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Laurie Tümer on Photography, Teaching & Clouds

Cloud No. 9016 and Cloud No. 8009 -- Laurie Tümer
Also on display along with the Michael Levin exhibit CONTINUUM are new Cloud images by local photographer Laurie Tümer.

Over the years photographer Laurie Tümer has photographed a variety of subjects and has worked in a wide variety of processes. One of the many things that I have always loved about Tümer is that she has never been afraid to jump out of her own box. Tümer’s images range from studies made in her garden, to tougher subjects like pesticides and oil drilling to most recently her series I’d Rather Look at Clouds.

Laurie has agreed to tell us a little more about herself and her work. Enjoy! -- Anne Kelly

Anne Kelly:   How were you first exposed to photography?

Lauire Tümer:   Probably like most people, I was introduced to photography through family pictures. During the 50’s my father bought a Polaroid camera – you know the one that came with the pink smelly goo stick you swipe over each photograph to fix it? He photographed our family outings from LA to Santa Barbara to visit my brother who lived his last years in an institution for those with cerebral palsy. The photographs are beautiful and express a deep sadness no one spoke of. That these might be art was nothing my family knew of.

My introduction to photography as something you might do as a life work was at the age of 13 when I became a fashion model. I detested it, but it was clear from the start I wanted to be on the other side of the camera. I loved looking at the contact sheets, and the editing process was as compelling as the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ of the '60s that my parents were trying to distract me from through modeling. It was also the first time I saw a darkroom.

Laurie Tümer by her cloud gazing window
AK:   You are a photography instructor at Santa Fe Community College, and also teach English courses at Northern New Mexico College. How did you come to be a teacher?

LT:   When I entered the University of Arizona in 1970 I wanted to major in photography. Of course now this place is known as a great center for photography, but at that time the U of A had no photo department. In order to take the only photography course that was offered then, and it was through their design department, Les Haas, the department head sat me in a room the size of closet and had me draw a tree. “A tree?” I asked incredulously. The last time I had drawn a tree was in a coloring book. I failed his exam and majored in English and Secondary Education instead. I only know this man’s name because ironically, he became a neighbor when I moved to El Rito, New Mexico some 18 years later to teach English at Mesa Vista High School. Les really liked my photographs, and when I revealed that I’d met him before and how, he wept. I comforted him saying that I was really quite happy about that bend in the road and how it led me to amazing places and people I would not have otherwise encountered. You never know how someone will influence you, even incidentally.

AK:   You are both an educator by trade and by means of your images. I am sure that you have a great influence on your students – do you feel that you learn from them as well?

LT:   I don’t think much of my work is instructional, perhaps with the exception of the NIMBY series I did for the Galisteo Basin Photography Project that photo-eye curated and exhibited in 2008. The purpose of the project was to raise awareness about plans for poorly regulated oil and gas exploratory drilling and fracking in Santa Fe and other counties in New Mexico, including the Española Valley where I live. For my contribution, I joined an area graffiti crew. These guys were interested in learning about these plans for their neighborhoods and I was interested in learning more about graffiti. It was a wonderful exchange as we stenciled images and applied them to billboards I’d constructed in my backyard and then photographed.

Oil Exploration: Not in My Backyard, Motherfracker -- Laurie Tümer
In terms of directly influencing my students as a photography instructor, I don’t show them my work much because of how they imitate. I don’t want my images to influence them that much; I want them to have a strong technical foundation and encourage them find their own vision. I do show the work of a lot of photographers from Stieglitz to JR, but only to show the range of approaches, and that there is no “right” way, which often is a revelation to them.

I know students have taught me far more than I’ve taught them! They’ve actually helped shape my sense of self. They teach me patience, compassion, and how to listen. They transformed a reserved shy girl who said little into a chatty adult. They’ve increased my self-confidence. They’ve made me interested in the importance of being able to read, whether it’s a poem or a photograph and how to teach that most effectively.

I now teach all my courses online. I design environments for students to interact with each other about the content I create, and my role in the classroom is to observe and re-direct when necessary; it’s fascinating how much they learn this way and I still fall in love with each one still, even though I don’t meet them in person! Studies now show how students learn best and retain information – the lecture model is the least effective way, and students teaching each other is the most effective. Online learning is based on this pedagogy. I teach Santa Fe Community College’s first online photography class Camera Use and The Art of Seeing, and their first online art history course The History of Graffiti: From Glyph to Graff. I also teach online English classes at Northern New Mexico College.

