Emma Powell's childhood sounds like the start of a fairy tale. A girl, troubled by chronic insomnia, goes on nighttime walks with her father, who's been working in the darkroom till the small hours. As they move along, he tells his daughter stories and points out constellations in the Vermont sky.
Now 29, Powell has embraced these memories, and her father's craft. Her photography, which at times looks like a drawing, and other times like a more conventional photo, features a young woman (modeled after Powell herself) caught in a kind of symbolic moment — say, sleeping in stars, or looking over a windy lake, her hair sticking straight out behind her.
"I'm playing a character in a way," she says. "[My father] used to tell me these really spontaneous stories ... they would start just walking down to the street, start from where we were and [go] down a porthole or something ... something underground, normally, and then there'd be some sort of cavern and we'd go on an adventure with lots of different animals and different aspects to it, and it would evolve like a dream, in a way. So I kind of place them in that context, because it allows for that fantasy element and I can take it anywhere that I want to from there."
Powell, who arrived in August to teach at Colorado College, isn't just working with bedtime stories. In her solo show, Juggling Butterflies, opening Monday at Coburn Gallery, she's also displaying her unique mixture of old and new photography methods, which includes wet-plate collodion images and cyanotype.
The latter involves an iron solution that she can expose with natural light. The image is first captured with a digital camera, then manipulated in Photoshop and printed as a negative on overhead-projector transparency paper. Then Powell goes old-school: She places the negative on a prepared surface and exposes it with UV light. Once she makes the print, it's an intense blue that Powell dials back with a tea mixture, lending an uncanny quality.
"I think the process kind of masks the fact that it's Photoshopped," she says, "and helps transform it to be something a little bit more mysterious."