Standing on the shore, you squint to see the horizon line, softened by trees. You lean back and the perspective shifts, your view softens further, disrupted by a shadow, the crunch of dried leaves. You look to the side and the scene has become dark yet you recognize the shape of the tree. What did you just see and how do you remember it? Was the lake frozen? Were those branches or roots?

In Julie Hamel’s Altered Negative 1 & 2 (Oak), we are presented with two views of a scene, areas hidden and revealed. Dialogues open up between the two prints, two image objects, two negatives. The work asks where does the photographer’s studio end and nature begin? What is the space between memory and experience? Analog techniques and abstracted forms animate scenes of nature and domestic interiors, creating images that walk the line between the foreign and familiar.

Altered Negative 2 (oak). Large format film. © Julie Hamel

Through her series Altered Negatives, we are invited to step inside the passage of time. Layer by layer a narrative, almost dreamlike in its construction, unfolds. Memory is a subjective space, open to interpretation. Strands of beetles may be fairy lights, spidery lines become stitches of hair, and translucent strips show themselves to be studio tape.

Hamel’s photographs take time and its recollection and reproduction—in all of its shape shifting, fragile, interpretative aspects—as a major theme. Playing off of the technical and physical qualities of film, the images become worlds unto themselves, highlighting the possibilities and impossibilities of the medium itself. Through the phenomenon of film reciprocity failure, Hamel became interested in the ability of film to stand in for relationships: once an exposure time surpasses a certain threshold, the film loses its potency and begins, in a sense, to forget to record a certain amount of light. It is similar to the way in which the further we get from an experience the spottier our memory of it becomes. “When the film gets to a point over a long exposure, where it is basically failing or slowly dying, I thought, how can this medium do that?” she reflects on her interest. “And, how can it resonate as an aftermath of a relationship? This continuing state of sensitivity was so intriguing to me.”

Altered Negative 1 (leaf). Large format film with leaf and thread. © Julie Hamel

A pinhole camera allows for trace elements of the extended exposures to appear and disappear. The camera beautifully mimics the hazy edges of memory. In physically layering two sheets of film, Hamel builds a connection that she will later sever. Objects are stuck, in complete darkness, to the unexposed film which project and block various forms and light.

Dark swathes of ground highlight absence and yet even the empty spaces contain information. They point to a form of presence that is enriched by loss, by distance. Just because we cannot see something doesn’t mean it isn’t or wasn’t there. The viewer is given access to the memory of the event, from two perspectives. One can focus on the details, the searing points, and then turn and take in the surroundings, as if stepping back and considering from afar.

Altered Negative 2 (hali). Large format film. © Julie Hamel

In describing her earliest interests in photography, she explains, “that thought of being a keeper of memory was really exciting to me, because photographs are memories.” Memory, of course, is complicated; it is deeply sensual and subjective. We associate a scent with a person, we remember the song that played in the bar, the feel of an old shirt. Hamel’s photographs have the slightly soft lens of reminiscence. There is an intimacy that comes through the gauzy light, the fingerprints, ghost-like elements that accumulate, the veins of leaves, the pieces of hair. Utilizing organic materials amidst the chemicals of analog processes, a type of magic results out of the darkroom. “By being able to make things by hand, not only did I make it, and I was the only one that could make that, but it’s also putting myself into an object,” Hamel notes.

Altered Negative 1 (ladies). Large format film with asian lady beetles, hair, glue, and tape. © Julie Hamel

In Ladies, Hamel presents an interior lit from a window, a lone female figure leaning casually, perhaps lost in thought, against the sill encircled by a strand of lady beetles. The paired image reveals that figure to be a mannequin turning its meaning on its head or in this case lack thereof. In Leaf 1 a field of bright white petunias is overlaid with leaf fragments, their veins aglow as if electrified. In Leaf 2, the scene becomes completely transformed, the flowers are swallowed by a constellation of slight spots against an inky sky. In Window, one feels as if they could reach out and brush their hands against the locks of hair and the flower petals that burn with light. In the second image, they disappear and the eye is drawn to a crystal glass on the window ledge.

Altered Negative 1 (insect). Large format film with bumble bee, leaves, branch, thread, plastic, and tape. © Julie Hamel

“It is surely this combination of the haptic and the visual, this entanglement of touch and sight that makes photography so compelling a medium,” Geoffrey Batchen wrote in Forget Me Not : Photography and Remembrance. Hamel understands the impact of the two together. Her photographs exist as large scale prints as well as framed three-dimensional image objects. The pairings speak to the multiple lives and connections of images. In spending time with these variations, we begin to build the narrative, to occupy the empty spaces, to question what we see. The artist herself notes that “when these pieces are blown up, this fantastical world that’s not even known to me reveals itself”. In Hamel’s images, the alchemy of photography combines to show us not just a moment captured but a span of time that has been built as well as lived.

Editor’s Note: We discovered this excellent work through LensCulture’s Critics’ Choice Awards 2021. Discover more inspiring award-winning photography here.