The Photographic Performance 2017/Paula Riff

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts, conversations, focusing on the many entries we received for our call “The Photographic Performance 2017” that were not chosen for exhibition in the gallery, yet we feel demand an audience.

Paula is an extremely sincere, generous and open individual.  Dwelling behind her quick smile and generosity is shining intellect, curiosity and creativity.  This project of Paula’s is rich.  Her images are constructions — compilations of artistic peregrination, photographic process and narrative.

How did you first get into photography?

My first career had nothing to do with photography.  I had been living in Japan for several years working as an interpreter at a Japanese newspaper and the staff photographer gave me his used Minolta camera before I returned to the states. On my way home I travelled to Nepal and the very first photos I took was during that trip, trekking in the mountains. I become completely obsessed and when I moved to Los Angeles, I enrolled in a few photo classes and set up a mini darkroom in my bathroom.  I also lucked out and was hired soon after as an intern at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the photo department and the head curator at that time was very influential in the beginning of my photographic education. I had access to an amazing photo library which I poured over and I was also fortunate to view the prints in their expansive collection.

Tell us how you got started experimenting with historical processes and why you primarily choose camera-less photography as your method?

I started in the darkroom making my own prints and loved the hands on process of making something by hand.  It was just so magical to be in the darkroom and see what happened.  Then I started hand coloring my prints, again getting really close to the print and feeling as if I were one with it.  I also loved polaroid cameras and bought a camera that used SX-70 film which I manipulated and hand colored and did all kinds of things with. The other real impetus was the wonderful Judy Sherrod, who spearhead and founded the photo based group Shootapoolza.  She always encouraged experimentation and pushed me to try new things.  So when I started experimenting with cyanotypes and coating my own papers, a whole new world opened up to me. My motto is, if you think you can coat it then go ahead and try it!   I will also say that making camera-less based art liberated my way of creating.  I no longer feel held back by anything and it is such a tremendous feeling of freedom to make art in this manner.  The piece of paper or whatever substrate I am using is now my camera. I am inspired by the artists and photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, who believed in adventure in their art making and that the possibilities within the photographic realm was limitless. I am interested in the history of photography and how images are made using photographic materials and am inspired and pushed to make art that is modern and hopefully on the cusp of the avant-garde in a way to blend the two. 

Can you please tell us a little bit about your project: “ Concerto in Three Movements”?

This project came about as a continuation of combining my hand marbling of different papers, a method of floating paints and inks on water; transferring that one time pattern or design onto the paper and then making photograms.  This time I decided to use platinum palladium as my coating preference instead of cyanotype, as the country was moving towards a darker political environment. So black was my choice for these darker times.

I was also feeling the tremendous weight of the passage of time. I am constantly  thinking about how much more or how much less of it there is. As a result, this series looks at the fragility and impermanence of the natural world. It is about mortality and how things change. It is also about our relationship to the earth, the tenuousness of beauty, and shift of the natural state of things.

This project is intended as a concerto, a piece for an orchestra with three contrasting movements, and was conceived as a musical meditation for the passage of time through one’s life. It is this connection to the earth and the sun that allows us to somehow survive the varied stages and changes in our existence.  I use leaves and bones, rocks and dust, as metaphors for these connecting but separate parts.

I am continually interested in testing the parameters of photography by using the natural world as my camera, instead of being bound by a single lens. These are camera-less images made by placing objects on hand marbled papers, which are then coated with light sensitive materials and exposed in the light to make photograms. Like the earth, these images are bound to the inherent ways of nature and like photography, dependent on light, the passage of time, and the inexplicable existence of human trial and error.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about myself and my art!

To see more images please visit my website: