The Human Relationship to Mother Nature Through Experimental Photography: Interview With Heather Palecek

In this interview, Heather Palecek shares her passion for experimentatal photography and gives us a hint about the Pinhole workshop she will soon host at this year's edition of Experimental Photofestival - EXP.22 (Barcelona, Spain, July 20th-24th).

© Heather Palecek

Hi Heather, could you introduce yourself to the readers of our Online Magazine?

I was raised in the mountains of rural Sussex County NJ, and currently live in the city of Trenton, NJ. I’m 36 years old and have been an analogue photographer for more than half my life. I have a BA in Fine Arts Education/Photography and have been a high school photography teacher since 2010 teaching 35 mm film and darkroom courses as well as digital photography at a public high school nearby. I am an exhibiting fine artist who works with historical photographic processes, and I also have a small business doing family portraiture. So, you could say my life is pretty much overwhelmingly consumed by photography. I have other passions as well, and like to spend my time outdoors exploring, hiking, rock climbing, going to concerts, and I travel to my cabin in the Adirondacks quite often.

© Heather Palecek

Tell us about your photographic background. When did you start photographing?

I always loved taking photos as a kid, carrying a disposable camera with me everywhere I went to photograph my daily activities and take selfies with friends (Hello, 1998!) so when I got to high school and a photography course was available I knew I wanted to take it. I had no idea how much this course would change my life! I loved the feeling of seeing my freshly developed film come out of the tank and working in the darkroom to develop my prints. The science and hands-on aspects of the medium filled me up in ways I didn’t know possible.

I grew a strong passion for photography and decided that from that point forward I was always going to be a photographer, and that I wanted to go to college to be a photography teacher, which I currently am. In college I worked in large format photography and taught myself about pinhole photography, which quickly became an obsession.

© Heather Palecek - Ghost Pony - Pinhole

A little bit after college, I put both of those mediums to the side for a while and focused solely on teaching myself digital photography while growing my family portraiture business. After 6 years or so I was getting burnt out and felt a longing to get back to my roots and a need to work with my hands in ways digital photography couldn’t provide me. I went straight back to my old obsession of pinhole photography and haven’t looked back. It’s taken me on an amazing journey of experimenting with photography in new ways, exploring new mediums, discovering a purpose with my work, and finding my artistic voice.

© Heather Palecek

When did you start experimenting with photography? Do you remember your first ever photography experiment?

I definitely use a lot of different techniques to communicate the concepts in my work. To answer this question, I’ll stick with my journey in pinhole photography. I started getting more experimental as soon as I started building my own pinhole cameras. So many questions came up while I was building them and it reminded me of how scientific photography is, which is what originally made me fall in love with the medium back in high school. I have always been a very curious person so when a question arose while building a camera I would want to find the answer. This led me to ask more questions, their answers leading to even more questions, and without realizing it I’ve become an “experimental photographer”. First, the questions were about materiality and I experimented with different papers and builds. I soon moved onto deeper, conceptual questions about how the type of camera I use affects the look of an image and wanted to discover ways that this would synthesize with my narratives.

When mistakes happen, like camera leaks that leave a physical mark on my work, it led me to the most important question of all: “How can I collaborate with Mother Nature to create my work?” All of my work is about humans' relationship to Mother Nature, and I thought I should expand on that message more thoroughly through direct engagement. Instead of just using nature as subject matter, I wanted to be able to actually include it in the process and build a working relationship with Mother Nature.

I started doing an alternative pinhole photography technique called solargraphy which involves the purposeful overexposure of a paper negative through an extremely long exposure time, such as three months or more. I began to find ways to build cameras that would allow Mother Nature to make marks on my artwork directly. Rain, Temperature, Humidity, Snow, Ice, Sun, all have a lasting effect on the final outcome of my work. Although I choose the subject matter and composition, the final images are always a surprise because each solargraph is the result of a unique set of natural conditions.

Some of my final artworks become rusted due to rain and my camera material, emulsion is often deteriorated on the paper negative, mold might grow, etc. It’s amazing what can come of our collaboration! In a recent artwork I made of a fig tree in the garden that is being killed by invasive spotted lantern flies, Mother Nature created black mold spots and rust stains on the image. This is incredible to me because the fig tree I photographed is going to be covered in black mold by the end of the summer due to the destruction by the flies themselves. I couldn’t have planned that final image if I tried, and the surprise aspect of this process is so exciting to me and something that keeps me inspired and motivated to continue. Since I started collaborating this way with Mother Nature in 2017 I have found ways to do the same with other historical processes like cyanotype and lumen printing.

© Heather Palecek - Fig Tree 2022 - Solargraph

In an undeniably digital era, why do you choose analogue photography?

