Process: Ky Lewis reflecting on her ongoing series, 'Ness' Stories

“Ness” is a work in progress, recently started this series is about my emotional connection with the places I have chosen to photograph. For many years I have had an interest in landscape but I'm not looking at making these places look pretty they all have a sense of abandonment, desolation, they are wide open, laid bare often raw and and unwelcoming but also in some respects honest landscapes that hide nothing and share a sense of melancholy as well as wonder.

Ness was born out of my connection, both historical and emotional to these places. My response to these areas is more than just captured in a slow pinhole photograph, I decided to paint, using light and chemicals the surface of these contact printed 4x5" x-ray film shots, using these materials brought a stronger challenge and tactile quality to the project. The surface treatment and it's reaction to the environment in that the quality of the film surface would get easily scratched from exposure to the fine elements of the surrounding environment and the deliberate scarring of the surface to create my response to each image.

Ness, with a derivation in Old English and Old Norse in the South East means a promontory or headland jutting into a body of water, exposed often drowned and always at the mercy of weather influences I wanted to highlight these areas around the Thames Estuary and the South East coast, Sheerness, Shellness, Shoeburyness, Foulness and Dungeness, I have stories to tell about these places…

I chose to use pinhole cameras because the very nature of the process means it is more contemplative, it gives me time to be in the landscape, to think, to feel my surroundings and to remember. The exposures vary wildly depending on weather and light conditions and the elements affect the results. The lightest of breezes can bring life to a shot, time and stillness weighing heavy in some images.

The process behind creating these prints is fascinating. Could you explain step by step how you crafted the images in this series?

My practice is process driven and I seem to gravitate toward making work with the longest most convoluted workflow possible. I have increasingly become aware that I prefer slow photography, using pinhole cameras either homemade or purchased. This series is primarily made with the Intrepid 4x5 though as it is still ongoing I’m not locking myself into just using one camera and I may well make some other format relevant to the environment I am photographing.

When I go out on location I usually have a stack of preloaded double dark slides with me, a tripod and an open mind. I have used both paper negatives and X-ray film. The latter rated at 100 ISO is significantly faster than the paper which I usually rate between 3 and 4 ISO. If the exposure is a long one I’ll either draw while I wait or just take in the surroundings evaluating light changes during the exposure in case it changes significantly. Once I have used all my dark slides I will either reload in a changing bag or call it a day and head back to the darkroom unless I am processing them onsite. If that is the case then I have a couple of developing tubes for the paper negatives which I use but because that means working blind the exposure times have to be bang on or I’ll end up pulling something I don’t want from the tubes.

Paper negatives are easy to develop in the same manner you would a final print, the X-ray film is soft and at the moment I am also using tray development, but as it is easily scratched I line the bottom of the tray with glass. This film requires pre soaking before development, I use Fomadon or Rodinal 1:50 as developer and the rest of the process is the same as you would for any other film, stop, then fix and a wash to finish. It is a very long, slow process and sometimes I use this time to write up notes, even though I am in near dark. The negs are then hung to dry from an improvised drying rack.

I decided to contact these prints as the interaction with the surface was important to me. I had made some enlargements but the size seemed wrong I wanted more intimacy with each piece, the 4x5 format perfect to hold in one hand. The dry print curling slightly, the surface treatment of each print is unique. The neg is in direct contact with the surface of the fibre based paper. I make test strips in order to determine the correct timings. As part of the process whilst on site I also collect a small amount of the ground, sand, stone or mud in a film pot. This is used to scratch and mark the surface of film or paper bringing contact from the environment it was made in. This of course negates the care taken over the development but it feels like an additional process which needs thought as to the placement and introduction of the mark making.

I am using the chromoskedasic sabattier process on this series and enjoying the painterly approach bringing the emotion of the period onsite back to the darkroom and using a combination of light and chemicals painting upon the surface of each print. The undeveloped print is allowed to partially develop, this is subjective and personal and different for each negative, it is by eye. I then turn the lights on, not something one should normally do in a darkroom but working in subdued light from this point it feels more like I am drawing in my connection to these places much like I would a sketch on paper.

Chromoskedasik stabiliser is coated across the surface and then in specific areas I work in the activator. The response of the paper depends on the PH values and this can be adjusted by applying more of either of the chemicals. This can be a quick process or it can be focussed and take some time deciding on where to apply the chemicals and light. I use a combination of techniques depending on the look of the image, sometimes fully immersing the print into the chromoskedasik chemicals or sometimes being very restrained and only painting in specific areas. The idea with these is to also have fun and often a number of responses are made with one particular negative.

Once the prints are washed and dried they are left with their curls and marks and ragged edges.

Have you always been focused on experimentation and alternative processes in photography? When did you first start exploring them?

I recently found a box of my old pre college/college (80’s) work in my shed and it was fascinating to go through some of those photos, yes there was a lot of ‘experimentation' even then it seems. I used to take photos from the TV and print those resulting in interesting effects, bleaching landscapes and around subjects isolating them in the frame, making all the usual art school tricks in an analogue fashion (nothing else then) I have always loved experimenting, it didn’t matter whether it was in camera or in the darkroom. 

I had some great tutors when first at art college, the likes of Maureen ‘O’ Paley as she was known then had a big influence but so many just had relaxed approaches to methods of working which meant no restrictions and plenty of ‘playing’ the most important aspect I still believe in. I do think what is described as alternative process or experimentation now is really just what we did anyway then. I didn’t see it as anything but the norm. I wouldn’t say any of it was good but often these images were a means to end and part of a larger project, part of the process. 

