Betsy DeWitt has an image.
The image, an idea, pulls her slowly through weeks, sometimes months. Eventually, she takes a photograph of a house, and makes a digital negative. There’s no rush to Betsy’s process. By the time we visit, she’s made some tests of white-gum prints featuring the “becoming-dilapidated” dwelling–white-on-white prints. She’s making one now. We watch her reach into a box-like space lined with black trash bags. She reaches in as if to pull out a bird, a rabbit, something alive–a wood case. She unlatches the case, lifts the print.
“Photography, for me, is a back door to chemistry and to printmaking,” says Betsy as she washes the print in water. The orangey rust color, Betsy explains, is the potassium dichromate she’s applied. It will soak out eventually, leaving white pigment in the hardening gum arabic. This is nineteenth-century magic, and Penland’s photography studio is a technical juke joint packed with the stuff of present and past: small dark bottles, baths, brushes, large-format cameras, every kind of camera, a pod of Macs, printers, white spaces for setting up, wires and wires, sweet class portraits on the walls, dags and cyanotypes, strands of tiny rooms, stacks, cupboards, and a shifty, haunted-house hallway into the big dark. Betsy manages it all.
In one of the small back rooms, Betsy shows us more of her work:
“I didn’t know what I was looking for,” says Betsy about making these small, intimate portholes. “I was thinking–I have been thinking–about memory and family. I don’t know all the stories in these photographs. But as I framed them, the images began to talk to each other.”
The images, Betsy explains, were made by looking into a microscope through the viewfinder of a digital camera. “I moved the image until something made me stop,” Betsy says. When a halting feeling arrived, she took a photograph. Here’s her set-up:
“Warmth” is a word that artist Amanda Lee uses to describe Betsy DeWitt’s work. You might not expect how right this word is, seeing the set-up, above. But Betsy’s work glows. She turns on the digital camera to show us her process with the microscope. As she moves a scanned photograph with her hand, dropping us into the family album, another kind of intelligence, a story about an artist’s intelligence, begins. Watch:
—Writing by Elaine Bleakney; photographs and video by Robin Dreyer