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LIGHT + METAL: Heather Oelklaus is Obsessed with the Unique

photo-eye Gallery LIGHT + METAL:
Heather Oelklaus is Obsessed with the Unique
photo-eye Gallery speaks to photographer Heather Oelklaus about her chemigrams and Roomba prints in LIGHT + METAL, and why she is driven to make unique objects.

Heather Oelklaus' Chemigrams installed at photo-eye Gallery as a part of LIGHT + METAL

Heather Oelklaus is a Colorado-based photographer making her photo-eye debut in our LIGHT + METAL Exhibition. Oelklaus' practice is based around utilizing traditional photographic materials in non-traditional manners to create unique objects. Heather's obsession with using photographic materials to make one-of-a-kind prints is a reaction to the rise of digital tools within the medium. It's a perfect fit with our thesis for LIGHT + METAL, and we are proud to have a number of her works in two styles installed in the exhibition. We reached out to Heather for insight about her background, her influences, and why she feels compelled to make unique photographic prints.

Heather Oelklaus, Home, 2017, Chemigram, 14x11" Image, Unique, $950

photo-eye:     What inspired you to create the pieces that are included in LIGHT + METAL?

Heather Oelklaus:     In the history of art, photography is still a very young art form. I have not explored enough of the darkroom techniques to feel comfortable moving onto digital art making. With that said, I would be set back even more if I did not acknowledge the ever-growing digital world of image making.

The familiar saying “if you can’t beat them, join them” comes to mind. After many years of pushing back against the wave of technology, I figured I better find a way to embrace it on my own terms. Collaborating with technology while keeping one foot in the darkroom was my way of “joining them" without losing the feeling of control. I'm pleasantly surprised I find great enjoyment in this new photographic experience.

Heather Oelklaus developing chemigrams in her darkroom
For  LIGHT + METAL, I collaborated with two different forms of technology while staying true to my analog sensibilities. The chemigrams were processed in the traditional manner along with the application of the hard resist (varnish) onto the surface of the paper. What differs is the use of digital vector files through Adobe Illustrator while incorporating a vinyl cutter to score the varnished surface of the photographic paper. The control through the vector files is present but it is the introduction of the darkroom chemical process that gives these pieces their “soul”. The act of repeatedly placing the chemigram in and out of the darkroom chemistry makes the varnish soften and break down. This allows the chemicals to affect the exposed areas. One can say that this ebb and flow of eroding and exposing reflects the influence of technology on the world.

Heather Oelklaus, 
Kitchen Counter, 2018, 
 Gelatin-Silver Print, 
 77x24" Image, 
 Unique, $1200

A Roomba exposure in progress.
The large-scale light drawings are a playful mix of light-sensitive photographic paper and tiny lights attached to my iRobot Roomba vacuum. As the Roomba confidently zoomed over my countertop and its cliff detection feature prevented it from falling to its doom, the tiny pin light I attached to the side of the vacuum now turned into a drawing device and exposed the photographic paper for over 15 minutes. The robotic movements were enhanced by the fluidity of the light hitting the photo paper and the chance mark making was a delight to witness in the darkroom.

pe:     What type of work did you make prior to the work you are making today, and what inspired the change?

HO:     For twenty-five years I had been obsessed with film photography. Using the camera to produce beautiful negatives to later enlarge under the red glow of the safelight was where my “happy place” was found. I enjoyed the hardships the darkroom presented for me to overcome. Making laborious images to then be asked “Is that digital?” really took the wind out of my sails.

The change came about when I saw the work of Pierre Cordier and other artists in the Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography publication for the 2010 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Shifting my viewpoint of how the darkroom can operate to be similar to that of a painter’s canvas, or a printmaker’s etching plate, I found a new and exciting life with photography. Treating photography as an art form that can produce one-of-a-kind works is my new obsession.

Heather Oelklaus, New Orleans, 2017, Chemigram, 14x11" Image, Unique, $950
pe:     Who are your influences?

HO:     The level of engagement Erwin Wurm puts forth with his One Minute Sculptures has stayed with me throughout my career. Looking at his art prompts questions about my own art-making choices. What work would I make if given limited time in a minimal location? Asking this helps me cut through the clutter and focus on what I am trying to accomplish.

The playful and clever nature of Vic Muniz’s work has reminded me that there are always multiple ways to get my message across. Sometimes the most humorous method is the most effective way to communicate with my viewer.

Oelklaus reviewing her chemigram Heal.
Heather Oelklaus (b. 1972, USA) studied Sculpture at The Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) in the early 1990s. She has exhibited work in solo and group shows in Colorado, New Orleans, Oregon, New York, Texas, and Arizona. She has an upcoming solo show in Ft. Collins, CO at The Center for Fine Art Photography in August 2018. Heather currently lives and works in Colorado Springs where she explores unconventional photography and art making. One of a kind photographic processes such as chemigram, photogram, lumen prints, wet plate collodion, pinhole photography, cyanotype, and light painting are influential in her art making. Photography as an object instead of the traditional reproduced image influences Heather’s art with themes of family, social roles, and abstract art.


LIGHT + METAL is on view at photo-eye Gallery 
through September 15th, 2018. 

For additional information on Heather's work, 
and to purchase prints, please contact Gallery Staff at 
505-988-5152 or