I recently had the pleasure of visiting Letha Wilson at her studio in Bushwick. As with so many other photo-concerned artists at the moment, Letha approaches the captured image not as a final result, but rather a point of departure - a raw material fit for further manipulation. Her best-known pieces use photographic prints as a vehicle for sculptural experimentation, combining traditional studio materials and techniques in an effort to reinforce the element of materiality that has, until recently, largely defined photography as a medium. In exploring a photograph’s capacity to function as a unique object, her work offers an interesting challenge to the medium’s ongoing shift towards digitalization, suggesting that for the creator and viewer alike, direct physical engagement remains vital to our experience of art.
While Letha identifies primarily as a studio artist, the scope of her practice extends far beyond her workspace. The process begins with her annual summer trips to the western part of the States, where, while on extended backpacking trips through remote sites, she photographs natural landscapes using an analog camera. Upon returning to Brooklyn, she books time in a local darkroom and develops her own prints. Source materials in hand, she then enters her studio and begins to experiment, subjecting her photos to various forms of sculptural intervention - slicing, folding, or combining them with materials like cheesecloth, plywood, stone, and most recently, cement.
In these latest works, concrete is poured directly onto prints folded in handmade wooden molds – some portions of the image meeting the concrete, others facing away from it. As the elements interact and gradually dry, an emulsion transfer occurs, shifting the image from the print to the concrete surface. As in her previous work, the resulting object finds materials and imagery merging into a single integrated field, its effect falling somewhere between abstraction and representation.
In visiting Letha’s studio, it’s hard not to be impressed by the meticulousness with which she approaches her materials: for every completed work, there are multiple trial pieces nearby, and strewn throughout the workspace are preparatory notebooks into which she records insights yielded from extensive tests and experiments with sealants, cements, paper qualities, and the like. To a certain extent, this thoroughness could reflect her being self-taught in almost every aspect of her practice; as she integrates new materials and techniques into her work, the process is as much instructive as it is creative. At the same time, though, it’s clear that this attention to detail hasn’t prevented Letha from incorporating spontaneity into her studio practice. Her approach is at once purposeful and flexible: while the materials are carefully chosen, their application becomes apparent only through a process of trial and error; though she works with intention, she embraces unforeseen results as possible new directions to explore.