A Visual Cacophony of Experience

Mark Benton interviews
Leah Oates


Art editor Mark Benton recently had this exchange with Issue #38 featured artist Leah Oates. Here’s what she had to say about her childhood in Maine, her photographic techniques, how art can inform the political discourse, and more… 
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Leah Oates
Artist Leah Oates

Art editor Mark Benton recently had this exchange with Issue #38 featured artist Leah Oates. Here’s what she had to say about photographic techniques, how growing up in Maine informed her approach to art, and how art can help begin a dialogue on pressing issues like climate change.


Can you give me a brief synopsis of your technical process with this series?
These images are taken in camera on 35mm film on location, and are then manipulated in camera with double and triple exposures, multiple lenses, extended exposure times, and then worked on in Photoshop from a high-res negative scan on an Imacon scanner.


I see that you have also displayed your work in lightboxes. Do you construct your own?
Images can be shown as photographs or as duratans in light boxes. I outsource light box construction and depending on the size of the photograph I print in studio on an Epson printer, in the darkroom myself, or if the work is on the larger size, my darkroom prints it.


I’m curious of whether you work digitally or traditionally with the duratans.
Images from the Transitory Space series are shot on film via a 35mm camera and/or via a medium format camera and then the negatives are scanned for a duratrans that is printed in the darkroom digitally. Transitory Space was recently featured in the MTA Lightbox Project at 42nd Street in NYC.


What a refreshing alternative to your average, subway advertisement. But what do you feel the advantages are to displaying your work through the large-scale lightboxes?
When my work was installed at the 42nd Street Bryant Park MTA light box project it brought the sky, trees and clouds into a dark and artificially lit space. This work has a different purpose than advertising, as it was not selling anything and aimed to bring nature, light and color into a muted underground space. This specific image was shot at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge so it featured a NYC park environment as well. My aim for the MTA light box was to compel people to pause in their hectic commute and have a feeling of contentment that the sun, the sky, the trees and the clouds can give us. Something similar to lying on the grass and looking up at a trellis of trees and an open blue sky.


Judging from your use of both negative and positive photos in your original featured images, are they all a negative 35mm C-41 development process, and if so, do you use traditional negatives and manipulate everything digitally?
I used only traditional film negatives ie. negative 35mm or medium format and manipulated in camera and regularly altered images digitally.  When I manipulate an image digitally it mainly depends on if it looks better as a negative or a positive image.


Your distinct photographic manipulation, in my eyes, is extremely successful at conveying chronological change, as well as change brought about by the human footprint, even in your most natural settings. When looking at your photographs, I have a very palpable sensation of this that defies words.  I’m sure you can explain better than I why that is.
The Transitory Space series deals with urban and natural locations that are transforming due to the passage of time, altered natural conditions and a continual human imprint.  In everyone and in everything there are daily changes and this series articulates fluctuation in the photographic image and captures movement through time and space. Humans leave traces and artifacts of our consciousness everywhere in our environment. Contradictory realities can be found co-existing wherever we look. They’re in what we choose to think; what we choose to believe; and, how we choose to act. And, they can be found in what we choose to observe.

When I look back on a moment, it’s full of impressions; multiple exposures capture this. I make multiple exposures on specific frames in camera which allows me to display a more complete correlation of experiences that a single exposure just misses. Every moment captured on film is over as soon as the shutter clicks, recording the ephemeral.

Yet, in reality, there is always a visual cacophony of experience. We are always living in many realities at once. Multiple exposures express the way we experience the world more accurately.  Transitory spaces have a messy human energy that is perpetually in the present yet continually altering. They are endlessly interesting, alive places where there is a great deal of beauty and fragility. They are temporary monuments to the ephemeral nature of existence.


I am, forever, trying to calm my senses as I view the world around me… endeavoring unsuccessfully to make time stand still. Do you feel you have successfully tamed that cacophony of human experience with this series?
I’m not sure I could pause the cacophony of human experience even if I tried or wanted. Perhaps the work gives a pause for people when they view it, but I like the wild human energy. It’s life itself really, and akin to the energy of nature.


Can you give me an example of a contradictory reality as seen through your multiple exposures?
In my photographic and multiple exposure works, one can see contradictory reality in the many different ways to shoot a location, person, still life and really any subject one is photographing, painting, drawing etc. With art, it’s almost like there are many outcomes and possible perceptions floating around in space and/or in our consciousness and perhaps a few become manifest in the actual world and as a visual images in the form of art or as a concrete reality in life.

