In Conversation: Amanda Tinker

Amanda Tinker currently works and resides in the suburbs of Philadelphia. In 1998 she completed her undergraduate studies in photography at Drexel University, and in 2001 received her MFA from Temple University, Tyler School of Art. She has been teaching the history of photography and 19th century processes at Drexel University since 2001. Her work primarily incorporates historic photographic processes – such as platinum/palladium – to make images that touch on nature, family, legacy and loss. She has exhibited work nationally and internationally, most recently at the Heilongjiang Art Museum in Harbin, China. In 2018, work from her series “Small Animal” was shortlisted for the Benrido Atelier’s Hariban Award.

After following her work for sometime now, I recently had the pleasure of chatting with artist Amanda Tinker to discuss her ongoing series Shelter Near At Hand. Amanda’s photographic portfolio is delicate, poetic, personal yet universal, and hauntingly enigmatic. She consistently imbues traditional photographic processes with contemporary technique and reflection, to create imagery that exists somewhere in-between. In this interview, Amanda speaks toward process, trauma and meaning as they manifest in Shelter Near At Hand. She allowed me to open-up this dialogue – on personal history and loss – to share with us her vision toward the development of this compelling body of work.

Kyra Schmidt: Amanda, I want to thank you so much for collaborating on this interview with me. Let’s talk about Shelter Near At Hand: for me, this body of work offers up a beautifully poetic motif that seems to exist somewhere between personal reflection and constructed narrative. Can you start by telling us a little about it?

Amanda Tinker: Hi Kyra! Thank you so much for your interest in this project. Three years ago we moved into the home once owned by my husband’s grandfather, who had passed away in 2014. He was beloved in our family; a WWII vet who had built a life for himself after the war in this archetypal, mid-century neighborhood called the Holiday Homes. After moving in, we were tasked with clearing out 50 years of a life well-lived. But in the process of clearing out objects big and small, buffing marks from the floors and ripping out overgrown flower beds, there was the feeling of history being overwritten. I felt we had already lost so much. I started to think about how the objects that we couldn’t part with might make their way into my photographs, along with my husband and children; objects such as our grandfather’s coat, an old picture frame, and a silk baby blanket. These items don’t stand alone, instead are placed adjacent to plants, cuttings and bits from the surrounding garden and greenhouse. They are signifiers of the tender legacy that is tethered to those of us who remain. More than a simple document of home and family and change, I am thinking about the way in which traces from the past get woven into the present.

The backyard features prominently in this project because the flatness and openness of it reminds me of a battlefield. If there is a narrative to be found in the work it originates from the disconnect between the dream offered up to his generation, coming home from the war to build a country – and the state of my generation, seemingly without purpose and a little bewildered. If there is any sense of purpose, it is in seeing how the ideals my husband and I hold might pass through a vein of hope, through our children and out into the ether.

KS: I want to highlight your statement about a history overwritten, and the way in which the past might be woven into the present. The fragmentary nature of this series seems to echo the way in which trauma and displacement are remembered, harbored in the psyche and carried on in the body. Did you conceive of this series as a mirror to the way our brains process memory?

AT: Thank you for these questions, Kyra. They’ve given me a lot to think about. When I set out to do the project I thought of it, in part, as a way to revive old objects that had been tucked away in this house for so long, to bring them into the present. I was being quite literal, at first, in how I documented things… sometimes just using my phone camera. Many of those images no longer exist. I threw out images as quickly as I cleaned out objects. As the months passed, and we needed to get on with our lives, I realized that it was going to be impossible to save and document as much as I wanted, so was forced to become selective.

Some of the items incorporated – the old picture frame with dusty glass and the tweed coat – had little significance to others in the family, but seemed to touch us in a unique way. I think that’s how our memories can work, right? We become selective, maybe even to the point of changing our understanding of history. I see that as an asset in the way I go about making photographs. Let me explain: while this project is absolutely tinged with the past, it enables us to look towards the future. I don’t feel tied to telling a literal story about family history. My process of coming up with ideas for this project then executing them, resembles the way I tend  to remember certain events from the past; some memories fleeting or elusive, while others concrete.

KS: On the topic of meaning and traces, I am considering how, by photographing these objects that are so dear to you – your grandfather’s coat, the antique picture frame – they are resurrected into a universal language of the photographic medium. These traces begin to create new meaning, yet with a poignant and resistance aura (to reference Walter Benjamin). How do you feel about photography’s nature to transform these ordinary objects? To speak toward a more direct question, is the thought of imbuing these objects with new life and meaning distressing for you?

AT: I love this question because I think a lot about how photographs enable us to see one thing, one object, or one person – powerfully and clearly – even if that’s not always how I approach photographing. Walt Whitman talked about an invisible “electric chain” that vibrates between the viewer and a photographic portrait. In 1846 he would have been referring to the daguerreotype portrait, which quite literally transforms a person into an object of mystery and beauty. That very idea is aspirational for me… this idea that a photograph might have that kind of pull over the viewer, to make them see something ordinary in a new way. This doesn’t even need to unfold in a dramatic way. I’m most interested in images in the history of photography that create small “disturbances”. I’m trying to creative those kinds of images as well.

