Teresa Kirby Smith
Fine art photographer Teresa Kirby Smith settled in Bermuda over 10 years ago. Her photography practice is split into two distinct approaches: the Night Photographs – shot in black and white on medium format film, often using the moon as the only light source – and the Colour Photographs – which, by contrast, are shot on a digital camera using the bright afternoon sunlight refracted through man made materials, such as acrylic film, to create abstractions.
Teresa credits her island home with shaping this dual practice – the lack of light pollution enhancing her medium format night photography and Bermuda’s unique quality of light leading her digital abstractions. “The very clear and vibrant afternoon light, saturated with color, almost feels like a gift.” she says. “I couldn’t make these digital images in a place like London.”
This year marks Teresa’s fifth inclusion in the Bermuda Biennial with Double Exposure, a triptych which captures the same subject through three different photographic mediums: a cyanotype, a gelatin silver print and a digital colour print; encapsulating the history of photography in a single work.
We caught up with Teresa to discuss the ways in which living in Bermuda has affected her artistic practice, the ease of digital photography and why, in the age of the iPhone, nothing can match the exploratory process of developing film in a darkroom.
BNG: Your current photography practice is split between two distinct series: Night Photographs – black and white photographs taken at night with a medium format camera – and Digital Color Photographs, which are shot during the day and abstract in nature. How long have you been developing each series?
TKS: I’ve been taking photographs at night for more than 40 years. This first started during photography school when my days were busy, but my evenings were usually freer and less structured. I used several different medium format cameras, my favorite being a borrowed Rolleiflex. The subject matter varied – urban and rural landscapes, public parks, portraits, trees, clouds and stars. The one constant throughout, however, was that every image was shot at night.
My interest in digital photography came about much later, maybe ten or twelve years ago. Normally I try to spend part of each day in my studio, but if I don’t get outside to stretch and be in the fresh air, I feel lethargic and start to shut down. Anyway, I enjoy long walks and going down to the water. Like most people today, I have a smartphone, and it tends to go wherever I go. During these afternoon walks I would often think about my night work and make mental notes, but at some point it occurred to me to use the camera on my phone as a way to keep visual reminders of anything that caught my interest – a particular tree or rock, a bend in the road – that I thought might make a good shot at night. Soon I discovered, though, the ease of taking a digital photo, and the immediate feedback from seeing it, which became interesting in its own right. I was working with bright sunlight, with color, these were my new daytime subjects, and I quickly found the process pretty seductive and hard to resist.
BNG: Could you please talk us through the processes involved in making your Night Photographs and your Colour Photographs?
TKS: My black and white night images make use of available moonlight. Nights when the moon is full or nearly full can be very productive. But, of course, there are plenty of evenings when the sky is dark or clouded over, which is when I’ll use artificial light. I carry in my pack a couple of flashlights of varying intensity. There’s also ambient light – from streetlights or from the headlights of a passing car or from, say, the illuminated front porch of a house that’s fifty yards from where I’m standing with my camera. And then there’s one more way I’ve learned to wring light from the night, and that’s with time exposures. When taking a shot, I’ll often leave the shutter of my camera open from several seconds to several minutes. If I’m hand-holding the camera, as opposed to using a tripod, intentional movement is also introduced because I’m breathing in and out as I hold the shutter open. This slight movement lends a dark rounded softness to the image which at times can be inviting, at other times almost sinister.
My digital color photos are primarily abstract. I prefer shooting these in the mid or late afternoon when the sunlight is more sharply angled. I’ll use different props and tools – colored paper and acetate, transparent acrylic film, bits of glass, optical devices. When sunlight is reflected and/or refracted off of these materials, new and unexpected shapes emerge, sometimes only fleetingly, which is why the speed of a digital camera, and the ease of using it, is so convenient.
BNG: What is it about each method that keeps you experimenting and exploring?
TKS: With the black and white night photos, after I return home from having shot one or perhaps two rolls of film, I know there’s still a lot of work ahead of me in the coming days before I produce any finished images, and most of this work will take place in the darkroom. The film will be developed – 12 frames per roll – and while it’s still wet and hanging to dry, I’ll examine each frame, sometimes with my naked eye but more often with a magnifier. If two frames out of the original twelve survive this examination period, I’ll start to perk up and be eager to get printing. Two out of twelve is a pretty good strike rate.
There are many ways to shape what the finished image will look like during the printing process. Prints can be darkened, made lighter, cropped, re-sized, turned sideways, blemishes removed. The process that takes place in the darkroom is almost by definition one of experimentation and exploring.
With my digital color photos, most of the shaping of an image, the experimentation, takes place as I manipulate the various props and tools at my disposal before I click the camera. I can take 20 or 30 shots in the space of a few minutes, hurrying to catch the light and the color before it changes. Shooting digital sometimes feels like the equivalent of hyperventilating. Your heart begins to race, your pulse quickens.
BNG: You have been living in Bermuda over 10 years, after time in New York and London, and a childhood growing up in South America. In what ways has living in Bermuda, in particular, affected your artistic practice?
TKS: It seems as if I’m always outside here in Bermuda. That wasn’t as true in other places I’ve lived, especially New York and London. Bermuda may be small, but the horizon line is off in the far distance, out where the ocean meets the sky. I just love that. As a night photographer, I appreciate that there is less light pollution in the evening and early morning hours than in most other places. Less light pollution and less ambient light in general broadens my palette. I’m also drawn to water and to shorelines, so living here gives me plenty of material to work with.
As for my digital color photos, the very clear and vibrant afternoon light, saturated with color, almost feels like a gift. I couldn’t make these digital images in a place like London.
BNG: You are exhibiting in the Bermuda Biennial for the fifth time this year (’22, ’18, ’16, ’14, ’12). Your 2022 Biennial artwork, Double Exposure, is a triptych captured through 3 different photographic processes: a cyanotype, a gelatin silver print, and a digital color print. Why did you decide to approach it in this way?
TKS: Uppermost in my mind when I began this project was the theme of the 2022 Bermuda Biennial, A New Vocabulary: Past, Present, Future. The 3 photographic processes I chose represent 3 different periods in the relatively short history of photography as an artistic medium, so it seemed logical to me to create a triptych in order to address the Biennial’s theme.
The first image is a cyanotype, made by using a chemical printing process first developed in the mid-19th century. The middle image is a gelatin silver print from a film negative, which was the dominant photographic process of the 20th century. And the third image, representing the foreseeable future of photography, is a digital color print.
The subject of Double Exposure is repeated in each of the triptych’s three images: a Bermuda cedar growing from volcanic rock as seen from the vantage point of past, present, and future. But here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Each of the three images I shot of the cedar tree is in fact a double exposure. I remembered it was Edweard Muybridge, the 19th century American photographer and pioneer of motion studies, who first demonstrated that repeating still images can suggest movement through time. I liked slipping that idea into the triptych.
BNG: In the age of the iPhone, digital photography has become ubiquitous. What does film – and the varying formats of film – produce that digital can’t?
TKS: Digital photos are produced in an instant. Aim, click, on to the next, and then the next. All other photographic images, whether daguerreotypes or cyanotypes or prints made from developed film, are the culmination of sequenced steps. The steps vary from one format to another, but a sequence must be followed in order to produce a finished image. These steps take time, that’s one, and two, decisions must be made each step of the way that will affect, for better or worse, the final outcome. There’s no app to make these decisions for you. You are the app and you create the image. Regardless of format, producing a non-digital image is a tactile, hands-on process. It’s also a lot of fun.