Dodging digital

“I don’t want to be a daguerreotype,” photographer Amy James laments. She is explaining her struggle with an increasingly digital world. Referring to the first known photographic process, she feels like people are forgetting about the art and science of developing film when it’s so easy for anyone with a point-and-shoot camera to click away.

James photographs people. In black and white. On film. Only. Now, don’t get her wrong. James knows there is a place for digital, like documentary wedding photography and photojournalism.

“I’m not looking down on digital photographers; I just personally don’t want to sit at my computer to make art,” she says. She has a point. No one really knows exactly how long a digital print will last. The old sepia photographs of her grandparents are still as resilient as ever. “It scares me that this new art form might not be worth my time and effort,” she says.

And James has put in a lot of time. She has followed some of her subjects from the time they were nine months old to when they were college students. “With people,” she explains, “I will never be bored. They are endlessly intriguing.” As a young mother in the mid-1980s, she began to photograph her own child. Slowly her friends started calling, asking if she could photograph their kids. This is how her business began.

Originally from north Louisiana, James has been in Baton Rouge for ages. She graduated from LSU in 1985. She majored in painting and began casually taking photography classes to fill some credits. It was in those classes where she studied under “the greats,” as she calls them—the notorious trifecta of photography professors composed of AJ Meek, Michael Book and Tom Neff. James quickly realized that a darkroom was just as challenging as a clean canvas—she could easily spend 10 hours processing and developing film in the darkroom without realizing it. Now James works from her darkroom at home and still feeds off of the obsession, the madness, of wanting to perfect each frame. “I want to be in the darkroom, crying and screaming, ‘I’ve got it!’” she says.

James shows her work across South Louisiana, locally at Baton Rouge Gallery, where she is an Artist Liaison, and at The Grapevine in Donaldsonville. Her portraits of family and children have the eerily captivating feel of Amy Mann’s work, and her portraits of women, the striking majesty of Keith Carter’s images. What James is so good at capturing is the honesty of her subjects, the starkness of their features and expressions.

The series of work she does for herself to feed her creativity tends to have a heavier, more serious feel. Her last two shows dealt with addiction; Reflection (2009) portrayed the “hurricane” of addiction, and Transcendence (2010) showed the renewal process that comes with trying to overcome addiction.

James has set her sights on publishing a book of her work that will follow her favorite subjects—the ones she feels closest to. When possible, James likes to photograph them in the same locations, wearing clothing similar to that in the original portrait. It is a way to show how much the people and the landscape have changed. The book will serve as a photographic time-capsule of our city, too, documenting the many stages of Baton Rouge’s growth. amyjamesphoto.com