Joe Della Valle is a photographer who makes silver gelatin prints, that old-school analog medium of dodging, burning, cropping and spotting fame. His life partner Alex Rheault is a painter who founded the now-wandering arts project venue “drawing room.” They are also art partners: Alex isn’t just Joe’s muse, but his model as well.
Joe teaches photography at UNE and runs Safelight Studios in Portland, a darkroom space dedicated to analog black and white photography. Alex writes, curates, and teaches at UNE and Artascope. She has been modelling since her twenties for artists, illustrators, and photographers.
In terms of trust and communication, who would make a better muse than an artist’s romantic partner?
But this quite simply doesn’t work for many couples. There are different roles for models and photographers and varying expectations. In film, for example, Americans tend to prioritize the role of the actor over the director, while with photography we assign virtually all of the artistry to the photographer.
It would be one thing for a couple to go out and play with the camera — photography can be fun after all (and if you’ve never done this, you ought to try it). But Della Valle is a professional and his work isn’t play. It’s work and artistry at the highest level. His medium is silver gelatin printing — the standard black and white analog film-based practice that has dominated ambitious photography since the mid/late nineteenth century. It takes a great amount of time and skill to do it well.
Some of Della Valle’s finished prints happen quickly: The contact print looks good and he needs to do little. But some of his prints take 15 hours to complete through multiple test prints, tweaking the developing, dodging, burning, bleaching, bathing, fixing, toning, fixing again and spotting. And this is normal for most any skilled photographer with high standards working in the wake of Edward Weston, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Walker Evans, Eugene Meatyard, Paul Caponigro and so many others.
Silver gelatin printing can be complex, sophisticated, subtle and refined. It’s also powerful. A skilled printer can make almost anything happen — which is why so many Photoshop controls are named and designed after silver gelatin darkroom techniques. In the hands of masters, it’s an art as nuanced as any other.
Della Valle is an exacting artist. Whoever his subject is, he is demanding. Fortunately, the person he knows and likes best in the world has a great working relationship with him. And they know that their working relationship is different from others because of the trust and boundaries Joe and Alex have set for their photographic interactions.
J: I’ll tell her what to do, and I’ll even physically position her.
A: That’s not normal — like most models, I rarely let a photographer touch me — but that is part of my working relationship with Joe. With us, it’s about staying connected.
J: In our relationship, we are very physical anyway.
A: Joe will come right into my space. He can see the photograph from that perspective. He uses a large format view camera. It takes a lot of time and physical interaction just to deal with the equipment.
J: And that means Alex often has to hold poses for a while. But it’s completely comfortable. Still, Alex takes on this anonymous figure that moves throughout the frame.
This is a key point: There is motion in Joe’s pictures. Most of the works in his recent Raptured Moments series use multiple exposures in which Alex either is seen as moving or as multiple, separate figures.
In Footing, for example, Alex’s feet move. We see this as multiplicities and then interpret it as motion. There are different effects among similar works, and so there are very different ways of seeing such images. They can be dynamic, fleeting, dancy, monstrous or uncomfortably uncanny.
For Grotto, Joe had Alex move to four different poses in four different spots. We might recognize the repetition of the same sun dress, but we still see a narrative scene with four figures. In Afternoon Tea, Alex occupies four places around a garden table. The effect here is somewhere between ghostly and a charming nod to Claude Monet whose first wife, Camille Doncieux, posed for all four figures in his 1866 Women in the Garden. It was an approach Monet used repeatedly throughout his career.
Despite the physicality of the view camera, the model and the settings that Joe photographs, he has a sense for the immaterial and dreamlike imagery. His figures are often fleeting among solid landscapes. Unlike Afternoon Tea, for example, Alex’s multiple figures in Garden Passage appear to be walking away, or, rather, fading away. The narrative thus shifts from a scene to something else, like a memory or a dream. This kind of work represents its own lyrical mode within the decidedly non-literal Raptured Moments series.
J: I guess at the core of my work is the question: “What is reality?” But it comes from either person’s view, or both of our views. We all take away something that’s different. Part of the work is based on that. How much of it is reality? How much of it is dreamlike? How much of it is spiritual? And much of that comes from our personal relationship and what we each bring to that relationship: our personal experiences, and individual spiritual paths.
In other words, Joe relies on his deep relationship with Alex to activate multiple perspectives of subjectivity within his photographs. The viewer can identity with either the photographer’s perspective or the model’s. Joe makes the pictures and the prints, but he works hard not to overdetermine the viewer’s perspective.
A: Joe’s directing the work makes it more his work. He is more directive with me than most photographers. He has a lot of vision. He’ll take apart a room. Other photographers I’ve worked with may feel it is enough for them just to watch me. Some just want to see what the model will do, and I do have my own style of posing. Joe has a previsualization of how he wants me to move through the space. I comply with this vision willingly most of the time. I get cranky sometimes, as the process requires patience, waiting, and changes.
J: I’ll take Alex’s emotional comfort into account; we talk through changes and needs. But I am often demanding and dominate the session.
A: We sometimes push each other, but there are limits, like safety limits. At a quarry once, vertigo got to me, so we moved on. I’m usually willing to go that extra mile to endure conditions of holding a stance because I trust Joe. We’re patient with each other most of the time.
J: It’s about trust. I will push Alex’s limits to get her outside of her comfort zone.
A: (Nods in agreement.) It’s seasonal work, as outside is a challenge in winter, and some spaces indoors are cold. It’s our age, time is short, we both live very productive lives in community and jobs, and the scheduling can be a challenge. We might have a couple of days to shoot, and then we’re limited by light and weather. And Joe needs time to print. This particularly matters when he’s preparing for a show. We both understand what has to happen.
J: I know how she walks through a room. I’ve been watching her for a long time. I like the way she moves. I try to make the most of that. There is an image in a show right now that she doesn’t like — Chute the Chute — but there’s a sexual tension, a strangeness to it and I really like that. It was an early piece in the series, and it has helped the series progress.
A: Joe and I might disagree about something. But we’re comfortable sharing opinions because that’s how Joe might find a different perspective. Though we talk about the work together, the ultimate decision is his.
Chute the Chute shows Alex lying on her stomach on the floor, facing away from the camera. She’s wearing a striped jersey but is nude from the waist down. It is a particularly unusual nude because she is waving her feet back and forth. This adds dynamism and a somewhat sexualized rhythmic motion to the figure, but it also cuts her off from the viewer and physically blocks them. It’s an intense image: part tense and part playful. It hints at narrative and possibility, but the image insistently refuses to resolve itself to any specific strand or story. Spatially and metaphorically, it’s impenetrable.
Joe said it was an important photograph for his finding a vision for the Raptured Moments series that has dominated his production over the past couple of years.
J: I use multiple exposures to disturb the moment, make the predictable unpredictable. I maintain a certain tactility about an image which is inherently fleeting and ephemeral. Impermanence is what I am dealing with. This photo had some unusual qualities. When I asked Alex if it was okay to print the image, she said, “Of course, it’s your work. It’s your call.”
A: That’s exactly right. I had no problem with it at all. I’ll support him in anything he wants to do and I value and respect his artistic vision.
Image at top of page: Joe Della Valle, “McArthur’s Attendant”, Raptured Moments series, silver gelatin print, 2018