I use photography’s innate specificity to investigate ambiguity, and as basis for abstract composition. Photographs are typically connected to particular subjects, locations, times. Instead, I explore depictions of reality (worth examining because they are real) by foregrounding the mystery of what’s pictured.
Through abstracting, images attain freedom of reference and interpretation, without dwelling on “what and where.” My work is always composed in camera. Later, I apply tonal alterations and/or combine exposures. This shows the world in a way that is true but different from what we usually observe.
It causes a reduction of recognition but not of complexity.
THE STORY OF THE ABSTRACTING PROCESS
My early work used landscape as a subject of contemplation or a metaphor for human experience, as well as for beauty. When showing the built environment, I emphasized the effects of time and weathering, obstruction of light, and decay of structures. Since 2014 I’ve worked with abstract depictions of the natural world.
In 2014, I completed 22 images for the Vacant Nests series. I had collected scans of birds and eggs as my pet finches died over several years. When Vacant Nests was finished I realized that these prints, showing close detail, unconventional orientation, and black backgrounds, were somewhat abstract.
Soon after, I carefully considered compositions I was consistently drawn to. I realized that pictorial elements and the use of motion can resemble the use of line and shape in painting. Very dark earthtones can be changed into washes of white. I began to alter color values to find something new. The result was Nothing, in the World, my first intentionally abstract series. It used existing images as source material. The title riffs on the idea of abstract art being “pictures of nothing” . . . and yet these are photographs from the real world.
The next project, Zone of Transformation: Nature in the High Desert, was completed in 2015 at an artist residency in the Mojave Desert. The series shows a liminal environment where identity can be difficult to ascribe, in the transition zone between depiction and abstraction. This was the first time I deliberately captured images in camera to change later in the studio. The resulting series offers an unexpected view of the environment, abstracted but still about the desert.
In 2016 and 2017, I worked intensively to advance this abstract vision with the Strangeness of Seeing project which examines the use of detail in visual art. I also returned to the handmade book craft with a two-volume set of this project. Images are more conventionally oriented and rely largely on tonal alterations. The last image made for Strangeness of Seeing set off in another direction by combining exposures.
2017 culminated with the series, Phantasm: Autumn in the Kentucky Woods, produced at a residency near Louisville. Here I freely mixed multiple exposures with color adjustments. Phantasm is a counterpoint to Zone of Transformation, contrasting the Eastern forests with the Western desert. In 2018, I started anew with images from the Phantasm series that had been edited out. By combining and altering further and further the abstraction became denser and denser, resulting in a new body of work, With A Crane’s Eye.
2019 saw more work on individual images and smaller projects. Hydrospheric Variations brought together exposures of water and clouds I’d been collecting. Also in 2019, I quickly pulled together 13 images for Bruce Connor Made Me Do It after spending time with Connor’s inkblot drawings. In 2020, I finished handmade books of Hydrospheric Variations and continued with several ongoing themes.
Irene Imfeld’s landscape and nature-based imagery draws on aesthetic traditions from realism to minimalism to rococo. Always grounded in common reality and composed in camera, the pictures often abstract the ordinary. Some subjects are more recognizable than others as, over time, her work has become more abstract. Even unmanipulated pieces show the everyday world as transcendent or strange. The combination of digital technology and a longing for beauty evokes the moment — and environment — in which we find ourselves.