Women In Photography
Abstracting From Nature

If you ask Grace Hopkins-Lisle where the greatest influence on her photography lies, she will probably answer, "right here"--here being a small, odd-shaped, cement house set pretty among trees at the end of a macadam road on Cape Cod.

Curiosity propelled me to leave my sanctum in Provincetown and travel the 18 miles north to Wellfleet through a semi-deserted, woodsy area. Narrow steps crossed a tiny drawbridge, creating the illusion of a moat surrounding the small building. I saw immediately where Hopkins-Lisle's imagery was born. Sparse and offbeat in design, the house was undeniably the haven of an artist. Her father is the well-known New York painter Bud Hopkins and Hopkins-Lisle has summered in this house since she was 3 years old.

She explained that the house had been designed to view nature through it. The irregular shapes of the architecture inside and out, along with the tiny, odd-sized windows, cut the view into segments that framed a tree or a patch of sky abstracted from the configuration of the natural landscape. "The architecture is built like a tree house," Lisle says, "and I see things this way, as if I am looking at the objects I photograph through the branches of that tree house. There are no vistas to see here--I have never been interested in photographing vistas or grand views--endless landscapes bore me."

Hopkins-Lisle, now 25, began to photograph when she was 11, while she accompanied her parents on a cruise. "I made little 5x7 pictures to give to friends," she says, "but they weren't your `normal' vacation shots. My first picture was of balloons sailing skyward as the boat left the pier, but then there were parts of people's heads and pieces of hair and it all became very surreal."

Interest in photography played a major role during her high school years, when she asked a friend to teach her how to print black and white film. She would wander around New York on the weekends taking pictures and processing them, spending a good part of her time in the darkroom. "I was not happy in school in those days and it was my way of escaping into a different realm and doing something that I really enjoyed," she confided.

At the Quaker high school that she attended in New York, Hopkins-Lisle sat in the same place everyday for three years, gazing out of the same windows. "They were small windows," she recalls, "and they cut the trees behind them and then the trees cut the houses that were behind them across the street. Everything flattened out and merged onto one plane. The view offered me additional insight as I watched the different kinds of light patterning and colors that changed over the seasons. Being a Quaker, I was exceptionally interested in their ideas about light. It is a very open religion with no set ideas as to how to think and react. A lot of it is sitting and thinking about whatever you need to think about and having the light of God answer your questions. Most Quaker meeting houses are designed around the windows and let in as much light as possible."

Recalling that when she attended the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, one of the toughest questions she was called upon to answer was if she could edit out parts of her photographs, what would she take out. "Today," she says, "I would answer that they would be things that ground people, like street signs, labels of any kind, or words. Occasionally, when the inevitable happens and specific words show up, I flip the negative so the words become abstract rather than readable."

Hopkins-Lisle worked in black and white for a long time and wonders if the Quaker heritage may have been an influence. "Quakers used very little color," she says, "and dressed primarily in beige and gray. I find that I often like things that are mainly black and white and very stark. When I print in black and white, I tend to use a narrow range of gray and that abstracts my work even more since the gray scale tends to let in too much information."

The work never results in pure abstraction and Hopkins-Lisle's main interest remains in how to condense her subject onto one surface. One of her mentors was Aaron Siskind who would take two-dimensional objects and photograph them in an abstract way. Hopkins-Lisle's interest, however, lies more in taking three-dimensional space and flattening it. "That is one of the great things photography can do," she says. "One thing that helped me was a discovery I made while I was living in California. It was that if I bought portrait film (she uses Kodak Vericolor) to shoot landscape, it turned my shadows very black. You could not read any information within the shadows as you might if the color was a more natural purple. This kind of abstraction turned objects and architecture into simple shapes that really interested me. For instance, in one photograph an awning in shadow became a wonderful, simple, black triangle and while it still remained recognizable as a portion of a building, you wouldn't read it as an awning, but rather as an abstract shape."

"Grandmother's Chair," a 14x14 silver gelatin print taken in 1996, was one of the few photographs she has shot indoors. Almost pure abstraction, the old rocking chair, backlit from a window, became a mysterious image showing a series of dark shapes abstracted from the rungs and the base of the chair and forming dark patterns along the flat surface of the floor.

Questioning Hopkins-Lisle about the technical aspects of her work drew a disinterested blank. Her husband Andrew's father is a camera collector and he gave her a Rolleiflex with a 75mm Zeiss lens that dates back to 1970. "There is nothing automatic about this camera," she says, "but I have gotten to the point where I don't even need a light meter anymore. I'm not a sunrise and sunset kind of photographer and I shoot pretty much all day--only nice days, though," she adds, "because I look for the shadows. I like the perspective with the Rolleiflex. No one knows what you're taking pictures of because you look down into the camera. Even when you point it up it's never clear what you're focusing on. Since there are two lenses--you are looking through one and photographing through the other--as a photographer, you don't actually line up with what you're seeing. But, that's the twin reflex--it's always a little bit off." Occasionally she will crop in the darkroom, but not much. Her processing is typical C print, though she says she has tried Cibachrome and found it had a "plastic" look that she did not like. "Color is important to me," she says. "I am primarily a color photographer and though it plays a role in my work, I feel that my images are more about design."

In one image taken during a flower festival at Rockefeller Center in New York, Hopkins-Lisle shot a series of pink flags flying in front of the building. "I love the way those flags looked in the wind," she says, "and in this image they seemed stronger than the architecture itself. The power of the wind, the strength of those flags, and the way the shadows fell on them to create designs, along with the shapes of the flagpoles, makes a statement. I don't want to be content to focus on what everybody else focuses on. I want people to be moved by the feeling, the color, and the abstraction in my work. I could easily have taken a picture of Rockefeller Center and it would look like just that, but there's plenty of stuff like that around."

A striking, recent photograph, titled "Santa Fe," was taken from an arched doorway at the Santa Fe Museum. The stark archway was in shadow and an angular patch depicts an intense, blue sky. From across the street adobe color buildings appear out of focus and form an odd vertical shape against the black archway. "I liked the ambiguous spatial relationships in that photograph," says Hopkins-Lisle, "the sky appearing so tiny against the building. It's hard to ground yourself as to where and what these things are."

Hopkins-Lisle tells of a humorous incident that happened in Rockport, Massachusetts that exemplifies the reactions toward much of her work. One day, while photographing a site at the back of a store that had a staircase decorated with the kind of fishing gear indigenous to the area, she found herself with an audience of tourists. When they saw her looking down into her camera, instead of focusing at the usual eye level, and since they couldn't see what it was she was looking at that seemed worth photographing, one voice announced, "it's art--that's why you can't recognize it."