Looking through a new lens

Meet the artist: Leah Stahl

By Eva Buttacavoli

Photo: Leah Stahl, “Bootstrap Paradox” 2014, Photogram/Pharmaceutical Chemigram

What the hell am I without my camera?

I’ve been following Leah Stahl’s work for a few years, and on the occasion of her solo show, Hemispheres: A Temporary Record of How the Light Got In at Ann Miller Gallery at Wittenberg University in Springfield (Aug. 25-Sept. 19, 2014), I learned of her recently-discovered brain condition that changed her vision and left her unable to hold her camera.

Long interested in alternative photographic processes, but suddenly thrust into the predicament of going camera-less, she reinvented her practice. Her curiosity and fears about the pharmaceutical treatments being used in her body became an inspiration when she combined the actual chemicals with film and exposed it to light. Using various photographic techniques, mainly camera-less, including Mordençage (a rare process of manipulating a silver gelatin print through acid bleaching, rubbing and lifts), lumen printing, photogram, luminogram, pinhole photography and chemigram, she created a new photographic object that evokes celestial bodies, earthly rhizomes, even cerebral hemispheres.

She explains in her artist’s statement: “…the connections between celestial and natural occurrences, which populate my new vision, worked their way into my images. The unexpected result of the process of creating these images not only preserves the personal magic of the photographic medium, but mimics my passage through the unknown and the inevitably ephemeral nature of each of our lives.”

A longtime member of Dayton’s accomplished alternative photo scene (which includes colleagues and artists also worth following: Tracey Longley-Cook, Ben Montague and Francis Schanberger, among others), Stahl was raised in Dayton. After completing her B.A. at Columbia College, Chicago, she worked in the design industry and as a freelance photographer. After her two children were born, she commuted to the University of Cincinnati, DAAP and completed her M.F.A. in 2012.

She has exhibited and published nationally. She has taught at Antioch College, Sinclair Community College and the University of Cincinnati and is currently co-chair of the photography department at Stivers School for the Arts and adjunct professor at Wittenberg University.

Since her studio practice takes place almost entirely in the darkroom, we spent an afternoon on DVAC’s red couch talking about the science of perception, the lull of the darkroom and the gross stuff kids leave behind.

Let’s start with the big WTF here. The chemicals that were going into your body were making these images?

Everything changed three months ago and it forced me to look at everything new. So, yes, I literally took the chemicals they were putting into me and dropped them onto the paper. – Leah Stahl

Pretty rebellious. Were you always interested in alternative processes?

In undergrad, I was interested in street photography, figure studies – my dad was a journalist – then I discovered pinhole photography and realized science and perception were connected. My MFA thesis show, Connected, was a photographically based mixed media installation that illustrated the phenomena of saccade – that brief moment of seeing that we all share with one another prior to cognition, before we color it without our own individual experiences and memories. – LS

What else influences your work?

My family. Being a mom. I have an ongoing series, Artifacts, in which I confront parenthood in a humorous, yet realistic way by photographically documenting objects found in my minivan. – LS

Favorite material to work with?

Silver. – LS

Favorite contemporary artist?

I can’t answer that. Artists I’ve been looking at lately: David Maisel, Ben Alper, Olve Sande, Ulrich Vogl, Gaia Squarci. – LS

What do you collect?

Lately, bones. Because of my daughter, who is in this bone-collecting stage. I like looking at the inside of bones, the holes, I think it’s fascinating what happens to organic things that are eroded. – LS

If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would it be?

It is so hard to pick one. I’d like to imagine I have a revolving wall in my house, where favorite works could be on rotation, during certain phases/moods of my own life.

Right now, it’s Adam Fuss’s “Birds in Flight,” from his My Ghosts series. – LS

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Eva Buttacavoli

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