This is Part Two of a three-part series profiling the visual lives of three exceptionally creative photographers based in Portland. Part One introduces the series and features Grace Weston. Part Three is devoted to Susan Bein. The following profile of Laura Kurtenbach comprises Part Two of the series.
Laura Kurtenbach began her journey with fine art photography as a young girl growing up in Central Illinois, where she enjoyed an early exposure to the visual arts, gaining an understanding of both the creative and technical aspects of image-making. In school she grew to love the arts through drawing, painting, sculpture and photography, and by her senior year in high school she was well-acquainted with the dark room, spending countless hours processing photographic film and acquiring strong technical skills along the way. After high school she attended Columbia College in Chicago, earning a BA in photography and fine art. She went on to do graduate work at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she received her MFA in photography.
In her professional career, Laura worked for almost fifteen years for a major international publication as a photo technician and printer, finely honing her photography and post-processing skills on the job and in her free time. Her job allowed for much travel time, during which Laura photographed mostly documentary subjects. Later she began a new career in academia, teaching photography in a variety of educational institutions, including Northwestern Illinois University at Evanston, the Wright City College of Chicago, Columbia College in Chicago, and the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland. She is currently an adjunct professor of photography at the Academy of Art University and Portland State University. Laura now has over two decades of professional experience as a practitioner in the photography industry and an educator in fine art and documentary photography.
Outside of her professional life, Laura often works on multiple long-term photo-based projects simultaneously. She makes her images both digitally and with film, shooting with small, medium and large format cameras, toy cameras, and even with underwater cameras and photo scanners, and she processes and prints her photographs digitally or in the darkroom. With these tools at hand, Laura creates images that often utilize mixed media to explore social issues, such as those addressing the treatment of women in popular culture. For example, her series Femme Noir is a personal commentary on how women have traditionally been represented in the media and in the broader culture. In this series she makes use of collage, sculpture and light to create a body of work that seeks to add to the current discourse on feminism. Some of her work concerns the subject of place, particularly the delicate relationship we have with the natural environment. Her series Natural Selection and Second Nature are projects that explore the human impact on our fragile ecosystem and the symbiotic association we all have with nature, especially our shared struggle with life through growth, aging, death, decay and rebirth. Laura often uses self-portraiture as the backbone of her work, which is sometimes meant to be autobiographical, but she often simply utilizes herself as an integral subject vis-à-vis her visual commentaries on culture, place, personal struggle and historical perspective. Her two nature series, as well as her series Past Lives, Broken and I Am Not Myself, make use of self-as-subject in the context of the issues her projects examine.
Laura’s work has been exhibited in a number of venues across the country, from galleries and museums in Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle to those closer to home in Oregon. A portfolio of her fine art prints is currently on exhibit in the LightBox Photographic Gallery in Astoria. This portfolio is housed in the LightBox Files, a year-long juried collection of photographs presented by eight photographers who have mastered the fine art of printmaking, each of whom is provided a dedicated drawer space in which to present their work. Laura’s work was also juried into The Photographic Nude 2021 this year at the LightBox Gallery. One of the images from her Natural Selection series was selected for the Black and White: 2021 juried exhibition at Black Box Gallery in Portland. Her documentary series of portraits Selective Memory: La Paz, Mexico was juried into the 2020 Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers in Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery. In addition, Laura is frequently invited to participate in public speaking engagements. She was a featured guest speaker at a meeting of the Portland Photographers’ Forum late last year, and she recently made a presentation for the Photography Council’s Brown Bag Lecture Series at the Portland Art Museum.
To find out more about Laura Kurtenbach and her work, the author had the opportunity to interview the artist via email. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you create art?
Kurtenbach: I make art as a way to better understand the world around me and as a way to fuel my soul. For me art is also an emotional outlet. I’m a sensitive person, and art allows me to process all of my emotions in a positive way. I feel I have to create—it’s the most positive result of the negative aspects of life. For example, my series Broken came out of the end of a long-term relationship, and I needed some kind of catharsis to get me through the breakup. My life is often processed through making work and images so that my brain can get over it and move past it. Sometimes I feel that unless I make a series about it, it lingers or bothers me until I work it out in my art. I’m often reminded of what Kurt Vonnegut said about the arts: “They are a very human way of making life more bearable.” In other words, it feels good to create!
Why did you choose photography as a form of creative expression?
Kurtenbach: I’ve practiced many forms of creative expression, including drawing, painting, sculpture and photography. Photography in particular has been an essential part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was influenced early by my mother, an amateur photographer who always used her camera to document our family life. I also had a teacher/mentor in school who really nurtured my creativity and my technical skills early on. I have always loved that photography is so representational, but that it can also be manipulated. It gives an artist a lot of possibilities for self-expression and ways of communicating with the viewer. Working with photography my entire life has given me a profound respect for the medium, and it has instilled in me a great responsibility to keep making art and growing as an artist.
