Dipped in Glass: Breathing Life Back into Vintage Photographs
Mike Weber: Since I was a kid, I've always had a very profound interest in the passage of time and I thought-- it just seemed so sad that somebody's lifetimes of family photographs would just be thrown away and sometimes never seen again.
So, I happened to be in a shop in San Francisco in the Mission and I was speaking with a shop owner because he has all these bins of old photographs and I asked him where they came from, because there were some pretty fascinating photos that seemed to be displaced from different families, and he kept explaining how if a family bloodline ends, he would buy the entire photo collection from the family estate and I was saddened by this. So, when I got back to DC I started researching and buying collections of photographs, just like this gentleman did in San Francisco, and just developed a very strong interest in rebuilding my view of someone's life and breathing life back into some of these images that would otherwise be thrown away.
Typically I like to live with the photographs for three to six months before I even start working with them. I categorize them and study the subjects and sometimes I even have photographs or family photo collections that start in the mid-1800s and run through the 1940s or 1950s. So, once I actually start developing relationships with some of my subjects I start developing my own ideas about their personalities, what they did for a living, maybe some of the hardships they went through in their lifetime; and that's kind of how I hone in on the subject matter. I'll scan the images in. I have a high resolution scanner. So I scan the images. I do a lot of digital paint in the computer and I alter the photographs then print them on large format paper or canvas, wrap them on panels and begin painting. Most of the computer work is very calculated and programmed, because I have to set up my compositions, but when it comes to painting, it's definitely more intuitive and that's when I feel like I really start bringing out more of the personality of my subject matter.
I'm working on a body of work for a solo show in Atlanta and it's called "Within These Walls." And the work is inspired by abandoned homesteads that I used to play in when I was a small child. I grew up in a rural area outside of St. Louis, Missouri and my friends and I used to play in these old Victorian homes that were literally falling apart.
So the inspiration comes from the deconstruction of the home, the unearthing of the skeleton of a home and more of what happened within the walls of the home, not necessarily the-- even though I use the tangibles like the idea of the rust from metals, the copper gutters or decaying wood, Victorian patterns on the walls; that may be my visual but the visual is only used to drive emotions and to make the viewer wonder what happened in the home.
Well, a lot of the-- like what makes the work is what happens just, again, a very natural process, like sometimes I like leaving these things that just drip and run. I have to leave this alone to let it dry and just keep working on it in stages. So, I'll set this aside and start working on another piece.
So, a lot of times when I paint, when I work with these images, like this is the original, the girls – the three girls sitting on the lawn – I remove a lot of the original image, the background, I take away what makes the feeling or the emotion in a photograph. And I sort of hone in on just the subject matter, or what I want the viewer to experience or see. So, i feel sometimes like I need to add something back in. I'll add words, lyrics from songs, or a poem, things that just come to mind to give the viewer a hint of what this person's life may have been like.
I'm a mixed-media artist so I use a lot of artists materials. I use some fairly unorthodox artist materials. I use a lot of ground up, very fine metals in my piece and I use these chemicals that can oxidize the metal quickly, within literally ten, fifteen minutes. I like to paint on with acrylic, and I like to work my way up, I work in layers. It's really hard for me to start and finish one piece at a time. So, I have a mixture of acrylic paint, conti crayons, oil crayons, graphite, colored pencils …
After the painting process, they go downstairs into my resin room and I pour anywhere from like an eighth inch to a half inch thick coat of very glossy resin on top of the photograph. I like the shininess. These pieces actually look like they were dipped in glass when they're finished. And I like the juxtaposition; taking something that was very old and weathered and decaying and turning it into a very new, shiny modern object and very much breathing life back into the person.
The subject, you know, the subject matter, sometimes even if it's just a portrait or a collection of people, they may have been family members or some type of relatives, sometimes I see beyond just the photo. I like to make the viewer's experience dip more into the hardships from the family. In fact, my last show people were leaving describing the work as very haunting but I like that because I think there is something very haunting about some of these old photographs and also where it can take your mind. Because there are things in the photographs, whether it's a little trinket or something with fashion, that makes me feel profoundly removed from that period of time. So I want the viewer to immediately feel that when they first see these images.
I may work on pieces for months, sometimes, and then when it comes to pouring resin on top of something, I have one shot to get it right and if I fail, I have to start over from scratch so it really pushes me to make sure I know and understand my craft and the technical importance of what I'm doing has to be very refined. So, I think if you don't fail, you don't take risks, you don't evolve within your own creativity.