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Portfolio and Interview: Rachel Phillips Divinations


photo-eye Gallery Portfolio and Interview: Rachel Phillips – Divinations photo-eye Gallery is excited to publish Divinations a series by California based photographer Rachel Phillips on the Photographer's Showcase. Divinations layers new black-and-white imagery on top of antique ephemera lending old objects new context, meaning, and aesthetic. Phillips combines imagery based on divinations, styles of fortune-telling, with 19th Century cabinet card portraits in, as the artists describes, a "playful and poignant attempt at using the proverbial crystal ball to see into the lost past, rather than the unknown future."

Divination by Cards, 2015, and Divination by Double Take, 2015 © Rachel Phillips
Displayed in Stands Made by the Artist 

photo-eye Gallery is excited to publish Divinations a series by California based photographer Rachel Phillips on the Photographer's Showcase. While Divinations is Rachel's first portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase, a selection of prints from her Field Notes series were on view in our 2014 Photo Objects and Small Prints exhibition. Like Field Notes, Divinations layers new black-and-white imagery on top of antique ephemera lending old objects new context, meaning, and aesthetic. Phillips combines imagery based on divinations, styles of fortune-telling, with 19th Century cabinet card portraits in, as the artists describes, a "playful and poignant attempt at using the proverbial crystal ball to see into the lost past, rather than the unknown future." The result is a unique and sumptuous object filled with whimsy, intrigue, and a touch of mystery. Selections from Divinations are currently on view at photo-eye Gallery alongside Michael Kenna: A Retrospective, and Lucas Shaffer spoke with Rachel Phillips to learn more about how the series came to be.


Divination by Raindrop, 2015 © Rachel Phillips – $700, Unique Object – Front & Back

Lucas Shaffer:     How did Divinations get started; where did your interest come from?

Rachel Phillips:     It got started as I began collecting Cabinet Cards while looking for old envelopes for Field Notes.

LS:     Why did you choose Cabinet Cards as a subject and working material?

RP:     There are almost infinite wonderful old materials to work with, I chose Cabinet Cards for mostly practical reasons: they are widely available, they are visually simple yet compelling, the format is uniform.

LS:     Are you looking for anything in particular when selecting a Cabinet Card?

RP:     I look for Cabinet Cards where the portrait is larger and fills more of the frame and a simple light or dark background that leaves some clear space to add imagery. Also, for expressiveness in the portrait.

LS:     Does Divinations relate to Field Notes?

RP:     Field Notes really got me hooked on using antique materials, and I knew I wanted to continue to do that in a new series, but with a different set of objects to work from. I came across cabinet cards and started collecting them while looking for old envelopes for Field Notes.

LS:     Why do you like working with antique articles?

RP:     Working with antique objects, you instantly have character, story and history in your piece. I feel that the original objects do the “heavy lifting” in making the piece successful; that all I need to do is a sensitive, often slight addition of imagery.

LS:     How do you view your contemporary additions?

RP:     I see my contemporary additions as hopefully  re-energizing the original objects so they may have a second life while striving to honor the integrity and presence of the original objects.

Divination by Cloud, 2015 © Rachel Phillips – $700, Unique Object – Front & Back

LS:     How does the type of divination, of fortune telling, relate to the people in the Cabinet Cards?

RP:     I came to divination by first looking at Spiritualism (think of séances and the like) when I started researching the cultural context of the original photographs.  The idea of a spirit realm was extremely popular during the Victorian time, so it seemed appropriate to use somewhat related imagery and ideas to Spiritualism and fortune telling in trying to conjure the people in these old photographs. A crystal ball is a great metaphor for a camera, really, both profess to help us see through time and space.

LS:     Are all of the types of divinations listed in your titles practiced, or are you inventing some as the work evolves?

RP:     I have not invented any, yet I don’t know how actively many of them are practiced. Many, if not all, seem quite far-fetched!

LS:     Where do you find out about the types of Divination?

RP:     My main resource was the Wikipedia page for Divination. It has an alphabetical list which must include hundreds of different methods.

Phillips's Studio – Prepping Cabinet Cards for Print Transfer
LS:     Is there a type of divination most interesting or surprising to you?

RP:     My all time favorite is “Rumpology” which is divinations by, well, interpreting the shape of someone’s behind. Alas, I have not been successful in incorporating Rumpology into the series yet, though I have tried. It just isn’t easy to add a posterior to a beautiful 19th century cabinet card portrait in a visually pleasing way!

LS:     How do you choose which type of Divination to apply to each portrait?

RP:     I try to match the mood of the divination and the portrait—or sometimes to contrast the face with the imagery to create a tension. Mostly, it’s practical considerations for how the layers of imagery will merge together with the composition of the original portrait and my addition.

LS:     Are you re-using any Divinations on other different Cabinet Cards?

RP:     Yes, I do re-use imagery on multiple cabinet cards to create a loose edition or “iteration” of the same type of divination.

LS:     Why did you decide to make your own Display stand for divinations, and are you thinking of this work as sculpture?

RP:     I don’t think of the work as sculpture—I chose to make stands for a couple reasons. First, to emphasize and respect the original object and second, because the backs of the cards often include beautiful graphics which I wanted to keep accessible.

Divination by Mirror, 2015 © Rachel Phillips – $700, Unique Object

LS:     Is there one image that stands out for you or was particularly difficult to make?

RP:     Designing the pieces is often a struggle, it’s a very small palette to work with, about four by six inches, and you have this large head in the middle so it really limits how much imagery you can add, and where.  So many times I’ll walk away from a piece for months and then when I look at it again, I’ll have a totally different idea of how I want to depict that kind of divination.

My favorites are the cards where it isn’t obvious what imagery I’ve added and what was originally there. For example, the Cabinet Card of the man’s face in the mirror I like because the old and new blend pretty seamlessly. And, it’s my hand holding the mirror while I photographed with the other hand, so that’s fun to remember when I look at it.

BookTease™ of Divinations by Rachel Phillips, published by Treadwell Press
LS:     Divinations was recently published as a monograph by Treadwell Press, what was the process of making the book like?

RP:     The book is totally handmade by me: cutting down the pages, rounding the corners, printing and folding the covers and operating the spiral binding machine. So, the process is hands-on and a labor of love. It’s been inspiring to see people excited about the book and to have another way to share the work beyond the original pieces.

Phillips's Studio – Making Divinations
LS:     What is next for the project?

RP:     Periodically I go back and look through “failed” pieces to see if new inspiration will strike and I’ll see a visual solution that had eluded me before. It’s time to do that again and see what new pieces emerge.

LS:     What are you working on right now?

RP:     I’m working on designing paper sculptures akin to little theaters that will house photographs…spending time in the studio, cutting and folding and following my intuition…



Cover of the Divinations Monograph
Rachel Phillips's Divinations is currently on view at photo-eye through September 10th. 

For more information and to purchase prints, please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505-988-5152 x121 or anne@photoeye.com. 

View the Divinations Online Portfolio

Purchase a copy of the Divinations Book

Read More about Field Notes

Video: Rachel Phillips describes Divinations


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