Home Photography Julie Vola – Vietnam in Cyanotypes

Julie Vola – Vietnam in Cyanotypes

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© Copyright Julie Vola

Photography is for me the extension of an intense but elusive emotion of Beauty in the world. I am captivated by the power of an image (photographic or not), in love with it and being able to create one is the most exhilarating thing I know.

When I frame the image I sometimes find myself overthinking geometry, lines, or directions. This may be the result of having taught the same photography classes for too long.

A camera is a poetic device.

Photography is my happy place. Light and Time and Space. How they intertwine together is so much more than pushing a button. The Light moves me so deeply, I could almost cry, it makes me feel it all so much more. Photography freezes time, holds it still on the surface while digging deep in the human consciousness to expose our relation to memories and time passing by.

All of this, contained in the space of a frame. How you arrange the elements, the decisions you make about depth, what you do about the off-camera is just as important as what you put in. All of this resonates within me.

I came to Vietnam in 2010 initially for a three months trip, and after three weeks I decided not to return home. This is somehow a common story you hear among foreigners in Vietnam.

I am out there in front of the world, from the fringe looking at it, and at the same time I am fully engaged in it, I am all in. I came to Vietnam in 2010 initially for a three months trip, and after three weeks I decided not to return home. This is somehow a common story you hear among foreigners in Vietnam.

What makes my story a little different though is the strong familial bond that I have with Hanoi. My grandfather was born in Hanoi from a French family established in colonial Vietnam since at least 1880; he grew up here as well as his sister. In 1950 he was sent to Vietnam as a surgeon to run a field hospital north of Hue. He left Vietnam before the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

About his childhood, I have very few details as he rarely talked about it. After he passed away, my family discovered, forgotten on a shelf for decades, old photo albums. These came from my grandfather’s own grandfather.

As a photographer, I naturally became very interested in these. There were a lot of photos of the railway construction he worked on. But it was the landscape photos that I liked the most. These old black and white landscape where the only images I had purposely looked at before coming to Vietnam. I did not want to look at modern images to not spoil the surprise.

I wanted a cultural shock to shake my preconceived ideas. And what a shock it was, that did not stop me from falling deeply in love with the country. My first camera was a Minolta SLR my parents had given me when I was 16 years old, I think. My dad is an amateur watercolour artist who can draw well. I always wanted to do the same but could not draw as well as him and very early on I got self-conscious about it and stopped pursuing it.

I liked the idea of photography though; taking photos was a lot more pleasant. I could easily capture the moments when I would feel something strongly about seeing the world. I played around for a bit but I had no idea what it was really all about. I really started learning the craft later in the USA during a year abroad program. I had teachers who were very supportive of my work and without whom I would not be here today. They gave me the confidence to go study first in a Fine Art school and later on in a photography school.

Vietnam in Cyanotypes is a collection of some of my favourite photos of Vietnam and its people. They come from almost a decade of exploring Vietnam on assignment, as a traveller and as a resident of this beautiful country. I chose to use a 19th-century cyanotype printing technique.

At first, I used cyanotype mainly as an experiment but quickly it re-established an analogue and handcrafting aspect in my photography process that I had back in school and that I had put aside when I took digital photography. The cyanotype process was one of the first non-silver technologies used to create photographic images that originated in 1842 after Sir John Herschel discovered the procedure.

The typical procedure is to create the sensitizer with a mix of equal part green ferric ammonium solution and potassium ferricyanide solution. Despite the chemical sounding names, these products are not dangerous. Once the sensitizer is ready you can apply the solution onto paper, or fabric (or any porous surface really). Let it dry completely in the dark. The cyanotype process is a negative photo process, black will become white and white/transparency will be blue. You can choose an object (like a Rayogram), a flower, a drawing on transparent paper or a photo negative (anything you want really).

I use two large pieces of glass to make sure the paper stays flat. Finally, you put the sensitized paper under sunlight or UV light and let it be exposed until the yellow/green colour turns into grey/bronze.

Exposure time varies depending on the light source. Once exposed, rinse the paper under running water until clear, now your cyanotype is blue. Let it dry. Sir John Herschel did not intend to use cyanotype for photography, but as a copying technique. The cyanotype processes were widely used to create copies of technical and architectural plans and were called blueprints.

These photos, in their monochrome format, are, in a way, my blueprints of Vietnam and its people. The print simplicity and yet depth give a dreamy aspect to the photos. They add a layer of poetry, one that extends beyond the content within the frame. It abstracts the photos from their mundane context and gathers them under a poetic evocation of my memories.

 

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