By Christina Nafziger
Photographer Julianna Foster creates work that is situated between photo and object, within the cracks of the three-dimensional. As her work is often monochromatic, her images are abstracted by a limited palette, creating a rupture in the composition. Like tectonic plates that shift in jagged forms, Foster’s work is complexly and carefully layered. In her series Geological Lore, environmental forms collapse onto themselves, manipulated by the artist’s hand to the point where they are only somewhat recognizable—but in a way that is mythological, as opposed to literal. Within this series, a ghostly sphere appears in several of her works like an apparition, such as in Moon Phase I and Half Moon. The circular repetition produces a mesmerizing affect that draws the viewer in to her process and how she visually interprets concepts in so many incredibly beautiful ways. Here, Foster combines the analog and the digital to form a visual language infused with elements of nature to create a style that is all her own.
Based in Philadelphia, Julianna Foster is currently the interim director and assistant professor in the photography program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She earned a BFA in Design from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an MFA in Book Arts + Printmaking from the University of the Arts. Join me as the artist shares her love of ecology and the natural world, while giving us a look behind the scenes into her studio and her process creating ethereal images.
How and when did your interest in photography begin?
Initially, photography piqued my curiosity when I was introduced to it and found work by artists that focused on storytelling through various viewpoints/lenses and who pushed the medium in an unusual way. I started my visual art education at a community college. This was the origin for the language of photography and image making for me. It took time to gain an understanding of the power that photographs can hold and to recognize that this process involves observing and learning. I have always been interested in all facets of photography and the broader interpretation of the image. For many years I experimented with the medium, unsure of what exactly I wanted from it or my intention with it. The analog/film process (darkroom) allowed for manipulation/abstraction and, ultimately, a discovery of what was around me and how I imagined it in a two dimensional form as material. I am only now seeing this. But honestly, the darkroom had me hooked from the start.
In your work, you often manipulate the physical photo. Instead of an image on a flat surface, you sometimes create a three-dimensional photographic object. Can you discuss this element of your work?
My beginnings with photography really have evolved from my time in the darkroom, processing and printing. Back in the day, I had a darkroom in my home, a (very modest) print lab set up in a spare room, processing film in my bathroom. This space offered me a place to experiment with both 2D/3D, using liquid light, polaroid transfers and printmaking while using various surfaces and incorporating other materials. Exploration with artist books and installation has often been a way to play with narrative and storytelling (I am also influenced by cinema), so the work has naturally moved in that direction, even when I have veered from it. The photograph has remained at the heart of it all. Ultimately, a project or series usually combines two-dimensional images such as framed photographs, broadsides, light-boxes and three-dimensional objects, such as manipulated photographs and artist books, photographic images of both the natural world and hand-made, and assembled environments. The deliberate blend of the fabricated and the "real" image play with ideas of memory and representation.
What are some different ways in which you alter your original image? Do you transform your photographs digitally or physically?
Oh, I’ve tried a lot of things--much of it doesn’t go beyond the experimental phase. I keep a log of this process on my Instagram @jules_foster. I use both analog and digital formats, however, the end result is frequently digitally produced. I find that using a (light tight) Holga, a 120 film camera can produce unpredictable images (which I like), so I will also document similar places, scenes, and objects that I find or make with my digital camera, and then combine the two physically and re-photograph or slightly alter the image through digital software. At times, the choice for either format comes down to accessibility and location, while other times it's about formal or conceptual considerations. Mostly my practice focuses on iterations; variation on a theme and tracings of time and light. Slowing things down motivates a reaction in the studio. I’m inclined to make ‘carbon copies’ or to use materials like photos printed on transparencies and then project them on a surface with natural light to be documented over and over. I think I’m looking for nuances in the generation/history of an image as it builds, and also as it is worn down.
I’m very interested in your series Geographical Lore. Tell me a bit about this series. What draws you to these landscapes and landforms?
For years, my work reflected invented narratives and was guided by filmmaking, like a location scout, of sorts. I live in the city, but dream of natural wide-open spaces. At some point, my travels began to complement my desire to be in particular landscapes, like on the west coast in New Mexico or Nevada. I’m in search of the complexities of stability and change that occurs over time in the natural world. I search for low and high tide zones, tidal pools, forest ecology, geologic processes, and astrological explorations that, for various reasons, keep me curious.