How would you describe your unique style of artistic expression?
Kurtenbach: My fine art photography is highly conceptual, and mostly postmodern in nature. I often utilize metaphors and symbols which visually code an image, allowing viewers to engage and interpret meaning in their own individual ways, though my themes are as universal as they are personal. My series Myth Symbol Image and Bird Nest Egg are good examples of this aspect of my work. I like to challenge not only my viewers, but also the medium of photography itself, by utilizing self-referential themes, relying on what I characterize as self-as-subject as a vehicle of expression. My self-referential images are not necessarily about me (as a self-portrait might be), but using myself as a subject, prop or tool allows me to use performance to get to my conceptual intentions for the work. In my series Broken, I do this by using medical and scientific materials along with images of myself to represent the dichotomy between our internal and external lives. I do this again in my series I Am Not Myself to address issues of health and aging, by compositing images of myself with those of the dilapidated 100-year-old house I was renovating at the time.
Another aspect of my photography involves the use of appropriation as a tool to communicate with my audience, so I sometimes use found objects, collage materials and old photos in my work. For example, in my series Past Lives, I explore how the past and present combine to create a new version of history. By combining vintage tintypes and self-portraits from traditional process photo booths, I create a haunting blend of the past and present in one single, still image. The interaction between the historical and the present in this series allows me to create new versions of past lives, as well as to explore my own life and future.
What is your creative process? For example, how to do come up with an idea or vision, and when do you know when you have a finished image or series of images?
Kurtenbach: As I mentioned, I find that my work usually comes from an emotional place, and I often work through the struggles of life by making art to address them. Sometimes the motivation to create a particular image or series is quite clear to me. Other times the work just flows out, and I realize what it’s about only after making a couple of pieces. In terms of process, I am an artist who works on multiple long-term projects at the same time, so often they inform each other. Sometimes my photographic work involves other media and artistic practices, especially collage, as in my Femme Noir and Bird Nest Egg series. I would say I certainly have a “creative spiral” of concepts that I keep returning to in new and different ways. These typically involve universal themes related to identity, health and aging, mortality, or the delicate balance of life and death. My work is most often a cathartic ritual. I need to make art so I can process life. When the emotional impact of making the work decreases for me, I usually know a project is nearing completion.
Which aspects of making art do you enjoy most? What artistic achievements are you most proud of?
Kurtenbach: I love getting lost in the creative process and having that “ah ha!” moment when everything falls together and I know the why, how, what. Also, I love how using my art as a kind of catharsis while working through a painful part of my life allows me to take authorship of the process of creation. That cathartic experience is something I have full control over, and there is not much in life when we really do, so it makes the creative process really special. I am most proud of my work when I feel like I have pushed the boundaries of the medium, maybe created something no one has exactly done before in both process and end result. Also, when I have donated my work for good causes, like charity drives and auctions, it feels good to give back to the community.
Who are your most important artistic influences?
Kurtenbach: I have been particularly influenced by other female artists. Historically speaking, I admire photographers like Anne Brigman and Imogen Cunningham. I also am influenced by the more recent work of Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman. I also find relationships to collage and appropriation from artists like Hannah Höch and Barbara Kruger. I am also influenced by music, movies and other art forms, and even my students. Being a photography professor has influenced my life and work dramatically, as students can be amazingly inspirational!
How has the pandemic affected your work, positively or negatively?
Kurtenbach: The pandemic has negatively affected my documentary work, but my fine art work has not been affected much. It is helpful that I often use myself as subject, so I don’t require a lot of other humans in my work typically. One positive effect of the pandemic is that I have recently been collaborating with another photographer, Brian McGloin, in a kind of socially-distanced film exchange, where we double expose the same rolls of film, creating some very interesting results. This double exposure project has forced me to try new working methods, and it has helped me realize that maybe I need to embrace the unknown and a lack of control more. I have not collaborated much in the past with other artists, so I might look for more opportunities to do this. It’s a lot of fun!
What’s on the horizon?
Kurtenbach: I’ll continue to work on several long term projects like Natural Selection and the double exposure series, but I’ve also started some new projects. One is in memory of my grandmother, who recently passed away. Another, called The Remains, also tackles issues of death. These two projects did not start at the same time, but I guess it’s only natural that death continues to be a recurring concept during the pandemic. They are very different projects visually and conceptually, however. I also plan to stay current as a member of the Lightbox Photographic Gallery, and I’ll change out work featured there in the files soon, so viewers can continue to expect new work.