I love this question! I personally find a stronger urge to resist the convenience of modern lifestyle with every major increase in technology. As a society I believe our desire for
convenience is prohibiting us from experiencing life fully, being present in our interactions, having empathy, and living sustainably: I think modern convenience is killing our humanity and ultimately the Earth. This philosophy of mine has caused me to want to live a simpler, more intentional lifestyle, and my choice in photographic medium is a reflection of that.

I’m drawn to pinhole photography because of how slow and inconvenient it is. My favorite thing about pinhole photography is that the camera is not in front of my face, putting a barrier between myself and the world, during the exposure. I can be fully present while creating my photos because the camera is on a tripod next to me taking a long exposure and I get to sit there next to it and enjoy/fully experience the view. I don’t like the idea of experiencing my life through a camera lens or cell phone screen.

© Heather Palecek - The Fig Tree 2020 - Solargraph

All of the processes I work with (film, pinhole photography, cyanotype, lumen printing, etc.) are slow processes and this slowing down is something that is important to me and the lifestyle I’d like to cultivate for myself. The repetitive movements of working in the darkroom become meditative and watching my lumen exposures come to life over multiple hours let me fully experience the passing of time. I enjoy these moments. The slowness of the processes I choose also synthesize with my concepts of humans' relationship with Mother Nature. If we all slow down a little and resist the conveniences of our world which are polluting our world, we might learn to appreciate our environments more, and we could positively impact the world. I hope that my artwork will leave its viewers thinking about their own relationship to Mother Nature and inspire them to slow down too.

© Heather Palecek

On your Instagram bio you state "I use historical photo processes in experimental ways to explore the relationships between humans and nature." Can you tell us more
about it?

For my whole life I’ve made artwork in which the subject matter was nature based, but through experimenting with photographic materiality and its reaction to natural elements such as weather patterns, sun, and other time-based recurrence, I’ve been discovering ways to have my photographic work physically engage and be influenced by the environment it’s exposing in. Sometimes I leave the work outdoors to be affected by natural elements and other times I use natural elements to create the work. For instance, my pinhole photography has taken on many forms of collaboration with Mother Nature from the extreme long exposures (solargraphy) I mentioned before to using caterpillar-bitten leaves and worm-eaten bark as apertures for my cameras. Another example would be my “ziploc bag project” in which I created abstract cyanotypes about the importance of composting to take action against climate change by allowing food scraps to compost themselves on cyanotype coated paper. Working in processes that collaborate with Mother Nature connects my concepts and processes on a deeper level and truly brings together my ever-evolving theme of humans relationship with Mother Nature in my work.

© Heather Palecek - Los Lagos - Pinhole

You will be participating at the upcoming edition of EXP.22. Can you tell us what activities you will be hosting?

Yes! I am so excited for EXP.22! This year I am going to be teaching an online pinhole photography workshop called “Pinhole and Beyond” on Sunday July 24. I’m going to teach the history and basics of pinhole photography, dive into the different techniques for making a camera and experiencing pinhole photography, students will make their own camera, we’ll talk about composition and how to get the most out of your pinhole images, then I’ll inspire them with how to push the medium “beyond” the norm. It’s going to be awesome!

Who or what inspires your work?

I’m inspired by so many things! I know this is contradictory but I am equally inspired by sharing my time with my diverse artist communities (local and online) as well as solitude in the forest, exploring my environment independently. As a person with a lot of curiosity, questioning things and finding the answers to them brings me a lot of motivation to make work. Curiosity needs to be cultivated though so I find that journaling, meditating, getting involved in many activities, having deep conversations with loved ones and artists, exploring my environments closely, all contribute to my wonderings and ultimately my artwork.

© Heather Palecek

Do you have any interesting projects or collaborations planned that you would like to share with us?

Actually, yes! I always have a ton of things going on. I’m currently finalizing all details for a solo show of my work at SVAC (Southern VT Arts Center) this fall where I’ll be exhibiting my “Squash” project that is themed on the environmental devastation of the invasive spotted lantern flies and how to protect our forests. I also just self-published a book titled, “Don’t FIX it yet.” which I’m very excited about. It’s an instructional book about 4 techniques I’ve come up with to create unique photographic artwork with unfixed silver gelatin prints. I’m super excited about both of those things!

Check all the great works from Heather Palecek on her Instagram profile and website.

Ready to learn, teach and share experimental photography? Register here to join EXP.22 before tickets are sold out. Payment allows access to the following activities: 40 panel discussion, presentations of projects and experiences, 80 workshops, 10 portfolio reviews and the possibility that your images can be selected to be a part of any of the 5 exhibitions.

written by melissaperitore on 2022-07-12 #culture #nature #pinhole #experimental #spain #environment #photofestival #analogphotofestival #exp-22 #heather-palecek

More Interesting Articles