Living in liminality

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Oil from years of skin contact forms a thin layer over my photographs, mainly from fingers tracing over their textured surfaces. Surprisingly, I don’t mind. 

Embroidery thread weaves in and out of the images, extending the photographs beyond their 4-by-6-inch borders. I encourage viewers to feel the thread, to run their fingers over the added lines, which act as a tantalizing invitation to touch. 

There’s a paradoxical marriage between textures and colors in the pieces themselves; the dimensions and palettes inherently don’t match but instead open up space for a new medium to be explored.

In the most cliche of ways, I stumbled upon my mum’s film camera in the corner of a closet, tucked among files of old bank statements and dust-covered boxes of memoirs. In all its ancient glory, the clunky Olympus OM40 was to me, a godsend. An essential step in my pretentious indie journey in high school, I thought I would ascend to film god status within the week. A year later with only a handful of good prints, I sat in defeat surrounded by stacks of overexposed or underexposed images.

Naturally, I gave up on that venture. I packed away the many stacks of photos in the same plastic box as the camera, ready to collect dust and grow old once again.

Half a year or so later, I was walking around the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on a high school field trip and came across a series of photographs, taken by an artist who spent her time in the Middle East documenting refugee camps. But curiously enough, her work took on an alternate approach to capturing such subject matter.

The artist had cut out the images to trace the silhouettes of her subjects before pasting them almost haphazardly on drawing paper. With regular colored pencils, she had drawn random, childlike sketches around the photographs, and with sewing thread she had stitched outlines around the cutout images.

The artist’s additions did not detract from the images themselves, instead encompassing an adolescent perspective of trauma. She had performed an upcycling of sorts — while her interpretation of the story she witnessed was not better or worse than the original images, it was a reworking of the subject matter nonetheless.

Returning to my own stack of rejects, I took on the air of that artist and tried to make additions to uplift the disappointing digitals. I had previously played around with embroidery thread, and fished it out of the back of my childhood craft box.

Each image got their own special treatment; pops of color were given to overcast or undercast images, lines were defined and people were adorned with abstract shapes to elevate their image. Flat images gain another dimension as they are introduced to tangibility and from there they illicit curiosity.

With all photography, the intention differs greatly from the captured image. In the time it takes to process film, the image drifts further and further from the frame that was imagined when the shutter snapped down. Upon opening the first few envelopes of prints from my early film photography endeavors, the moment of going through the sealed stack was filled with titillation, anxiety and expectations. Even if the image came out clear, it was still far from what I thought it would look like upon shooting.

In that way, the additional post-processing embroidery works as a solution to that liminal anxiety. Each stitch makes sense of the confusion of the abstracted image and gives meaning to an image that was lost in translation. 

My eventual 20 odd pieces from one summer of stitching found themselves sloppily pasted on the walls of Wurster Gallery my first semester at university, as part of a student exhibition. It seemed so incredibly odd for my works to take up space besides framed paintings, complex sculptures and projected documentaries. For me, especially considering my lack of an arts background, the adolescence of my pieces was deepened by comparison to the other works there.

As I loitered around the gallery, I kept an eye out for onlookers. They approached my small corner and read my caption card inviting them to touch, which they did. Some laughed, some shrugged, some moved on quickly or lingered for longer. 

The acceptance into the exhibition, the taping of the photographs to the wall — albeit with blue tape — took the photographs away from the side of amateurism and into the counter realm of something worthy of attention and conversation. 

Where I failed as a photographer, I found slight reprieve as a recycler. Instead of letting the photographs linger in the space between conceived idea and finalized print, I could bring them into a place where they were validated. Along with the attendees at the exhibition, my gaze also fell upon the pieces, and I saw them as they are: reborn images, ready to take on new meaning. 

Francesca Hodges writes the Monday A&E column on exploring liminal spaces within art and identity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.