Interview by Monika Bullette
Delaware Fun-A-Day is exploring all the types of media used in the projects. Heather Siple is a Delaware Individual Artist Fellow in Photography, with work hanging in Delaware Senator Carper’s office. She is a 2 time participant (2013 and 2015). Her 2016 venture is an extension of her 2015 project - photos of lights along roads after dark. Learn more about her investigation of hidden wildlife in Wilmington and unique photographic processes. Thank you, Heather!
Are you a Delaware resident, born and raised?
Almost. I was an import when I was a toddler. My parents moved to Newark when my dad got a job at DuPont. Somehow he ended up just about the only DuPonter who never got transferred anywhere.
How did you get introduced to Delaware Fun-A-Day? What or who inspired you to participate?
A friend who had participated in the first one passed on a link for year 2 when it came around on Facebook. At the time, it was just the excuse I needed to really develop a printing technique, lumen printing, I had recently learned about. I was just starting to play with it thinking about it as a means to give elementary school students a darkroom experience without the darkroom. A month of daily practice let me really get the hang of it. I’ve been participating off and on since then.
Did you have a favorite project from Delaware Fun-A-Day 2015? Any Artists you are hoping to see participate again?
There were so many cool projects last year from all levels! So many that I have a hard time picturing some that just really struck me at the time. I really liked the dolls in the shadowboxes and the skyscape paintings that incorporated bits of real twigs, vines and such as landscape features. There was another one using a photographic technique that played around with the shapes of sea life in ways that made you really look deep into the pictures. It’s always interesting to see what people come up with!
Your "crystal ball" photos can give the viewer the sense of being either very small or very large. Could you describe your technique and why you print mostly in black and white?
I use a peep hole for a door mounted to a lens cap on a medium-format film camera. I like the look of film for this and the larger format means I can see what I’m doing in the tiny lens much more easily than a 35mm or DSLR. The lens itself warps everything in a 180-degree field of view into a circle. The brass barrel of the peep hole reflects what is in the lens and creates halos that are unique to the scene, angle, time of day and weather, like a thumbprint of each photo. I use them to create fantasy worlds that are firmly grounded in reality.
I like the way black and white takes the viewer a step back from reality. It brings out the shapes, shades and textures, the abstract qualities, in what is in front of my lens and invites the viewer to linger and see what is going on in the picture, maybe even get lost in it. I find that too often with color people jump to instant recognition, read the high-impact photos in a second or two and then just as quickly walk away because there is nothing more to the photo. Having said that, sometimes I like to play with color because it adds to my story. Sunsets in the background just aren’t sunsets in black and white. With the crystal ball series in particular, I tend to do more black and white for technical reasons as much as philosophical ones. Unless the conditions are right, the halos tend to be muddy, reflecting the brown of tree trunks, old leaves and stone walls, rather than the brighter elements at the core.
The Night Lights series I am continuing this year is very much the color, with the occasional black-and-white because the scene was pretty much black-and-white, but more about that later.
I get the feeling that you are open to "accidents" and "mistakes" - how does the unexpected play into your work?
It’s not in my nature to be terribly precise and controlling. I tend to go with the flow, observe and discover rather than do anything heavily planned. Sometimes that means miscalculating. Sometimes that means things that were totally unexpected crop up. It starts to rain and I get water drops and bad lighting. I can’t get to the angle I wanted and have to try from another spot. My kids (my main human elements) are playing around and do something unexpected and wonderful, and I’ll tell them to freeze. Sometimes the results are trash and sometimes they are inspiration for a new direction. If I can’t do something one way, I’ll see what happens with another, take what I get and experiment.
Are there any photographic processes that you haven't explored that you yearn to?
I’ve played around a little bit with homemade pinhole cameras, and will probably pick a warmer month to explore that in greater depth. In the mean time, I subscribe to, and have written for, a web site called alternativephotography.com where people share all manner of antique and off-the-wall photographic processes. When I need a change of pace I can always look there for ideas to try. That’s where I learned about the lumen printing that I did a few years ago for Fun-A-Day, along with another process that I like to play with, anthotypes, which uses plant dyes instead of photo emulsion.
Do you have a favorite place to photograph in Delaware? Any hidden gems we should check out?
I like taking pictures in my own back yard - often literally. Growing up as a kid who read a world of photo magazines showing great pictures of exotic places and never going anywhere myself, I became very attuned to exploring the beauty in my immediate surroundings, whatever they may be. Even now that I am able to travel more, I like to find the beauty in things as simple as the ice in the neighborhood rain gutters. Away from my house, my two favorite places to explore right now are Beaver Valley, which straddles the DE-PA state line near Concord Mall, and The Russell Peterson Wildlife Refuge at the south end of Wilmington. Beaver Valley is all rolling hills, horses, corn fields and woods, with some ruins dating back to the 19th century hidden here and there. Some of it is national parkland, but much of of the rest is slated for development or already sold off and under construction. If you’re going, better make it sooner rather than later! The Peterson Refuge is 212 acres of marshland with a little boardwalk around a pond that allows dry access for a close look at what is living out there. At first broad glance from I-95, there is a monotony to the landscape. So many endless acres of reeds and cattails! But, every time I go there I find something new. The magic is in the details!
If there were only one photo that you could hang over your mantel, what would it be?
Anything by Jerry Ulesmann. He can create such wonderful worlds out of what he finds in our own. What’s more, the man was a master of making fantasy montages decades before Photoshop. I don’t actually alter the reality in front of me when I do my own work, but there is definitely the element of reimagining where I am that comes from his influence.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Take LOTS of pictures to get the one you want.
Please describe the project you're doing for Delaware Fun-A-Day 2016? what didn't you accomplish in 2015 that made you want to continue this theme?
Last year I started a project that I’d always wanted to do: photographing the lights from cars, lamp posts, etc, reflected in the gloom of bad weather. I loved the colors, the quality of the light in the glow and the reflections! Because it was a daily thing, and the weather wasn’t always gloomy last February, it ended up an exploration of mundane things lit up against the darkness and the trails of light left by cars passing in the night, as recorded by very long exposures. I had so much fun, I kept going for a few days into March. It was just so cold all last winter that I lost momentum to the desire for fingers that were not numb. There were quite a few nights during the project that I was only out for 15 or 20 minutes, bundled up against the cold and the wind with ski pants, face warmer, thick gloves and really heavy, waterproof snow boots. I’d like to go back and revisit some places where I may not have spent much time last year - when the weather is a bit warmer than 7 degrees! What’s more, I keep staring at the lights when I am a passenger on night trips. I haven’t gotten it out of my system yet. Probably won’t for some time. The crystal ball project started out as 4 pictures for a show at the Biggs Museum seven years ago. It turned into a book and I am still doing them five years after the book was published! Who knows where I’ll end up going with this?
Do you have any other projects or events that you are working on?
I just had a show of crystal balls this fall that centered on the Peterson Refuge, after shooting there for 9 months. I’m going to be spending more time exploring that site this year and may be doing something with Delaware Nature Society with the results, but that is very tentative at this point. Meanwhile, I have it in mind to keep working on the Night Lights and do a solo show with much larger prints than the 4x6s I do for Fun-A-Day.
Where can people check out more of your work?
I’ll have regular updates on this year’s project as it happens on my Facebook fan page, Heather J. M. Siple. I have work on my own web site, www.sipleart.com. I also have two books available at blurb.com. See some of my photos in a group show called “The Light Fantastic at Colourworks Photo Space in WIlmington until the end of January 2016 .