Photographer Jill Enfield Works Through the Process
When the 30th Annual Phillips’ Mill Photography Exhibition opens on April 2, 2023, it will be a collection of artwork carefully curated by internationally acclaimed fine art photographer Jill Enfield. A leading authority on Alternative Photographic Processes, Jill is also an educator and the author of three books on the subject.
When she describes her career, she weaves together stories of discovery that have shaped her life as much as her work. That includes one of the artistic processes for which she is best known: wet plate collodion. It was a technique introduced to her by her own teaching assistant. Jill, always open to exploring new ideas as well as everyday experiences, was intrigued.
“I was teaching alternative processes at the time, but I had never done wet plate before. I immediately fell in love with the process,” she recalls. “Wet plate is just this really beautiful technique, with everything done by hand — the cutting of the glass, the cleaning of the glass, the act of putting chemicals on the glass. Like an old-fashioned Polaroid,you see the finished image almost instantly, within 10 minutes, start to finish.”
“Like an old-fashioned Polaroid, you see the finished image almost instantly, within 10 minutes, start to finish.”
The emotion she conveys when talking about this and other historical processing techniques is notable. Is this where the real magic happens for Jill? Or is it when she is out and about capturing the images that tell such compelling stories? “It’s both,” she insists, referencing the portraits of immigrants in her groundbreaking installation, “Glasshouse of New Americans,” as a perfect example.
The show, a collection of 30 portraits of immigrants she photographed in her studio, was on view at the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration for many years, and traveled around the country as well. For the installation, Jill used the century-old wet collodion technique to place the transparent immigrant portraits onto about 45 abandoned antique windows. The windows were used to assemble a glass house of wet plate photos.
“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We are all immigrants,” she reminds us. A first-generation American, Jill’s own father was a Holocaust survivor who escaped Nazi Germany with the help of the Ernest Leitz family, founder of Leica Camera. When Jill’s family immigrated to the United States, they eventually settled in Miami Beach, where they opened a camera shop that, not surprisingly, sold many Leica cameras.
Growing up, Jill had only a passing interest in photography. It wasn’t until she got to college that her passion began to take hold. “I found myself skipping school and just going around and taking pictures all the time,” she says. “That’s when I decided it was time to leave college and go to workshops to learn the basics and really learn to be a photographer, to see if that would work out for me, and luckily it did.”
Jill eventually found herself in New York, where she finished her degree at NYU before becoming a highly respected educator at The Spence School, Parsons The New School of Design, and a short stint at the Fashion Institute of Technology, among others. She still enjoys teaching and considers herself, in many ways, to be a student as well as an expert on historical techniques. “Wet plate is very ethereal and dreamlike to me. Each image can be interpreted in a different way whenever you look at it, which is very appealing to me,” she explains.
A (Dark) Room of Her Own
When Jill is in the darkroom, her favorite room in the house, creating these one-of-a-kind images, she gets fully immersed, totally lost in time and space. “When I am in the darkroom, it is almost like going into a trance. It’s all-consuming. It is everything I love.”
“When I am in the darkroom, it is almost like going into a trance. It’s all-consuming. It is everything I love.”
Digital photography is not everything she loves, she points out, yet she finds herself using her iPhone camera more and more. “When I started my most recent project (“The Way Home”), I was using a different camera each time I went out. And to tell you the truth, I discovered I really liked using my phone; it was a means to an end,” she says.
A work in progress, “The Way Home” is currently a collection of 32 images of various scenes along the Hudson River, all taken with an iPhone camera while riding the Metro North commuter train to New York City. Jill travels to New York City from her home in Newburgh, NY, one or two times a week to teach at Parsons. She has been documenting this experience, one she shares with thousands of commuters, using her phone.
“I can’t bring my camera and chemicals on a moving train, so I use my iPhone to take the images, but then I go back to my darkroom and make positive transparencies that I lay down on glass, using wet plate collodian to make ambrotypes,” Jill explains.
Her advice to others is likely the same as the voice in her own head as she immerses herself in this art form. “Keep at it, keep working, just make sure it’s a strong enough feeling for you.”