Memento Mori

Dead Like You
memento mori (Latin 'remember that you will die') is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death.

Tragedy befalls us all at one time or another. In early 2004 a man I was seeing came off some medication too quickly and subsequently took his life. He was another causality of Prozac where a doctor failed to carefully monitor the shift in personality that happens all too often when someone quits taking this type of drug rapidly. Regardless of the reason, I lost a lover and friend and fell into a state of darkness in an otherwise happy time in my life. I was in grad school working on research and preparations for my thesis exhibition, (and paper) that would take place the following year, and was in a band that was enjoying some moderate success locally. I should have been sailing through life, but this tragic event made everything come to a screeching halt.

The 17-year cicada were back and making their mating calls throughout the day and night, only to die en masse at the end of the whole cycle. I would go and cry in the pool where I swam laps, and sleep on friends sofas, because I couldn't stand the constant reminder of death and being alone with my thoughts. There was more darkness to come.

For whatever reason there would be more suicides that year. People I knew were experiencing loss at an alarming rate. It was as if somewhere in our group of friends a time bomb of instability went off. People fell like dominoes.The fallout rained down on the dumbstruck living for weeks. I think there were at least five suicides total when all was said and done. 

During that time of mourning I developed a very serious case of some kind of gut sickness - I'm sure partially from stress. The illness made it so I could barely hold down anything other than the tiniest amount of bland food and small amounts water. I would have spasms and lay in the bathtub watching my lower abdomen literally pulsate in pain. This went on for a few weeks. It was unbearable. I knew I couldn't handle much more physical and mental anguish, so on some rickety precarious thread I started pulling myself back to the world of the living. Art was a big part of that.

Its weird when you start coming out of something that intense, sort of like waking from a strange and all-encompassing dream. The world seemed way too vibrant and somehow unreal.  I walked thorough days of exhaustingly bright colors and watched clouds shift from billowy ether to starlit dream skies, all the while pinching myself back into reality. I drank a lot and listened to music punctuated with minor chords, which was comforting in an odd way. In this I was able to channel my sadness into something tangible, something less abstract as mind-numbing sorrow.
Devil in Me

My work has always had an element of darkness, but here I wanted to express more vividly the chaos and turmoil I felt. I turned to my inks and started painting over some of my photographic images that resonated with me at that time. I had a feeling of having thousands of bees buzzing just under my skin and in my skull. The loose brushwork and invigorating movement helped to make my body and mind less jumbled. I made a lot of pictures like this. Some were terrible, some ok, but I slowly began to enjoy the process of creation again. This practice, which was so very different from my usual style and process, helped me to exercise the demons that were haunting me and come back to center.

At some point we resign ourselves to loss, and are able to return to some sense of normality. I eventually started seeing friends again. Our conversations were no longer on the dead, but rather what we were planning for our futures. I was able to move past my grief, and once again focus on my thesis research and playing music.

I was never a good musician, but the act of connecting with a group of people to make something expressive and energetic was a very good mental exercise. It further helped me to move past the tragedies that punctuated the early part of that year. I went to parties and had fun again. I healed from my sickness, and was back at the gym for regular workouts that didn't involve crying jags. I experienced the kind of release that happens when you have processed something big and all-consuming. I was able to see the world as real again.
Dreadful Resignation

It's hard to believe its been 10 years, but through these experiences I have become a stronger person. I miss my friend sometimes, and am still so terribly sad that he went to such a dark place that he wasn't able to get out of. I keep a copy he gave me of his favorite book, Dante's Inferno. I still haven't been able to read it, but I keep it and his final note to me as a remembrance of this time. A memento mori of sorts.  Sometimes when I feel low I take it out and remind myself just how bad it can get, and remember that things can easily transform to a brighter space if you can learn to transmute the poison. I also remember that we are all so very fragile, and that life can turn on a dime, so embrace the ups and downs as part of the human experience. That is richer and far more precious.

So that was a downer...
Here's some happy little painted butterflies from that time to bring the mood back up. Cycle of life, man. 

Victoriana and Historic Process Ambrotypes

Loosing Identity: Digital Studies for Ambrotype Triptych
Copyright 2013 Mary Yates

