Local artist combines glassblowing and photography
Lynn Bierbaum has a deep appreciation for how imperfect memory is, and she continually searches for a way to manifest recollective interpretation in her art. Bierbaum is a graduate student at Rochester Institute of Technology and a unique multimedia artist as well. Originally from Minneapolis, Bierbaum has made the community here her home and the place where she has come to explore photography and glassblowing more completely.
She combines these two mediums into her own distinctive body of work. Bierbaum began her creative journey as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, where she majored in photography. It also happened to be where, in her final semester, she discovered glassblowing. In between receiving her undergraduate degree and attending graduate school, she worked full time as a glass blower for almost five years, including some time at the Corning Museum of Glass. She is currently working toward a master of fine arts degree in photography and related media at RIT. The program gives her the freedom to pair various artistic mediums with photography. Bierbaum’s body of work for her MFA thesis focuses on intertwining photography with glassblowing in a three-dimensional, sculptural way.
Bierbaum is a very technical artist and enjoys that aspect of both photography and glassblowing, so the marriage of the two followed a natural course. The artworks that gave rise to that coupling are representational portraits of friends and family with whom she is no longer in close proximity, a series she calls Holding Hands. As Bierbaum describes it, “The [photographs] are hands holding different objects that pertained to memories I shared with those people.” Using the wet-plate collodion process allowed her to print photos directly onto her glass pieces. One of the first forms of photography, the collodion process was invented and first used in the nineteenth century. Bierbaum learned the process in 2016 and began photographing on sheet glass in the back of a medium format camera. As she learned more about glassblowing, she began to wonder if she could use her knowledge of the wet-plate collodion photography process to apply images to the surface of blown glass forms.
Ideas of how to combine the two mediums teemed in her head. Today, Bierbaum’s process takes place exclusively in the darkroom with digital photographs. Her photos are printed onto a transparency paper as a digital positive, then laid on light-sensitized wet-plate collodion emulsion. She then uses a photographic enlarger light to expose the image. The process may seem confusing, but Bierbaum appreciates that and feels it adds another layer of intrigue to her artwork, compelling people to wonder just how she achieved her result. “It all makes sense once you know the secrets, but until you know those it’s mind boggling,” she says. “I’ve always found those pieces of art—artwork that tricks your mind as to ‘how is that possible?’—to be the most fascinating.” Those who see only pictures of her work assume that her photographs are physically inserted into her blown glass forms, which is not the case. You can only truly appreciate what Bierbaum has created when you see it in person, such as the four pieces in her Holding Hands series, which have been exhibited in several galleries. But this collection is only the beginning of Bierbaum’s artistic exploration.
Her works are ever evolving. Presently, she is shifting away from using glass as a canvas and is instead exploring using glass in the actual image-making process. As part of her thesis, Bierbaum is exploring distorting imagery through the optical qualities of glass and using the properties of glass to alter photographs and the way we view them. She has also expanded her processes to include other historic techniques, such as the silver gelatin process and different types of film. Currently she is working within the RIT glass department making textured glass rondels, or plates. Variations in thickness of the glass rondels create optical differences that Bierbaum uses to photograph through, distorting reality for the viewer. As the negative is exposed onto paper, she uses a glass plate to interrupt the image; as she moves the plate, she disrupts the light’s path to create warped looking prints. She uses black-and-white photography and the silver gelatin method, enlarging the photographs onto silver gelatin paper. Currently her rondels are white or clear glass; she would like to work with color within the glass plates and to experiment with color film. Bierbaum also has combined white and clear glass in a spiral form within a rondel; since white glass completely blocks the light, the rondel moves the light in a spiral pattern. She hopes that eventually these pieces will take up a full wall to completely engulf the viewer in the environment.
There are many ways to make glass beyond just the hot shop, and although Bierbaum does focus her glassmaking on furnace work, she is starting to learn flame working and is also experimenting with kiln work and fused glass. All the glass plates she uses to distort her images are completely flat, with ridges that change optically as they move. “Glass has memory, and it can remember every movement you make, good or bad. Every motion I do with the glass, it remembers,” which, she says, speaks to the core concept of her work: that photography isn’t able to fully capture what we remember in an exact moment because memory fades with time. “The haziness, the faded photographs that I’m making right now are, to me, a truer interpretation of how I remember those moments in my life.”The ability of glass to remember every movement creates what Bierbaum considers a more honest photograph compared to conventional photography, which holds only the briefest moment in time. Using both the traditional medium of photography and the distortion of glass to create clouded reminiscences better expresses Bierbaum’s recollections. Her subject matter is the people she has met on her many travels and her personal memories shared with others. Memories Fading in Time is the title of Bierbaum’s thesis show at RIT scheduled for next spring, which will include her full body of work: wet-plate collodion photographs printed on glass, prints made using the rondels and silver gelatin, and two other projects including photographs encased in resin as well as photos made on thermal paper. Once she has completed her work at RIT, Bierbaum hopes to teach at a university and share the knowledge she has collected over the years.