Observing an L.A. Photographer
In her series L.A. Bloom, photographer Joyce Campbell gives us a fresh way of viewing neighborhoods in Los Angeles. She made each of the images from soil collected on explorations around the city.
Driven by a desire to "make visible what lives in the environment," Campbell chose 27 locations out of the Thomas Guide to gather her soil. She sprinkled each sample on a plate of agar, the medium in laboratory petri dishes. After the cultures stewed for awhile, she made contact prints of the bacteria that grew. The photograph here was made from material she collected at Venice Beach.
The resulting 16-by-20 inch images look more like delicate underwater sea life than the mundane, everyday microscopic organisms growing under our feet. Campbell prefers this kind of hand-made look to the "too exact…too polished looking" results of digital photography. She belongs to a subculture of photographic artists referred to by author and art critic Lyle Rexer as the "antiquarian avant-garde." They are reviving 19th-century processes like daguerrotype, cyanotype, and tintype.
Campbell likes the quirky "mistakes and accidents" that come with the old processes. Her work brings to mind the 19th century photographic pioneer Anna Atkins, who Campbell counts among her photographic heroes. Atkins, who worked with the camera-less cyanotype process, was the first woman to create a significant body of work in the still-new practice of photography. Like Campbell, she created a series of images of plant species and had a deep interest in botany.
Campbell, who lives half the year in Los Angeles and half in her native New Zealand, is working now on another project based in the L.A. environment. The images in L.A. Botanical are of local plant species she finds on the streets. For this series, Campbell is using the ambrotype process. Made using a view camera, an ambrotype is an underdeveloped positive on a coated glass plate which becomes fully visible only when backed by a dark surface.
Campbell is interested in communicating her ideas about the "biological" and "geopolitical" forces that create the city. "We're surrounded by botany created by ten to twelve generations of colonization," she says. Many of the plant species that catch her eye are functional, either for medicinal or cosmetic purposes. Brugmansia provides scopolamine, used to relieve motion sickness. The series includes a sculptural close-up of aloe, which produces gel used as an anti-inflammatory and skin soother. There is a delicate rendering of the pomegranate, which Campbell calls an "antioxidant superfood."
Inspiration for the series came following Hurricane Katrina during a walk with her young son in the hills near their home in Glassell Park. Campbell spotted a barley plant and thought, "we could survive on barley -- let's see what else is around here that could sustain me." She admires plants that are hardy survivors, the kind that grow through cracks in pavement.
Recently, the Community Redevelopment Agency discovered Campbell through her L.A. Botanical show at the G727 Gallery on Spring Street. The agency purchased six prints for its portable collection and commissioned her to continue the series at the former Crown Coach site on Santa Fe Ave. and Washington Blvd. The vacant 20-acre plot is slated for environmental cleanup and sustainable development. "We hope to incorporate some of Joyce's imagery in or around this new development and the adjacent river area," said CRA spokeswoman Susan Gray.