The Finer Things:
Digital Study for Ambrotype
Copyright 2013 Mary Yates
To create this work I used a marriage of modern and historic techniques. My Ambrotype is a late 1800's photographic process similar to the tintype with the main characteristic difference being the use of glass instead of metal as the support material for the emulsion. These ambrotypes were created using what is known as the dry-plate method which became fashionable after the earlier wet plate method. Early photographers viewed dry plate as a breakthrough because it made for a less temperamental process with similar visual qualities. The process starts with image capture using a DSLR camera. The images here are from staged studio shoots as well as gathered from the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. I'm a big fan of theater and that is reflected in the Victorian props and costumes used for the photographs. For me, the paradoxes of the private vs public and social restrictions in Victoriana fit well with the exploration of gender and identity and the photographic process itself.
Shadow Self
Digital Study for Ambrotype
Copyright 2013 Mary Yates
Ambrotype is a direct positive process so I first printed these images on a transparency film to use in the exposure of the plates. The glass is thoroughly cleaned and then a thin coating of gelatin is applied and allowed to dry. Next, a layer of silver nitrate photo emulsion is heated and poured over the gelatinized plate. Once the plate is dry it is exposed using a direct positive contact printing method. The plate could also be exposed using a large format camera though that is not the process I use. Once the plate is exposed it is processed in a reversal developer that develops only the lighter areas leaving the dark glass exposed to form the shadow values in the image. The last steps involve applying a UV inhibitor and clear lacquer to protect the surface of the plate.
One of the qualities I love about working in the ambrotype process is the way the photograph becomes a dimensional object. Working with stained glass and the mounting materials which include velvet, antique photo cases, or repurposed frames allows the photograph to acquire weight and assert itself into physical space. This creation of an object that can be considered "precious" or "finer" also seemed interesting when juxtaposed with then non-traditional subject matter.

The Gentle Art of Taxidermy II
Digital Study for Ambrotype
Copyright 2013 Mary Yates

Bourbon and the Moon

I am thrilled to have been asked to create the cover photo illustration for the LEO Bourbon Issue! Not only am I connoisseur of the wonderful Kentucky made spirit (for a list of my favorites look lower in the post) but I got to have a lot of fun and creative freedom with this. 

Cover for Leo Weekly Bourbon Issue - March 13, 2013
Cover for Leo Weekly Bourbon Issue - March 13, 2013

As many of you know, I have always enjoyed the aesthetic movements of the late 18 and early 1900s and this illustration embodies everything that I love about that sense of history coupled with modern interpretations. My visual inspiration comes from the old pictures from the 20's women sitting on papier-mâché moon studio props. There are a lot of these images around so interpreting a classical image concept presented in a modern medium struck a cord with me. 

For a great post showcasing some of these historic moon images, visit: Moicani – L’Odeonie

Scroll down from some of the better historic photo examples.

Once I had conceptualized the image and thought about how I would do it I started to think about who my moon woman would be. I not only wanted a woman who would put up with my fussy photo shoots, but also one who embodied a 21st century sense of “modernism”. A woman who no holds barred represented strength, style, and push this beyond a cheesy holiday park souvenir to something that spoke to the strength and grace that I observe in the great women I know.

Woman in the Moon
Bourbon and the Moon - photo illustration sans text

Almost immediately I thought of Alysen Waterson-Davis who is a former member of the roller derby team DCRG, an army accountant, photographer, and mother. The reason I emphasize finding the right person is because I have always seen the model/photographer relationship to be one of collaboration. I have always felt that that was key to having a good photography session. If you can't get in sync with the model or he or she doesn't get the vibe of the narrative the photos are going to be crap. 

I'm very happy with the entire process. Every element of this fell in place and I have gotten great feedback on this cover so I wanted to share a tiny bit on my process and the art of collaboration. Its been a grand time from start to finish, so thanks to the LEO and Alysen for the inspiration.

That Bourbon List:

Truly there are a lot of Kentucky Bourbons, and there are a lot of varieties these days (small batch, single barrel, special age, etc. etc.) The ones listed below are just some of my favorites of what I've had recently. Give them a try if you get a chance.

  • Black Maple Hill - super delicious, peppery and rich - very small batch currently out of stock everywhere I've checked but if it comes back around Get Some! and then invite me over.
  • Bulleit 10-year - nice oak and slight spicy vanilla taste - this are smaller batch too but you can find them. Their regular verity, simply called Bulleit, is quite wonderful too - spicy rye ultra smooth
  • Elijah Craig 12-year - slightly more floral than the previous - easy to find and affordable!
  • Other delicious bourbons:  Blanton's Single Barrel, Four Roses Small Batch, Booker's, Knob Creek, and Pappy VanWinkle if you can find/afford it.

Making Cyanotype Solution - Prep for the LVAA Photogram and UV Printing Workshop

In preparation for the photogram workshop I'm teaching at the Louisville Visual Art Association on Sunday I had a little fun with chemistry. This process is from Photographer's Formulary and is the new improved Cyanotype chemical prep. You can do this in your house, just be sure to use safe handling procedures for the chemicals.

This is not listed first on the instructions as the first step, but I do it first because it takes awhile to do completely. Finely grind 10g of potassium ferricyanide to a powder. *Wear protective gear! Gloves and a face mask!
The crystals will start out red but turn light orange as in the photo above. If you think you are done grinding, go ahead and grid it some more! You need a very fine powder for it to dissolve quickly.

