Over the past 20 years, as photography has become increasingly hands-off, Anita Douthat has literally run the other way — and, one might say, into the light. Produced without a camera, her photograms rely on the sun to expose images placed directly on ultraviolet light-sensitive printing-out paper. At once skeletal X-ray and intricate detail, these light drawings of objects evoke connection to the human body, speaking of breeze and breath with the delicacy of half-remembered dreams.
In Under the Sun, Douthat’s 2014 exhibition at the Weston Art Gallery, Aronoff Center for the Arts (Cincinnati, Ohio), her mastery and creative experimentation were evidenced in large, gold-toned images. Taking on a totemic presence, her subjects engaged viewers in a push-pull between abstraction and specificity — from a deconstructed wedding dress aglow with coiling Christmas lights, to a 1950s slip whose straps disappear in a flame-like flume, to a disembodied collection of thrift-shop candelabras. Her upcoming group shows include “After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe” at Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (November 6, 2015 – March 13, 2016); and “Photography Since the Millennium,” Carnegie Center for Art & History, New Albany, Indiana (October 9, 2015 – January 9, 2016).
Douthat received a bachelor of science degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design (Chicago) in 1972 and a master of fine arts from the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque) in 1986. Her photograms have been featured in exhibitions at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Indianapolis Art Center, Ross Art Museum at Ohio Wesleyan University and the Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Her work is held by numerous public and private collections including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Columbus Museum of Art, University of New Mexico Art Museum, Fidelity Investments in Covington, Kentucky, and Medpace in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The MacDowell Colony, New England Foundation for the Arts and Kentucky Foundation for Women. From 1985-92, she was curator of the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, and she is currently associate director of the Carl Solway Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Born in Cincinnati, she resides in Alexandria, Kentucky.
JTY: You’ve been working with photograms for the majority of your career. How did that choice evolve?
AD: I’ve been involved with photography my whole life. My parents were photographers and writers, and I photographed as a child. My undergraduate and graduate studies were in photography. When I attended the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, I experimented with all kinds of photography. The school was a Bauhaus descendant and still embodied many Bauhaus principles of art and design. I studied briefly with Aaron Siskind, Joe Jachna, Joe Sterling and Arthur Siegel. My senior thesis involved very abstract images created by documenting mechanical engineering projects. After graduation, I stayed in Chicago and took up color street photography, which felt like a way to explore the city. In that period of sorting myself out, I worked for several commercial photographers and a color lab. I acted as a one-person art department for a research facility specializing in microscopy.
JTY: What influenced your decision to pursue graduate studies?
AD: I had a great photography background, but not so much in art history. I began taking student-at-large courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I gravitated toward Native American and pre-Columbian subjects. That led to applying to graduate programs in the West and Southwest. It was when I went to graduate school at the University of New Mexico that I began making photograms seriously — essentially starting over, going back to the basics of drawing with light.
JTY: Did you study with Beaumont Newhall at the University of New Mexico?
AD: I did, the first semester when I arrived. It was toward the end of his teaching career, and I took a history of 19th century photography course with him. My main professors were Thomas Barrow and Betty Hahn. Hahn was one of the first artists in the 1970s to be immersed in 19th century photographic processes. During graduate school, I made combination color prints — part photograph, part elaborate photogram border. I also made cyanotype photograms on Japanese paper. This was all pre-digital, involving intensive darkroom work.
JTY: What about the West itself? How did it impact your work?
AD: It was a very different environment. People weren’t walking city streets in concentrated numbers like Chicago. There were fewer parades, festivals and other public events. People were alone, in their cars. It was very disorienting initially, but the experience taught me to look inward.
JTY: You’ve had extensive curatorial experience, something that continues with your work as associate director of the Carl Solway Gallery. How did you get your start as a curator?
AD: The program at UNM was focused on art history and writing, something I had specifically looked for. I also interned at the Albuquerque Museum. When I finished my coursework in 1983, I applied for curatorial and teaching positions and was quickly hired as a curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Their program focused on the relationship between fine art and craft, with an emphasis on big thematic group shows. I curated exhibitions on alternative photographic processes and non-functional fiber art. In 1985, I moved on to the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, where I was curator for over seven years. This was a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to an astounding range of photographic artists, and I immersed myself in curating. However, there was the frustration of trying to find time do my own work. A friend, Christopher Burnett, gave me a box of 20 x 24 printing- out paper. It’s sensitive to ultraviolet light, so exposures can be made in the sun. Making the images permanent involves only toning, fixing and washing, so you can work without a darkroom. I could tone and fix in trays in the bathtub. The paper was a little too big for the tub, of course, but this was a fortuitous occurrence in shaping the direction of my work. During the summers of 1991 and 1992, I had artist residences at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. I started working with objects bigger than the paper that required multiple panels. An artist there found an old sled in a dump; I used the sled, chairs and even a bicycle as light modulators. That experience was really the beginning of my focus on objects that are related to or are extensions of the body.
JTY: When did you come back to Cincinnati?
