“The Woods of Crying Souls project concerning slavery began
on a trip to the South a few years ago when I encountered
extant slave cabins that were literally falling into the ground.”
—Lisa Tyson Ennis, artist


interview NANCY GORDON

Artist Lisa Tyson Ennis.
Photo: Deborah Wiggs
What Once Was project
Fishing Weir, the Beginning
What Once Was project
Fishing Weir Study III
What Once Was project
The Intruder, Fishing Weir, Grand Manan
What Once Was project
Fallen Pier
What Once Was project
Smokehouse, Grand Manan
What Once Was project
God Bless Our Home, Abandonded Outport,
What Once Was project
Lighthouse, Rockland, Maine
The Woods of Crying Souls project
Canal Hand Dug by Slaves,
South Carolina
The Woods of Crying Souls project
Slave Cabin, Mansfield Plantation,
South Carolina
The Woods of Crying Souls project
Slave Cemetery, Magnolia Plantation,
South Carolina

Tell us a little about yourself and when/how you began your photography career.

Both of my parents are creative—my mother is a writer and my father was an architect, both with an eye for art—so I grew up surrounded by it. There was a small darkroom in my high school in Pennsylvania and once I found that red-lit cave I was hooked for life.

Any words of wisdom from your early career that have stayed
with you?

Work every day.

What resonates with you to make a subject interesting to photograph?

I am drawn to photograph subjects that have big, unresolved stories behind them, stories that have a message for us.

You’re showing two projects: What Once Was and Woods of Crying Souls. What are the stories behind each and why are they important issues to you?

The What Once Was project tells the story behind the fishing weirs and the abandoned outport communities in Newfoundland. The cod fishery was decimated in the latter part of the 20th century by large corporations overfishing the Atlantic Ocean. The repercussions were catastrophic for the small fishing families on Newfoundland whose lives were entirely based on that fishery. Over 300 communities were abandoned: their homes, schools, churches, cemeteries—still standing but abandoned. I was drawn to the sadness behind that story.

The weirs, too, speak to the desperate problem of overfishing by being
a beautiful symbol of a truly sustainable form of fishing that has been
in use for thousands of years, beginning with the indigenous people of this area.

Weirs are massive nets strung on wooden poles, which are secured to the ocean floor. Incoming tides direct herring into the weir and the shape of the net keeps the fish inside. Weirs used to dot the entire coast of Maine, however, the last working weirs in the area are now only located in the Bay of Fundy and many of these are abandoned each year and taken by the sea. I have been photographing their immense, haunting forms for several years creating a final record of this ancient, beautiful and sustainable form of fishing.

The Woods of Crying Souls project concerning slavery began on a trip to the South a few years ago when I encountered extant slave cabins that were literally falling into the ground. Fearing the memory and horror of slavery will become even more distant without these tangible reminders of the past prompted me to begin what is still very much an unfinished project. Originally, I photographed the cabins but the palpable, haunting emotional vibrations coming from the ancient trees that had stood witness, the hand-dug irrigation canals amongst the alligators and hanging moss, burial mounds in unmarked slave cemeteries … all whispered their stories through the trees.

Your images are so powerful with poignant stories often relating to issues of human sadness and/or suffering, and yet your photographs are beautiful, often haunting, always mysterious. Can you explain the part that beauty plays in your message?

Beauty is the siren song to draw the viewer in so the story can unfold.

Is photographing these subjects cathartic for you?

No, just the opposite. Although there is always peace that comes with being alone outside, often at first light.

You’re using wet plate collodion and silver printing for these two groups. Please tell us about each process, why you’ve chosen them and their effects on the final images.

The wet plate collodion process, which I have been using for the project about slavery, is a 19th century photographic process that was in practice beginning in the 1850s and was used extensively during the Civil War by Mathew Brady (1823–96) and Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840–82), a former apprentice to Brady. Negatives are made directly on glass plates while positives are made on aluminum sheets called tintypes. I felt it was important to match the medium to the time period of the subject. I have a darkroom in the back of my car as the wet plate process requires the image to be developed immediately while it is still wet. This allows me to create on location, while the essence of the place is fully with me.

I have printed the negatives from both projects with the silver gelatin process, finding a handmade silver print from an actual negative to be ever so much more beautiful than a digital print.

What does being an artist mean to you?

I consider it a gift, not to be squandered.

What do you hope to give people through these photographs?

It seems the world consciousness is (thankfully) rapidly expanding concerning both the issues of racism and the human impact on the environment. I hope my work is a visual contribution to this dialogue.


Summer Squash, diptych
Summer Garden, Study II
Summer Garden, Study III
Water Lilies
Goatsbeard Seed Heads
Sweet Peas, Study I
Sweet Peas, Study II
The Edge of the Woods, Ferns, Vines and Grasses, triptych

What a departure from the first two groups! Why the change and when did it happen?

Yes, a big change! All this past winter I had been working on a terrifying project about climate change called In Extremis, but when the corona virus struck this spring on top of Black Lives Matter and all the desperation in the world, I hit a wall, and felt I desperately needed to tap into joy, with the natural world always as solace. My husband and I had just moved to a beautiful old farm outside of Castine and it just took me by the hand and drew me outside to explore the land and find the absolute joy of PLACE.

Are your subjects from your garden?

The subjects are both from my garden and the surrounding meadows, as well as from Clayfield Farm in Blue Hill, where my friend Deborah Wiggs grows beautiful flowers on her farm.

Why did you choose these particular plants, vegetables and flowers?

I chose the plants based on what was growing together at that particular time. As in the piece Mid Summer Wildflowers—all of those plants were growing together in the meadow in late July—tansy, goldenrod, grasses, bittersweet.

What is cyanotype?

Cyanotype is a 19th century photographic process. In this case I made photograms—a completely camera-less process—painting cyanotype chemicals (iron salts) on watercolor paper, laying the botanicals directly on the sensitized paper and then exposing them to the sun for long periods of time, often over a few days.

The actual essences of the plants are what is creating the effects as plant juices, seeds and delicate petals get immersed in the paper and moisture from both the plants and the environment develop certain parts of the print. It is quite a collaboration with nature!

I choose the plants for their shape and beauty, lay them on the paper, and then the sun, moisture and botanicals do the rest! It’s always a joy and a complete surprise when after 10–20 hours of exposure to the elements, I remove the plants to see what they have created.

You mentioned that these are all quite large … what size are they and why?

Yes, they are all quite large as they are mirrors of the actual plants. The corn, for example, is 24 x 48 inches because an entire cornstalk was used to make the image.

Do you print at your studio?

Yes, I have a darkroom and studio at my home in Castine.

What do you hope to give people through these photographs?

A bit of joy through a close look at nature’s work.

. . .
Represented by:
Kingman Gallery, Deer Isle
Courthouse Gallery, Ellsworth
Full Fathom Five Gallery, Eastport

. . .

Favorite …
Comfort food and time of day or night you most enjoy it?
My daily comfort = A giant mug of coffee at 4 a.m., and multi-grain toast from Tinder Hearth Bread (in Brooksville), while sitting outside with my husband watching our ducks on the pond as the light begins to emerge across the meadow, getting ready to make art. What a lucky gal!

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