 Heat 30 ml of distilled water to 120 degrees and add 30g of ferric ammonium oxalate, that will result in a green liquid when completely dissolved.

Under safe-light or a very low watt (25) incandescent light, pour in a 10ml solution of ammonium dicromate. (Not pictured)

While the solution is still warm (I keep my beaker in a pan of 120 degree water) pour in the fine ground potassium ferricyanide and stir until no red or orange crystals remain and green crystals begin to appear. Allow this solution to cool for 1 hour until just about room temperature.

When the solution has cooled strain the liquid through a filter (a standard coffee filter will do). A green sludge will remain on the filter which can be discarded. To the filtered liquid add 100ml of distilled water and put in a brown or dark colored bottle with a tight fitting lid. The solution can be painted on paper with a brush or use a glass coating rod. This chemical will last about 1 year in a tightly sealed and dark bottle.


This image is my most recent Photoshop manipulation. The image of Terry was shot while she was laying on the grass and the water, clouds, and flower are all shot at different times. I'm still playing with the color, I like it in full shocking, vibrant hues as well as completely in gray scale. I think it works both ways. The posting here is a compromise between the two extremes. I like the idea of living between worlds. In the fall this is the moment where you are free from the constraints from what came before as well as what's to come. It's the moment that is in flux, a space where potential exists in both how we view the past and what we imagine for the future.

Virtual Worlds - Sculptures for the Treeline Project

These 3D modeled sculptures were created for the virtual Treeline Project, an Australian nonprofit connecting, people, art, science and nature to bring awareness to conservation issues. Each image is an environment that an avatar can physically enter and experience an immersive virtual space. Two events have been scheduled in world, an opening for all the current virtual Treeline artists Thursday, January 21st at 2pm Pacific time. I will also be giving an artist talk for the University of Western Australia's Design Challenge Showcase Saturday, January 23rd at 3pm Pacific Time. I exist in world as an avatar Araminta Kroitschov, artist and owner of Viviblack Galleries.

Flutter Trees, my art and design and scripted so butterflies float around the viewer. This piece was done in collaboration with virtual artist Ed Vespucciano, who was wonderful about taking my butterfly photographs and making them in to little moving swarms to go inside the sculpture.

Moon Forest is a piece that can be entered and experienced from different camera view points to gaze at the moon and feel a spiritual connection to nature.

Virtual Forest is a massive box filled with transparency and light that gives the viewer an experience of getting lost in the woods. Moving an avatar passes through the space layers and layers of tree images and stumbles around until they find the door.

A picture of part of the Treeline Project's installation space with the Virtual Forest on the top left of the image gives an idea of space.

For a transcript of the artist talk visit the UWA blog.

Immersive Show

Using the medium of Second Life, I created a different version of layered transparency based on my real life Into the Woods exhibition. I'm finding a curious exhilaration with learning to work in the computer environment to create a space where an avatar may enter and experience, from various points of view visual sensory information. Using the built in cameras in the app to change the way you look at a piece or virtual art allows the viewer to participate in the experience.
I have been pretty excited in general about my SL gallery. My traffic is way up on my website and it's been fun getting to know some of the interesting people in the community. On stage for the next exhibitions at Vividblack Gallery at the SL Hotel Chelsea sim are RL gig poster artist Madpixel in January, SL visual poet Ed Vespucciano in Feb, and virtual art experience The Gracie Kendall Project, an exploration of identity through the lens of real and virtual worlds. All are must sees. Please visit my Vividblack Gallery in SL . You must also have an account and an avatar set up to view the work. Don't worry, it's free. Visit, and get an account m'kay? For announcements for the SL gallery, please click the eyeball in the gallery and join the group. You'll be glad you did. ; )
Thanks to Mykal, Enola and all the fabulous people at the virtual Hotel Chelsea for making such a great sim. Visit for super live music and literary events. Really, I'm not kidding.

Louis XVI

I forgot to post these King Louis XVI pictures. They are from an issue of the LEO on photography. Several local photographers were asked to see the city from their perspective. Lot's of cool stuff. This is my interpretation of what I would show King Louis XVI if he came to Louisville today. Mostly cool things like the bathroom at 21C, art, Chuck Rubin's and the Mag Bar.

Wrapping - Cellophane

I started working on some new wrappings recently. Cellophane makes people look kind of creepy and dead. It wasn't intentional, but I like what it eludes to in a Commodified Human context. It only happens to be that my model was female that night...I'm not going for a "dead girls are hot" kind of vibe, just more a contextual relationship with the other human commodity images.
I see a landscape coming with 5 or 6 bodies in cellophane (men and women), littering the space. Some desolate place where the trash we create is put out of sight but continues to encroach on the natural world. The overall destruction on our identity through corporate greed and whacked American cultural values is killing us all.

