An interview with Laura Bell
08 January 2013 . Written by Catarina Fontoura
Laura Bell is a North-American photographer, interested in subjects that have been central in Arts History since Pre-Historical times, when art was above all, an artefact.
The Still Life, The Vanitas (with it’s ancestor Arts Moriendi, from the medieval culture), The Memento Mori, meditations on life and death, the Landscape and the single Portrait are constant in her projects.
The work of Laura Bell has a strong connexion to Flemish Painting in the 16th and 17th century, where objects, nature and light have a symbolic meaning. In Bell’s photographs, Nature is one of the means to express life as an ephemeral, transitory and mysterious phenomenon.
Symbols are a way to communicate; they are signs of abstraction in a complicated world. In the history of western paiting, we can find several of Bell’s signs: the skull, the cadelabro, the feather and the glass. These coexist, together with many other as quotations but also as individual metaphors and interesting objects in ‘The Alba Series’, one of Laura Bell’s projects.
She continues to develop her work further, and keeps her website always up to date. We urge you to take a look.
Fauna & Flora: We are very interested in your use of natural elements. Can you tell us a bit more about this? You separate these elements from their usual environment and relocate them. Why?
Laura Bell: The natural world has always had a big influence on my work. I attribute this partially to my childhood, growing up in rural West Virginia. My father is a scientist who spent a lot of time teaching me about the scientific classification of plants and animals as a child. One of my favourite activities was cataloguing the insect species in local streams and rivers. I learned that the presence of certain insects would directly correlate to the water’s quality. A stream that was heavily polluted would contain more or less of a particular insect than a “healthy” stream. Although my photography is not scientific in nature, I believe these early childhood experiences have informed the content of my work as an adult. I also think that my tendency to remove “natural elements” from their environment is in some way related to the practice of scientific study. For instance, I may take a moth that I’ve found and place it on top of a table to photograph it. This, in a sense, is my way of studying this insect. I’m studying this moth not for the purpose of scientific understanding, but for its less tangible, evocative qualities.
F&F: You use the animal skull as a reference to the use of the human skull in European painting in the 16th century. Does this have a special meaning for you? What is it you want to express when you “replace” a human skull with an animal skull?
LB: I was not trying to communicate anything specific in regard to the “replacement” of the human skull with a deer skull. For me, this image is reconciling two things: my desire to literally look at this roe deer skull (an object I found in a field outside Edinburgh) and my fascination with Scottish history. This image, like most of the still life work from the ‘Alba’ series, is a kind of hybrid between object documentation and historical symbolism.
F&F: In this specific photograph the use of light is very different from the previous tenebrous approach. Can you tell us why you chose to do that?
LB: My first attempt at this image was more akin to the momento mori approach – dark, moody lighting, with the skull resting on a dirty table. However, I found that the image wasn’t communicating my intent. I was interested in referencing the momento mori paintings to evoke a certain period in history, but not necessarily to communicate their symbolic content. I wasn’t interested in reminding humanity of its mortality – what I was trying to do was far less grand. So, in my second attempt at this image, I decided to go completely against the momento mori approach in terms of lighting and tone. The final photograph, with the skull brightly lit, sitting atop a flowered tablecloth and doily, is a much more effective image.
F&F: It is interesting to understand the references you make to art history, but it is even more interesting for us to interpret those moments when you try to distance your work from that strong reference. For example, one of these moments could be the introduction of insects into your photographs. Insects are rarely depicted in painting. Can you explain what motivates you to photograph them?
LB: The answer to this question may be disappointingly simple. I photograph objects or things that interest me. Take for example, the photograph ‘Moth Specimens’. As you point out, insects are not a common theme in the history of painting. Insects were depicted within still life paintings, but were rarely the main subject. However, I didn’t really take this into account when I made this photograph. I was fascinated by these moths (called five-spot burnets) that I found living in abundance in a field near my flat. They were beautiful, like little red jewels in the grasses of the field. I wanted to use them in a photograph. I didn’t really consider that this deviated from the tradition I was referencing.
F&F: You often use the table to show, or display, the subjects. The table is a man-made object. Does this means something specific to you?
LB: I think the use of a table puts the objects within a plausible context. In my experience, people generally accept an image of an object on a table. The table is the traditional stage for a still life to be “displayed”. If I were to see a still life arrangement on a bed, for instance, I would certainly first notice the bed and then the still life. I would ask the artist why they made a still life on a bed, and not consider the still life itself very critically. Also, I feel the table signifies human interaction with the object. When I see an image of an object on a table, I am aware that the object was placed there. If an object is presented in a void (say, just a black background), the image would read in an entirely different way.
F&F: How would you characterise your landscapes?
LB: When I make landscapes, I am generally trying to illustrate what a place feels like rather than what it looks like. Taking this approach into account, my landscape work tends to be slightly removed from reality or leaning towards the sublime. The circular format is something I developed fairly recently in my landscape work. What appeals to me about this format is how it changes the reading of the image. The circle narrows the image area, creating a “telescoping” effect. I think this really communicates that you are being shown a particular view. All photographs do this, of course, but the audience is not reminded of it so explicitly with the traditional rectangular format.
F&F: ‘The Long, Sad Season’ is a series about the mutability of nature. Nature changes everyday and, paradoxically when we look at the winter images in ‘The Long, Sad Season’, it seems that winter is so strong and confident that we get the feeling that it is going to remain like that, cold and white, forever. Winter seems an obvious choice for your work, which tends to be melancholic and meditative. Do you agree?
LB: I do agree! Ironically, I hate being cold and can’t stand winter. I’m willing to put myself through torture to get a good image, though.
Laura Bell’s Website: lbellphoto.com