Liese A. Ricketts

I recently had a conversation with Chicago based photographer Liese A Ricketts about her series 13, which will be exhibited at the Chicago Photography Collective in September. 

The human face has infinite fascination for me. Although in life we observe a face, with its fugitive identity momentarily, we are allowed through the photograph to scrutinize expression and gesture in a way normal human interaction does not allow. This series is titled 13, as I photographed 13-year olds whom I taught over a five-year period. I only imaged my students during the school day when we both had a moment free to relate to each other in the environment we share. “Why thirteen?” you may ask. Perhaps it is because thirteen was a magical time in my life. I was so excited to be a new teenager, an age group with cult-like status. I was happy to be at the top of the middle school heap. Everything seemed possible.
For over thirty years I have taught photography to students who are thirteen to eighteen years old. Each year I age; the faces of those before me remain young. I am amazed at the striking and radical change between 8th grade and freshman year. Each year I observe the changes that happen with their bodies, attitudes, and abilities. The freshness, openness, and translucency of my young students’ faces soon change to something else

Cathy, from 13 by Liese A Ricketts

Ivan, from 13 by Liese A Ricketts

Nathan, from 13 by Liese A Ricketts

Safiya, from 13 by Liese A Ricketts

PH/arts: Tell me a little bit about the process. I see that your photographs are printed on metal. Looks like a metal frame as well. Are they tintypes?  

LR. They are printed digitally on metal prepared for my printer. I print them myself. The frames are made of wood. They are what I call 'contemporary tintypes'. 
What is wonderful is that I do not have to work with toxic chemistry (which frankly terrifies me) to produce images that relate and resonate with historical processes. I was poisoned badly in the 80's as a grad student using alternative processes, got acute dichromate poisoning. I am very cautious about the materials I use and the materials I teach, something I feel is my responsibility, an important one, as a teacher and photographer.
PH/arts: Is there any connection/relationship between your process and the subject matter?

LR: I believe the connection exists within me, as well as in the nature of the medium.
I am, and always will be, fascinated by early photography, its roots, the reason photography exists, its cultural permeation and its constant permutations.  I also love to research and use different materials. I enjoy digital printing, as well as the darkroom, and I don't see a reason to only employ one tool, or to consider one tool superior to another. 
The portrait is what allowed photography to grow as an imagemaking medium, the first democratic form of representation. So, these portraits of young people were my students over a five year period. I have over 100 final platinum prints from this series as well. In that time, I aged as the faces before my camera remained young and translucent. Now they have aged, some are in college.That is the magic of our medium. We can stop time, allowing the moment to live again, as well as to see it as a moment forever lost. 

PH/arts: In your statement you refer to the "cult-like" fascination with teenagers. I recently saw the Rineke Dijkstra exhibit at the Guggenheim. Dijkstra's work is so deeply involved in the documentation of facial and body changes over slices of time, especially with young people. Do you think this combination of nostalgia and stopping time plays a factor in the teen-cult in photography?

LR:   I am not sure about the current aspect of teen photographs; I was referring to the cult status of teenagers which occurred after WW2. Before then, sociologically, the concept of 'teenager' did not exist.  Adolescents were considered much like adults until after the war. The cult now exists among teenagers. That is a real phenomenon, not a photographic one. 
Certainly, Dijkstra and I both share common ground, intimacy with a young person that exists during the taking of the photograph and then is experienced by the viewer through the image. All portraits allow us an intimacy we do not experience visually in real time. It is socially inappropriate to stare at another's face too long, perusing wrinkles and fuzz; only photos allow us that forbidden pleasure.  

PH/arts: Do you see any parallel to the cult of alternate/antique photo processes?

: Certainly there is a turning to media and technology to discover different ways of creating photographs. The camera phone and accompanying apps make images that now fill gallery spaces, along with wet collodion images of contemporary life. Anything goes. Time will tell what floats and what sinks. As 21st century citizens, we are very visually literate. I think we like to look at images that look different from what we have seen. Color is having its comeback, due to digital. I like looking at everything. A good teacher always needs to want to see more.

PH/arts:  Thank you Liese. Best of luck with your upcoming show.

Liese A Ricketts was included in the 2011 exhibit and book My Own Wilderness. She is currently a member of the photography faculty at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Her work has been widely exhibited and published. 
Here is more information about her upcoming exhibit.
And here is a link to her website.