The Work is Transforming

Someone has been playing with the Bio Lab Installation. That makes me absolutely ecstatic! It's pretty exciting to think about how these images will change as the installation continues on. I feel like the 3 bears in a good "someones been sleeping in my bed" kind of way. I hope to catch several different stages of this work as it transitions. So go to the gallery and play! I love surprises.

Microscopic Self Portrait

As a child I remember watching Carl Sagan on PBS take all the elemental ingredients of life and put them together in a big slurry of potential. The result was not life, but a sticky mess of iron, protein, carbon and other key elements. It was the first time I remember thinking “What are we?” I believe reflection on that question is one of the fundamental commonalities that all human beings experience.
In this piece I am contemplating the science and nature of my existence, from what I had for dinner last night to the corpuscles that feed my vision and the nerve endings that provide me the sensory experience of pleasure and pain. All these small pieces somehow converge to create a depiction of me, but they are really just iron, protein, carbon, etc. The piece is an extreme form of navel-gazing and while the sums of my parts are represented, they do not accurately portray the whole. In a world where we are used to following recipes and formulas, it defies logic.

American Gothic

Another image with masks and slightly different coloring. I can't wait to see these printed out large. Someone commented that these mask image reminded them of a modern antique version of American Gothic. Maybe, but I like to think of it as a hybrid between the Chinese and Russian myths of the woman of the snow or frost. It has a more fairytale feel to me. I also want to give thanks to Terry Wunderlich for the super masks.

Dirty Soft

Another image from the recent set. I am constantly amazed at how wonderful my friends are for playing along with my crazy ideas. I'm so lucky to have this energy in my photographs. I think there is a real advantage to a playful approach to staging photos, everyone brings something unexpected to the experience. We play together, we create and I get to indulge my voyeuristic nature. Lucky me! Thanks guys!

Another Image from the Saturday Shoot

Another image from the shoot the other night. A friend whose work I admire suggested I play a little with colors, so I left a hint of the feather and eye color on this image and also used the ochre of the feathers to dirty the image up. Thanks for the suggestion and I'm curious what you all think. I believe the other image has a more sinister quality where this is more tranquil, but still out of the ordinary. More to come!

Recent Studio Work

I had some friends over last Saturday night for drinks and some casual head shot portraits evolved into some more complex play in the studio. I'm so happy with the new pieces and have started processing them in this dirty, antique-looking style. There is something in the aesthetic of old photographs that really appeals to me and I try to bring that into my work. Since I can't be in the darkroom printing tintypes right now, I like working with this digital conversion that is reminiscent of cracked old photos found in the corner of an attic. I like the creepy quality the mask gives to the woman and the stoic look of the man.

I understand that there is a certain morbidity to my work and have struggled with the appeal of main-stream single image photographs. As much fun as it is to make a beautiful image and to have people respond to the "pretty", I think that embracing my shadow self is truly where my most creative and exciting possibilities reside.

A few samples of this work will be forthcoming, as well as a couple of images that are from my commodified humans project.

New Microscope Camera

So I just got a cheepo microscopic camera. It's pretty cool and I'm looking forward to really doing something fun with bugs and plant specimens. So far I've had fairly good results with the images I captured of myself but it is difficult to keep focused and must be very close to whatever you are shooting. It also does video capture - I haven't even begin to wrap my mind around how I might use that. Still the obsessive geek in me spent about 40 minutes looking at my pores in the preview mode. I can't do anything large print wise with it because of the 1.3mp limitation, but still really good and might be truly fun for working in small things like tintypes or in grid installations. Nifty new toy!

New Chemistry Experiements

I've been in the darkroom. So much fun!!! I've been playing with gum printing and emulsion coating on a nice, sturdy watercolor paper. I think the best part is that even though I have used these processes before, I have to rediscover them each time. That's the one thing that I truly love about the darkroom, the sense of magic and wonder I feel when something actually works.

Ron built a UV exposure unit for his screen printing and I'm finding it very useful for my alternative processes. It's so much handier to have a powerful source of UV light than the sun, particularly since it's very overcast in Kentucky right now. Gear is such a geeky thing to love, but I like chemistry experiments and playing with dangerous light. It makes me feel a little more alive.

My friend Ethel was my gracious model for these images that I'm doing the gum and emulsion prints with. She was a total trooper hiking through the woods with me and getting in awkward positions for my human connection to nature photography. I truly love the interaction with the model, it's a true collaboration. The shot above wouldn't have happened if she hadn't suggested putting the sticky thistle pod into the shot. I'd been carrying that thing for about an hour, dropping it multiple times, and starting to resent picking it up. It was a perfect contrast to the lush ferns and the beautiful tones and soft texture of her hand.