Artist Books Falling Leaves and (Re)Cycle of Life Melanie McWhorter talks to Smith Eliot and Denis Roussel about their handmade artist books Falling Leaves and (Re) Cycle of Life.
Over the next few weeks we will be featuring a selection of artist’s books that we discovered at portfolio reviews and one-on-one visits with artists. As we've learned from conferences and fiery discussions, exactly what defines an artist book is open to interpretation. In the case of the books that we highlight here, the artist usually has a role in not the only the works featured, but also the book's mechanical production.
Melanie McWhorter: (Re) Cycle of Life: Beauty where you find it is primarily composed of your images of organic matter and is built from recycled materials. How many projects are included in this book? How did you decide to embark on this photographic work?
Denis Roussel: The handmade book includes images from four different projects emphasizing the beauty of specimens from my compost and recycling bins. Prior to becoming a photographer, my background was in the environmental sciences. I have wanted to create an environmentally conscious body of work for some time, but at first was overwhelmed by the breadth and complexity of the subject. Eventually, I realized that I could focus on a very few simple and practical actions (composting and recycling) and highlight their value while creating visually appealing and unique images.
MM: Tell me a little about the object itself. What did you decide to include and how does each portfolio connect with the others aesthetically and thematically?
DR: The book is the culmination of the four years I spent exploring my compost and recycling bins and acts as a vessel to hold the images. The realization of the book is consistent with the concept behind the project; the remnants of our everyday activities (discarded packaging) can be transformed from mundane waste into extraordinary images and objects. The book is assiduously handmade from reclaimed cardboard and the images are printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper.
Each portfolio has a unique aesthetic resulting from the specific photographic method used to create the images. Lumen prints look very different from cyanotypes, and I choose each process for its ability to produce a one-of-a-kind photographs and to reinforce the idea behind the images. For example, I see lumen printing as an accelerated version of the composting process. Organic matter breaks down on the surface of the photographic material and an image is recorded.
Although aesthetically the portfolios in the book are quite different, they are intimately connected by their environmental theme. Furthermore, they all emphasize the beauty to be found in mundane, everyday waste as a way to offer a counterpoint to the complexity of the problems we have to face. In addition, the photographs all highlight one concrete and personal action that is a small (but relevant) piece of an overall solution.
MM: What is your practice when creating this book and your other artist’s books?
Smith Eliot: I always go into a new piece with an idea; it’s always a definite idea and I’m always quite sure I know exactly where the piece is going. Sometimes the idea is for a formal study of shape, color and size relationships, but usually the creative process is driven by the need to explore personal stories or beliefs that hold an emotional charge. Often, while I’m in the middle of a work something unpredicted happens, and my oh-so-definite plan for the piece reveals itself as actually fluid. When this fluidity starts happening, I know the work is heading somewhere good.
For Falling Leaves, I wanted to create a piece that explored the passing of time. I had created a wet plate of a tree — very simple, but I loved it! Concurrently, autumn was coming and the beautiful melancholy of seasonal change was something that seemed a perfect way to express this. While I was creating the box, and scanning leaves from around my neighborhood, my sister sent me an envelope of old family photos. Including some of those photos added a lot to the meaning of the work. The rest unfolded from there. The planes dropping bombs were taken by pilots in WW2 and are in the public domain. The tiny dog is a small piece of a frame from a Tarkovsky movie... I’d been watching a lot of Tarkovsky during this time and wanted something of his in there.
Technically, I begin each piece by preparing the surface of the box. This usually includes removing the finish, spackling, sealing, and applying primer. I then make the prints and prepare them for pigment transfer. During the dry-times between layers of acrylic media I create the parts for what will go into the interior.
MM: How do you decide what elements to include, what processes to use, and what images to incorporate?
SE: Beyond the photos, there’s the material substance of the rest of the work. The shape and depth of the box matters a lot. If I want to add larger objects to the piece, I need to have a box with a bit of depth, or I may want to create a piece that you can hold in your hand or hide in a drawer. That box would have to be tiny. At any time I have between 30 or 40 boxes on hand that I can select from.
The surface treatments also add to the impact of the photos, as do the objects contained within the box. I create surface textures that complement mood of the photo — I generally choose between old wallpaper, paint, or sometimes leave the box unfinished with spackle and sanding left visible.
Many of my boxes contain parts of other books. I love shredded pages, for example, and many of my pieces incorporate floating text and write-through poetry. My favorite piece has book pages, tightly wound into tiny scrolls, wasp hives, teeth, and small porcelain doll parts. I like STUFF — especially natural forms like sticks and hives and nests. I also like old junk like clocks, rusty hardware, and doll forms. All those kinds of things have a place in my work. Not just as photos, but as real objects. In a way, I feel like I’m saving them from obscurity by placing them into the artwork.
SE: The only thing in Falling Leaves that is not handmade is the cigar box that the houses the work. Everything else in there is handmade. Each of the photos inside of the box is digitally printed onto watercolor paper. I painted each piece of watercolor paper individually using pigments that are crafted out of ground stones such as hematite, lapis lazuli, garnets and turquoise. The digital images themselves are composites. I took the edges and backgrounds from a number of my tintypes and layered them in Photoshop with my leaf and family photos. I wanted the contents of the box to fit with the unadulterated scans of my tintypes that appear on the box itself.
The same is true of 16 Barbs to the Back. One of the biggest difference between 16 Barbs and my other works is that it’s built to hang on a wall whereas most of my other books are meant to sit on a surface. Also different is that the figures within the box are free-standing. Usually, I create whole photos and transfer them into the treated surface. It is also my only work that features a window. I like the window... I think there are more of those in my future.
MM: The medium that you use for this object, photography, is known for its ability to make multiple pieces from a singular image. Are all of your books one of a kind objects? Why only produce one?
SE: Yep, each book is a one-of-a-kind creation! Practically speaking, each individual takes me a very long time to make. Then, once a piece is made the idea has been expressed, and the conjunction of those particular materials explored. The problem is solved, so to speak, so the motivation to create another, identical piece doesn’t exist. Simultaneously, I always have other ideas that want to come out, so my attention shifts to new uncharted territory.
View (Re)Cycle Of Life: Beauty where you find it by Denis Roussel
View Falling Leaves by Smith Eliot
View 16 Barbs to the Back by Smith Eliot