Stepping Toward the Otherness of Art

By Elvira Piedra

Photograph by Elvira Piedra, Lunenburg, April – 2014

The desire to do something well has been with me for a very long time. But just what I might do  well took years to discover, probably in part due to a great capacity for self-criticism and my own secrecy around the matter. There were three forces which led me to the work I know now: my mother, France, and a man named Walter Chappell. 

The first conscious step towards something other was at age twelve when, after sever al years of gymnastics, I began studying classical ballet. I was clear about seeking this —an art,  something which required discipline and dedication. An injury paused my dancing right around  the time that I left for a year as an exchange student to France. While living with a family in Paris,  my school generously assessed my inability to keep up with the French equivalent of 11th grade  sciences and gave me a shortened day on Thursdays, and Wednesdays completely free. My French  family gave me the freedom to explore the city alone, and out I went.  

I took ballet classes, but I mostly went to museums. A vast world opened, full of impres sions and emotions, of art in many forms. I was such a dreamy person and didn’t know how to  speak of these things then, but these experiences established a connection to something ancient  and beautiful, and I knew that I wanted to find a way to express this, and to find a work that could  be mine. 

It’s awkward to describe the effect of this search because at the time, I struggled to imagine  that I could ever be an artist. I nonetheless experienced an awakening of both my spirituality and  creativity, which was reinforced when I returned to Paris in 1988 to study bookbinding. 

I later returned to California and to dance, and by then determined that filmmaking cor responded to the dreams I had. My teacher at City College, Dennis Duggan, encouraged his  students to take still photography as part of their education, in order to develop skills in compo sition, working with light and sequencing still images to tell a story. I received this as an oppor tunity to become a better filmmaker, to work with dedication as I had not done before. This was  1995, and photographic instruction primarily meant black and white film photography. Since  childhood, I had been drawn to this medium through the portraits of my family which were some  of the most meaningful pictures in our home, so I welcomed the chance to begin making portraits  of my own.  

This was an immediate and almost overwhelming joy. My mother helped me to purchase my firstcamera, a 35mm Luxon, and I took classes for two years, steadily working with slower  speed films and larger, borrowed cameras, until I reached the 4 by 5 inch format in pursuit of the  smoothest, if not grainless, photograph.  

Risen Flower (peony), Berkeley, 2010. Photograph by Elvira Piedra

I made portraits almost exclusively and hoped to work as an editorial photographer. After years of seeking, I had found my work and felt there was a possibility of supporting myself with it. And perhaps it would have been, were it not for the arrival of a mentor. I was twenty-seven when I went to work with the photographer Walter Chappell. I had met him two years before and went to him for some guidance. After looking at my prints, he asked me what I wanted and I told  him that I wanted to make good prints— to become a good printmaker. To this, he replied, “I can  teach you that.” 

Walter was not interested in my imitating his practice, but in helping me to form my own.  He imparted a basic understanding of the actions of the chemicals and formulas he used, and encouraged me to explore others and discover their qualities for myself. Moving up from the 4 by 5 I  found a beautiful 8 by 10 camera made of mahogany— a Kodak 2d. I fell in love with this camera and slowly learned how to work with it, making contact prints from the large negatives, learning to deal with dust at multiple steps in the process, up to the final phase of retouching, or “spotting,”  the white specks, traces of dust acquired during printing, and lastly to avoid the particles that might have settled on the print just prior to dry mounting on a heavier support. These are among the ordinary skills that I had to develop, small, necessary pieces of understanding which involved patience, attention to detail and restraint, which in time enabled me to fulfill some of this medium’s potential. Seeing was the heart,  the beginning of what might become an image, and there was no technique to teach,  simply the willingness to look within as much as without. 

Looking back at the years spent with my teacher, I am deeply grateful for what he showed me about work and life, and about myself. It moved me that he felt I was already an artist, and a person worthy of his time; in so many ways, it showed me what was possible. I diverge from some of the methods he practiced, specifically  Ansel Adams’ mathematical “Zone System” for calibrating photographic exposures,  which Walter had learned from Minor White. I prefer instead to invite chance into my process — to discover for myself what might be possible. 

I have only occasionally made a beautiful negative, but what has mattered more to me is the making of a beautiful print. Walter taught me to “make it matter.” The weight, or gravity of our lives, experienced everywhere, for the full duration of any encounter: the effort to make even a difficult moment significant through transformation. It is necessary to move, speak and act with intention, and thereby bring a feeling into form — into being. 

In this era of digital photography, the physicality of a handmade print has become more poignant. One beholds so many images now, from life’s moments recorded on our mobile phones, to the enormous libraries of images available online.  Perhaps we are blessed by the dearth of prints that might otherwise issue from that enormous compendium of pictures, but the presence of a print still does have meaning. It is alive and capable of transmission. For a picture to have that life force  — to matter — it must be allowed to have a presence beyond the screen. 

Making a print is the fulfillment of my work. The physical object is an attempt to make an inner experience visible — not to capture a passing moment, so much as to sustain the present. It is an expression of the desire for something eternal. Now I  understand that the longing which filled my being as a young person was simply a love for life. My photographs are records of that love. Moments where I defied apathy and defeated death— where my awareness expanded and joy arose. I become closer to all of life in such moments, and to the deepest realization of all of nature. I come alive. 

Elvira Piedra grew up in Southern California. After a year at UC Santa Cruz, her studies continued in Paris, Anchorage and San Francisco, where she began to pursue photography in 1995 at City College. In 1997, she moved to El Rito, New Mexico, to work with the photographer Walter Chappell. Her first exhibit was held in Santa Fe. Her photographs have also been shown in California, New Hampshire, and Vermont, where she now lives in South Lunenburg. Learn more about her work at or follow her on Instagram: @elvira_piedra

This article is an excerpt from Art in the Making: Essays by Artists About What They Do, published by The Fisher Press & The John Stevens Shop, 2022. This collection has been assembled by Christopher W. Benson — painter, author, and the director of The Fisher Press — and co-published with his brother Nicholas, who currently owns and runs the John Stevens Shop. 

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