Recently, I was lucky enough to acquire a box of glass negatives from the early 1900s. This box of over 100 snapshots has been a fascinating treasure to view. Although, there’s limited information included about the family, I can piece together a few details from the images themselves and the scant information hand written on the crumbling paper envelopes. The family name is Green. They were corn farmers in Illinois. The family had a clear matriarch. There is no patriarch to speak of in the photos. Maybe he already passed, maybe he’s the photographer? (In my mind, I like to think the photographer was a young woman. Although not impossible, I think it’s unlikely.) The family is financially comfortable with a nice house and good farm equipment. The children went to school. They grew lovely peonies in a lush yard. They may have had a pet opossum.
I make photograms, so I used the glass negatives as I would any photogram subject. I placed them flat on the silver gelatin paper, along with other components, exposed it to light from my enlarger, then carried the paper through traditional B&W photo chemicals. Subjects were deliberately chosen in an effort to tell a bit of a story, but still leave some things open to imagination.
I’m a fine art photographer specializing in photograms. I made my first photogram in 1986 in Mr. Fecik’s photography class at Boardman High School. I don’t recall the specifics, but I’m fairly certain a clear cassette tape was involved. At the time, making photograms was simply a way to learn my way around the darkroom. It taught me how to use an enlarger and what the various chemicals do. Leaving photograms behind, I pursued photojournalism throughout high school and college. After graduating with a BA in English from NC State University, I started working for a branch of Eastman Kodak called Qualex. I was in tech support, helping one-hour-photo lab operators fix their problems via telephone. Over the next several years, I moved further away from photography and became further entrenched in corporate America. I finally came to my senses and left that world. I found some film photography classes at the local community college and took a few to get back into the swing of things. Soon I started working there as the darkroom assistant. Four years later I became pregnant with my daughter and left my job at the community college to focus on being a mom. When my daughter was about a year old, my husband completed the darkroom in our garage. The baby-monitor picked-up a signal out there, so I was able to go into the darkroom during naptime, in addition to occasional evenings and weekends. Making photograms gained traction for me during this time because it was photography I could do without wandering too far from my young daughter. She was and still is my regular, full-time job.
I initially began making photograms using what I refer to as my “critters”; seahorses, crabs, butterflies, dragonflies, sea whips, wildflowers and other found curiosities. My husband works in marine biology and helps me gather specimens. No animals are ever harmed—they’re gathered after they’ve passed. One day my husband came home with a deceased baby stingray. He had been out in the field and noticed some fishermen getting ready to toss it back. He asked if he could have the ray and they agreed. So the joke now is that it’s all fine and good if your husband brings you flowers. But it’s really exciting if he brings you a dead baby stingray. Eventually, I knew I needed to expand my photogram creations beyond critters. I’m a thrift store junky and made it a priority to search out photogrammable objects at the charity shops. I’m drawn to antique garments, lace and glass baubles. My photogram compositions are fairly simple. This simplicity allows the viewer to find their own story, be it politics, feminism, gender, sexuality, body-image, materialism, culture, economy, history, family or simply nostalgia. To me, they’re first and foremost, a reminder to always try to see things in a different light.
Watch a short video about Melissa’s Photogram Process