Noelle Tan

Hyattsville, MD | by May 26, 2010

When I first saw Noelle Tan’s black and white pho­tographs in her 2005 solo exhi­bi­tion at the Dis­trict of Colum­bia Art Cen­ter, I thought they were draw­ings. My momen­tary con­fu­sion was a star­tling expe­ri­ence; we’re more accus­tomed to draw­ing or paint­ing that mim­ics the “real­ness” of pho­tog­ra­phy. Tan reverses that equa­tion. Start­ing with images of land­scapes, she manip­u­lates the expo­sure time in her sil­ver gelatin prints to pro­duce large areas of black or white neg­a­tive space. The result­ing inscrutable pho­tographs lack the visual mark­ers that would nor­mally anchor the image to a spe­cific time and place.

Despite this manipulation—which she exerts in her home-​​based stu­dio in Hyattsville, Maryland—Tan says, “Pho­tog­ra­phy always has that sense of the real. Even if the image is highly manip­u­lated, there is the notion that it is some­thing that has actu­ally existed.” The process of print­ing her own pho­tographs in her dark­room is a vital com­po­nent of Tan’s prac­tice. “There is some­thing per­sonal about dark­room work. And shoot­ing film is a dif­fer­ent cre­ative process then shoot­ing digital.”

When her work calls for a larger print size than her own dark­room allows, Tan dri­ves to San Fran­cisco to print at Rayko Photo Cen­ter, one of the few places in the coun­try that still rents black and white dark­rooms with large scale print capa­bil­ity. Tan loves cross-​​country trips and they are an impor­tant part of her new body of work. The new pho­tos, which will be on view in Wash­ing­ton, DC at Civil­ian Art Projects in Octo­ber, doc­u­ment the sites Tan vis­its over the course of her drives.

“Part of how I do my trips is I buy these guide­books. And I just kind of read them. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily end up in all the places that I mark to go to but I find things on the way. I need a des­ti­na­tion, but I don’t always get there all the time.”

Many of the sites Tan visits—the Bios­phere 2 in Ora­cle, Ari­zona; the remains of the Branch David­ian com­pound in Waco, Texas; Dealey Plaza in Dal­las, Texas; the Trin­ity nuclear test site in New Mexico—are asso­ci­ated with events ingrained in our col­lec­tives mem­o­ries. Pho­tographs from these sites are grouped with pho­tographs from other, more anony­mous places. An image of the Bios­phere 2 might be paired with an image from a Wiz­ard of Oz road­side attrac­tion in Kansas. Some places may carry more his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, but for Tan every one of these places speaks to ideas about nos­tal­gia, his­tory, preser­va­tion, and a search for utopia.

There’s an implicit nar­ra­tive at work in her new pho­tographs, but Tan doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily want the viewer or her­self to “know the whole story.” She has learned to trust her process. “There are all these things that seem dis­con­nected but they’re click­ing in my brain. So, I just have to trust the fact that it’s all going to pan out even­tu­ally. And it does. It makes sense in my head. It comes together and falls apart and comes together and falls apart over a cou­ple of years and you just have to have faith that your ideas [are connected].”

It’s pos­si­ble that Tan’s faith in her ideas came from sur­viv­ing the grad­u­ate pro­gram at the Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute of the Arts, a school famous for its empha­sis on crit­i­cal the­ory, which she left New York for in 2000. “I’m not even entirely sure how I got in,” says Tan. “My approach to apply­ing to grad school was that I was going to be really hon­est in my artist state­ment and it would just be a match. I think my first sen­tence was, ‘I’m really not into the­ory.’ Some­times it will help my thought process. But in gen­eral, I don‘t read the­ory and then make art.”

Tan spec­u­lates that a grad­u­ate pro­gram focused more on tech­ni­cal craft might have been a bet­ter fit, but “would not have been as much as a grow­ing expe­ri­ence.” At Cal Arts, “you really learn how to think about your work in a crit­i­cal way. Crits are hard. Peo­ple cried. It was not a pleas­ant expe­ri­ence. The level at which you [are expected to] ques­tion your work is incred­i­bly high.” Tears aside, Tan says, “My work would not have got­ten to where it is with­out hav­ing gone to grad school. It was a com­bi­na­tion of grad school and Cal­i­for­nia, which was a total geo­graphic shift.”

Tan expe­ri­enced another shift when she turned 40 in Decem­ber. It’s quite a thing,” she says, “It occurred to me that [turn­ing 40] is a marker. [It’s] a time to think about where you’ve been and where you’re going. I’ve never…set spe­cific career goals. My goals have been more like: Am I a good per­son? Am I a good daugh­ter? Am I a good friend?”

For more on Noelle Tan visit Civil­ian Art Projects.

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  • Bonita says:

    Bravo Noelle!

  • marcus says:

    I’ve been a big fan of Tan’s work for half a decade as it con­tin­ues to ascend to new heights.

    Your article/​video cap­tures quite nicely her and her work. Her under­stated ele­gance and artis­tic integrity are reflected quite pro­foundly in her work.

    The more you see her work the more it regen­er­ates, and the more you will gladly bask in it.


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