I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Paula Riff deserves an immense amount of praise and admiration, not simply for her art (though I will get to that), but for her attitudes towards photography and the art world in general. I don’t think that anyone who has ever met her wouldn’t see it almost immediately, for she has a fervor and positive approach to all things photographic that seems all too rare these days. In fact, when I realized that the interview portion of her previous feature for Analog Forever Magazine had been kept short in order to allow for more writing on my part, I decided to ask her if she’s wish to expand upon it here. There was no hesitation or pause, only a resounding, “YES!” That’s basically what I always encounter with her - she always shows up, she always brings her A game, and she always wants to discuss not just her work, but that of everyone else around her. It’s a thirst for knowledge and experiences that is infectious and addictive.
Her latest works, photograms created using a variety of historical processes, are quite unique in both their complexity of process and simplicity of design. The layering that takes place in her process creates color and texture of such depth, that it’s hard not to examine each piece, taking in all of the nuance she intends for them all. There is a method in the their creation born out of the inspiration she finds all around her, though most often, and especially with her latest body of work, Blue is not the sky, one provided by her love and interest in Japanese design and culture. It is these works, as well as her methods that I find intriguing, and well…I basically craved more input from her as to what drives her creative process. Thankfully, that “YES!” I received came through as always, and Paula has give us all some fuel for thought.
Paula Riff is a Los Angeles based artist known for creating one of a kind camera-less photographic works on paper that embrace bold colors, form and design. She combines the historical processes of cyanotype and gum bichromate, allowing her a physical and intimate relationship with the materials that she uses to push the boundaries of the medium while considering themes of abstraction and the natural world.
Paula graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Japanese language and worked as an interpreter in Tokyo, Japan for several years. Returning to Los Angeles, she switched careers after gaining an internship at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the photo department. Her work was selected as a Critical Mass Top 200 Finalist in 2019, the Top 50 Critical Mass Award of 2018 and a 2018 finalist for the Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women in the Alternative Process Category. Her work has appeared in numerous museums, galleries, publications and exhibitions throughout the U.S and internationally. Paula’s work is also held in private collections.
Michael Kirchoff: Can you give me a brief timeline of how you got started in photography, and why you finally gravitated towards cameraless work?
PR: I had been living in Tokyo for several years working as an interpreter at a Japanese newspaper and before returning to the states, the staff photographer gave me one of his old film cameras as a going away present. That Pentax was my first camera and I began by taking pictures of mountains while traveling in Nepal before coming back to the states. I then moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in a beginning darkroom class where I learned how to process film and make silver gelatin prints. That really was a turning point for me and I set up a tiny and rudimentary darkroom in my bathroom. I landed an internship at LACMA in the photo department where I was lucky enough to look at art all day long. I also worked at Cal Arts in the publicity department where I processed film and made prints for their publications. The best part of that job was that I had keys to my own darkroom. That was a real luxury.
I have used all different kinds of film cameras, 35mm, medium format, lots of toy cameras and Polaroids too. So when everyone was changing to digital cameras, I was not at all excited about it. I finally bought a digital camera and have taken lots of digital images but I never really felt totally connected to it. I am not great at Photoshop or digital printing so at that point I had to start relying on other people to print my work and I felt more and more disconnected to the work I was making. I had been wanting to experiment with alternative processes and started experimenting with cyanotypes. Once I began making photograms and put my camera aside I felt so free! I cannot tell you how liberating it is to make work in this way. It’s just up to me to continue to find out what it is I want or need to make. It is pretty exciting.
MK: With the proliferation of digital technology taking over the photography world, there seems to be some pushback from the analog world. We are beginning to see a trend of more and more photographers taking on historical processes. Do you feel this is exactly that, a trend, or that possibly people have a desire to return to the way we used to create work before the pixel took over?
PR: I am very happy that more artists are taking an interest in the historical processes, and I see artists combining these processes with digital image making as well, so that is pretty cool. I do think the more artists explore hand made image making that they will fall in love like I did and continue to experiment with it, although for sure digital imagery is here to stay especially with its ease and the singular use of the iPhone.
As far as just a trend, I’d like to think that it is not the case, I’d like to believe that the interest will only bloom because the creative possibilities using these processes and the creative freedom it allows is pretty mind blowing, at least for me. So, I don't really see the interest as a passing thing. I am also seeing galleries and museums showcasing artists using historical processes and unique work more and more which is fantastic!
MK: As I know you are continuing to work on it, is there a long term goal for your latest project, Blue is not the sky?
PR: My big time crush with gum printing continues as does combining cyanotype in my image making. There is something so satisfying and pleasing with the simplicity of the geometric and abstract form that is the central focus of this series and I feel I still have much more room to experiment in this way. That being said, I don't like repeating myself, if possible, and find this aspect of my work flow the hardest, so I continue to try and push the ideas and visions as much as I can and hopefully find a new voice within that space.
