Leah Schretenthaler: Aloha from Hawaii
This week, we will be exploring projects that use the found photograph. Today, we’ll be looking at Leah Schretenthaler’s series Aloha from Hawaii.
I was lucky enough to first come to Leah Schretenthaler’s work while we were in the Photography program at the University of South Dakota. We always felt welcome to hang out and share a cup of tea and some cookies that our professor, John Banasiak, always kept in stock. Leah could always tell you a story about the warmth of Hawaii in the cold winters of South Dakota. We both went to graduate school around the same time and it’s been amazing to see her and her work grow and have someone to grow with.
Recently she’s been focusing on the ideas of her upbringing and the current state of Hawaii. I love seeing how she discusses the landscape in photography and physically alters her photographs. Her new series, Aloha from Hawaii, is an exploration of tourism, history, and the idyll nature of Hawaii. I’ve always loved when artists use postcards as art themselves and this is a new twist using laser etching. Leah is able to tie in her personal identity and the political, social, and economic history of the place to the nature of the physical photograph.
Leah Schretenthaler was born and raised in Hawaii, and Hawaii remains a point of reference in her research and studio practice. She was named one of LensCulture’s Emerging Talents of 2018 and placed second in the Sony World Photography Awards the same year. In 2019, she received the Rhonda Wilson Award through FRESH2019 at the Klompching Gallery as well as a Film Photo Award. The following year she was awarded the College Art Association Professional Development Fellowship for Visual Arts. Her work has been displayed nationally and internationally. Schretenthaler holds a BFA, an MA in art education, an MFA, and currently teaches elementary art education in Wisconsin.
Follow Leah on Instagram at: @leah_schretenthaler
Aloha from Hawaii
The images of Hawaii that grace postcards are magical landscapes that promise unique experiences and feelings when you visit these famous sites. On one side of the postcards there is an image of paradise and on the other side text that describes family members and friends’ encounters of the Hawaiian paradise.
The series “Aloha From Hawaii” consists of postcards from the 20th CE containing a variety of iconic Hawaii landscapes and recounts a visitor’s unique experience of their Hawaii vacation. While the writing may recount fleeting memories, the writing creates indelible marks echoing footprints of the tourists on the landscape.
Postcard images of Hawaii sell the land of paradise and adventure. But humans’ love for this promised land has literally loved the landscape to death through exploitation. The postcards innocently written with love have slowly destroyed the fragile paradise of Hawaii.
Epiphany Knedler: How did your project come about?
Leah Schretenthaler: This project started during COVID. During the whirlwind of trying to finish my thesis and figure out my next step after graduation, I was also immediately faced with the realization of ‘what if I can never go back home?’ Since physical travel to take photographs there was out of the question, I needed to shift my practice. Facing this reality, I did what many artists did during the lockdown, scroll through Instagram. While I was looking for inspiration I saw that Adriene Hughes was embroidering vintage postcards. I love how she combined her techniques from previous bodies of work into the found images. At that time, I tried some different processes with postcards but the ideas fell short. I put the idea to the side while working on other bodies of work, until I came up with another approach.
This past summer I finally took some time to reflect on my thesis and the extensive research I did during lockdown. The propaganda postcards of Hawaii postcards embellished an idyllic sunset, a secluded beach, or an exotic and breathtaking view. But it was the messages on the postcards that helped advertise my home state. I began collecting vintage Hawaii postcards. At first I was interested in the photograph, but I started reading the handwritten messages sent to families and friends from all over. The handwritten messages included:
“This is truly Paradise.”
“We are in the land of happy laughing people”
“Aloha from the beautiful islands of Hawaii. I’m having a grand time swimming, surfing, getting tan and just going real Hawaiian and natural. “
“They say here “you have not lived till you have seen Hawaii” and we believe it, it’s so wonderful.”
These playful and seemingly innocent words cut deep. For the first time since my mom sold her house I was facing the reality that the next time I return to my home state, I will just be another visitor. I decided not to dwell on this new revelation and started to research specific Hawaii propaganda.
I acquired “Hawaii Recall: Selling Romance to America-Nostalgic images from the Hawaiian Islands, 1910-1950,” by DeSoto Brown. This text dives into the imagery, design, and the messages on the postcards and has really deepened the context of this project.
EK: Do you manipulate the images in any way? Why or why not?
LS: Manipulating images has been something I have always played around with since undergrad, and when I was in graduate school I became more serious with the process. Aloha from Hawaii is an extension of my process I used with Invasive Species of the Built Environment. The postcard images in Aloha from Hawaii focuses on the writing on the backs of the postcards. Laser etching this writing ultimately removes part of the postcard image.
EK: Can you tell us about your artistic practice?
LS: I refer to my artistic process as a chaotic blend of collected materials, tools, and traditional and new technologies. Whenever I go home I collect as much information as possible. I document the land through images, taking molds of the land, and sound recordings. I collect as much as possible in order to connect with Hawaii while I am living on the mainland. My collection becomes an artistic toy box to play with different ideas. My practice would not be as widespread in materials and processes if it was not for my partner and husband’s knowledge and skills. He is very much a part of my practice. We brainstorm and critique the process, intention of the work, and framing. Recently, we have been collaborating on the framing of the postcards in Aloha from Hawaii.
EK: What’s your relationship to the found photo? How do you come up with stories or meanings with these images?
LS: I have recently have begun to collect and use found photographs for my work. When I started work on the found photograph, I was very scattered. Between COVID shut downs and my mom selling my childhood home in Hawaii, I knew found photographs would need to fill the void between the intermittent trips to the islands. While working on the postcards I was experimenting with archived images from the Bishop Museum, and working on a collaborative sculpture project with my partner and husband, Tom Dahlseid. Every piece I made, good or bad, I would pin or display and let the objects rest. I always walk away a few times from projects. But I strategically place them throughout my home, studio, and office. Subconsciously they are always there in my mind. If I am ever stuck on a process and the intent of the project this strategy helps me. I will also start writing about the work, asking myself questions, and then going back to re-work the artwork. Aloha from Hawaii’s stories are a unique combination of the imagery and the writing on the back of the postcards. These postcards were chosen for a specific reason and while the messages on the back might not directly relate to the image, the postcards tease a perfect Hawaii.
The postcards purpose is to entice new visitors, make friends and family jealous of your adventure, similar to today’s social media.
Epiphany Knedler is an imagemaker sharing stories of American life. Using Midwestern aesthetics, she creates images and installations exploring histories. She is based in Aberdeen, South Dakota serving as an Adjunct Instructor and freelancer. Her work has been exhibited with Lenscratch, Dek Unu Arts, F-Stop Magazine, and Photolucida Critical Mass. She is the co-founder of MidwestNice Art.
Follow Epiphany Knedler on Instagram: @epiphanysk
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
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