Preserving Vintage Vibes

Photographer and collage artist Stephanie Williamson uses hand-painted photographs and alternative and old-school photo processes in her artwork.


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Stephanie Williamson is a longtime Alamedan.

Photo by Andrea Sher

For Alameda photographer, collage artist, and writer Stephanie Williamson, an early fascination blossomed into a life’s work. Growing up in Greenwich Village, New York City, with her journalist parents, she was captivated at an early age by the photographs of Diane Arbus, many of them made in Washington Square Park where Williamson played as child. “We certainly weren’t short on stimulation in New York in the ’60s and ’70s,” she said, which included access to museums, performances, and a rich street culture.

Williamson attended Tufts University in Massachusetts, with a focus on drama and literature and didn’t embrace making art until her senior year after taking a class with Austrian-born photographer Siegfried Halus. Soon after, she received an Olympus OM-1 as a Christmas gift from her dad and took to the streets of Somerville, Mass., to find her first images. After graduating in 1982, Williamson moved immediately to the Bay Area, settling in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood for a year before moving to the East Bay.

Williamson worked odd jobs in San Francisco and Berkeley and took photography classes through CCA Extension and UC Extension. After two years working in a commercial photo lab in Berkeley, she decided to return to school, completing her master’s in photography and interdisciplinary arts at San Francisco State University in 1990. Williamson eventually landed in Alameda where she and her husband have lived for the past 26 years, raising their two children. She has taught photography all over the Bay Area since 1988 and is currently on staff as an instructor at City College of San Francisco and Solano Community College.

Through her studies, she fell in love with hand-painted photographs, alternative and old-school photo processes, and making books by hand. Williamson works simultaneously from a Jingletown studio in Oakland — a purple building covered with mosaics that once housed The Institute of Mosaic Art — and at her home in Alameda and in the studios of the colleges where she teaches. Though much of her work is digital, she still shoots film and processes black and whites, van Dyke brown prints, and cyanotypes in the darkroom. Recently, she used a vintage 1967 Polaroid Land camera to shoot a series of portraits.

stephanie williamson, Untitled cyanotope

Artist Stephanie Williamson likes mixing media but is especially drawn to photography. 

“It’s a cumbersome camera with a bellows and the film is precious since its manufacture has been discontinued. There are only 10 shots per pack of film, which makes the process much slower and more thoughtful,” she said.

Overall, her work has a vintage vibe that reminds viewers of a past that no longer exists. A recent landscape series made on infrared film in a plastic camera presents dreamy, surreal images distilled and preserved, as though intended for a time capsule. Her collages and dioramas are sourced from vintage photographs of her family or flea market finds then superimposed over disparate yet familiar backgrounds. “They all present some timeless and/or darkly humorous aspect of childhood,” she said. And after finding a collection of landscapes she shot of San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point and Portola neighborhoods in the late 1980s, she plans to photograph there again to show the drastic changes made by gentrification.

Williamson’s work is linked to her passions for literature, music, and film, citing writer Rebecca Solnit, painter Edward Hopper, and filmmaker Jeanne C. Finley as influences. She often collaborates with writers, musicians, and artists in her circle, creating album cover art and professional portraits. An unforced intimacy in her images makes viewers feel like they might be part of that circle, too. “I hope that people recognize something universal in my work, whether it be amusing, melancholy, or evocative of something experienced or witnessed. If it’s something I didn’t intend, so much the better. I like to create images that hold a little mystery or pose an unanswered question,” Williamson said.

Williamson is exhibiting in the Exquisite Little Things show at the Gray Loft Gallery in Jingletown with a closing reception on Dec. 14. She is also participating in the Jingletown Art Studios Winter Art Walk, Dec. 1, 2, and 14. For more information, visit her website at StePhoto.net. Read personal essays on her blog, New York Kid, at SWilliamsonPhoto.wordpress.com.

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