Geographical Lore is a series of work that comes from an archive of images of these places-- mountain ranges, desert terrain, old growth forests, and wetlands--that demonstrate how landscape can be interpreted or experienced. Documented, constructed and reinvented, the landforms are an extension of how environments function and evolve, and at times depict a façade or fabricated reality that plays with spatial relationships, scale shifts, and materiality/structure. The work can be viewed on different levels/points of reference as a way to consider climate and environmental change on landscape.
What is your favorite place you’ve photographed? If you could take photographs anywhere in the world, where would you want to go and why?
My family and I spent some time in Northern California last year and to see these magical places like Big Basin Redwoods or Point Lobos Natural Reserve through the lens of young kids is remarkable. I’m so grateful for this perspective. And it can also be a thrilling experience when you simultaneously hold your five year old from the edge of a cliff as you photograph (forget the light meter on this one) the amazing landscape! These moments keep you focused and on point. Currently, I keep fairly close to home exploring waterways and natural spaces along the mid Atlantic. I had plans to travel with a dear friend over the summer to Nova Scotia, which will be rescheduled due to COVID. The high tides of the Bay of Fundy are pulling me towards it.
Almost all of your recent work is monochromatic and devoid of color, with the exception of a few images included in Geographical Lore. What attracts you to black and white photography? Can you discuss this stylistic choice?
There is specificity in color. I use it sparingly to create a separation from seeing it in real life and the transformation of the landscapes/forms that I imagine or remember. I tend to use orange/red as cautionary colors in some of the work, which is usually applied as a screen print or ink painted directly on the surface of a digital (watercolor paper) print. Much of the work has been captured on black and white film. I guess I'm attracted to the way light forms a subject with less distraction from saturated color. The darkness in shadows and illuminated highlights feels mystical.
What aspect of your life motivates you the most? Where do you go/what do you do that never fails to inspire you?
2020 has proven to be full of surprises! I’m inspired by the art community in Philly, and until COVID the DIY scene was vibrant here and had been a source of inspiration to me as an active participant and an observer. Recently, I’ve had an eye and ear on writer, curator and photographer Teju Cole. I’m also listening to Mulatu Astatke, which brings me joy, and the words of Mary Oliver and Sonia Sanchez remind me of what it’s like to feel, deeply. I teach at a local university, and find the interaction with my students and colleagues motivating. Working in a creative, supportive, yet challenging environment has provided me with a way to connect with and think about the world, and has kept me engaged as a practitioner. I approach teaching as a collaboration--it tends to fuel my studio practice. And to be honest, a walk in the woods or a day spent on the river doesn’t hurt either!
Has COVID forced you to change directions creatively, to pivot your plans within your work due to COVID?
My studio productivity has slowed down since April. Over the summer, just getting to the studio was a struggle and honestly, in addition to COVID, there were other responsibilities and obstacles in the way. During these days of unrest, sometimes to give in and take pause, is a valuable act. Fortunately, planning and ideas for future projects/works continue, even when motivation levels fluctuate. The shift of not being able to travel much or inviting folks into my studio for visits has been a bummer, but let’s keep it in perspective. Limitations can be revealing.
Do you have anything currently or coming up that you’d like to share?
In June, I joined the gallery ParisTexasLa, which is a contemporary art space located in the Arts District of Los Angeles with a roster of fabulously talented artists. I’m super excited about upcoming exhibitions next year and being a part of this community of creatives. Currently, check out this virtual exhibition https://www.paristexas.la/ curated by the director of the gallery, Shawn Theodore. https://www.paristexas.la/artists
Julianna Foster is currently the interim director and assistant professor in the photography program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Foster has been an artist in residence at the Philadelphia Photo Art Center, finalist at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists in Philadelphia, selected as a Community Supported Artist, a project organized by Grizzly Grizzly Gallery and self-published the book, lone hunter. Her work and two interviews with photographers was featured in the publication Constructed: The Contemporary History of the Constructed Image in Photography since 1990 published by Routledge. Other selected exhibitions, The Truth in Disguise Geste Paris, France during Paris Photo, group exhibitions at Filter Photo in Chicago and Medium Photo in San Diego (2019/2020) and a 2020 COCA (Center of Contemporary Artist) finalist for her project, Geographical Lore.
Other projects/publications include work in magazines Conveyor, Proof, Cleaver, Good Game, and Shots Journal for Black and White Photography. She has exhibited work nationally and internationally, in private collections across the country and Foster has collaborated with various artists on projects that include creating artist multiples, artist books and series of photographs and video. Foster’s work is represented by Paristexasla, a contemporary art space in Los Angeles.