Judith Vejvoda began her photographic career at the Art Institute of Boston in 1982. While there she photographed jazz musicians and performance pieces that were published in the Boston Globe Magazine. In 1998 she left Boston and pursued her graduate degree in photography at the University of New Mexico. Its prestigious roster of faculty members included Van Deren Coke, Tom Barrow, Patrick Nagatani, and Betty Hahn. At the same time she began to teach at a community college nearby. Currently, Vejvoda teaches digital photography at the Santa Fe Workshops and her work is represented in major collections in this country and abroad.
Shutterbug: What do you feel the infrared look adds to your photographs?
Judith Vejvoda: I like the etherealness, the otherworldly aspect of a place. Although there is that fairy-tale effect to infrared I want that to be just one of the components of the picture. The fact that it reacts to heat intrigues me, too. Heat always symbolizes life to me.
I want that to be just one of the components of the picture. The fact that it reacts to heat intrigues me, too. Heat always symbolizes life to me.
SB: When you look at a landscape, what determines how you are going to capture it?
JV: Well, infrared landscapes are something I have been doing since 1980 and I think they have always asked to be just infrared landscapes. I use a 1941 Widelux camera and the prints are absolutely film-based and are not digitally enhanced at all. I print my own film and use the best papers available, though over time the papers have changed. It would be sacrilegious to touch those negatives.
SB: I recall that Douglas Kent Hall in a juror's statement for the Spring 2000 exhibition of New Mexico photographs commented that in the 150 photographs he looked at, among them were only three photographers whose darkroom skills were impeccable. Since you took third place I assume you were among them.
JV: I only do 25 prints of each image and want to have the intimate hands-on experience and produce a quality print.
SB: Many of your large-scale landscapes, with their feeling of isolation, abandonment, and moodiness, remind me of the recent work of Sally Mann.
JV: Yes, there is the same solitude. I'm pretty much a loner. My work is about a connection I have with nature. It is really where my life resonates. I just spent a week photographing in the Gila Wilderness in the southwest part of New Mexico. It is called the primitive black range and is part of the Geronimo Trail. It is also the largest wilderness in the 48 states with the least amount of human activity and one of the few places where you can feel the connectedness to the earth. I hiked for miles. It is a place where I believe spirits still live.
SB: It sounds like a magical place for your panoramic vistas.
JV: I used the panoramic camera for most of my landscapes, though I also brought my Hasselblad to photograph some elements of the cliff dwellings, like a pueblo/kiva ladder and the wonderful caves in the area that I might use to make images for my panels. I love the square format for those boards that I do.
SB: I assume you are referring to your triptychs that are often mixed media and alternative process work using digitally composed images. They are amazing. It is hard to conceive the way all these different images fit together so perfectly.
JV: I do these triptychs simultaneously with my infrared work. The mixed media body of work may be cyanotype or collage images or painted on photo linen. I have done a lot of work with a Diana camera, too, because, like infrared, the pinhole gives such a poetic and symbolic image and has a kind of chiaroscuro effect. I think ideas come up when you just let things be and experience the way they really are. In much of my work you will see paths leading to dark or light places depending on my own psychological perspective at the time. In the photograph "Footbridge" there are trees that are almost foreboding, going across the path. The shadows bar entrance but, as in life, there are all kinds of detours, barriers, and obstacles that get in the way.
SB: So you are coming from two different worlds, the one you have just described and then the world of Photoshop and digital imaging.
JV: Yes, and though it seems that they are very different they are similar in sensibility. Our role as human beings is to protect the natural world instead of seeing it as a resource. I see the planet as a guardian of that resource. I admired that in Ansel Adams and I see him as a person who was absolutely awed by the majestic beauty of what he saw. No, he is not my hero, but I like his attitude toward nature and his need to guard the fragility and the beauty--it was a union. In my own work I want to show people beautiful places that are not buried under cement and make it known that we must protect these places.
SB: Adams and Weston, too, made powerful images of nature but they were crisp. Yours in contrast are filmy, atmospheric, grainier, and more painterly.
JV: I use a little bit of push and pull, too, in the development, depending on the highlights and the infrared film. I don't want to blow my highlights out and it's easy to do. I use Formulary black and white 130 developer out of Montana. It's based on the old Amidol photographic recipes, but is not as toxic. Then I print on beautiful art paper, either Bergger or Forte, because of their high content of silver.
SB: And even with your expertise, you feel that this same quality cannot be achieved working in Photoshop?
JV: No. I don't think the resolution on the paper can really handle the subtleties and tonal separations in the gray scale of my infrared yet. The printers are not capable and those that are do not have the archival quality. The technology is not quite there.
SB: I find that all of your work addresses something more than just the material plane. It seems more spiritual and revealing.
JV: Well, thank you. I do try to lift a veil of reality so it is beyond the human struggle. It is the moment though--I think more in terms of union, some kind of a connection I feel. A photojournalist may also connect with his or her images, project on to them or feel the story to be told. There is an agenda. I guess what I am saying about my own work is that when I photograph I am trying to be in a meditative state (not that I want to sound like a new age freak) where I have a psychological connection to where I am. I try to resonate with the energy in that place. I honestly feel there is a living energy in nature and when I go to these special places I always hope to capture it.
SB: I know that you have been teaching workshops in Photoshop. Will you give us a little more information about your own digital procedures?
JV: My new work is using digital, though it is camera based. Many images are taken in 21/4" format, scanned into the computer and digitized in Photoshop. Though it seems I am working backward, the output is put on CD and made back into film so I can print it on top of a birch board that has a silver liquid emulsion. I re-expose the image on these 30" square panels and then oil glaze on top of them. I use the birch panels because they hold up better during all the chemical processes. I use a lot of medium in my mixture, and paper would disintegrate so the photographs are more archival. I have a vague concept ahead of time of an idea I want to make into a piece and at times they almost turn into paintings. Sometimes a part of the photograph will get completely covered while other parts remain untouched. It's a marriage, and when people ask is this a photograph or a painting--well, that is music to my ears.