Hannah Neal Portfolio Contest Winner
Hannah Neal vividly remembers her first encounter with a vintage photogravure. She was visiting the Harry Ransom Center in her native city of Austin, Texas, and came upon a photogravure print of Edward Steichen’s “The Pond–Moonrise,” which was made in 1904.
“I just stood there and stared at it in awe,” she recalls, “trying to figure out what processes he used. How did he get this painterly quality? It wasn’t a silver photograph. It wasn’t an etching. How did he do that?”
Neal never dreamed that such imagery was something she could achieve on her own. She knew of artists who were making photogravures using old-fashioned copper plates and caustic chemistry, but after doing some research, didn’t think it was within her reach.
“Fast-forward many years, and a photo geek friend of mine, who knows everything about everything, told me about polymer plates and a somewhat simpler process,” Neal says. “I thought, Okay. Done. I’m going to do it. However, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was a whole lot harder and more challenging than I ever dreamed it would be. But the process influences my vision, and I love the results.”
Neal grew up in an artistic family, and from an early age was exposed to art galleries and museums by her grandmother. When she was 15, her father gave her a tiny Olympus rangefinder, which she carried with her everywhere. “About a year later I wandered into a darkroom for the first time, and that was it. I live for that moment when the image floats up through the chemistry, and you see it for the first time. It’s like magic.”
Later, she became transfixed upon discovering the work of Alfred Stieglitz. The quality of light, the soft textural contours and tonal range of the early photographic processes used by Stieglitz and his contemporaries inspired an ongoing love affair that continues to this day.
The photographs seen here are from a series Neal calls Left Bank, in which her objective is to emulate the lighting and stylistic qualities found in the work of the early Pictorialists. “Their work changed the way the world viewed photography as an art form,” she says. “The type of lighting and equipment they used created an ethereal quality.”
If her photographs exude a vintage, period feel, it’s because many are shot on location in Paris, some in the same settings used by photographers like Brassaï and Man Ray. “I’ve used some of the famous cafés and locations where artists of the 1920s hung out. They were radical thinkers, pushing the boundaries of style and technique, just like the artists who photographed them. That’s why the project is called Left Bank. My goal was to revisit those places and capture the same feeling and backgrounds and atmosphere.”
While she’s inspired by the style and period, her real inspiration comes from the artists, dancers, musicians and writers who are her muses. “I feel there’s a sort of alchemy that happens between artist and subject. I’ve worked with dancers and musicians for 20 years. I’ll look at someone and think, What would this artist be doing and how would they look if they had lived in another time? With hair, makeup, costuming and location we create that vintage feel. If I succeed, the images look as though they could have been made 100 years ago.
“This is the first project I’ve done using an alternative process. It took a full year to make the first 15 prints. A lot of that was due to the steep learning curve and all the technical issues. Photogravure is a messy, inexact process. Things go wrong all the time. It’s not meticulous like silver printing—meticulous is out the window. You have to embrace the process and say, ‘Okay, there’s a flaw. I’ve just got to love it and live with it.’
“It’s very challenging, but I’m completely hooked. The harder something is, the more fulfilling it is when you actually make it work.”