Fabric Photographs and Pop-Up Art Shows

An interview with photographer Hannah Altman

Aug 27, 2017 · 7 min read

In Recital’s latest Google Drive interview, I type with photographer Hannah Altman about her new work — merging photography and textile arts — and Pulp House, the series of pop-up art exhibitions that have sprung up around Pittsburgh this year.

Read the interview below and check out more of Altman’s work here.

a robe from Construct of Viewpoint

David Bernabo: When we last spoke (in preview of the Luminous/Weightless exhibition), you were focused on female energy and conveying that power through these beautiful photographs lit through pinhole cuts. Since then, I saw that you started two new series, Intimate Display and Construct of Viewpoint. Intimate Display seems a little broader in scope while Construct of Viewpoint focuses on the craft and trade of sewing. Are both of these series still in progress? How are you utilizing the concept of the “portrait”?

Hannah Altman: Intimate Display has been an ongoing exploration of photographing femininity and environment. I think I’ve been working on this for six years, but haven’t been thinking about the work as a cohesive body. For a while, I was just calling it “portrait work,” something real vague. I only recently started to notice that I have repeating interests and motifs that I’m drawn to when I’m making a portrait where I’m not the subject (which differs from most of my current work).

This series of images has been, and continues to be, an opportunity for me to document feelings of others, to archive certain environments, to sort of explore how someone modeling in a certain location influences how they display their bodies.

I’d been doing this unintentionally for so long, mostly just photographing my friends and the places we found ourselves in, and I recently looked at it and started to see some connections between images. There’s an always apparent nod to femininity and how that can flux depending on the location of the image. There are some images created in homes where there’s an innate sense of domestication, some images made in abandoned spaces that create a rugged contrast to the human body.

Construct of Viewpoint is the complete opposite of that unplanned vibe. Regarding this work, I’m really interested in the histories of both textile and self portraiture and how both relate to female identity. There’s this large aspect of the history of fiber arts that revolves around women making household objects. This really interests me because the fabric was so heavily influenced by the woman’s hand during the production process, but the identity of the maker receded once the piece was sold, put to use, and out of her hands.

Compare this to self portraiture, in which there is no separation at all between who made the work and what the viewer is looking at. I feel like when a woman takes a self portrait, she’s inserting herself into an art world that has been historically dominated by men. She’s entirely in control of her identity in this portrait. So I’ve been printing photographic self portraits on various domestic oriented textiles (blankets, robes, embroidery hoops) to instigate a conversation between these two histories and how that relates to current female identity. This is an ongoing body of work that has a few solo exhibitions on the horizon, so I’ve been grinding in the studio testing different fabrics and all that.

DB: Have you found the ideal textile yet — like, nothing compares to how this cotton sham takes the image?

HA: I’m an easily excitable person, and have squealed over all of the fabrics at least once, for different reasons. I was really into the woven polyester blanket material (they’re super thick and you can see every fiber) for a while. I love the texture and how the image blended into the medium. I recently moved studios and had the blanket pieces on my bed for “storage” for a while, so I was literally sleeping under my own skin. It got weird. They hang on a wall in my new studio now, for the most part.

Lately I’ve been working with silk robes, which is the tactile opposite. It’s smooth and really softens my body. I think the variation of fabrics is important. It really interests me that the body can appear soft or rugged depending on how it’s printed. I just finished a robe piece with a photograph that highlights my nose (I’m Jewish and interested in that perception), and I’m looking to have a few more robes before turning back to some cotton tapestries.

DB: Are these pieces wearable in any sense? Is a kinetic presentation interesting to you?

HA: I’m not sure yet! I’ve positioned the fabrics in their traditional contexts but there’s something that interests me in not giving them a permanent usage. I love that term “kinetic presentation,” no one’s put it that way before but that’s great wording. Placing a robe on a wall, in somewhat of a strange shrine-like position, can simultaneously discuss all of its potential but also its present inactivity.

Madison Turiczek’s “High Priestess”

DB: Because of your initials, I keep reading each of your responses as starting with “HA!” Anyway, can we talk about the pop-up art shows you are doing as part of Pulp House? What’s the appeal of these quick, one night exhibitions?

HA: My AIM screenname back in the day was HAshorty123 and people who didn’t get that it was my initials assumed the screenname meant I was like, comically short. Which is true.

Anyway, Pulp House is what I curate shows under. It’s a space for arts events, mainly consisting of pop up shows. I love the one night only events. I think it makes it more comparable to a concert in the way that what is fleeting has people curious to attend it. At our last show at STACK, Madison Turiczek hauled a bathtub up four flights of steep stairs to make an onsite installation that only lasted for the day. A lot of the included works are installation or performance based, so the temporal nature of these pieces are really great to see firsthand. Mostly with Pulp House, I aim to create reasons for people to get to an art show and communicate new ideas.

a photo from a Pulp House pop up show

DB: That seems to break the mold that Pittsburgh arts has fallen into — I’m mainly thinking about the massive crowds for the Gallery Crawl and Unblurred First Friday events. I mean, it’s great that thousands of people are seeing local artwork and that is needed, but often the actual artwork feels secondary to the community vibe or, more cynically, the need-to-be-seen vibe.

HA: I definitely feel that. I love the gallery crawls but always make sure to hit each show twice, once during a crawl or opening when I can socialize and later go back alone, so I can really dig into the art. Both aspects of shows are important, though. It’s undoubtedly in an artist’s best interest to get to a bunch of shows and talk to their community, but in doing so I often feel rushed into making sense of the work in front of me. I think good art takes time to chew over, and at least for me, that has to be done alone. One of my favorite things about Pulp House events is that they sort of lie in between social and introspective. The first show was pretty insane (an overpacked house show in South Oakland), but in the last six months the events have started to find their footing as intimate and, hopefully, beneficial evenings. Usually they’re the perfect turnout so people who stop by can equally spend time with both people and the art itself.

DB: Have any of the artists seen sales from this style of exhibition? I’m endlessly curious about how people sell work. The studio that Kara Skylling and I share — our lease is up and we can’t afford the more-than-doubled new rate, but our “end of days” studio sale resulted in a bunch of sold artwork. So, selling art in Pittsburgh still seems like a mystery to me.

HA: I heard about that! There have been a few that-night sales and a few events that led to sales/shows later. I do feel like most art here is sold just from knowing the artist, at least a little. Pittsburgh could be good in that way, I think. It’s small enough that I might see someone’s work in a gallery and the artist knows a friend of my friend, so I’m more inclined to pay attention to the work. Sometimes that means buying it that night, but most times it means keeping up with their work for a while and eventually buying something. Being optimistic about Pittsburgh, I think it’s “small world” size could benefit many artists, but it takes the active involvement of everyone.