, but only slightly. I store them in flat files or wrapped in paper that prevents them from being exposed to light. They will, however, continue to change over time. That’s just the nature—and, to me, the appeal—of the process.
MK: Please tell us a little about the teaching aspects of your career in photography. Are there times when you feel the work with your students has helped inform the art you create?
CG: My students inspire me all the time. I’ve been teaching an alternative process class for over twenty years and every new group of students comes up with variations on experimental techniques that hadn’t occurred to me. Teaching forces me to keep up with new artists, trends, technology and new ways of thinking about photography. I have a different student intern every year and just knowing that person is coming to work pushes me to prepare things in my darkroom and studio that I might otherwise let slide. I trust them to give me feedback and contribute ideas to whatever I happen to be doing.
MK: What is something you advise your students when setting out to build their own photographic careers? Do you have any words of wisdom to those setting out to make their own mark?
CG: I encourage my students to be persistent, to develop a thick skin, and to simply work. It takes time—sometimes a lot of time—to develop a style. I believe that the biggest mistake my students make is that they often quit working on a project once it gets hard. I advise them to take risks, even if it means making some awful photographs, and to work through the challenges until either they get something good or it forces them to start moving in a different direction.
MK: In conclusion, how do you see your work progressing into the future? Do you have anything new you are currently working on that we should be on the lookout for?
CG: I was on sabbatical for the 2017-18 academic year and I used that time to significantly add to my Magic series. In the fall of 2017 I shot and developed over seven hundred 4”x 5” and medium format negatives of magic trick props, board games, and playing cards. In 2018 I began working on selected negatives in the darkroom. During this time, I also acquired a significant stockpile of vintage, unexposed photographic paper at an estate sale. As would be expected, most of the paper, which expired between the 1940’s and the 1970’s, is so fogged that it turns completely black in the developer. Knowing this, I devised a challenge for myself to use this paper to create optical illusions and “photographic curiosities” through alternative use of darkroom chemicals. I’m having a great time figuring out how I can manipulate this paper, and plan to exhibit these oddities as a sub-series of the Magic pictures in upcoming exhibitions in 2019.
You can find more of Carol's work at her website here.