My family has been an important component of my life for as long as I can remember. I do not mean that to be glib – we all have family – but the connection and bond that I have with my family runs very deep. I have always had a close relationship with my family and was blessed to grow up with four grandparents and a great-grandmother. These bonds and connections have forged who I am today – a person who is sentimental, compassionate, passionate, artistic, and loves to cook. When I was young, I remember visiting several great aunts and uncles quite often. My mother grew up not far from my own hometown, so visiting her extended family was a common occurrence. Certain things have stuck with me from those visits – the stale cigarette smoke in the air, the plastic covers on the couches that made a distinctive sound and you would stick to in the Virginia summers, and Marjorie’s electric organ with all of its colorful knobs and buttons. But there was something more subtle that stuck with me that I did not realize until recently, that everything which was precious to them was always out on display, and placed upon a handmade doily.
I have been privileged that these possessions were often passed down from one generation to the next, by no means in a materialistic way but in a sentimental way. These possessions, or heirlooms as I see them, help ground me within my family. They provide a touchstone for my memories of relatives who have since passed away, but they also provide a tangible link to family members that I never knew.
In creating this project, I utilized a number of these heirlooms to create a lasting work that transcends a simple possession of the original item and allows it to be enjoyed by multiple members of the family. Instead of simply photographing the specific object, I tied it to a specific photograph of the person it was associated with for a deeper context. I wanted to give weight and validity to the item so that it was seen as something more than just a simple object, and to equate the personal and emotional connection to it. When I lived in Philadelphia I suffered a catastrophic apartment fire and lost a lot of things that I considered to be precious and utterly irreplaceable, so by photographing these items for this project, I have created a new layer of permanence to them. I used the cyanotype process to print these images onto doilies and handkerchiefs because in the end, be it a pair of glasses, a family recipe, or even patterns to a doll’s dress, these simple things exemplify that which is precious to me.
In creating this project, the first thing I had to do was find suitable doilies to print on. Most I found were knitted and did not have solid surfaces. In fact, I was only able to find one doily with a solid surface, so I had to fall back on handkerchiefs. Next I had to determine what heirlooms I had access to, and which ones would translate into cyanotypes the most successfully. I wanted to use a sherbet glass from my great-grandparents 50th wedding anniversary as it has a nice shape and gold stars on it. Unfortunately, I could not get that to register on test prints.
Sherbet glass from Bam & Dada's 50th wedding anniversary.
Sherbet glass being exposed in the sunlight. I tried using the exposure unit on campus, but it vibrated too much for the glass to stay in place.
Sherbet glass after being exposed. I was hoping to catch the reflection and shape of the glass on the paper, but the sun moved too much for it to effectively register. Interestingly, I did catch the star patterns.
Next I tried a test print of two different pairs of glasses, each belonging to a great-grandparent. These registered clear enough that I felt I could use them. One pair belonged to my great-grandfather, William R. Gay. I had some pictures of him, including a couple of him in his glasses, and was able to find an old picture of the mine he worked at in Newcastle, Texas. I struggled with a good composition that could incorporate the glasses, though. Plus, I felt that the doilies and handkerchiefs were a little too frilly to use for him.
Bam & W. R. Gay's glasses in registration. Playing with different compositions for W. R.'s print, and a test on the least frilly handkerchief I had.
Once I decided to forego using W. R.'s glasses, I still had Bam's to work with. There is an iconic photograph of her that everyone in the family has a copy of, a beautiful portrait of her when she was young. I felt that this would be a nice contrast with her glasses, and then I could offset it in the final presentation with a photograph of her older wearing glasses. Unfortunately, though the glasses initially registered nicely, once the print dried they did not show quite as clearly. Ultimately the exposure times for the print and the glasses were too different to be able to register them both equally and effectively.
For my second heirloom, I decided to use a photograph of my great-grandmother Nana with a copy of her recipe for soy. It is a recipe that has been in our family for generations - Nana's grandmother created the recipe and once I make it, I will be the sixth generation to make it. It does not have any soy products in it, that's just what it's called. It's more like a tomato chutney, and is amazing! It goes best on pork and turkey, and has always been a staple at our Thanksgiving table. I have a letter from Nana's sister to my grandmother with the recipe, which I placed over a photo of Nana when she would have been making soy. At our in-progress critique it was suggested using a jelly jar (what we always placed soy in) to create an impression on the image, as well as possibly some spotting, as if she were in the kitchen making it. Unfortunately the jar did not register as a jar, and the spots just looked sloppy. I ended up scrapping them and rearranging the composition of just Nana with the recipe.
The third heirloom I discovered by accident. When I was home looking for things I could use, I stumbled across some clothing patterns in a frame. Tucked behind the frame was an envelope, and in it were the remaining doll patterns and a letter from my great-aunt & uncle to my mother. It turned out that the patterns were for a doll's dress that Nana used to make a dress for a doll my grandfather had when he was 3 years old. Going through an old photo album Nana had made for Papa, there just so happened to be a photo of him when he was 3 years old. I tried making a print with the patterns surrounding the photo of Papa, but because they were so old and delicate, they did not block out any light and barely registered at all. To get them to register properly, I ended up losing almost all detail in the image of Papa. To solve this, I ended up scanning each pattern separately and was able to play with their contrast in Photoshop. Here, I was able to create a much more dynamic composition where I layered the patterns, and even had them laid over the photograph some.
Once I had my heirlooms and accompanying photographs picked out, and which surfaces they would go on I had to think about how I was going to present them. Because I was only applying the cyanotype solution to parts of the handkerchiefs, I wanted the whites to stand out and felt that they would get lost on a white mat. A black mat, however, made the entire thing pop. I wanted to place them in shadow boxes to highlight their preciousness, and was able to find ones 16" x 20" that fit the mat board I had. The handkerchiefs were large enough that I only had room to create an inch-and-a-half border on the mat frame, but that still framed the pieces nicely.
When it came time for presentation, I hung the shadow boxes high enough to leave room beneath them to hang a shelf. I had stained the shelves to match the shadow boxes, and upon them I placed the heirloom I used in the image as well as one or two other things for context. For the print with Papa, I used the patterns along with a doll that they would have been used on, and the letter from my great-aunt & uncle to my mother telling the history of the patterns. For the print with Nana, I used the soy recipe along with a jar of soy, and for the print with Bam I used her glasses as well as a small framed photo of her in her later years.
Classmates checking out my project on the day of our final crit.