Meghann Riepenhoff

Photographer, San Francisco // October 2011
In keeping with the lineage of abstraction, I’m interested in visually activated sensation and experience, imparting some peripheral sense of things through a visual departure from what we recognize or believe we know.

Meghann’s studio is in the Dogpatch neighborhood, in the same building as Graphic Arts Workshop, the printmaking co-op that we visited Jill Storthz in. Again, we followed those wide hallways past endless doors, looking for Meghann’s studio, taking lots of wrong turns, till Meghann finally came out and found us. Her studio is small, packed with boxes of photographic paper and stockpiles of past work. The space is pretty straightforward, and overall there isn’t much in the way of distinguishing characteristics— there weren’t a lot of tangible, telltale details, the kind that allow for instant and rampant imaginings and speculation about who someone might be. There were a few things that grabbed at me and made me wonder, theorize, and conclude, but really what stood out was that the space is simply all about work. We talked extensively about that— creative work, and all the other varieties of practical and developmental work necessary to sustain one’s creative practice. And then, at some point in the conversation the topic of abstraction came up, and Klea and Meghann instantly took on the subject with a hungered fervor; together they inquired, examined, and exchanged observations and ideas. I sat and listened, quiet and sort of mesmerized by their vulnerability, curiosity and earnestness. I realized their conversation was exactly the kind of detail I was hoping for. Though their discussion focused on abstraction within the context of photography and their respective work, as our visit went on and our conversations continued to shift, it became apparent that much of Meghann’s broader sensibilities are also filtered through the “lens” of abstraction. She seeks out the discomfort of disorientation and gives herself over to it without hesitation, or perhaps despite it. Her inquiries and affinities delve into the territories of the natural world and science, and explore the impenetrable mysteries and indiscernible truths that exist there. Meghann is inspired by the unknowable, the imperceptible, and the unfamiliar; she’s after a particular twist in perception that can only occur when seeing and understanding something is no longer dependent on the recognition of it. As far as I’m concerned, that twist in perception is something we should all be after.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
“I am an artist.”

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I have about five day jobs (other than art making) that I juggle— teaching, assisting, event photography. Being exposed to that many supervisors, people, challenges— what it can do (other than make one crazy) is to set up a situation where creative thinking and problem solving can flourish. Assignments for shooting are great ways to exercise my brain, and that feeds back into art making. Same with teaching— it is a great way to stay active in critical discourse and thinking.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I primarily work with traditional analog color photography. I work digitally as well, make books, play with alternative processes, draw, etc. but my main love is the color darkroom. My work is a reoccurring exploration of the relationship between seemingly opposing forces and the potentially reactive places where they meet— for example I use highly insignificant objects in such a way as to reference something immense. I’m interested in things that might represent a dichotomy, but are actually intrinsically linked.

In keeping with the lineage of abstraction, I’m interested in visually activated sensation and experience, imparting some peripheral sense of things through a visual departure from what we recognize or believe we know. I’m also interested in the way my practice relates to defamiliarization, in that I repurpose very ‘known’, common objects (sand, toys, etc) from a sort of neotonous position, resulting in something poetic, experiential, and not immediately discernable.

I titled one recent series Instar, which is a biological term that describes the successive stages of molting in an insect. Rebecca Solnit delved into this idea, and said “the strange resonant word instar…. implies something both celestial and ingrown, something heavenly and disastrous, and perhaps change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far.” I think the work and this quote speak to those elusive moments and concepts, like the vastness of our cosmos or the infinitesimal cellular reactions happening inside our bodies.

Another series, I called Eluvium, which is a scientific term used to describe residual deposits of sand and dirt moved by the action of wind. I cast sand onto light sensitive paper, generated breath that moved the sand into formations, and exposed the paper to light. The resulting images resemble oceanic satellite imagery and play with scale in a disorienting way, where one can’t quite detect what she is seeing and what the spatial relationship is. A really simple action, moving sand around in the dark, generates thinking around larger ideas like scientific discovery, environmental patterns, and perhaps more grandiose ideas like our (in)significance in a vast system of existence.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’ve been looking at a lot of Turrell recently, also Yves Klein— for their color. Eriko Osaka described Turrell’s blue as “solid blue but at the same time empty” and also that the “color was material and immaterial at the same time”.

I spend time looking at light and the impact of it touching objects, while retaining a playful investigative interest toward the world. I’m especially excited by bioluminescence— either in air or water and have also been revisiting the drawings of Ernst Haeckel. I am active outdoors and take pictures of patterns occurring in nature and the ways that color and light behave in sacred places like an old growth redwood grove. I love camping because I get to witness changing light, color, sound, and atmosphere over an extended period of time.

