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Liza Macrae: The Beautiful & the Really Real

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Liza Macrae likes to have her hands in a little bit of everything. Her eclectic photographic portfolio spans several processes and methods: digital and analog; color and black and white; calotypes, silver prints, platinum and palladium prints. Now in the last week of her one-month Ora Schneider residency, she can add photogravures to the list. Liza has been zipping back and forth from the etching studio to the darkroom – making carbon tissue, transferring the tissue to her copper plates, developing the copper, etching the plate – to try her hand at the historic process.

“I’m totally in love with it,” she says. “I never would have been able to do this when I was younger – I just would have been too impatient. But I don’t think photogravure is as laborious as people think it is. It has steps, but everything in life has steps.”

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Liza’s decades-long photographic career has taken several twists and turns after picking up a camera at age 12. At 16 she began creating her own darkrooms wherever she lived – above a summer kitchen in the Adirondacks, under her loft bed in a tenement building on Ludlow Street, in a squirrel-infested gatehouse. After dropping out of Parsons, moving back to the country, becoming a mother, and exploring color and digital photography, Liza spent four years in New Mexico building an adobe house and studying alternative processes with Bostick & Sullivan. She began pulling from her old black and white photographs of her family, and after years navigating the intricacies of digital imaging and printing, Liza found in these new processes a physicality that resonated in her images.

“Stephen Shore once told me: ‘Liza, every time something gets easy you go on and do something else and that’s when your work is just beginning.’” Telling this story, Liza shrugs and laughs. “Maybe that’s true….The phrase ‘body of work’ used to drive me crazy. I just get bored!”

Liza’s photographs are meditations on the commonplace, taking her family, alongside their rural landscapes and historic interiors, as her subjects. Yet despite the intimacy, there’s a distance and direct, snapshot aesthetic to Liza’s work that betrays a documentary sensibility and the spontaneity of a street photographer. We as viewers look into her family’s mythology – finding beauty in their secrets, routines, and milestones – and wonder about the narratives the images arrest.

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There’s one print in particular she’s been working at resolving: her son Silas in a soapy bath with a broken leg wrapped in plastic, the foam around him popping against his skin as he dips his head back, fingers splayed. She’d been helping him bathe when inspiration struck and Liza ran for her camera. “This is my abusive mother picture, I guess,” she jokes wryly with a roll of her eyes, noting the line of women photographers who have been tried in the court of public opinion for photographing their children. “I just want to celebrate my family and make beautiful pictures.”

And although beautiful, the moments she captures are often haunted by a twinge of something unsettling. In one, a chicken is held down by two calm hands preparing for slaughter, and in another Silas confronts us with a dark river of blood trickling out of his nose and down his chin. “There are a lot of things that people find are weird or upsetting but….a lot of those things I find really beautiful, too,” says Liza. “Things are beautiful when they’re real, and with anything really real there’s always a little bit of danger and darkness.”

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She’s made two plates of Silas in the bath – the first suffered a rip in the emulsion, leaving a bubble of unetched copper in the otherwise smooth gradient on the surface. She’s tried to fix it, to blend it seamlessly into the rest of the plate like master photogravurist Lothar Osterburg showed her during his three-day SAI workshop with us this summer.

“I wish I’d never tried to fix it,” she says. “I love things that are a little off, with a little flaw. Why should I look for perfection in my work when that’s not even what I respond to? I feel like my voice is messier than that.”

Liza Macrae studied at Parsons The New School For Design, and has worked closely with Andre Kertesz and Sylvia Plachy, both of whom she considers great influences. In 2012 she published Are We There Yet?, a collection of her photographs curated by Malene Waldron. Liza lives and works in Tivoli, New York. Browse more of her work at www.lizamacrae.com

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