I think also that the photographic image just by its very nature, presents a contradictory reality in terms of the intersection between how the artist captures what they are viewing, what the viewer sees and feels, experiencing the image and the actual subject being captured, which may all be dramatically different.

This could be said about all works of art, really. Multiple exposures add a few more layers of what I perceive as an artist, what is happening in the environment I’m shooting in. That time frame and shooting with film is often a revelation as the camera has its own ways, does things that I did not anticipate, and I’ve had the same cameras since college so I know it really well.


Can you tell me what specifically inspired you to create Transitory Spaces?
The Transitory Spaces series was inspired by a few aspects of my life and of a larger environmental dialogue.

In my life I’ve always and continuously had a very deep and wonderful connection to nature since I was a very small child. I grew up in a time where kids just went off and explored each summer day by ourselves. I would leave early and be back at 5:30 pm every day without any cell phone or device but with a wrist watch and I’d always be in nature all day long, every day, all summer exploring. It was pure magic and it made me a forest and sea creature forever and ever.

My spirit just settles when around green, blue and quiet nature sounds. It’s in my psyche from a very young age. I grew up from age eleven in rural Maine where there were wonderful natural environments to explore from forests, to the ocean to lakes and state parks.

Once I moved into cities I had to find space in public parks like Prospect Park where I could connect to nature. For me it was absolutely critical from a spiritual perspective. I met complete city dwellers in NYC who found nature scary as they had only lived in cities, which was a new concept to me and so different from how I felt about nature which was cherished by me.

The Transitory Spaces series began first as an exploration of nature in an urban setting and really is a visual hybrid between nature and the urban. I find both to have similar energy in a few ways as they are incredibly vibrant and almost relentlessly alive and adaptive entities.

There may be a time in the not too distant future due to climate change where nature is no longer there for humans due to human’s indifference to nature. I find humans, especially in an urban setting, rushing around and ignoring so much, and nature is like breathing. Nature is like a mother who gives and gives but gets little in return, but still always gives as this is nature’s way. This series aims to capture my own deep love of nature but also to show others to pay attention, to slow down and look at what is right there in front of them and for them all the time.


As an avid activist for climate action, I very much appreciate your love for the natural world. I now fully understand the transitory nature of your images and how I was initially drawn to them. Do you see your photography building upon this idea for the future?
I do see my photography building upon this idea of climate action in the future as it will be a more and more pressing issue down the line. Art is a good way to bridge this dialogue as beauty is a good entry point for a discussion on climate change and how nature is being altered. The climate change dialogue usually pertains to how humans are affected, which makes sense, but it’s critical we also protect nature and our environment. There is such an abuse of nature for all its resources and many people just think it will always be there like a good health or other things that people take for granted.


In the past few years, I’ve seen a great outpouring of climate-related art, all concerned for the future. I am pleasantly surprised to see you involved in this movement as well. In fact, it was not at all apparent to me that your concept was related to climate issues. Do you feel that this subtlety is a positive for your work?
I do feel that subtlety is a positive for political work and for my work specifically. I like all political works but then again I’m an artist and a left leaning liberal so I think I must have a higher threshold for all things political.

In the NYC art world, some people love and respond to overtly political work and there is a strong need for this work now and always but it also turns some people off in a strong way, so the dialogues ironically can be limited due to this. Work that manages to be subtle and political can potentially widen the audience for the work and potentially have a better chance of creating dialogue on political issues as it can be less strident and less specific in its political slant.

I ran a gallery in NYC for five years and I hosted political shows, and got to see firsthand how an audience responds to political works. It creates dialogue but rarely sells. It takes a rare collector to buy political works as one lives with the work every day in one’s home, office etc, so it has to be something one can live with each day. A work that softly and peacefully conveys a political thought like climate justice, while also offering beauty, may be a beneficial way to open up dialogues on political themes and has a better chance of moving from the artist studio out into the world for more people to see, talk about and respond to.


By Leah Oates

Leah Oates has B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design, an M.F.A. from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is a Fulbright Fellow for study at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. Oates has had solo shows at Susan Eley Fine Art, The Central Park Arsenal Gallery, The Center for Book Arts, Real Art Ways, Artemisia Gallery, The Brooklyn Public Library and the MTA Arts & Design Light Box series at 42nd Street, NYC. Oates has been part of group shows in NYC at The Pen and Brush Gallery, Metaphor Contemporary Art, NYOC Gallery, 440 Gallery, Nurture Art Gallery, Momenta Art, Associated Gallery, Susan Eley Fine Art and at Denise  Bibro Fine Art.