Whatever you do, don’t let Linda Peterson catch you describing her photography as “just” digital. With photographic tools resembling those of a dentist, more than 20 years of experience and an uncompromising passion for form and experimentation, Peterson’s photography is anything but simple.
In fact, even the word “photography” may be too minimal to describe the hours of intense work Peterson spends on each print; she prefers “photographic painting” or “photo variation.” After beginning her career with a traditional 35 mm camera, then incorporating black and white infrared, Peterson discovered a great little method known as the Polaroid, which allowed her greater and more purposeful manipulation, and fell in love.
Working with an old SX-70 camera, Peterson takes 3 inch by 3 inch Polaroids back to her studio, where the film is placed on a small heating pad. The magnifying glasses go on, the set of styluses emerge from their bag and the painstaking process begins. Spending up to two hours on each photo, Peterson uses the stylus to move the emulsion of the Polaroid around, using it as a sort of paint, and to work the various details to evoke the quality she wants from her photographs.
But that’s not all. After the photo has been transformed into an ethereal painting, Peterson scans the print into her computer, digitally manipulates the color or size and prints it onto archival paper. From there, the print may be complete, or it may be developed even further, occasionally being printed as a digital negative and processed through a wet darkroom in one of the many forms afforded by that arena.
If this is all starting to sound a little complicated, Peterson doesn’t blame you.
“This process is not for the faint of heart,” she warns, “but it’s incredibly rewarding.”
With no formal education in photography, but decades of field experience, Peterson’s photographic painting process is impressive, as is the depth of her philosophy about her medium of choice. Drawing inspiration from her childhood, Peterson hopes to elicit a sense of nostalgia through her photographic paintings. As a young girl, Peterson delighted in taking long weekend road trips with her family to hidden treasures in the country around her home of Long Island, N.Y. These nostalgic scenes are what first led her to photography and what inspires the process by which she captures her subjects today.
“I discovered that photographs were a way to capture those memories and to give someone else a little piece of that,” Peterson says.
Driven by a deep desire to find the true character of every subject, Peterson stresses her photographs are not meant to be literal recordings of light and shadow, or of the “reality” of the subject. “The final image more accurately reflects my recollection and all external and internal stimuli that influence and enrich the moment at hand,” she says.
Throughout her decades of experience, Peterson’s circle of inspiration has grown to include most of the country, as well as several others, as she has traveled all over the world in search of those moments to capture. From photographing a working ranch in the lower Rio Grande Valley to documenting the process of foreign adoption in Korea, she has found inspiration in every environment she visits. The difficulty of photo variation is a small sacrifice to make for the exquisite quality that emerges from each photograph.
Peterson says she is continually troubled by the emerging idea that anybody can take a
picture. The demonstration involved in opening her studio to the public during the Focus on the Masters Studio Artist Tour is just one way Peterson is working to combat such a stereotype. With a mirror mounted over her workstation, visitors will be able to watch Peterson work on a photographic painting, and get a sense of just how much effort is involved in creating the unique impression encapsulated in each print.
“People come in and look at my work and say, ‘Oh, I’ve played with that,’ as if it’s that simple,” she says. “And I want to jump in and tell them step-by-step all the work I’ve put into it. It’s anything but playing.”