Interview with Lynette Zeeng by David Tatnall
When, how and why did you become interested in photography?
My family were migrants, so keeping photographs as memories was really important to them. My grandfather and uncles always took photos of places they had visited, people they knew and much-loved pets and possessions. The family album always fascinated me: the tiny photo corners on brown paper with names scrawled in blue ink underneath. I loved looking at the images of my extended family, most of whom I didn’t know, but their names and places intrigued me.
I had never considered photography as a career, although I guess the original interest was always in the back of my mind. I was actually planning to be a graphic designer, but in my first year of study I got hooked on photography and never looked back. I started out as a commercial photographer working for design studios, advertising agencies and book publishers.
What influences you and your photography?
Everything: music, books, exhibitions, anything visual. I am always collecting bits and pieces from op shops, in the park on walks, free postcards, anything that I think looks interesting or may be used as reference for planning my photographs. At the moment I am doing a body of work on the Toolangi State Forest where the government wants to introduce logging. For this project I am collecting copious examples of plant life and documenting a lot of information on different plant species.
You are known for your stunning food photography and 8 x 10 Polaroid photographs, please tell us about that, and have you used the new Impossible Project 8 x 10 film?
As a commercial photographer, amongst many things, I had done a lot of book covers, and quite a few cookbooks especially. I had used Polaroid as a proofing film to show art directors and designers the initial image. When I first discovered Polaroid transfers I got hooked. I went out and brought an 8 x 10 camera to add to my large format collection. I wanted to make larger images rather than just the 4 x 5 as I felt it did the process more justice. In the first weekend I think I went through about 4 boxes of film, which worked out about $20.00 per sheet of Polaroid! I didn’t mind the cost though, as this was for my personal expression, my relaxation time.
At this stage, I didn’t connect it to my commercial work. However, one of my publishing clients saw a few of my early transfers and asked me to illustrate a book for well known chef Stephanie Alexander, titled, “Stephanie’s Season”. All the colour illustrations in the book were transfers from either 8 x 10 or 4 x 5 Polaroid film. I was quite nervous about doing the project, as I hadn’t really thought of the process as commercially viable. The book was a success and it gave me the confidence to keep going with it.
For me, I loved the painterly quality of the images. In fact, I loved the process so much that I did my Masters Degree on Polaroid transfers and lift-offs and their commercial possibilities. From that I got a lot more commercial work using transfers and lift offs, mostly 8 x 10 Polaroid. I have tried using the Impossible Project 8 x 10 film but am still having trouble with it. I’ll get there!
You are also interested in ‘Alternative Process’ photography. What processes do you use?
I use a lot of alternative processes, but I loved all the Polaroid techniques. I used to run workshops for Polaroid on SX-70, both transfers and lift off, but unfortunately these films are no longer available. Fuji has similar film and so do the Impossible Project, but they don’t have the same qualities, which is disappointing. I have been experimenting with a lot of different processes at the moment.
When using the large format camera, what processing methods or subjects do you use?
Coming from a commercial background I feel much more comfortable in the studio, so a lot of my large format work involves sourcing props and objects, planning my series then setting up the still life images. I like the control I have with lighting and being able to leave things set up if necessary for reshooting or changing composition. When creating a series it is a better way for me to be able to formalise the body of work. With the demise of Polaroid most of my large format work is now black and white.
I use sensitised materials specific to the alternative process I am dealing with such as, film, paper, glass, tin etc. Whichever surface I need for the theme and work I am doing at the time. I am doing a lot of wet plate collodion work at the moment, and I’m loving the results.
It gives me very individual looking images, never two the same.
You are a doctoral candidate, what is the subject of your thesis?
The title of my thesis is, “The instant image: A critical and creative exploration of the one-off photographic image”. I am chronologically studying most photographic processes that are finite, that have no negatives, the idea of the ‘one-off’ image. I’m starting with the inventors of photography and finishing with the technology used in the present day. I am attempting to reproduce each process to understand the immense difficulty involved in producing any fixed images when photography first began. I’m researching what affects each process created and how they were used, who were the inventors, the practitioners and what other processes they may have led to. A large portion of this work is researching how they can be created today and updated with modern chemicals and technology without losing the nuances associated with each original process.
I have experimented with many techniques including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, cyanotypes, gum bichromates as well as Polaroid and Instax films. All the processes have particular subject matters that suits, so I am putting together various bodies of work for each process. Some of the processes take very long exposures and the chemicals used are quite toxic. It has made me appreciate even more the forefathers of photography, their dedication and the wonderful processes and images they created.
You are a lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology. Do your students use film at all?
No, everything is digital. I don’t even see prints, everything is done on-line. I was resistant at first but in this day and age it is an obvious way to work. The students can upload their work 24-7, anywhere anytime. Students are exposed to a lot more visual stimulation. Instead of only seeing work of a few students in their class they are able to see all the students work enrolled in the subject that can be up to 350 students per semester. They do get to experiment using film cameras but not often. A lot of students have Lomos and Diana cameras and see film as an alternative process, which is hilarious in a way.
Can you name some Australian photographers you admire?
I love the work of Harold Casneaux, his use of light and perspective is just amazing, but my most favourite Australian photographer would have to be Olive Cotton. Her understanding of light and shade and her POVs makes her work special. You can’t talk about Australian photographers without mentioning David Moore’s work. The way he saw things is stunning. He made the ordinary extraordinary. I admire the work of Tim Griffith and Greg Fletcher who are both architectural photographers. Their use of colour and abstraction in composition is well worth a look. More recently I discovered Bill Gekas who takes the most beautiful portraits using Vermeer style lighting and compositions.
Where has your work been shown? Where can we see your work?
My commercial work has been printed in many magazines and books both here and overseas. I have had several exhibitions in galleries around Australia. At the moment things are on hold while I concentrate on my PHD. For my PHD I need to have a large exhibition showcasing the processes I have talked about. I am trying to get the time to create my new website. It’s not complete yet, so watch this space.
What do you suggest for photographers starting out in large format photography?
Learn your craft. A large format camera needs to be understood and you need to be able to appreciate light and composition. Then there are three more things to master, patience, patience and patience. Large format takes time!!