My dad was a photographer and filmmaker, so when I was a kid I would sit in the darkroom with him and watch everything he was doing. My dad also experimented a lot with process. He was doing with photography what you’re not typically meant to do. He was making his own slides and images out of chemical reactions and scratches and using his cigarette lighter, melting all of these things onto the film, and then he would make prints out of that. He would give me offcuts of clear film and a Sharpie, and I would sit there at the light table drawing slides to project. That was my introduction to photography; that’s what I thought you did with it.
I was an obsessive drawer as a kid - I was drawing all of the time. It was photorealist work, nearly always just pencil with those mid-range tones, super-detailed observational drawings, sometimes from life, and sometimes just from pictures I would find in magazines or books. The weird thing about that is the person who encouraged that photorealist accuracy in my drawing was my dad. I think it’s because he thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. But he didn’t think there was anything you were supposed to do in photography, which was his medium.
My high school had a big art department and a lot of classes, but they were very rigid and conservative with instruction. In the painting classes, we were required to copy images, not create our own. I don’t know if that was just a way to get us to really struggle through the discipline of matching color and tone, but we had to copy. I had this history of copying from books and magazines, and from life. I’m quite rebellious by design, but in school I was always the good girl, and I really wish I had questioned why half the students in my painting class were painting Iron Maiden album covers. It’s because it’s what they had, and they had to copy something. I would hope it would be unusual to find such a rigid instructor now.
I’ve always tied together drawing and photography. To me they’re so similar, and I’m never sure why I choose one medium over another.
Throughout my childhood I was drawing trees with pencil, which is kind of funny because it’s something I keep going back to. I’m actually working on an exhibition of photographs right now that is again these monochrome trees. I’ve always tied together drawing and photography – to me they’re so similar, and I’m never entirely certain why I choose one medium over another.
In high school the instructors were probably good with process, but they never once showed us slides of anyone’s work, ever. There were no books of artists; there was nothing. I was accepted into this highly selective little special after school class, the Minnesota Young Artists Project, and I went there every Tuesday, into St. Paul. That instructor was a teaching artist, a painter, and she showed us slides of work. I was blown away. I was both thrilled and a little annoyed because I had just spent three years in high school – why had no one been showing me this stuff? Where do they think we’re going to get this from? So now when I teach, I throw so many images at my students! That’s so important, to know what is being made, and to try to find that little spark that’s going to light a fire in someone. Or light a new fire with something they never thought they would be interested in—like a certain subject, way of working, or way of looking at the world. Unless you know what’s possible, your brain doesn’t necessarily just pull that out of the ether.
I started paying attention to how people create images, and it expanded the field of potential subject matter. I always had an overly-expanded idea of how I could handle materials because of my early photo experience. But as far as imagery for drawing, I was strictly working from life. When I was in high school, I was able to get some extra canvases and started making paintings after school on my own. One of the paintings I did was a black and white image of these jars or vases, and for whatever reason I made it as if – back in the day, when TVs had trouble with vertical hold and horizontal hold – I realized that what I wanted to do was not just paint these objects, I wanted to paint them as if they were on a screen and as if the vertical or horizontal hold was wrong. And I don’t know why I did that, but I was super-excited about it.
I’d always been drawing from life, and I suddenly realized there was this thing I could do that was still partly working from life, and partly working with life experience, which is a very different thing.
I was still using the subtle monochrome tones of my drawings, but this painting I did was nearly black and white, with just the tiniest hint of color. And then the vertical hold off in the frame – that’s what really got me excited. I suddenly realized there was this thing I could do that was still partly observed from life, and partly drawn from life experience, which is a very different thing. I think that painting really is when things started coming together – the two sides of what interest me.
I actually went to college as an English major. I still took studio art classes like drawing, painting, printmaking and photography, and was making mainly portraiture. With my photography, I was not paying attention to process at all. I was looking merely at the people and how I was positioning them, and how they were looking, or not looking, at the camera. It wasn’t until I shot the last couple of frames of a roll of film on this little abandoned sink out behind the art building that things changed. The sink had filled with water and leaves, and the light was exquisitely beautiful. I processed the film and realized I wasn’t interested in the pictures of all of my friends on the rest of the roll. I was really interested in this photograph, and it printed beautifully. It was a perfectly exposed negative. And that’s when I started thinking about craft. Not process, not technique, not material, not image, but craft. I made some prints of this, and I was just looking at them thinking, wow, this print is really beautiful, like this piece of paper, this object – not an image anymore – this object is really beautiful.
I started thinking about craft. Not process, not technique, not material, not image, but craft. I made some prints of this, and I was just looking at them thinking, this object – not an image anymore – this object is really beautiful.
When I teach Introduction to Photography courses to college students, I spend a lot of time showing the work of artists and makers; I am always putting myself in their place and wondering what would I like to see. I know that if I don’t do that, many of them will turn in photographs of what they think they need to show me. I always have them submit their contact sheets with their assignments, and I really pay attention to those because they give me glimpses into their worlds – all those extra pictures they’re shooting that are not intended for the assignment. That’s where they really live, and those are the things that catch their natural eye when they aren’t satisfying someone else’s brief. It’s important to identify patterns, and to help them use their natural interests in their work.
I was always a maker. I was always interested in making objects, I just hadn’t thought in terms of my art also being objects. Photography isn’t image-making for me, it’s object-making. I’m always considering that I make objects, and I get my photography students to think in terms of that as well.
Beth Dow’s work examines ways we shape our environments and how we use photography to mediate that experience. Her work has been exhibited in America, Britain, Japan, China, Switzerland, and Germany, and has received many awards, including Grand Prize in the inaugural Photography.Book.Now competition, top-six finalist in the 2007 Critical Mass Book Award, and fellowships from the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. Dow’s photographs have been reviewed in many publications including The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and Boston Globe. She lives in Minneapolis.