AD: I moved back to Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati in 1992. My mother died in 1991, and I inherited my childhood home. It’s a house my father built that sits on three acres surrounded by lovely trees. I couldn’t bear to part with it. I also learned at MacDowell that I didn’t need to live in a major metropolis to create work — I could be alone in a cabin in the woods. Almost immediately after my move, I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which felt like a huge vote of confidence that I had made the right decision. This gave me the luxury of a year without a full-time job to concentrate on my work. About seven months later I met my future husband, artist Cal Kowal. Shortly thereafter, I started teaching part-time at Northern Kentucky University and working at Carl Solway Gallery.
JTY: You also started photographing clothing around this time?
AD: Yes. CAGE (Cincinnati Arts Group Effort), a non-profit arts organization, sponsored a program for artists to create installations in abandoned storefronts — and invited me to work at what had been a costume store. There were all kinds of things left behind when the store closed — top hats, masks, gloves. I combined those objects with a thrift store dress that reminded me of a Broadway musical costume, with voluminous swinging skirts. I love the idea of introducing implied movement into photograms. I worked with that dress and created a series of images to display in the windows. The sunlight exposures were made on site.
JTY: How did those photograms differ from the work you showed last year at the Weston Art Gallery?
AD: Well, they were technically less sophisticated, but they were perfect to display in a window where they’d be seen from a distance and blasted by the sun. I was going to trash them after the show and Cal said, “Let me draw on them.” Going forward, those altered photograms became the thing that people were drawn to whenever they looked at my work, and by the late 90s, clothing had become a focus for me.
JTY: How did the wedding dresses become a theme?
AD: Cal and I did a show at the Weston Art Gallery in 2003 where I exhibited a series titled Transparent Uniforms, made with structured 1950s-looking dresses. They made me think about my mother and the layered dressing typical of that time. When exposed, they created incredible light and patterns. After that show, I thought I was finished with dresses. Then in 2004, the artist Joel Otterson gave me five wedding dresses that had been hanging from the rafters of his studio for a decade.
JTY: What had he used them for?
AD: They were curtains in an installation.
JTY: What about the wedding dresses caught your attention?
AD: They were just too tempting. I didn’t get married in a true wedding dress, and I soon discovered there are a lot of layers involved. I had to cut away fabric and layers to allow any light through and achieve the desired degree of translucency and transparency. Suddenly, I wasn’t just arranging objects — I was transforming them. This process of manipulating fabric led to the Alterations series of 2007. And a few more Transparent Uniforms ensued.
JTY: These are not high-fashion pieces you’re working with.
AD: No, while my photograms have many precedents and influences from the history of fine art and fashion, they are modest in their methods and materials. I find clothing at flea markets, Goodwill, the Salvation Army. The most personal image has a slip once worn by my mother. The other garments are much more anonymous. Secondary objects include a string of old Christmas tree lights and cuttings from the grape arbor in my backyard.
JTY: In the image “An Imperfect Symmetry” from the Alterations series, the fabric looks like dotted Swiss.
AD: The skirt was from a small, two-piece black dress, probably made for a 12-year-old, that I found at a Salvation Army store. The dots are just dabs of opaque gold glitter glued to the fabric. The top is actually another dress cut apart.
JTY: Did you have a sense of how those dots would respond to the light?
AD: Oh, yes, after years of walking around holding up objects and fabric to the light, I can anticipate a lot. That’s the beauty of a photogram; you have a sense of how things will appear, but in the process they’re transformed, elevated. It’s true with photography in general that you never really know what you have until you see a final image, in whatever form.
JTY: There’s a sense of movement in the clothing series — the dresses evoke an absent presence. Is that intentional?
AD: Yes. I don’t press fabrics down flat, and I don’t arrange the dresses like immobile stick figures. I want the material to breathe and embody the suggestion of movement.
JTY: Do you move the dresses at all while the image is exposing?
AD: I leave things alone for most of the exposure, which lasts on average around five minutes. At the end, I may move an object slightly. With leaves or fairly solid objects, for example, no light gets through, and I can wind up with large areas of solid white that aren’t very interesting.
JTY: Talk about how you work with light, how you control it.
AD: In many ways, it controls me. I’m a bit like a farmer, working with the seasons. I make exposures between May and October when the sun’s rays are strongest. Early mornings and late afternoons are best. Noon is hopeless — the sun is too strong and exposures are too short to control. I work close to doors or windows, using either shades or open doors to let in sunlight or end the exposure. Most of the work in my exhibition at the Weston Art Gallery was exposed in a shed with a large sliding door that I used like a shutter.
JTY: You started another series, Candelabras for Constantin, while you were working on Alterations.
AD: Yes, I needed a break from the dresses. My husband Cal collects flea market candelabras, and I thought, I’m attracted to these shapes, let me see what I can make with these. I placed some of them on their sides on the paper, and I stood others upright. I added glass objects for their transparent, translucent and refractive qualities. What I saw in the resulting shapes reminded me of Constantin Brancusi — his sculptures and the abstract way he photographed groupings of his work.
JTY: What’s next for you?
AD: I’m at an odd and interesting forced juncture. The printing- out paper that has been used by everyone from Eugene Atget to contemporary photographers like Linda Connor, Martha Madigan and myself has been discontinued. Digital photography offers many new opportunities, particularly in terms of scale and resolution, but diverse materials and methods, some as old as the medium itself, can be casualties.