I’m currently reading A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan. I’m appreciating the ruminations on being a maker and the urges one feels to create. I always dork out on scientific imagery and have a particular fondness for Carl Sagan. In its 2009 50 Years of Space Exploration edition, National Geographic stated that ‘Astronomers are confronting a vexing challenge: We don’t know what 96% of space is made of.’ What a wonderful mystery we find in scientific investigation, in that it perpetually reveals to us just how much we don’t know, and in ideas like Sagan’s well known concept of earth— us, as the pale blue dot hurtling through space. Related to this is that now-famous Hubble image, where we thought we were pointing our eyes out toward an empty void, and of course what was returned was images of galaxies beyond our previous imagination. I’m intrigued by the constantly changing collection of images that become part of our collective vocabulary. In Brought to Light at SFMOMA, we got to see early scientific imagery and consider how photography revealed what was beyond the naked eye. With even more complex systems for making visual information available, now we regularly are exposed to things we’ve never seen before— and that is terribly exciting and confirms my understanding of just how little of our existence we are currently engaging with.

A lot of these ideas come in to play when I’m sitting in the total darkness of the darkroom— I make my work in pitch black— and I shine a directional light at an orb, casting a shadow onto the paper. There is really something beautiful and metaphoric when that darkness becomes illuminated.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
My biggest challenge is setting aside time, keeping that appointment with myself, and protecting my practice from my other work encroaching. In terms of the art world, my goal is to have legitimate relationships with good people— I try to uphold the same values I maintain in all my other non-art related relationships and to be guided by principles of authenticity and integrity. I recognize that the people you choose to work with greatly impact your experience, so it’s important for things to feel “right.”

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
This space is a bit like a secret garden for me. In the midst of the super funky Dogpatch, it is a place where I invest energy and thought in hopes that it will bear fruit. It is a place of grappling and wrestling with ideas, form, doubt, and intensity. I actually do a lot of my ‘making’ in the darkroom, which is not in my studio, so I have trained myself to be agile in moving between working spaces— to let both areas feed the practice. Whenever either of those places becomes somewhere I dread going to, I’m either neglecting my practice or hovering on the brink of a big move that I’m hesitant to make. My practice is something that needs regular attention, and I’ve noticed that when I spend too much time away from it, it’s a lot harder to come back. It’s like the work itself begins to retract from me.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has lead to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
When I was much younger, I experienced a series of losses that absolutely shifted everything in my life and therefore in my art. The inextricable link between my experience and my art serves as a springboard for thinking, rather than a direct and visible link like say, for example Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain. I let my experience fuel my thinking about universal themes, knowing that in a lot of arenas, it is only the specifics that differ. There are internal narratives that become abstract compositions, but rarely are these things specifically notable to a viewer.

I used to shoot mostly environmental portraiture of people with whom I was very close, with a heightened sensitivity to light and color, but I was always collecting the more abstract images from the contact sheet and knowing they would be important. When I was at the Banff Centre for the Arts, I made a series of really awful sculptures that I hoped would create a sort of cosmic space. The materials were detritus, plastics, toys, and were total failures as sculptures, so I took them to the darkroom with me and that blew the door off my practice. I knew Fuss and Derges, Welling, Man Ray, etc. but I hadn’t seen photograms quite like what was coming out of the processor, probably because I was simultaneously integrating a negative with the objects, and it changed everything for me.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m a bit protective of my work when it’s in a beginning, nebulous phase because it’s dangerous for the work to be exposed before it’s ready to come out of the incubator. I almost always begin projects from an intuitive space so I need time to marinate on the ideas and language of the pieces before I expose them to feedback. I will say I’m working on a series of prints where my materials are distilled down to simply light, contact, chemistry and paper.

What are you most proud of?
My family and friends. Being content and using photography and art as a way to give back.

What do you want your work to do?
To work.

What advice has influenced you?
I always say this to my classes, but one of my teachers in undergrad, Mark Steinmetz, told me that one of the most important things one can be as a photographer is agile. The comment was directed at my boring vantage points in a particular critique, but the advice surpasses that context.

I have a very wonderful family, and in respective order, my Mom, sister, and Dad always advise kindness, hard work, and recognition that life is a process to be moved through with grace.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I believe in a process rather than a position or a certain marked point. I know a life of art making will have a series of exciting punctuation marks, but I think every time I go to the studio or feed my practice, it is an act of arriving.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I’ll have a 2012 solo show with Duncan Miller Gallery in LA.

To see more of Meghann’s work:

She was also recently featured in Black and White’s ‘Color’ magazine.