The two views from the lenticular print Glowing Evidence: In My Study -- Laurie Tümer 
AK:   Over the years your subjects have ranged from your garden to pesticides, to oil drilling, and more recently clouds. It seems to me that you are observing the world around you in your work. Can you talk about that a little bit?

LT:   It’s a big world inside and out – there’s a lot to observe.

AK:   You have worked in many different photographic processes – each I feel was very appropriate to the body of work. Can you talk about process?

LT:   I’ve worked with a lot of photographic processes over the years. Sometimes an experiment with a process will suggest an idea or narrative, or an idea will suggest an appropriate process. But just talking about “the process” is like just talking about the structure of a sonnet or identifying all the similes in a poem. So what? For me it’s how the process serves the purpose or sub-text of what’s really happening or what’s discovered, and how these all magically work together.

Unbidden Landscapes 4, 1986 -- Laurie Tümer 
For example, in an early series, Unbidden Landscapes, I used Cliché Verre where I mushed together paint between two glass plates. When I put the plate in the enlarger I found forms that appeared as landscapes and realized how the process of friction that created these forms approximated the way geological forms are made.

For many years I printed directly on rocks I’d coat with emulsion. This project grew from my interest in rock art. I made and sold over a 1,000 of these small rock faces using the same image of myself on stones to say “I was here” much like graffiti artists write their names over and over again with slight variations. The price was reasonable, so people who can’t generally afford unique one-of-a-kind photographs could afford these – that was an important feature for me. This was when I began to combine my interests in rock art and graffiti.

A quiet respite from it all was meandering in my garden of exotic gourds I grew photographing with a 35mm camera and16mm lens. I was enjoying the pleasure of just seeing while realizing that seeing yourself in the picture is truly what we see – we do see a little of ourselves. The subject is never really separate from us as most pictures show.

California Fronds, 1999 -- Laurie Tümer
I worked with lenticular photography for several years after I asked myself how I could show both the visible and invisible within one frame for my Glowing Evidence series; these are unusual visualizations of ubiquitous pesticides and other contaminants we can’t see in our environment and in our body.

AK:   You mentioned the other day that you really love this new cloud project, especially for how it worked into your daily life. Can you talk a little bit about that?

LT:   I’d been working for years with these physically demanding processes and found that it was getting harder with multiple sclerosis progressing – I had been diagnosed in my late 20s. I’m 60 now. I wasn’t sure what I could do now. This cloud series began from my bed photographing through my window clouds tripping along the horizon of the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, home to Los Alamos National Laboratory. I had just moved to a small high perched house that I’d cobbled together over several years. My casual cloud gazing immediately became part of my pain-lessening arsenal – I realize that in spite of it all, I am lucky to find myself living now in an amphitheatre with an unexpected generous subject – a nearly 24-hour a day theater. If I’m up at 4 like today and notice a train of clouds pulling in, I grab my camera. While the bread is toasting I download the images. Wanting to see them all downloaded mobilizes me to get up. On really good days, I look forward to printing. All this feels like a great gift.

Cloud No. 4977 -- Laurie Tümer
AK:   In the history of photography many images of clouds have been made. Yours are quite unique. Can you talk about that?

LT:   Obviously people think of Stieglitz first when thinking of cloud photographs; he was the first to use the subject to create abstraction with the camera. This was big, his small pictures of clouds! This was also a really dark time for Stieglitz, a time of great loss, and the clouds not only seemed to help him distance himself from his troubles, but the thrill of what he saw made the pain bearable I think; this I obviously relate to.

This is definitely a sort a tired subject that I’m glad you think is treated in a fresh way. It may have to do with how I am literally a captive audience in this amphitheatre and not a just visitor occasionally.

AK:   Anything else you would like to mention about the clouds?

LT:   Sometimes I hope for cloudless days so I can keep up with my laundry and stack of dishes!

See more work by Laurie Tümer here

For more information, please contact photo-eye Gallery Associate Director Anne Kelly by email or by calling the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202