I don’t feel distress as much as I feel a kind of tentativeness that comes from wanting to be mindful of family members who may have a different relationship to these objects, or even to the idea of photographing them. Of course, as a mother, I always try to think about how my children appear in images. Their input is an important part of this project as they are the beneficiaries of their great-grandfather’s love and kindness. In their pictures, I feel as if they are Whitman’s electric chain…not just to the viewer, but also between the past and the present. They, quite literally, have animated this house.

KS: Your description of this series’ origin brings reference to the creative impulse and ability to make something in the midst of lost, trauma, or absence. I feel this manifest in Small Animal and I am Your Flower Garden as well. While these images are astonishingly beautiful, they also feel dire, like there is something being lost. This might tie in to your reference of your backyard as a battlefield. How does the creative manifest as a response? Does it play in to your photographic process? Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!

AT: For certain, some of the subject matter I deal with feels dire but I always hope to communicate that there can be beauty even in those spaces. I Am Your Flower Garden began because my children were becoming more aware of a degenerative nerve disease that my husband has, causing weakness in his extremities. The project was, in part, about legacy and loss and how the body changes over time. But I also tried to say something about strength and tenderness. The garden as a theme was important, is important, because you see how nature behaves so cruelly sometimes. For example, I planted my first milkweed last summer and watched how quickly it was decimated by the end of the season from monarch caterpillars. But, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed. Next year, the milkweed will come back, and so will the Monarchs, and on and on… if we’re lucky.

KS: Nature is certainly sublime; both transcendent and foreboding. Your powerful imagery are interspersed with ethereal and intriguing aesthetic decisions, such as the double exposure or what appears to be a scratched negative. Will you talk about these elements?  I’m interested in your signature aesthetics, and how they produce and influence meaning.

AT: I have felt a freedom to behave more intuitively in this work than with other projects. Other series, like Small Animal, are so carefully arranged and formal that I wanted to breathe a little with this work. This project being so new, and the subject being so liminal, has given me some license to incorporate techniques that may not work in others. Sometimes moves like this can feel like a red herring and I try to be conscious of that. The way in which I weave in altered images relates to the subject matter, which isn’t located in the real world, but somewhere between past and present. For example, the image of my son in front of the boxwood wearing a peacoat was originally made, simply – because I love the shape of the bush. My son threw on his coat and by the end of it I felt like I was making an image from war, if only by way of the physical facts of the image: wool coat, blazing contrast, boots, subject in profile. The scratching seemed to fit to bring attention to that.

KS: I enjoy this notion of working from image to image. The act of giving each snippet a life of its own allows one to really see the photograph versus through it. This form of layering via double exposure, physical alterations to an image, or actual physical layers seems to be a recurring theme throughout multiple series of yours. How do these aesthetic actions come to play? There seems to be a reference to ontic status of the photographic medium.

AT: I suppose there is a way of bringing the viewer to the surface of the photograph, and a recognition of the mechanics of photography by using these techniques. I want the viewer to see the photograph as an object. Because I use a big camera and film and old photographic processes, each image has come to feel more like sculpture. I’m a little out of step in an era where images are fleeting and seem like pure light; images that live on screens. That is a beautiful way to see photographs also! But, I just love the heavy feeling of a print made of material, that has a real place in the world.

In teaching students about the handmade print, I sometimes bring them back to the work of Duane Michals, Ray Metzker and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen. These photographers all found playful ways to deal with the more vexing questions of the human condition, largely by using techniques such as sequencing, double exposure, the hand written text, and pinhole photography etc. They were my loadstars when I was a student. All of that work still feels new to me and relevant even to this day.

KS: Amanda, these have been such beautiful words that have resonated with me, deeply. I cannot thank you enough for allowing us access to your precious thoughts, images, and musing. I am wondering, is this photographic series still ongoing?

AT: No, thank you for the thoughtful questions, Kyra! Yes, this work is quite new and ongoing. There are still boxes unopened in the garage that belonged to our grandfather and we are still making discoveries!

KS: To lighten things up a bit more. And for one final question: Can you tell us what you are working on right now? Or what is in store in the future?

AT: I am always juggling a few projects at a time. It feels right to move back and forth when work gets tiring, I can take a break and try a different approach! Recently, I have started to play with layering blocks of salt print chemistry onto watercolor paper as one might collage blocks of colored paper. I was inspired by early 20th century spy tradecraft, “invisible writing” techniques. Many of these techniques incorporated photographic, light sensitive chemistry. My “chemical collages” are made using similar photographic chemistry and the designs recall the dark bars of redacted material.

KS: Thank you Amanda. I think we are all looking forward to seeing where this work takes you!

To view more of Amanda Tinker’s work please visit her website.