In addition to an ongoing solo exhibition at the Society for Photographic Education, Texas-based photographer Keliy Anderson-Staley is one of 19 artists selected for LAND Studios' InterUrban collaboration with the RTA and the City of Cleveland. After spending a week photographing more than 150 Clevelanders with a process dating back to the 19th century, Anderson-Staley selected 50 to be enlarged and installed inside the RTA Red Line tunnel at the airport. Just in time for the influx of RNC delegates, guests, activists and press, the intense portraits will greet visitors heading into town.
Although Anderson-Staley's exhibition at the Society for Photographic Education gallery, entitled [Hyphen] Americans, was planned before Fred Bidwell selected her to participate in the InterUrban project, the show unexpectedly acts as a preview of the upcoming public installation. It showcases more than 130 wet plate collodion tintype portraits captured by Anderson-Staley throughout the U.S. for more than a decade, many of which have never been exhibited before. Rather than prints, the show features the original plates from the 19th century process.
[Hyphen] Americans features an eclectic variety of subjects of virtually every age and ethnicity. The exhibition is carefully curated into sections, with each wall encouraging the viewer to create a narrative by comparing and contrasting the portraits. Each image invites the viewer to imagine a personality and personal history, as well as a universal narrative throughout. The subject's attributes, clothing and accessories act as context clues for this creative analysis.
"Our identities are linked to the visual history of social difference, a history in which photography has not always played an innocent role," Staley says. "Against this history, each individual in this series — identified only by a first name — defiantly asserts his or her selfhood, resisting any imposed or external categorizing system we might bring to these images. Echoes and patterns of similarity and difference can be found across the installation, but each portrait reminds us of the persistent uniqueness of faces and our common humanity."
Anderson-Staley's goals for the project are to serve as a reminder of both our individual and shared experiences, as well as our own place in history and the role of photographic technology in shaping our identity.
"Composed of thousands of portraits, [Hyphen] Americans is a diverse collection of American faces," Staley says. "The title of the project alludes to the hyphenated character of American identities (Irish-American, African-American, etc.) without labeling anyone's actual identity. These portraits are all wet-plate collodion tintypes, made with chemistry mixed according to 19th-century recipes, period brass lenses and wooden view cameras. This 19th-century process was the first process widely used to make photographic portraits. It was unfortunately also used for 'scientific' ethnographic studies of the human face, many of which were based in racist assumptions about physiognomy. The project draws attention to the fact that all portraits exist within a history of images, and that our perception of ourselves and our ancestors has always been mediated by photographic technology."
Anderson-Staley is known nationally for her tintype portraits. She currently lives and works in Houston as an assistant professor at the University of Houston. Her work has been featured in major exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., the Houston Center for Photography and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. Waltz Books recently published her book, On a Wet Bough.
InterUrban is a public and private collaborative partnership between the City of Cleveland, LAND Studios, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA), Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, the Cleveland Foundation and Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The project includes large-scale murals and photography by 19 international and local artists. LAND Studio received nearly 300 submissions for the project. The artists were chosen by local collector, philanthropist and co-founder of Transformer Station Fred Bidwell and Hawaiian artist Jasper Wong.
The artists are working with the sponsors to develop concepts related to themes inspired by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards that "celebrate the rich diversity of cultures and the artists, writers and people that open and challenge our minds." InterUrban is funded through a $150,000 grant from the Cleveland Foundation, as well as more than $350,000 from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency.
Anderson-Staley's portraits are a perfect fit for the project and location. As riders speed past each portrait, the subjects' intense gazes will capture their attention immediately. This universal intensity is due to the process' long exposure time (up to 15 seconds based on lighting). The portraits are printed directly onto metal, and require long exposures and an abundance of light. The process dates back to the Civil War, and was used to photograph Abraham Lincoln.
Anderson-Staley captured more than 150 portraits of locals over a recent week in Cleveland, spending two days at Transformer Station and two days at the Cleveland Institute of Art, as well as giving a gallery talk at the Society for Photographic Education.
[Hyphen] Americans remains on view through July 29. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 10 to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Anderson-Staley's InterUrban installation will debut this month and remain on view indefinitely.
[Hyphen] AmericansSociety for Photographic Education, 2530 Superior Ave. #403, 216-622-2733 spenational.org