By Anne Marie Ellison Miller
Elizabeth Raymer Griffin doesn’t usually let other people into her studio. It’s her workspace, her secret hideout, a virtual reproduction of her college studio apartment. But I’m lucky, because Liz is my friend, so when I ask if I can profile her, she just says “Yes, ma’am!” and invites me right over to her Braddock Avenue studio “for visuals” even though I know that she’ll only look at the pictures I take of her through her fingers.
Yes, that’s right, my friend the self-portraitist hates being photographed.
Griffin works in historic photographic media, like daguerreotype, cyanotype, and other unusual, labor-intensive processes, which she also teaches as an adjunct professor in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art and at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
Her exploration of historic working methods lends a glowing ethereality to Griffin’s self-portraits, in which the viewer sees her, without really seeing her – a pretty neat trick for a photographer – and calls to mind the gauzily lit Victoria women of Julia Margaret Cameron, for whom (the extremely difficult) albumen printing process was a cutting edge technique.
A recent project found Griffin using a dSLR to shoot through the body and lenses of an antique camera (think the old-timey portraitist who throws the black sheet over his head before the flash). This process allows her to record the artifacts of the vintage piece, like the pencil markings of the original owner, who drew in parameters for a 5×7 image. It also allows Griffin to play with light, bouncing it off multiple lenses. In Untitled, Dust (2013) the light obscures her features, a ball of glare staring out from where her face would be. In Untitled, Swatches (2015), motion during long exposure softens the focus. Light both illuminates and obfuscates.
You might not realize, even looking at her photos together, that the subject in all of them is the same person, but it is – all of those women are Griffin herself, despite how differently she may present in each. This, Griffin says, is what drives the self-portraits she has been making since childhood: her underlying sense of the multiplicity of her own identities. In her older works, this is expressed in the format, many of which are diptychs and triptychs like Untitled (2004), that imagine pitting oneself against the other. Her more recent pieces contemplate an integration of those identities, resulting in richly layered images that are the product of multiple exposures.
Griffin is a snazzy dresser in real life, and is wearing a cropped t-shirt, bell bottoms, and bright blue suede sneakers when I check out her studio. But she rarely photographs herself in her everyday duds, opting instead to spontaneously costume her shoots. She has a small wardrobe of vintage dresses hanging from the rafters by her studio window. When I ask her about them, she says she never knows what she’s going to wear for a piece until she’s setting up. But, she says, she usually prefers to turn garments inside out when she’s staging a photo, and even though it doesn’t wind up being visible in the finished print, she knows it was there, informing the piece, showing the inside on the outside. Griffin’s photos, like her studio, feel intimate, warm, like she’s letting you in on a secret, maybe more than one. Which, of course, she is.