Hillary Jones McCullough: Self-Portraiture as Processing Trauma

Art Editor Kristin LaFollette interviews Featured Artist Hillary Jones McCullough. View McCullough’s portfolio here.

Here’s why I mostly use the Salt Print process for my work: It’s tedious, time consuming, and often unpredictable.

—Hillary Jones McCullough


I’m a big fan of your work and so excited we could feature this portfolio in #58 of Mud Season. Tell us a bit about what unifies the images in this particular portfolio. What themes do the images capture? Along the same lines, you mention that your work often focuses on the human body, memento mori, and finding beauty in the mundane. You also note that you use “self portraiture as a way to process trauma.” How do you see these themes coming through in your work? How is the process of curating images therapeutic for you?

I don’t know at what age I started to feel this way, but for as long as I can remember I was self-conscious about every aspect of myself. I was an easy target for bullies, I never liked my body, never thought I was attractive. In 7th grade I remember being made fun of for my big hands. My hairline was ‘weird’ (a family member even said that I looked like a cue ball when I pulled my hair back into a ponytail). By 8th grade I was 5’8” and just incredibly awkward. I hated looking at myself. Even throughout high school I would shower and get dressed in the dark. I would only turn the lights on to put my makeup on once I was fully dressed. I existed in a partially dissociative state from a very young age. Eventually my dissociation reached a point where I was startled when I looked in the mirror and remembered that I actually existed.

When I started my undergraduate education as a photo major, I was in an exciting new city, away from the oppressive environment of my upbringing. I finally had the space to explore and process what I hadn’t previously recognized as self-hatred.

Making my first ‘real’ self-portraits was the first time I was able to truly see myself through MY eyes. And in a way I’m still exploring my perception of self through the work I make today. It’s through a more mature lens, but I still struggle with putting my more complex thoughts and emotions into words. So, I translate them through images. (I’m still terrible with words, which we’ll get to when we discuss my overuse of “Untitled” works). I’ll feel an overwhelming emotion, and when I don’t have the words to explain what I’m feeling, I see a visual representation of the feeling in my mind.

The images in your portfolio were all created using the salt print/silver nitrate method. Can you talk a bit about this process? Why print the images on watercolor paper?

Here’s the simple answer to why I mostly use the Salt Print process for my work: it’s tedious, time consuming, and often unpredictable. It forces me to slow down, focus, and to embrace the imperfect nature of the process. There’s something I love about laboring over a print in this way. You could repeat the process exactly step-by-step, back-to-back, and get two drastically different prints. I spent so much of my life trying to meet certain expectations, I guess I love the fact that this process defies expectations, in a way.

It’s based on the salted paper technique used around the mid 1830’s by Henry Fox Talbot. It was one of the earlier methods for exposing, developing, and stabilizing an image on a light-sensitive surface. I use watercolor paper primarily because it is the easiest surface to use, but it is certainly possible to use other surfaces.

I first learned this process in the digital age of the early 21st century. So my practice is to make a photograph using my digital camera, processing that image through photoshop, and printing it on transparency paper using an inkjet printer. This results in a “digital negative.” I then apply the silver nitrate solution to a sheet of salted watercolor paper. Once dry, I place the digital negative face down on the prepared paper, secure it in a contact frame, and expose it to UV light. The UV light passes through the negative and the silver nitrate reacts with the salted paper at various levels of exposure, creating the positive image. The paper then goes through various chemical baths to stabilize the positive image.

The portfolio images are all untitled. Is this typical of your work? How do you go about determining the title for a piece?

Using “untitled” wasn’t always typical for me. But lately I look back on work from three years to three months ago and realize the title doesn’t fit. My work is so exploratory, I feel assigning it a permanent title doesn’t do the work justice.

You mention that you work as a photographer. How does that work differ from the work you do as an artist? You also work as an adjunct instructor and as an assistant for a record label. How do you balance your time to create space for art-making?

Well, ever since the pandemic I haven’t worked as a photographer in a commercial sense. This has allowed me to focus on my personal work and teaching. Though I’ll admit that inspiration post-March 2020 has been harder to come by. I still work as a personal assistant, but I’m able to keep my art separate.

What project(s) are you working on now? Where can we find more of your work?

I have about eight pages of notes I’ve kept from the last few months about work I want to make, and I don’t quite want to give that away yet. But, you can find me on Instagram @hillarymccullough. For more of my work, photography and video, visit my website

By Kristin LaFollette
Kristin LaFollette is the Art Editor at Mud Season Review. Her artwork and photography have appeared in Armstrong LiteraryWest Trestle ReviewThe West ReviewThe Magnolia Review, and others. She is the author of Hematology (winner of the 2021 Harbor Editions Laureate Prize) and Body Parts (winner of the 2017 GFT Press Chapbook Prize). She received her Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University and is a professor at the University of Southern Indiana. Learn more about her work at