My background is in illustration and printmaking and the knowledge of a wide variety of techniques I believe has always given me an interest in trying out as much as is possible. Access to certain processes is easier than others and I would love to have the chance to try everything but I think one would need multiple lifetimes running in parallel in order to achieve that. The focus of my experimentation has become more photo based but I love the combination of process when incorporating them with printmaking.

Do you generally have a set plan in your head of how you want an image or series to turn out, or is the outcome more random?

I tend to have a vague idea about the ‘feel’ of what I want to achieve, I try and hold that close to my heart/my gut but I do allow it to flow and break from this if I feel there is a strong impulse toward a different direction or any additional input. I don’t like constraints that may mean I miss exploring something, you never know where it may lead. The making of the work using pinhole is a considered process, it takes time to set up the tripod, load it up and wait for those moments to pass, I say moments because with pinhole it is invariably a long exposure and time seems to slow even more. 

I may have an idea about how I believe the series should look but the processes will also have a say, these are not clear cut and the serendipitous approach to printing these means each print is unique, very much of the moment and responding to mood and memory.

What is it about landscapes near to or surrounded by water which inspired you to make ‘Ness’?

I grew up on the coast and that connection remains strong whether it be the South Coast, the Estuary or the Thames the draw is always there. This body of work focusses on the South East of England and the ‘Ness’ in these instances are all bodies of land jutting into the water so the opposite of what most people recognise as a, “Ness” with reference to that famous Loch. The name itself describes a headland or promontory jutting into the sea, an old Norse name but also used in old and middle English. I think it is the interaction between the two, the effect of the sea on the land and vice versa. I will, when on the coast just stand and enjoy listening to the susurration of the sea on the shoreline. The draw back through the shingle watching the stones roll against the wash and the sand make smaller tributaries between shells and seaweed. The stillness of certain tides, reflections in sea and sand. The openness of it all, gives scope for grand ideas an opportunity to breathe in.

Often in art forms it is the notion of melancholy in scenes or subjects that inspire artists, would you say the same goes for you?

I think melancholy is probably a stronger emotion with respect to this than hope, it is overpowering, the connections to these landscapes have a bearing on this, the past sits heavy and is rekindled when at these specific sites, filled with memory and loss, good and bad, mostly good though but the very act of it being archived as a memory makes it solemn. Is it cathartic to make work like this? Yes, I believe it grounds and connects, I need to understand why I am making these images in this way.

Do all your projects focus on places that you have a connection to, and if so what is it about this sense of connection that inspires you to create? 

I think most of them do as I have to have an understanding of the environment in order to really get a ‘feel’ for it to know its nuances, how it changes and what is specific to me, what I love or hate about it. The reasons are generally emotive it is a gut reaction that makes me want to make the photo and I try to portray that in the work, I have returned in the ‘Ness’ series to certain locations that I can also tell stories about, this is a personal project and though it is still in its early stages I want to bring that love of these places to others. I find them wild, desolate and moving. Trying to bring that into the work is important to me, the landscape is always changing but there is a constancy in that change, the land shifts, is reabsorbed and rebuilt, the seasons and weather conditions pass and that cycle always there has continuity. I feel that I need to make images of this and hold the essence of the place within not just one frame but a series of them, maybe even using different media.

How would you say alternative processes have adapted or changed to the integration of digital technology with modern film photography? 

That’s a big question, within my practice I think the fact that I can scan negatives and prints and make my own digital negatives for a range of processes means I have a broader way of creating further variations of work than I may have done before. I do think though that even without these time saving technologies it would still be possible to create using traditional means, there is always a way. Using the x-ray film for ‘Ness’ was in a way a choice brought about not just by cost but also availability and the love of experimentation, it is a challenging film and despite the fact I could irradiate the scratches it acquires I have not, I’ve kept the prints honest to the neg in that respect. I imagine there will be a small window of opportunity before the use of that film closes as digital imaging takes over and the film is no longer made. I still use an awful lot of very expired papers and then go on to scan them and of course upload as we all do. It is not lost on me the extremes of these processes.

Finally, what would you say to someone curious at exploring alternative processes, but who may be unsure where to begin?

I would and often say, do not be afraid of mistakes, failure leads to knowledge and learning more about the process, repeat it until you get to where you hope to go. Try as much as you can and have fun, if it’s not fun then ask yourself why you are doing it, there are easier things to do out there. Start with something simple, with few levels of complexity before you get a result. Once you get a result that joy you have when you see the image or the process works is wonderful. Take notes, take notes and take more notes, it is easy to get lost in the process and then totally forget what you just did. I’ve learnt that and I do try to write the steps I make down, even if it’s in the dark, it makes for interesting reading later!

There are so many resources in the form of forums books and online tutorials that in some respect the trial and error process is reduced. Lumen prints may be the first and easiest to access as it is just Photo paper, I always love peoples expressions when they are clearing the surface of a Lumen Print, utter surprise. The cyanotype is probably the easiest of those which need emulsions mixing and then you could go on to Argyrotype, Van dyke, Salt making your own emulsions for Anthotypes, liquid emulsion etc… Experiment!

You can see more of Ky Lewis' work on her website or Instagram.

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