Something Missing, Something Hidden

"There’s a huge gap between the experiences we feel compelled to record and the experiences that stay with us regardless of documentation"

Elizabeth Amber Rudnick, whose work is featured in Issue #55, is a multi-media artist living in Pittsburgh. Born in Denmark, she earned her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 2012. Through a combination of abstract painting and photography, she explores themes of memory and desire and the ever-shifting boundaries between physical and psychological space.

Rudnick’s work in the issue involves obscuring photographs with gouache or whiteout, transforming reality. The photos, often involving celebrating milestones or everyday moments captured on film, come from her family’s collection.

CNF: What inspired you to work with family photos?

RUDNICK: Two years ago, I was in my parents’ basement looking for raw material to work with, and came across the giant plastic Tupperware that holds their photo albums. Like most of us, I’m always consuming images digitally, so the experience of sorting through these physical objects was really bizarre. They felt precious and real, like a limited resource. I wanted to explore that paradox and felt compelled to use the prints themselves. Also, unless you come from a family of photographers, the compositions of family photos are always really bad. I wanted to see if I could make successful paintings out of them.

CNF: Your work in this collection has a ghostlike, haunting element to it, as if you’ve erased most identifying features of people and places. Was this intentional?

RUDNICK: When people first encounter this work, their reactions are invariably along the lines of, “whoa, spooky.” This initial reading makes sense; if you think of ghosts as ex-people, then by obscuring the intended subjects of these photographs with gouache or whiteout, I’m essentially making ghosts. Some of the images are more playful. I’m particularly thinking about the images that highlight big fancy cakes. Overall, though, yes: the feeling is one of something missing, something hidden.

CNF: How has your family reacted to the collection, and to being blurred out of their photos? Did you have a conversation with them about what you were doing before you began? Did they set any rules?

RUDNICK: If they’re offended, they haven’t told me! When I first asked for these photographs, it had been at least a year since anyone had last looked at them. My parents had been taking digital images since I was in high school, and the physical prints from my childhood had gotten slowly relegated from the kitchen table to the office closet and eventually to that bin in the basement. Going through them with my mother brought back the individual memories attached to the pictures, and I had this realization that by doing this I was both reminding her of their value and asking to rob her.

CNF: I noticed a lot of the photos you work with in this issue center around your family gatherings, such as birthdays. Was this a deliberate choice? Often, the birthday cake is the only thing left untouched. Why?

RUDNICK: The vast majority of the photos in the albums were of family gatherings, so the series reflected that. 

The way people were framed, their interactions, and the relationships present in the photos all interested me … but the thing that really caught my attention was the cake. Cake was everywhere. I mean, I’m looking at my family album and this fluffy sweet bread object shows up more often than any given member of my family. Furthermore, in every picture where cake is present, it’s always the main subject. Cake sits dead center, seat of honor, and everyone crowds around it. It’s kind of absurd; I felt like I needed to point that out.

CNF: What types of photos didn’t make the cut? What was the common thread among the photos you chose to work with?

RUDNICK: I was looking for photos that could illustrate the gap between what we try to capture and the information that gets transmitted in the process. By and large, the ones that did this successfully were those with unintentional subjects: cakes, random buildings, a beanbag chair…

CNF: You say you’re fascinated by the things that people choose to capture, save, and share about their lives through photos. What has creating this collection revealed to you about memory? Has your work with photos changed the way you take photos?

RUDNICK: I’m not sure I know yet how the series has affected the way I take photos, but it has certainly made me think about memory. There’s a huge gap between the experiences we feel compelled to record and the experiences that stay with us regardless of documentation. No one remembers every birthday party they’ve ever had; we remember the fight we got into at school the next day. Our memories of people come in and out of focus, blurring with time and blasted back into clarity by a song on the radio or someone’s drifting cologne. I’d love to find more ways to articulate that visually.

There’s a huge gap between the experiences we feel compelled to record and the experiences that stay with us regardless of documentation.

CNF: What did you set out to convey through this collection? How does the end result compare to what you initially envisioned?

RUDNICK: It was clear from the beginning that I wanted to explore the paradoxical shifts of value that family photos have experienced with the advent of social media and digital imaging. I also knew that I wanted to talk about memory. That said, in the beginning I was more concerned with color, and found myself making images that resembled Gerhard Richter’s overpainted photographs from the ‘90s, but not as good. Then, I took a bottle of whiteout to one of the photos, and I was way more jazzed about that painting than anything that came before it. I realized I had been embellishing when what I actually wanted to do was erase.

CNF: Was this your first time working with existing media? What challenges does working with photographs present? What about the benefits?

RUDNICK: A lot of my work involves transforming existing media. One previous project, “Drowning is a Quiet Event,” started with a large digital print of my bedroom I then painted on to convey the experience of living there.

The photograph stood in for the real, and my interventions with paint and charcoal represented the memories that occupy that space. Much of my process is driven by this desire to combine the languages of painting and photography. It’s interesting; despite the proliferation of photo editing, photography still has this automatic relationship to observed reality, whereas painting is taken to be more psychological and subjective. It can be challenging to start with photographs because of their specificity, but when I can blur the relationship between the real and the superimposed, I know I’ve hit a good chord.

CNF: What story do you aim to tell through your art?


CNF: What is your creative process usually like?

RUDNICK: It usually starts with a word or phrase scribbled on a piece of bar-room receipt paper or the back of an envelope. Those ideas get stuck in my head and plugged into Google image search or projected onto things.

I’m looking at and reading, and hopefully something interesting comes out of it. Painting was my first language, so everything I make gets filtered through that medium. Beyond that point, my process for making art can be a lot of different things … but it’s always messy, always a little bit destructive, and always incredibly satisfying.

About the Author

Katie McGrath

Katie McGrath is a former editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a young writer living in Pittsburgh. She is currently working as a digital editorial assistant at Architectural Digest. Her work and more can be found here. 

View Essays