In Conversation: Kyra Schmidt

After spending a little over two years going through graduate school with artist Kyra Schmidt, I have had the pleasure of witnessing the progression and evolution of her artistic study and practice, which have largely surrounded “camera-less” photography, the landscape, and issues involving photographic representation. Over these years, I’ve truly seen a fresh-out-of-undergrad student transform into a first-rate artist. Following graduation, Kyra has been ranked among the top 50 of Photolucida’s Critical Mass competition and has been featured in exhibitions with some of the best contemporary artists today – she just recently showed alongside artist Brooks Dierdorff at the 621 Gallery in Tallahassee, FL. Kyra received her Masters of Fine Arts in photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2017, and is currently an artist and educator based in Roanoke, Virginia. 

And so – to resurrect our late ‘late night’ graduate school discussions on Martin Heidegger, Rosalind Krauss, George Baker, and the ontological grounding of the photograph – I, once again, sat down with Kyra from across the universe to catch up and to see how her work as well as her life-after-school has been going in order that I might share it with all of you.

Julia Wilson: Could you talk about the path that led you to “camera-less” photography?

Kyra Schmidt: Well, I’ve always considered myself more experimental in nature – a Harry Callahan rather than an Ansel. I stumbled – or perhaps crashed – into camera-less photography during my time as a graduate student, as you know all too well. And while I knew that I was going to design my thesis project around the genre of landscape photography, I also wanted to create the landscape photograph that hadn’t yet been seen – something beyond direct representation. I wanted to embody the very sensations that drew me to the land, the things that made me love the land –  the movement of the sun spotted forest floor, the soft breeze, the runoff of a stream, and so on. However, those happen to be the aspects that can never truly be encompassed by our two inadequate systems of representation (see Martha Rosler). This challenge of representation is what led me to the non-representational image: the photogram then, at last, to the lumen or sun print.

JW: Can you expand on your physical process?

KS: My current process involves making lumen prints in natural environments. I’m putting light sensitive materials into direct contact with natural resources from the earth: water, dirt, plant matter, and even some microorganisms.  I leave the earth matter on each print to react with and/or embed itself into the surface of the paper. The resulting image is a gamut of colors determined by the attributes of the land in which it was exposed: color fields of light pinks or rich maroons often shifting to their muted counterpart. Imprints of the matter fade in and out of recognition, creating the illusion of movement across the surface. The image is unfixed, and it will continue to change as it ages – a never ending life cycle.

JW: Why?

KS: In many ways I am trying to break the photographic program by using traditional materials in a non-traditional way.  I’m interested in the disparity that occurs between image and sensation – particularly with commonly held ideas surrounding the photographic landscape. All photographs abstract the world; however, unlike the mimetic quality of the traditional photograph, my process doesn’t hide this abstraction. I create an image – a representation – with a physical and material connection to the earth, rather than an aesthetic likeness. The index in this case has real, material effects, and the audience can visualize the original force of this materialization. Each lumen print marks a collapse between original (the land) and representation (the image) by presenting both simultaneously. I’m examining how we unconsciously experience and interact with a photograph’s tactile qualities: a materiality or surface that’s often forgotten or unnoticed. There is a performative quality to the work as well – the creation of meaning in the act of making.  That said, I very much consider this work to be on-going as I am still very much grappling with the gap between aesthetic quality and physical experience, and how to represent it – something which I may never discover. But I think there’s beauty in trying.

JW: Would you call yourself an ‘experimental’ photographer?

KS: Photography is light writing in a most literal sense. The medium depends on the light sensitivity of a surface whether it be chemically prepared paper, a plant’s chlorophyll, or a digital sensor. You know this of course, as most of us do. However, it still it can be difficult to conventionally interact with and interpret images that do not adhere to traditional ways of seeing. All photographs are marked by an index in one form or another. The processes I am using (as with many of the experimental processes out there) are not new so much as they have undergone a rebirth. In many ways, I consider photography to be atavistic, essential traits going dormant and always recurring, if given enough time. I don’t see my process as being experimental per se but rather in the heritage of early practitioners such as Talbot, Bayard or even Maholy-Nagy.

JW: Do you have issues with the ways in which we as a society consider photography? Can you offer a new definition, apart from its traditional consideration?

