December 6th, 2022
In our last conversation with mixed media artist Maura Allen, we discussed the intersections of her Western work with that of acrylic artist Ron Russon in honor of their recent dual exhibition “Adventure West.” Maura Allen discussed how her photography serves as the foundation for her mixed media work.
Being offered insight into Maura Allen’s photographic process, we were immediately struck by the artistry of her photography. These are not mere reference photos, but rather works of art in and of themselves.
To better honor the art of her photography and the ways in which her photography has laid the foundation for the mixed media work of hers that we know and love, we spoke with the artist about her photographic process and inspiration.
Despite the vast array of media that Allen utilizes in her work, from screen-printing to glass work, from printmaking to photography, Allen does not prefer to categorize herself within any particular media or practice. Instead, she sees herself simply as an artist… or perhaps, more accurately, a storyteller. No matter the language she utilizes, be it her mixed media work, or the lens of her camera, we’re confident that you, like us, will be taken in by the beautiful, compelling storytelling of Maura Allen.
Gallery MAR: How did you get started in photography?
Maura Allen: I bought my first camera when I was in high school with babysitting money. I would photograph the familiar things close to home and began to discover the art and science of making images. High school was also my introduction to dark room printing. I continued film photography and printing in college and began to learn more about the history of photography and different ways of using the camera as an artist tool.
Gallery MAR: What in particular about photography compels you and inspires you?
Maura Allen: Photography is the way I see and connect with the world. It’s the starting point of my artwork. For the past 20 years, I have found ways to push traditional photographic image-making into other art genres, including mixed media, kiln glass, and printmaking.
Gallery MAR: What message/feeling do you find that you can convey with your photography that you cannot quite convey with your mixed media work alone and vice versa?
Maura Allen: My mixed media work features high contrast imagery, often driven by bold silhouettes. With photography, there’s more tonality — a spectrum of gray tones in a black and white image. That’s the major difference and why I love each.
Once I’ve decided to feature one of my images in a mixed media piece, I remove the mid-tones and reduce it to a silhouette or “hard splits” of color for a multi-color painting. This process is not automatic. It’s not a push of the button. It starts with a strong image. I then add nuance to the image by bringing some gray tones into the silhouette and by taking others out. My goal is to create a striking, iconic image with just the right amount of detail.
Gallery MAR: I’ve found that many artists who shoot are hesitant to consider themselves photographers, but your photography feels more artfully composed than mere reference photos. Do you consider yourself a photographer or do you see your photography as simply a part of the process of your mixed media work? A combination of the two? Or something else altogether?
Maura Allen: I consider myself an artist. Photography, mixed media, glass, and print-making are the different tools that I work with to create and tell stories. Photography provides my starting point, or my “raw ingredients,” similar to how a robust garden serves a chef in her work to create a stellar meal.
Not every great photographic image provides the perfect “raw materials” for my mixed media work. Over the past 20 years, I’ve discovered just the moment — the gesture, the sun location, the background — that works for me. On location, I used to only make images to fuel my mixed media work. Once I reached over 100,000 images of the American West, I pivoted and began to focus on what I considered rich photographic images that could stand alone as an image.
Gallery MAR: There’s a real energy to your work – even in your still life and landscape photography. Could you talk a little about the role that movement and energy plays in your work?
Maura Allen: On location, I like to create a mix of images, similar to how a videographer would capture the moment — shoot wide, shoot tight, go high, go low, etc.. The “hero” shot is where I am low and use the sky as my background. I also do what would make many traditional photographers cringe: I crop tight so that the moment seems instantaneous. The cowboy or horse aren’t framed full and center and static. When I started incorporating this way of thinking into my image making, the energy increased.
Since moving to the high desert/southwest (Prescott, AZ) from the mountain high desert plains (Denver, CO), the landscape shifts have been remarkable. The move also meant going from urban to rural, which no surprise, changed not only the what I see but also the way I see. In my new locale, I spend more time looking up… the clouds, sky and sunsets are extraordinary. The color palette is more golden, more juicy and the light shifts quickly. I also see more patterns in nature—the silhouettes stop me in my tracks. And rodeos (to my joy) are just around the corner or over the hill.
Gallery MAR: Besides your Western rodeo and ranch subject matter, which other subject matters compel you the most and why?
Maura Allen: When I travel, I love street photography. Roaming a city and capturing the character of the place through its people, not just attractions.
Gallery MAR: What kind of camera do you prefer to shoot with? Do you prefer analog photography or digital and why?
Maura Allen: I photograph with a Leica rangefinder (M10monochrome, M11) manual focus. The rangefinder allows you to see the edge of the “scene” so you can see beyond the edges, beyond the frame, and know when the person (or animal) will be moving into your frame. For fast action, I also shoot with a Leica SL2. Recently, I’ve returned to the dark room and have been teaching myself alternative printing techniques introduced in the late 1800s, including platinum and salt prints. Living in Arizona, I can even use the sun as my light source.
Gallery MAR: Could you provide any specific examples of how your photography informs your mixed media work?
Maura Allen: Often when I’m making an image, I think: that will be a painting. Recently, in Montana, I photographed two cowboys with a big grand sky above. The lasso made the image. I named those pieces “Lasso My Love” when I was on the hill, photographing them. Then, back in my studio, I layered in other Western moments and made the lasso front and center. I wanted a summer feeling, so I picked a palette of summer yellow and blue to add to the story.
Gallery MAR: Why is photography important to you?
Maura Allen: Life with a camera is pure joy. It’s how I see and travel the world. Images are my language for telling and sharing stories.
Written and interviewed by Veronica Vale