Making light work of it
Teresa Kirby Smith has long had a fascination with light. It is the focal point of the many photographs she has shot over the past four decades.
She thinks her love affair probably started around the age of 5, after an operation on a “lazy eye”.
“[In] post-operation therapy I had to line up lantern slides, which were projected on the wall and make sure that they were sharp or went together.
“I was just fascinated. It was a gigantic slide projector and I think the glass slides were four or five inches square and very colourful to a five-year-old.
“I was also interested in the night sky. As a young adolescent I wanted to be an astronomer or an astronaut and so I wrote to Nasa asking about the requirements.
“They wrote me a very nice note back but said they don’t accept women into the programme. I was quite dismayed about that. But I’ve always been attracted to cameras and just how light interacts with film.”
Formal studies in photography followed — at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Visual Studies Workshop, also in Rochester, New York, and at New York University.
“The catalyst for my work [was the] course at Rochester Institute of Technology. I had a professor there who asked us to do a whole week of black-and-white images, shooting at night, primarily. I had so much encouragement and support from him and that’s when I started to really hone down on my work.”
It is the style she is best known for. In 2013 her photograph Analogue Gombey Goes Digital, received top honours in Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art’s Charman Prize.
She has taken a different tack with Colour Abstracts, her collection that is now on display at the Botanical Gardens gallery.
“My photographic work can be divided into two discrete categories: black-and-white film shot exclusively at night and later developed and printed in my studio; and abstract colour images taken during daylight hours using a digital camera,” Mrs Kirby Smith’s artist statement reads.
“It is a selection of these colour images that are presented [at Masterworks]. Living in Bermuda, one can hardly fail to notice the radiant light that floods the island.
“Several years ago, at loose ends, after having finished a black-and-white night series, I thought it might be of interest to take this abundance of local daylight and try to remix it in a way that was, at least to me, visually new, both in terms of shape and combined colour.
“I used materials of all sorts to help me — translucent glass bricks, polished metal, bright plastic, blocks of coloured ice, strips of fabric and glossy paper scraps — and then photographed the refracted light as it passed through or reflected off of these materials.
“The saturated colour, and the unexpected lines and angles and abstract shapes caught by the camera, seem filled with surprise and are often quite startling.”
Mrs Kirby Smith was born in Lima, Peru. She and her five siblings travelled the world with their parents; their father, Arthur Kirby, was a Chilean businessman whose work moved them around South America and then on to Europe.
“I’ve been called many a time a global nomad,” she said. “We travelled a lot, for vacation with the family as well, and it’s all I know.
“[My father] worked for a shipping line for many years and then he worked for The Gillette Company. So he would be contracted to work as CEO in Buenos Aires, London, Germany — in West Berlin before the wall came down.”
It is a pattern that has continued into her adult years. Mrs Kirby Smith lived in San Francisco, in Santa Fe, in New York, Bermuda and London with her husband, Gary Smith.
“We lived here in the late ’80s for five years and then moved to London for 18 years, but we always came back every summer. Finally, when my children went to university, we moved back to Bermuda in 2011.”
Through it all, she has carried her Hasselblad, the classic analogue medium format camera manufactured by the eponymous Swedish company, and her German-made Rolleiflex.
“I was born before computers,” she said. “We didn’t have a television until I was 7 and it was always black and white. [So analogue is] innate in me. I do have various digital cameras. The main one I use is the Canon Mark II 5D and it is a bohemian, a computer within a digital camera.
“We, the older generation, we’ve had to learn by attrition. With a digital camera you have so many choices — too many — Photoshop, all that stuff. It’s fathomless.
“With film, it’s much more simple. You have much more manual control of the camera — the way you want to set it up. And when printing you have full control in the darkroom versus [things like] filters and white balance which is just clutter to me.
“My colour work is really not manipulated. I’ve mainly tried to compose the image in the viewfinder; hopefully, I’ve shot it well. One advantage is that I can reshoot on a digital camera, but [using a film camera] it’s not so easy. You have a limited amount of space on that roll of film.”
Her 26 abstracts now on display at Masterworks form the basis of a book published this year, Color Abstracts.
“It is not available for sale here,” said Mrs Kirby Smith, adding that it took her about two years to complete the book and the body of art.
“I had it printed to hand out at photo fairs and galleries in London and New York to promote my work. It mainly shows the work I’ve done that is up on the walls. I’ve been working off and on them both for 24 months. It’s been all-consuming doing [the art and] the book, something I’ve never done before.
“It’s so satisfying to see the work up and framed. I invested a lot of time in it and it really looks great and that to me is the most satisfying — displaying the art.”
• Colour Abstracts is on display at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art through January 8. For more information on Teresa Kirby Smith, visit teresakirbysmith.com
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