KS: I believe that photography in our contemporary cultural climate is an underestimated monster. There seems to be an epidemic of miscommunication, where the photographic image has come to be understood as an unyielding beacon of information, truth, and even for real experience. Still, photography in contemporary art practice and theory has been a troublesome medium since its inception. I am not sure that photography needs a new definition so much as it needs an open mind. In the past decade alone there has been an influx in photographers that are turning back to both the camera-less photograph and to the constructed image. I’m more interested in what this says about the condition of society and contemporary thought than what it says about photographic ontology. Many contemporary artists are embracing an expanded definition of photography that is open and fluid to move across media, process, or history. I see this as a positive movement. Our society has become so saturated with photographs that the medium/material itself is finally coming to the fore.

JW: Literarily, philosophically, and visually, what/who inspires your work?

KS: So many things inspire me – It feels impossible to keep up! Most notably I can say that reading fuels my work. When I feel at a loss, I turn toward texts based in philosophy or those concerning issues in contemporary art and aesthetics. A few of my favorite photo-specific minds include Geoffrey Batchen, George Baker, Rosalind Krauss, and Ariella Azoulay. The body of work “Transcriptions” is heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the theorist/artist Barbara Bolt.

A lot of visual artists inspire me these days too. So much is happening. I am as deeply inspired by Rebecca Norris Webbs’ poetic documentations of South Dakota as I am by Klea Mckenna’s camera-less photographic relief prints of the earth cracks. I am excited by many of the artists exploring text, image, and meaning. As with those exploring photographic materiality and representability – Brooks Deirdorff, Meghann Rippenhoff to name a few.


JW: How do you believe the philosophical and the aesthetic quality of your work merge. How do – to continually exhaust these words – form and content relate to each other within your work?

KS: I briefly mentioned above that “Transcriptions” was and is inspired by Martin Heidegger, most prominently his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  In this essay, he spoke on the representation of truth in artworks not as that which is re-presented or rendered correctly, but as the ‘non-concealment’ of a whole. In other words, he saw Art not as a fixed and stable thing, but as a continual and infinite happening of experience. Heidegger found truth in the work of art that could set forth an openness – the work that looks past preconceptions of what is or should be. Barbara Bolt builds an ideology off of this particular essay by Heidegger of which she refers to as a ‘productive materiality.’  To put it simply, this ‘productive materiality’ of the artwork is as an interaction between artist, materiality of medium, and materiality of earth matter. It is an event in itself, a constant back and forth between invisible forces from the artist’s hand to the material to the earth matter to the audience and back again.

With that long-winded introduction I can say that form and content are inseparable in this work. This series was built around the camera-less photographic image, and it is the aspect of the series that I often find myself most invested in. The margin of chance involved within the work, the physical earth matter and the transitory nature of the prints are all integral to the series. By relinquishing order and preconceptions, unconcealment can happen as an Event that moves us out of the day-to-day world and into a different opening.

JW: Do you feel as though there is distinction between the traditional photography world and the art world at large? Has it been difficult trying to navigate that space?

KS: Yes, I think so. However I’ve noticed the two worlds – old and new – beginning to merge more now than ever before. Being educated in photography since undergraduate school has made it somewhat difficult to break free from a technical or traditional mindset. I must say that I am very thankful for my specific graduate program and for so many amazing mentors that encouraged us to be visual artists as well as conceptual thinkers. Nevertheless I still find it difficult to navigate that space. I’m working somewhere between photography, video, and sculpture, and performance – so an undefined place to say the least.

JW: Final words and/or advice on post-grad life as an artist?

KS: Well, I think the best piece of advice which has served me well is to only pursue what excites you, to always ignore trends, and to first and foremost pursue your art for you and only you. The art world is very competitive. I was absolutely thrilled and grateful to be selected as a finalist for Critical Mass, but that same year I was rejected by plenty of residencies. I’ve learned that rejection is not only okay but can be good – so long as you don’t allow it to stifle you. I stress the importance of surrounding yourself with a community of artists – when such is no longer automatically provided and available as it is in academia. I think continual feedback on work is critical to an artist’s growth. Everything wonderful that has happened to me thus far has at some point come back to a wonderful friend, colleague, or mentor.

JW: As an artist myself, it is always inspiring to talk with you. Thanks again, Kyra, and I look forward to seeing what you will create next.

To view more of Kyra Schmidt’s work please visit her website.