conversations – Interview by Margaret Murphy – 06.04.2023
ERIKA WEITZ: ART AS ALCHEMY
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY & AI
Erika Weitz is an artistic alchemist. Not only do they use the scientific concepts of alchemy in their dark room practice of collodion wet plate photography, but they see the process of art making as a conjuring of dimensions between artist, subject, style, and experience. In conversation with Head of Community, Margaret Murphy, Weitz discusses the incorporation of AI into traditional artistic mediums, intuition in creative conception, and the importance of storytelling as a citizen of the world.
To Weitz, photography and international travel are two halves of one whole. Being able to bring stories to life, either of subjects they encounter on their journeys or ones they construct in their studio, and thus honoring humanity's beautiful uniqueness, lies at the core of Weitz's creative motivation. These stories unfold across multiple mediums, from painting to large-format alternative processes to digital manipulation through AI. Weitz is fearless and dedicated when it comes to their craft, and the result is art that is compelling in its sensitivity and imaginative nature.
Margaret Murphy: Your artistic journey started with painting. What motivated you to pick up a camera and move into photography?
Erika Weitz: I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember. It’s the one thing I’ve done consistently for my whole life. I took a darkroom photography class in high school, but traveling is really what locked it in for me. I started solo traveling internationally at age 17, and I fell in love with traveling and photography simultaneously. The two fit together in such a way that the lens became my way of understanding not only the world but myself.
MM: Painting and photography are characteristically very different artistic mediums. What is the continuous thread between the two for you creatively?
EW: Painting is more of a solo endeavor—more internal, involving long hours in conversation with myself. Whereas with photography, whether documentary or conceptual, it is fairly external, as I’m usually working with other people. I tend towards the figure and portraiture because I'm interested in human emotions and the psyche. I’ve been working in sculpture a lot lately as well, which soothes a different part of my brain—a longing to be in the vastness of nature. To me, these mediums are all different channels of expression but stem from the same source.
MM: When working on a series, which comes first—the concept or the artwork?
EW: There's no formula. I like to act as a channel and call things in, but I also like to loosen my grip on controlling the process. Sometimes the concept hits me, and then I figure out the execution. Other times, it's in the act of creating that the concept reveals itself, almost like an archeologist digging in hopes to discover something. The key to that process is discipline; you have to be willing to get your hands dirty.
MM: Los Angeles, California, is your home base, but you have made art all over the world. How does a global perspective play a role in your work?
EW: On a personal level, traveling has shaped me into who I am. Exposure to as much of the world as possible has helped me form a worldview that is both specific and universal. I hope the work I create both acknowledges, respects, and honors the complexity and beauty of that experience. I stand in gratitude to all who have shared their energy and culture with me, and I remain dedicated to creating with an integrity that reveres that cross-pollination. We have a lot to learn from each other, and I'm happy to be a student of that knowledge.
MM: Alternatively, how does Los Angeles inspire you?
EW: I love LA. LA is such a strange place, but it has this energy about it that has kept me here. Living in downtown LA, I used to step outside my building and see how many languages I could hear being spoken within earshot. It could easily be up to 5 or 6. Most of the world is represented in this city, and culture and community are two things that are very important to me. Also outside the freeways, LA has the ocean, the desert, forests, and mountains all nearby. My next series is a sort of love letter to the chaos of LA. The city is so multi-dimensional, and it has explored over a decade of my experience here.
MM: As someone who has worked in the very physical artistic methods of painting followed by photography, one would think you would perhaps reject the use of artificial intelligence in your practice. What inspired you to start working with AI in mid-2022?
EW: I do prefer physically working with my hands to staring at a screen, but there are some serious advantages to working in a realm outside of the physical. There’s a very strong purist attitude in a lot of mediums. I work with wet plate collodion from the 1850s. AI seems to be at odds with some of that mentality. I try to approach it with non-judgment. My sole purpose is to express myself as clearly and truthfully as possible. Sometimes that’s in the form of burning wood with a blowtorch; sometimes that’s with AI. The path to get there is less important to me than my determination to be on the journey.
MM: With AI programs like Midjourney becoming more photorealistic in their version updates, there are many discussions about the relationship between AI and photography. You choose to work with them simultaneously. How does AI influence your photographic practice, and vice versa?
EW: It’s ever-evolving. Working with one of the first-ever photographic processes from the 1850s and with AI, I constantly see parallels between the two. Throughout my life, photography has gone through so many evolutions that I never saw it as one thing; it has always been fluid. Working with wet plates and AI has opened some really interesting conversations about reality. Conceptually, for me, it is a tool that helps me blur the lines of time and space.
MM: You have recently been using AI to simulate nude figures and have been met with community guideline violations on social media. Do you anticipate having to adapt your artistic vision to avoid your work being censored?
EW: I’m constantly in shadowban. This work exists—maybe not uncensored on the major platforms, but it exists. The work has a life outside the algorithm, but you might have to come to a show to see it in its true form. I feel very strongly about freedom of expression and women's bodies, human or AI, not being subject to puritanical censorship.
MM: You have described your artistic practice as making art with alchemy. The idea of photography as alchemy makes technical sense, but is there more to it than just chemical reactions?
EW: Alchemy is literally the precursor to chemistry, which is what made photography possible in the first place. My darkroom is a chemistry lab. In a more esoteric view, the alchemical transmutation of matter mirrors the transformation of one’s inner spiritual world. My practice is rooted in both.
MM: Is there alchemy to Artificial Intelligence?
EW: Any ritual practice can have deep and profound effects if approached with that intention. Especially one where you have such a direct line of communication with an entity advancing as fast as AI. Religions have been started for less.
MM: Your artistic medium of choice is wet plate photography. Requiring patience and precision, it is uncommon to see artists creating photographs this way. How did you start working with wet plates?
EW: When I moved to LA, digital photography became more commercial for me. It went from being transformational to transactional. I was also spending more time editing than shooting. Wet plate collodion didn’t make any sense to start because I couldn’t afford the equipment and there was almost no information available. But the slow pace and the ritual romance of the process made me fall completely in love. Light-activated silver on black metal—that called to me. I couldn’t have predicted it, but here I am, almost 10 years later, still loving the mystery of what the chemicals can do. The addition of AI in the darkroom has opened an entirely new path for me in wet plate.
MM: In using the wet plate photography technique, or "tintypes," as they are colloquially called, your subjects are often represented in more futuristic or contemporary ways via their clothing, accessories, or other embellishments. What does this juxtaposition of historical technique meeting contemporary subject matter mean in your work?
EW: I’m very interested in the deep past and far future. I see time as cyclical and on a forward-moving coil. I aim to challenge and expand the way we experience our inner and outer worlds. The AI and Alchemy work is capturing the descendants of data from a historical process, making those borders of time and space more porous.
Erika Weitz is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Los Angeles, CA. Their work focuses on themes of the deep past, and far future, and how the human psyche travels within those realms. Weitz aims to challenge and expand the way we experience our inner and outer worlds.
Weitz has shown their work in solo exhibitions in Los Angeles as well as group exhibitions such as Scope Contemporary during Art Basel Miami and internationally in Korea, Paris and Berlin. Press features of Weitz's work include publications such as Metaphysical LA, LA Weekly, and Artillery Magazine. Weitz has been a guest lecturer on NFTs and protest art at the University of Colorado.
Erika Weitz is part of the group exhibition RECOLLECTION. AI AND MEMORY that takes place on the occasion of NFT.NYC in collaboration with The NFT Gallery in New York and London, 11 April - 13 May 2023.