Image: Chris Byrnes, Solar light
Diana Nicholette Jeon interviews Australian multi-media artist Chris Byrnes to find out what drives her creative practice.
I am a massive fan of pinhole and plastic lens work, an even bigger fan of mixed media photographic work, and a lover of the mark of the human hand within a photographic image. As soon as I saw the work “Broken Landscape”, I knew Chris Byrnes–was having a great deal of fun. I have to say I’m a bit jealous. I find the utter open-mindedness, playfulness, and abandonment with which Byrnes explores the field inspirational.
Image: Chris Byrnes, Broken Landscape
Chris Byrnes was born in Newcastle, Australia, where she still lives today. She grew up in a lower socio-economic household with her six siblings. But from the beginning, her mother instilled in her a love of reading and the joy of making things. In her early years, radio and books were their main form of entertainment, which no doubt encouraged Byrne’s rich internal world.
After beginning art studies as a teen, Byrnes returned home to raise a son as a single parent. She supported herself and her son by working in health administration, but her artistic pursuits remained a part of her. Byrnes took workshops and night classes in the arts during that era of her life. Later, she had more opportunities to nurture her artistic knowledge at the University of Newcastle, where she pursued a Bachelor of Fine Art Honours. Byrnes also joined community groups to assist in her artmaking practice and became an active member of the Newcastle Printmakers Workshop. Ultimately, she progressed to volunteering at Maitland Art Gallery, Newcastle Community Arts Centre, Newcastle Art Space, and the Australian Centre for Photography.
The significant loss of the family matriarch in 2014 found Byrnes considering both her place in the world and her commitment to art. Before passing, her mother advised her to leave nothing important undone, so Byrnes returned to school to achieve her MFA at National Art School, Sydney, 2017.
I caught up with Chris to ask about her practice and her life.
DNJ: How long have you been practicing photography?
CB: I have been creative and made art most of my life. Photography, though, has cycled through an active presence, followed by an absence, and then back into my current practice.
I was always a drawing and colouring child. I remember being 11 years old and wanting a Brownie box camera–unfortunately, I didn’t get one. But I’m not sure why I wanted it; I wasn’t around photography. I was 19 years old and already a mother when I started studying photography seriously. I hoped to be a photojournalist but never quite managed to open those doors.
After raising my son while working full-time at administrative jobs, I realized it wasn’t too late to pursue art. I joined a community group to study and exhibit work. I later obtained an administrative position at the University of Newcastle. As a university employee, I was entitled to time off for education and the employee benefit of half-tuition. Studying part-time is a long process, and I didn’t finish my Honours program until 2011. At the time, my work consisted mostly of black and white printmaking, mainly linocut, though I still engaged in drawing and painting classes where I could.
I’ve been seriously making photographs (combined with my other artmaking processes) for 23 years; I consider myself a professional artist.
Image: Chris Byrnes, (left) Remember When The Sky Was Blue, (right) White Light Blue Shadows
DNJ: How did you get started doing photography?
CB: I took a solar etching (photo-printmaking) workshop and realized that I was taking a photograph through a mechanical process and releasing it as an etching. Then, during my final year of undergraduate study, I enrolled in an alternative photography class that combined drawing and painting with photography. It seemed perfectly suited for me! I’ve been working with historical, alternative, and experimental processes since. Additionally, the majority of my lens’ based work is pinhole photography.
Image: Chris Byrnes, The Day The Light Came
DNJ: How would you describe your practice and the work you do?
CB: I consider myself a mixed media artist working predominantly with the medium of photography. I don’t need much to make an image, an old box or tin, something sensitive to light, and a bit of paper. (As a former printmaker, I still connect with the paper negative.) The underpinnings of my work are the magic of the camera obscura, the chance or random act (I am a little clumsy and drop or bump cameras,) and the sheer joy and wonders that photography still shows me daily.
I have very little equipment: cardboard and tape cameras, a few Holgas, my original Pentax Spotmatic from when I was 19, some purchased historical and contemporary cameras, and one basic darkroom enlarger with one lens. The world of light shows itself to me however it wants to. I have some control, but not much. I don’t keep records; I consider each act of making an image a new experience, so I may just get lost and off track while playing with light. It’s reflected in my MFA thesis work, entitled “Circles of Confusion”–and I will let that title speak for itself.
Image: Chris Byrnes, Burano
DNJ: What do you personally feel has been your biggest accomplishment in your photo career?
CB: I live in the hopes that a significant accomplishment is still to come!
Some days I despair not finding the next significant opportunity to exhilarate me, renew my exploration, and help finance my next steps. My soul isn’t destroyed but is a little bent and punctured with pinholes, I suspect.
Keeping my little family going, surviving the odds we encountered, and achieving our professional qualifications (my son’s and mine) is a significant overall achievement of which I am proud. The most satisfying was setting up my studio with a darkroom in my retirement; I never thought I would have that space to work. I admit to faltering daily, thinking, “Why am I doing this? What is the point?” But photography and art are now in my DNA, so deeply embedded that I cannot excise them.
Image: Chris Byrnes, Instant Light Day 1
DNJ: Tell us a little about your different projects.
CB: Letting go of ‘the rules’ was a challenge. I study an element, a new process, or a question to push myself to find out what I know vs what I need to learn. Now, in contrast, I have almost no rules, except for those around safety issues and money restrictions.
During COVID, I worked on “Walking with the Unknown.” Using dresses as a female body, I used the photography processes to destroy and deconstruct the image, representing how domestic violence destroys a woman’s mind and body. These images were shown at Head On Photo Festival and Iceland Photo Festival.
Beyond my Honour’s and Master’s degree-specific projects, I have exhibited images from my trip to Greenland and Iceland. I travelled with photographers from the USA in an organized photo tour and exhibition in New York. The accidental nature of my colour film pinholes from Iceland were my favourites.
Following my mother’s death, I created a series entitled “Portrait without a Face.”
Image: Chris Byrnes, Slip from the series Waking with the Unknown
DNJ: What are you working on now?
CB: I’ve got a few different things I am juggling. I’m still ‘playing’ with film, paper, and pinhole cameras; that is always a given.
I’ve been working with the idea of where a photograph ends and a drawing begins. My “Drawing Through Photography” works exist because I photograph the image my way first. Afterwards, I utilize salt print chemistry and charcoal to create the final image. It’s my way of considering, “What is beyond photography, beyond the photogram? What even is a photograph?”
I’m playing a little with glass and timber with “Beyond the Photogram, Chasing Alison (Rossiter),” which is still a work in progress. I’m not trying to copy but rather to find my own way to burrow into new techniques and ideas. At this point, I am only starting to learn about glass and plastics and how I can work with them.
I’m already facing challenges involved with moving from a house/studio to an inner-city apartment next year. I am mentally preparing to change how I work if needed. I don’t feel as though I’ve reached my artistic peak yet. I still want to do lith printing, more cyanotype work, and more playing with materials.
Image: Chris Byrnes, Abandoned Chairs
DNJ: Is there something you wish I had asked?
CB: I do like my mantra:
Without light, we cannot exist
Without light, I have no image
Without an image, I cannot exist
I love photography.
Image: Chris Byrnes, Bar Beach Morning
About the Author
Diana Nicholette Jeon is a lens-based artist from Honolulu, HI. Her award-winning work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions globally and collected internationally by public and private collections. Jeon writes about photographers and photography for One Twelve Publications and Frames Magazine.