If you ask Grace Hopkins-Lisle
where the greatest influence on her photography lies, she will probably
answer, "right here"--here being a small, odd-shaped, cement
house set pretty among trees at the end of a macadam road on Cape Cod.
Curiosity propelled me to leave my sanctum in Provincetown and travel
the 18 miles north to Wellfleet through a semi-deserted, woodsy area.
Narrow steps crossed a tiny drawbridge, creating the illusion of a moat
surrounding the small building. I saw immediately where Hopkins-Lisle's
imagery was born. Sparse and offbeat in design, the house was undeniably
the haven of an artist. Her father is the well-known New York painter
Bud Hopkins and Hopkins-Lisle has summered in this house since she was
3 years old.
She explained that the house had been designed to view nature through
it. The irregular shapes of the architecture inside and out, along with
the tiny, odd-sized windows, cut the view into segments that framed
a tree or a patch of sky abstracted from the configuration of the natural
landscape. "The architecture is built like a tree house,"
Lisle says, "and I see things this way, as if I am looking at
the objects I photograph through the branches of that tree house. There
are no vistas to see here--I have never been interested in photographing
vistas or grand views--endless landscapes bore me."
Hopkins-Lisle, now 25, began to photograph when she was 11, while she
accompanied her parents on a cruise. "I made little 5x7 pictures
to give to friends," she says, "but they weren't your
`normal' vacation shots. My first picture was of balloons
sailing skyward as the boat left the pier, but then there were parts
of people's heads and pieces of hair and it all became very surreal."
Interest in photography played a major role during her high school years,
when she asked a friend to teach her how to print black and white film.
She would wander around New York on the weekends taking pictures and
processing them, spending a good part of her time in the darkroom. "I
was not happy in school in those days and it was my way of escaping
into a different realm and doing something that I really enjoyed,"
At the Quaker high school that she attended in New York, Hopkins-Lisle
sat in the same place everyday for three years, gazing out of the same
windows. "They were small windows," she recalls, "and
they cut the trees behind them and then the trees cut the houses that
were behind them across the street. Everything flattened out and merged
onto one plane. The view offered me additional insight as I watched
the different kinds of light patterning and colors that changed over
the seasons. Being a Quaker, I was exceptionally interested in their
ideas about light. It is a very open religion with no set ideas as to
how to think and react. A lot of it is sitting and thinking about whatever
you need to think about and having the light of God answer your questions.
Most Quaker meeting houses are designed around the windows and let in
as much light as possible."
Recalling that when she attended the school of the Museum of Fine Arts
in Boston, one of the toughest questions she was called upon to answer
was if she could edit out parts of her photographs, what would she take
out. "Today," she says, "I would answer that they
would be things that ground people, like street signs, labels of any
kind, or words. Occasionally, when the inevitable happens and specific
words show up, I flip the negative so the words become abstract rather
Hopkins-Lisle worked in black and white for a long time and wonders
if the Quaker heritage may have been an influence. "Quakers used
very little color," she says, "and dressed primarily in
beige and gray. I find that I often like things that are mainly black
and white and very stark. When I print in black and white, I tend to
use a narrow range of gray and that abstracts my work even more since
the gray scale tends to let in too much information."
The work never results in pure abstraction and Hopkins-Lisle's
main interest remains in how to condense her subject onto one surface.
One of her mentors was Aaron Siskind who would take two-dimensional
objects and photograph them in an abstract way. Hopkins-Lisle's
interest, however, lies more in taking three-dimensional space and flattening
it. "That is one of the great things photography can do,"
she says. "One thing that helped me was a discovery I made while
I was living in California. It was that if I bought portrait film (she
uses Kodak Vericolor) to shoot landscape, it turned my shadows very
black. You could not read any information within the shadows as you
might if the color was a more natural purple. This kind of abstraction
turned objects and architecture into simple shapes that really interested
me. For instance, in one photograph an awning in shadow became a wonderful,
simple, black triangle and while it still remained recognizable as a
portion of a building, you wouldn't read it as an awning, but
rather as an abstract shape."
"Grandmother's Chair," a 14x14 silver gelatin print
taken in 1996, was one of the few photographs she has shot indoors.
Almost pure abstraction, the old rocking chair, backlit from a window,
became a mysterious image showing a series of dark shapes abstracted
from the rungs and the base of the chair and forming dark patterns along
the flat surface of the floor.
Questioning Hopkins-Lisle about the technical aspects of her work drew
a disinterested blank. Her husband Andrew's father is a camera
collector and he gave her a Rolleiflex with a 75mm Zeiss lens that dates
back to 1970. "There is nothing automatic about this camera,"
she says, "but I have gotten to the point where I don't
even need a light meter anymore. I'm not a sunrise and sunset
kind of photographer and I shoot pretty much all day--only nice days,
though," she adds, "because I look for the shadows. I like
the perspective with the Rolleiflex. No one knows what you're
taking pictures of because you look down into the camera. Even when
you point it up it's never clear what you're focusing on.
Since there are two lenses--you are looking through one and photographing
through the other--as a photographer, you don't actually line
up with what you're seeing. But, that's the twin reflex--it's
always a little bit off." Occasionally she will crop in the darkroom,
but not much. Her processing is typical C print, though she says she
has tried Cibachrome and found it had a "plastic" look that
she did not like. "Color is important to me," she says.
"I am primarily a color photographer and though it plays a role
in my work, I feel that my images are more about design."
In one image taken during a flower festival at Rockefeller Center in
New York, Hopkins-Lisle shot a series of pink flags flying in front
of the building. "I love the way those flags looked in the wind,"
she says, "and in this image they seemed stronger than the architecture
itself. The power of the wind, the strength of those flags, and the
way the shadows fell on them to create designs, along with the shapes
of the flagpoles, makes a statement. I don't want to be content
to focus on what everybody else focuses on. I want people to be moved
by the feeling, the color, and the abstraction in my work. I could easily
have taken a picture of Rockefeller Center and it would look like just
that, but there's plenty of stuff like that around."
A striking, recent photograph, titled "Santa Fe," was taken
from an arched doorway at the Santa Fe Museum. The stark archway was
in shadow and an angular patch depicts an intense, blue sky. From across
the street adobe color buildings appear out of focus and form an odd
vertical shape against the black archway. "I liked the ambiguous
spatial relationships in that photograph," says Hopkins-Lisle,
"the sky appearing so tiny against the building. It's hard
to ground yourself as to where and what these things are."
Hopkins-Lisle tells of a humorous incident that happened in Rockport,
Massachusetts that exemplifies the reactions toward much of her work.
One day, while photographing a site at the back of a store that had
a staircase decorated with the kind of fishing gear indigenous to the
area, she found herself with an audience of tourists. When they saw
her looking down into her camera, instead of focusing at the usual eye
level, and since they couldn't see what it was she was looking
at that seemed worth photographing, one voice announced, "it's
art--that's why you can't recognize it."