Photographer Laura Plageman loves landscapes, but they don’t always turn out the way she wants. To fix that, Plageman uses her hands, and sometimes her whole body, to manually manipulate her prints, and in doing so creates a new topography on the photographs themselves.
“I was feeling frustrated by a certain photograph and needed to change it, and I just kind of went for it physically,” she says. “Then I realized I enjoyed working that way.”
The images in Plageman’s Response series start as landscape photos taken around the U.S. with medium-format and digital cameras. The photos are then printed in various sizes for testing. When she finds the size that works best for a given landscape, Plageman begins to warp and deform the photos.
“I try to treat each image as its own thing,” she says. “So some photos have really subtle manipulation, there’s maybe one ding or something, and then others are a lot more willfully … tortured, I guess is the word.”
Deliberately teasing new effects from the photo, she plays the landscape it depicts against the texture she’s creating on its surface. “I care about what’s in the photograph and how the manipulation is interacting with the content of the photograph,” she says. “I don‘t want to just be crumpling a picture to crumple a picture — it’s not random.”
After all that, the purposefully mangled result gets photographed one final time, arranged so that the light interacts with the creases in just the right way. In a way this is like photographing a whole new landscape, she’s “back to moving my camera around and looking for the spaces within the picture that come alive.” In “Kudzu” (the second slide above), for example, her response to the original was to create a wave-like action. “I thought of something that you can’t hold on to, something that’s vast,” she says. “From here I think of the Pacific ocean, large bodies of water.”
Plageman says she often gets more questions about the physical process that went into making the photos than about their effect, which is not easy to categorize — are these photographs or sculptures? Is this photography, or a kind of performance art? The images in the series fall somewhere along a line between an abstraction and the plain documentation of a landscape. Everyone has their own response to the work. For her, they are photographs.
“I’m interested in the wildness of nature and how we relate to that, in these kind of very alive spaces,” she says. “And for me it was falling flat just to have a straight photograph of those things.”
Works from the Response series will be on view at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago from March 7 to May 3, and the Photo Center Northwest in Seattle from March 13 to June 15. Her work can also be seen at the Jen Bekman Gallery in New York, and the DeSoto Gallery in Los Angeles.