Debra Achen: Folding and Mending
Years of severe drought and devastating wildfires followed by record floods and damaging wind – these are extreme weather events that photographer Debra Achen has witnessed first-hand from her home on California’s scenic Central Coast. As an artist who is passionate about capturing the beauty of nature, Achen finds it hard not to internalize what is happening around her. She admits to a growing sense of climate anxiety that is evident in her latest body of work, Folding & Mending. Through manually folding, tearing and scorching her prints, she conveys the world “folding in on itself” from the impacts of climate change. The stitching in her pieces is a metaphor for the repairing and rebuilding we must do to make our world whole again.
Achen’s early influences also photographed the cliffs, beaches, and forests in her part of the country. In the sharp pristine landscapes of Ansel Adams and the abstract, mystical qualities of nature in the work of Wynn Bullock, Edward Weston, and Minor White, she found inspiration. After following in their footsteps, she is now taking the West Coast photographic movement down her own path.
It has been a process of evolution. Achen watched trees around her dying off, lakes, rivers, and streams drying up, and sea levels rising. She began to feel nostalgic about her environment, even while viewing it through her camera lens. “Will the beauty and inspiration of our natural world exist for future generations or will it gradually become a faded memory of the past,” she wonders. These feelings led to her Mindful Reminiscence series, where she applied vintage treatments to her images that suggested faded Polaroids and early autochromes.
Then came the wildfires. Entire communities, forests, and habitats were destroyed. Achen photographed the burn scars, evidence that the climate crisis is real and that it’s escalating.
She needed to do something more to express this escalation in her work. She started experimenting, using prototypes to develop folding techniques, tearing and scorching the paper. And so began a new body of work.
The folds within Folding and Mending are reminiscent of the divisions we see in sedimentary strata; the dimensions created from the bends distort the imagery, abruptly removing details from sight. The three-dimensionality of the fold is striking as we see its shadows and weight on the page. There is a fundamental tension in the creasing, where the photograph feels like a possible landslide and abruptly shifts what we can see of the formation.
As the work progressed, Achen began collaging multiple prints together in layers. The controlled devastation was cathartic for Achen, but she also wanted a hopeful element. That’s where the stitching came in.
Images of healthy green forests are torn and scorched, revealing burn scars in the layers beneath. Stitches hold the pieces together.
In Drying Out, Sierra glaciers melting into lakes and streams are collaged over a dry creek bed. This dwindling water source flows into the California Aqueduct where it is carried to our farmlands and on to supply urban Los Angeles.
Perhaps there is a silver lining to this winter’s historic floods… some relief from the drought. Even so, Achen hopes her work is a call to action. “While large complex solutions are needed to resolve our climate crisis, small everyday actions can make a big difference,” she says, “like planting trees.”
Achen’s Folding and Mending portfolio was awarded the 2022 Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50 and is part of the corresponding Imminent Existence exhibition on view through June 4th at Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle.
Her piece Is More Than recently won Best of Show in the Members’ Exhibition at the Center for
Photographic Art in Carmel, CA. Juried by Hamidah Glasgow and curated by Ann Jastrab, the
exhibit runs through May 14 th .
Follow Debra Achen on Instagram: @debbieachen
Born and raised near Pittsburgh, PA, fine art photographer Debra Achen developed a passion for art and a connection to nature as a young child. She majored in Art Education at Edinboro State University before completing her BA in Visual Arts and Communications at the University of California, San Diego. She studied a variety of studio arts, including drawing, painting, and printmaking in addition to her training in traditional film and darkroom photography. Achen continues to attend workshops and lectures to engage with new technical and creative innovations in photography as an art form. She lives on the scenic central coast of California where she finds inspiration for her nature-based work.
Achen’s photographs have been featured in group exhibitions throughout the US and Europe and in curated exhibitions at the Weston Gallery, the Center for Photographic Art, and Carmel Visual Arts Gallery. Her “Folding and Mending” series was selected for the 2022 Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50 and her award-winning self-published book, “Frequency Shift: The Stonehenge Continuum” was featured in the 12th Annual Photobook Show at the Griffin Museum of Photography. Her work can be found in a number of private and corporate collections.
Her piece Is More Than recently won Best of Show in the Members’ Exhibition at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, CA. Juried by Hamidah Glasgow and curated by Ann Jastrab, the exhibit runs through May 14th.
Folding and Mending
As a fine art photographer, my goal is to present the wonders of the world around us as a sanctuary to be contemplated, honored, and preserved. I am intrigued by the fundamental structures of nature and the way the elements – Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Gravity, Light, Space, and Time – imprint our world with their magic.
My introduction to fine art photography was through the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Minor White. I immediately resonated with their portrayal of nature and landscape. However, I was first influenced artistically by painters. I admired the ability of impressionists to render the feeling and experience of a scene, rather than simply an accurate depiction of it. The abstract expressionists have also been a creative influence, with their move away from realism in art.
With the devastating impacts of climate change, I have come to feel nostalgic about the natural world, even as I am photographing it. Images from my “Mindful Reminiscence” series take on a vintage appearance with a dreamy, timeless quality that also carries hope for nature’s resilience. The hand-folded, scorched, and stitched prints in the “Folding and Mending” portfolio are a way of expressing “the world folding in on itself” and our need to rebuild and repair the damage we have done.
The exploration of nature on all levels is at the heart of my photography. I can’t think of better words to describe it than these by John Muir, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”
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