So I guess that means I am not done working on this series, Blue is not the sky, but I see it changing, evolving if you will, the shapes, the color combinations, the mood, the size of the work and how it is presented. I always have a million ideas, so we shall see how that goes…
Although it may not be completely apparent as first glance, I see my work as autobiographical and the images change in attitude and feeling as my emotions and inner visions change. I’d like to think that my work ushers in a kind of visual emotion and that the viewer can decide where the imagery takes them.
MK: I know it’s random, but can you tell me about how long it takes to make a print once you have a clear idea of what you are working towards?
PR: That is really a hard question to answer because it depends on a lot of different things. Once I have a vision in my head, I first make a paper mock up much like a sketch but with cut paper and I lay out the design or idea I have in my head. The actual making of the piece also varies depending on how many layers or coats of chemicals I am using. I work slowly and I usually only make one layer a day but often I am coating more than one piece of paper. Of course there is exposure and development time to consider and depending how that looks and works out then I continue with another coat. Everything I make is hand coated and because gum printing is a very finicky process sometimes things go well and sometimes not. I let each layer dry over nite so if I am making a piece with three layers, it can take a couple of days. Sometimes, it is faster but then sometimes the gum layer doesn’t look great or the color combinations don’t turn out how I envisioned so then those days are totally lost. And now I am making images with more pieces so those can take longer, it is hard to predict. Truthfully, I am always thinking about what I am making or going to make next and continually think about colors, shapes and designs in my head. It sounds crazy but I spend a lot of time dreaming about the colors I want to use and what will go on top of another because I don’t follow the usual order of color combinations. I go on walks often so I can clear my brain to think about colors and shapes and lines. This unorthodox method just seems to work for me.
MK: Is there anything from your past that you feel has had a dramatic influence on how you create images today?
PR: I would say that the years I spent living in Japan definitely influences my visual and aesthetic take on things. It isn’t anything specific but the appreciation for detail and the sensibility and beauty in the arts and crafts completely resonate with me. I am also drawn to Japanese design and often use Japanese papers, so yes, there are many aspects from that time period that influences what I make in an indirect way. But other than that, I try to stay focused in the present and am constantly looking at different artists, contemporary and otherwise as well as looking at what is being made and shown today.
MK: Was there a particular milestone or turning point in your career that you feel elevated your work to a broader audience?
PR: Such an interesting question or thought. I do think that the past few years have been a turning point for me artistically I feel I am more focused on the making and more driven to create and not as anxious about what happens. I know that I will keep making as much as I can no matter if I get into shows or competitions or not, even though it is so lovely to have a bit of recognition and it does feel nice for sure. I feel lucky that recently I had some exposure in various galleries, museums and magazines so it does feel like a few more people are seeing my work, but truth be told nothing really lasts for long as the turn around on social media is so fast and the amount of digital content available 24/7 is so mind boggling, that one can’t really get attached to anything like that for sure.
MK: Was there a specific point in time where you felt that you had found your voice in photography and became satisfied with the direction of your work? Do you ever truly find yourself in a good place with your images, or are you always searching for more?
PR: I think that when I began combining cyanotype and gum printing with my own cameraless imagery, that this was a real creative turning point for me. I feel like I am now more in my own skin and that I have a clearer connection with the work. I also love the physical involvement that goes hand in hand with these processes and it has become a more intimate experience with the materials and the making of it all. Working in this manner also slows me down and allows me to breathe and concentrate and each step of the way is purposeful and carefully thought out. Of course, there is also that serendipity element when things and outcomes surprise you, and I like that aspect of it too!
I think for me it is a combination of things when it comes to truly finding oneself in a good or satisfying place. Sometimes yes, and more often not so much! Often I don't like what I make and then when I revisit it, or change it a bit I see the possibilities that are there. Once in a while, there is that good feeling that makes me smile for a second where a color combination really works or the shapes and flow of the piece work, but mostly it is short lived. I don't think I am different from most artists who are continually unsure of their work even when it is up in galleries or even sold. It is just a funny thing, and yes, I am always searching, not so much for more this or that, but for more time to experiment and try more things because it is mostly in that unsure period that new ideas come about. I am inspired in so many ways and often I am thinking about what is happening in the universe and how I can put that emotion in my work, so yes, just time to be inspired by all the wonderful things that occur during an ordinary day.
MK: What is it that you get out of creating art? Is there an overriding theme in your work that you feel best represents you as an artist?
PR: My creative practice has definitely changed over the years and now I am much more focused than maybe five or ten years ago, but my life has changed in many ways as well. Making art is essential now to my everyday and keeps me sane especially now in this political climate. I feel very lucky that I am able to make art and that I have found a kind of art making that continually inspires and excites me. Right now, all my work is made without a camera that combines historical processes but my intent is to use these processes in a contemporary and experimental way. It is very different from what I was making twenty years ago. Now I don’t have to go anywhere or rely on anyone to make anything, it is just the paper and me and that has been really freeing and has opened up a whole new way of creating. I am interested in the abstract and non-representational forms and colors, shapes and also elements of design. These are the driving forces behind what I am making now.
