Ashgate Asks Claire Newman-Williams

Claire Newman-Williams was born and raised in the UK and moved to America in 1989 where she worked primarily as a portrait photographer. Her work appeared in national and international publications including Time Magazine, The New York Times and The Advocate. Returning to the UK in 2005 she began working with alternative processes and old cameras, blending original photographs with found text and objects to produce intensely personal multi-media pieces that challenge the viewer to examine the role that identity plays in our lives, Claire was kind enough to answer our questions about her and her work. 

How did you become a mixed media Artist?

After 20 years of working as a commercial and editorial photographer I became disenchanted by the hours I spent sitting in front of a computer tweaking digital files and making people look pretty. I wanted my work to reflect more of my life. It has been said that creativity can simply be the process of learning about ourselves and for me, the change that led me to being an artist was when I stopped looking for things to photograph that could be “fine art” images and started looking instead for emotions and memories, feelings and thoughts that I wanted to express. In the beginning I starting by combining my own photographs with text and the inscriptions that other generations have left behind in old books to build a story using layers of recalled experience and nostalgia. These images collected in the project named “Strata” were printed on a textured Japanese paper and then mounted on antique book covers. This process of layering evolved into the mixed media collage work I am currently enjoying.

If not mixed media Art, what would you be doing instead?

I’d probably be focusing more on alternative photography processes like platinum/palladium printing. I use some of these processes now as elements of my mixed media work, but I’d like to work on a portrait series in much larger dimensions.
What steps go into creating a finished piece? With my mixed media work people often assume that the images I use are old found images, but the majority of them are images I create. So, rather than just assembling pre-made images, the first step for me is creating the image or images that are the centre of the piece I’m working on. I work with a process called wet plate or collodion photography which is how photographs were made in the 1860’s and I also shoot images using old film cameras. Then, combining these images (often portraits) with found objects, I create collages layered and arranged in antique wooden boxes. I source the boxes themselves from auctions and house clearances and the contents of the box are the ephemera of everyday life, the junk that others throw away: old book covers, flakes of old textured paint, strips of leather, old nails, snippets of newspaper from years past.

What artist/makers are you using/enjoying at the moment?

There are so many inspirational artists doing such amazing work, but special mentions would have to go to Robin Cracknell, an American artist living and working in London – his photography is sublime, evocative and poetic; Sally Mann, Masao Yamamoto to name a few.
What has been your favourite piece/collection to work on? I really love the story boxes I’m working on now. I create collages layered and arranged in antique wooden boxes. These Story Boxes are intended to be like inner landscapes, addressing the recurrent themes of the smothering of identity and our fear of being seen – truly seen by those around us.

What is the reason for handmade mixed media work as you see it?

Coming from a photography background I’d come to feel that with the rise of digital imaging a lot of the work I was doing ended up as digital information that was being pushed around from one computer to another. I realised some years ago that I wanted to start producing objects, tangible pieces that really existed as a physical thing.
What tool can you not live without? Well for me as photography is such a crucial part of my process, it would have to be a camera. I’m not too fussy about what camera that is though. I don’t use any one camera or process to produce my images. I have a cupboard full of old film cameras; a Brownie Autograph from the early 1900’s, a 1940’s Speed Graphic, old polaroids, plastic Holgas, and 35mm Nikons from the 1970’s. And of course the collodion process.

Who is your work for?

My work is very much for me. I’m fortunate to have plenty of commercial photography work which pays the bills, so I’ve never felt I’ve had to compromise my art work in any way.

Who would you like to make a special piece for?

I’m not sure that I’d do my best work if I had someone else in mind – I think it would be too easy to start second-guessing myself.

What is it you enjoy about this time of year?

I love Autumn. I live in a 14th century thatched cottage with my partner and dogs and there’s not much I enjoy doing more than taking the dogs out on a crisp morning with the smell of wood fires and fallen apples.

What do you have in the pipeline for 2019 and beyond?

I have several exhibitions lined up, so I shall be working towards them and producing some larger pieces which is a bit of a departure for me.


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