Katrina Kiapos works caffeinated and alone in the dark for several hours each day. It’s a bit of a lonely and antisocial way of working, but for Katrina it’s the way things have to be.
During her four-week Workspace Residency Katrina has set up shop in our darkroom formulating her own emulsion, liquefying it, and brushing it onto sheets of paper to make them photosensitive. And that means spending hours by herself in the dark, where even the glow of an iPod could render her homemade emulsion useless. “It’s like being in a sensory deprivation chamber!” Katrina laughs. “It’s an extremely arduous, human, fickle process. But it’s the only way I feel that I can maintain an approach to my work that marries both aspects of the work I do. I don’t ever want to buy RC paper again.” As an analogue photographer and film enthusiast with training in professional bookbinding from the North Bennet Street School, Katrina’s project at WSW is her first attempt to reconcile the disconnect she’s felt between her creative and professional work. When she decided to create a photographic book, she began exploring ways to become as deeply involved in the process as possible, and that meant commercially available photographic papers or emulsions weren’t going to be enough.
“I want people to touch my photographs. Everything else just feels dishonest,” she says. “I want to create a book that has emulsion on the pages, that I made and put there, meant for other people to touch.” So by day, Katrina treats paper, by night she prints. (For printing she can at least keep the safe lights and some music on.) She brought four boxes of negatives to WSW—“every negative carrier from my whole life”—and has been experimenting with images of varying contrast and visual texture to test how the homemade emulsion is working. But every single print is a gamble no matter how methodical Katrina tries to be. Her hand is visible in brushstrokes and bubbles that betray where she’s applied her emulsion unevenly. The people and places in her photographs appear to emerge directly from the paper’s texture, looking reticent, eerie, and haunted.
“I don’t feel nostalgia for the photographs when I see them like this,” she says. “It’s like as I remove the material from the photographs, then bring them back into something material; in that transformation the photographs lose the essence of what they were previously, like they’re not the same photographs I took.” Katrina was a shy child whose parents put a camera in her hand to encourage her to engage more with the people and things around her. Instead, she took pictures of people’s shoes. Years later, Katrina still uses that same beat up camera as if it’s become a natural extension of her hand and eye and still employs the same snapshot sensibility. Often her photographs are tightly cropped, focusing on fragments, on gesture, or on how people disappear into their environments. There is no lingering on a moment, no lighting. She uses high speed film or pushes her film in development, resulting in grainy, imperfect records of moments both pedestrian and esoteric.
“I want to share that I’ve been,” she says. “My photographs are markers of my life. They’re proof.” While sifting through years of negatives has been cathartic, at this stage Katrina’s emphasis is purely on achieving technical proficiency in treating paper. On the second to last day of her residency she emerges from the darkroom with a tray of three prints, a test run of the most recent alteration to her emulsion formula. She’s done something right: the strong blacks and whites that typically characterize her style are emerging.
And as Katrina immerses herself in her “arduous, human, fickle” new process, she’s excited about the possibility of perfecting her craft and using it in the future. “I have a foundation now that I didn’t before, when I knew I wanted to use my hands but not how I could, “ she says. “To be quite frank, this is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Katrina Kiapos has moved every year for several years, putting down temporary stakes in places as diverse as Prague, Paris, Boston, and the California Bay Area. She currently lives and works as a photographer and bookbinder in New York City. One of her favorite ways of getting inspired is visiting the New York Public Library’s Photography Collection, which Katrina loves because it’s “basically the Google image search except you can touch everything.” See more of her work on her website, www.hummusbelly.com.