MK: What is it about using historical processes in the creation of your art that you love?
PR: I love the element that something is being made by hand and also that one has to slow down to make it. One can never be in a rush when using historical processes. I have to focus and for me it is a very meditative process. I would compare coating a piece of paper to listening to one’s breathing, hopefully a breath that is slow and calm. It also gives me time to think each step of the way. Yes, it can be very frustrating because at any point something can go wrong, it is not a sure science by any measure, but this way of working suits me for sure. I am also keen on the one of a kind aspect, it is never a mass production which some may find limiting but for me it just inspires me to make more work.
MK: Are there any other creative pursuits that you engage in that you feel informs your current photographic works? Do any of the other arts have any sort of influence on you?
PR: Recently, I started working with oil pastels on paper as a way to make different color combination sketches and am really enjoying the tactile and intimate approach it allows as well as the element of ‘play’. I have used oil pastels in the past when I was hand coloring silver gelatin prints, so it is not an entirely new material for me, but certainly a new approach. Sometimes this practice gives me ideas for my next gum and cyano print, or it just allows a different mood that informs a new piece. Making sketches is something I can do any time of the day or night which is a nice plus. I get ideas from many different art forms, for example, one of my recent pieces. “Sunshine Break Up” was inspired by the movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I loved the graphics and look of the movie and the sound track also gave me ideas for that piece in particular. I also find inspiration from fashion and designs, the lines and movement of the material informs new ideas I want to try. So yes, I am constantly looking at lots of different art forms.
MK: What do you feel is the best way for you to grow as an artist? Are there any fears behind treading new waters?
PR: I do look at a lot of other artists work and spend time studying abstract painters from particularly the post war period. I am recently revisiting the work of women abstract painters, the likes of Lee Krasner, and Helen Frankenthaler, to name a few. The work these women made is so exciting and was so revolutionary at the time that it continues to inspire me. I also look at contemporary artists working in a variety of mediums as I am hoping to break free of the monotonous single image in a single frame syndrome. It is hard to do this and is very scary to break free of what you are used to doing. I do have fears of repeating myself and there are many images that I either toss or don't show because I feel I have failed to push myself far enough. It is a complicated thing really. I might have mentioned this before, but I have images in my head that I want to make and ways of exploring beyond the piece of paper, but the execution of it often doesn't go the way I envision, so there is that sense of dread of not being able to create new and fresh art.
MK: You are a frequent attendee at many local Los Angeles photography related events (and elsewhere for that matter). Do you feel that your personal attention and interaction within the community has helped bring attention to your own art?
PR: The artist community is really the best part of this whole journey and I would be lost without the love and support of my friends and fellow artists. I do think it makes a difference to be part of a community, even if some of it is on social media, as it is very supportive community. I also think that the connections you make by attending whatever you can, whether it is a portfolio review or gallery opening, is important. It is like anything else, it takes time to build relationships and the more people see you and connect with the better. One cannot go to everything for sure, but even to be part of one’s local art community is so important I think. Plus, it is great and inspiring to see what others are doing and making.
MK: Your work in the cameraless realm has become quite significant within the context of your art making career, but do you ever feel the pull to go back to some of the earlier work or processes you had started with? Would that be a step backwards or a reinterpreting of what had taken place prior to the recent work?
PR: Honestly, I don't think I will go back to making images with a camera, I feel so free in how I am making images right now, but of course never say never! I also think and see differently now. I don’t think in terms of a framed image, I don’t see the world like I used to when I carried a camera. I envision the world in a different way now I think. I am conscious of colors and forms and shapes and it is perhaps a more abstract way of looking and thinking. I don’t necessarily have the desire to travel to a place to take pictures anymore, of course I would love to travel to lots of places to find a different emotion or mood that might inspire me in some new way. Once in a while I think of combining some of my old work and maybe making collages but I am not really a looking back kind of person, I like to live in the present and so not sure that will happen.
MK: 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?
PR: It is a funny thing, but working in this way has freed my brain in a weird sense and I am always thinking about how I can change things up because I really like doing things differently. I am not great at following directions and I tend to make up my own methods, although not always with terrific results. That being said, I am now interested in experimenting with presentation and getting things off or out of the usual square or rectangular frame that hangs on the wall. I want to make art that is more sculptural and has more dimension and I am in the midst of trying new ideas. One of the problems is that I see something in my head but I get stuck somewhere in the execution, so it is all a work in progress. I also want to experiment with site specific and more temporal kinds of art making and art happenings. I tend to dream big and am not sure if any of these ideas will work out so please stay tuned!
Thank you so much for this time and space to talk about my work, I am honored and thrilled to chat with you again. You have interviewed so many incredible artists and I am grateful to be included here for Catalyst: Interviews. Thank you Michael for all that you do for the art community! You make a difference every day!
You can find more of Paula's work at her website here.
*A portion of this interview previously appeared online at Analog Forever Magazine on March 4, 2019, here.