Seeing Beauty in Tragedy: An Interview with Bonnie Portelance

© Bonnie Portelance
© Bonnie Portelance

Fine art photographer Bonnie Portelance is what you might call a bit of a late bloomer.

“Going into college I had no idea what I wanted to do. I grew up with a great love of music and played the bassoon in high school. At first, I thought I would study music, but then I realized that all music professionals had to have piano as a basic skill. We were too poor to ever have a piano, so I gave up on that idea. Eventually, a friend lent me their camera and I realized that I wanted pursue photography,” she relayed recently while we walked through the PooL Art Fair held at the Gershwin Hotel in Manhattan.

© Bonnie Portelance, Adam.
© Bonnie Portelance, Adam.

“When I first decided to go to school for photography I was 22 and the application period had just passed. So I spent the next year as a waitress, took pictures all year and then reapplied. At first, I was put on the waiting list, but ultimately got in. I graduated from Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, Canada in 1995 with a Bachelors of Art in Photography.”

“Although I studied fine art photography in school, I was interested in architectural photography and wanted to pursue that as my career. However, I had student loans to pay. So, I went to Asia with the intentions teaching ESL for a year, after which I would return home to Toronto and begin work as an architectural photographer. I ended up staying in Korea for three years. Upon my return, I worked as an architectural photographer in Washington, DC for a year.”

“Until recently, I’ve always been restless and eager to move on, often changing my identity and address every couple of years. My parents had a tumultuous relationship and so my family ended up traveling a lot. We’d all be together in Toronto one year and then I’d find myself in Philly with my mother and her family the next. Eventually, I left home when I was 17. As a result, I’ve long had a thing for adventure.”

“It was in South Korea where I had a chance to first exhibit my photography that my latent penchant for fine art photography caught on fire. So, when I returned to the States I decided to pursue this passion in earnest.”

Ever since then, Bonnie has progressively established herself as a fine art photographer, winning awards and taking part in a number of group and solo exhibitions.

Her most recent exhibit Adorned: Wavelengths of Light opened on March 10 at the John Jay College Art Gallery. She explained that this is the second of four series. “So far, I’ve been working on this project for six years.”

© Bonnie Portelance, Eve.
© Bonnie Portelance, Eve.

Adorned takes its name from the fact that all her photos, which are made of collages of X-rays, include a piece of jewelry in them. Everything from bracelets and necklaces to belt buckles and belly rings are prominently featured in these monochrome wonders, because they stand out in polar contrast to the white bones that these images are meant to reveal.

In her own words, Bonnie explains that the series, “Explores the fine and often wavering line between the beautiful and the grotesque. Twenty years and a thousand X-rays later, I remain captivated by these ghostlike images of our inner selves and of the paradox they portray – the paradox of the unstoppable exposure of frailty against raw and enduring strength. They propose obstacles to overcome and emotions not yet realized. This is where this series begins its journey.”

The photos were first featured in En Foco’s Nueva Luz photographic journal in 2005. Co-founder of En Foco and its Executive Director for over thirty years, Charles Biasiny-Rivera, remarks, “Portelance’s portfolio of glistening, translucent bones is a remarkable group of photographs that immediately seduces you with form and design. But it goes further than aesthetic appeal in that it suggests much deeper properties. I think of the fragility of the self that is so seldom expressed publicly. I think also of structure, which has more to do with strength of our belief and our faith in the betterment of things.”

Biasiny-Rivera’s comments accurately reflect the primary motivations underlying Bonnie’s work. “I make art from X-rays because I’ve had a lot of them in my lifetime. I’ve been a cancer survivor for 25 years now and much of my family died of cancer.”

© Bonnie Portelance, Self-Portrait.
© Bonnie Portelance, Self-Portrait.

As a result, she has been able to take what is commonly perceived as evidence of clinical malignance and inverted these translucent, sometimes harrowing, images into a creative expression and symbol of survival, endurance, and the fragile beauty of life.

“I vividly remember the moment that I began using photographic collages – I was in college and my boyfriend at the time bought me a ticket to London, England, where I spent some part of the trip photographing St. Paul’s Cathedral.”

“Ultimately, I took all the photos I took of this architectural marvel, collaged them together, painted over it, stained it and then photographed the final piece. I loved the results so much, that I applied the technique to my X-rays.”

“And by using x-rays, our internal architecture, I was also able to continue my love of structure, form and design.”

“At first, I used only my own X-rays, but eventually I began collecting other people’s x-rays and integrating them into my work. Now, I have over a thousand of them.”

“Subsequently, I’ve had a lot of motivation to continue this work because people tell me I’ve helped their families deal with what is usually a traumatic experience through my work.”

© Bonnie Portelance, Dog Walker.
© Bonnie Portelance, Dog Walker.

“In 2005 I was given an X-ray by a couple that had a son with a brain tumor. They let me use his x-rays and when they saw the result told me that I helped them cope, because I was able to turn ‘something tragic into something beautiful.’ It is hard not to be inspired when people pay such compliments to your work, which might otherwise be seen as strange, extraordinarily personal and esoteric.”

Adorned: Wavelengths of Light

Curated by Frank Gimpaya
March 3-27, 2010
John Jay College Art Gallery
899 Tenth Avenue, between 58 and 59 Street
New York City

For More Information:
Bonnie at PhotoEye
Bonnie at My Art Space
Bonnie at En Foco

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