Bea Nettles and the Mythology of Everyday Life

When American artist Bea Nettles (1946– ) began creating photographic works in the late 1960s, she challenged the concept of what fine art photography could be. Pushing the boundaries of the discipline, she combines craft with photography, while creating autobiographical, woman-centred work.

Nettles draws upon her own life experience to explore themes related to mythology, dreams, womanhood, loss, aging and motherhood.1 Taking a mixed-media approach to photography, she also masterfully blurs the lines between reality and myth. Blending craft with experimental photographic techniques, she creates photographic objects, presenting a dreamlike version of her own life. 

Bea Nettles, Dream Series ... II, 1969. Gelatin silver print, toned, with applied colour.

Bea Nettles, Dream Series ... II, 1969. Gelatin silver print, toned, with applied colour, 23.2 x 50.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Bea Nettles. Photo: NGC


Dream Series II (1969), part of the National Gallery of Canada collection, is a self-portrait. Nettles, whose career focused on the manipulation of photographs before the advent of digital tools such as Photoshop, used alternative processes in this work to create the surreal atmosphere that surrounds her, including the application of colour to a gelatin silver print.

Nettles, who has a background in painting,2 often applies colour to her prints. This effect blurs the lines between photography and painting, as well as the lines between reality and fiction. In this work, the artist appears in the middle, separated from the background. Her arms extend beyond the central frame, blending into the background. Combining multiple images and mediums allows Nettles to produce narrative works that create stories around her own experiences, rather than simply documenting them.  

Storytelling is an essential element in Nettles’ work. The artist has said that she often draws upon inspiration from her upbringing — particularly from her mother, who was a poet. Nettles even collaborated with her mother when making the book The Imaginary Blowtorch.3

Bea Nettles, Queen of Pentacles (self‑portrait), 1970. Silver print on linen with applied colour, stitched, padded, mounted on wood in aluminum.

Bea Nettles, Queen of Pentacles (self‑portrait), 1970. Silver print on linen with applied colour, stitched, padded, mounted on wood in aluminum, frame, 25.9 x 19.5 x 4.5 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Bea Nettles. Photo: NGC

 

Influenced by storytelling and literature, Nettles employs symbolism and metaphor, while also reusing images and ideas to create a body of work illustrating the story of her life.4 The Gallery’s collection includes an example of this in the work Queen of Pentacles (1970). 

Queen of Pentacles combines a gelatin silver print on photo linen with hand stitching and hand colouring. For this self-portrait, Nettles was inspired by the tarot card representing the Queen of Pentacles, stating that she was drawn to the idea because of her love of stars.5 This depiction of herself would be featured again in her work when she created the Mountain Dream Tarot deck in 1975.6

The narrative of Nettles as the Queen of Pentacles is imbued with an atmosphere of fantasy through careful stitching and hand colouring. The stitching outlines both her figure and that of the pillow behind her. By outlining her figure, Nettles separates herself from the background, making herself the focus. Additionally, the stitching on her dress and headband highlights not only the artist, but also the fine details of her outfit. By emphasizing herself and the finer details of her outfit, she creates a whimsical version of herself, thus presenting herself as a character in her own story. 

Bea Nettles has carefully curated a mythical view of her own life. Combining experimental photographic techniques with craft, she creates mesmerizing works that push the boundaries of photography and reality.

Dream Series II and Queen of Pentacles, along with other works by Nettles, are a part of the National Gallery of Canada collection.

 

Biography

Bea Nettles graduated in 1970 with an MFA from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is an accomplished photographer and author who has been publishing and exhibiting work for more than fifty years. In 1984, Nettles returned to Illinois to teach at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is currently Professor Emerita.7

About the Author

Jessica O’Lear is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa, and is currently an intern in the Photography Division of the National Gallery of Canada.

 


1 Nettles, Bea, Jamie M. Allen, Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, and Amy L. Powell. Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory. Edited by Jamie M. Allen and Olivia Lahs-Gonzales. First edition. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019), p. 16.

2 Nettles,Bea and Mary Statzer. “Bea Nettles.” In The Photographic Object 1970, 1st ed., pp. 171–. University of California Press, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1525/j.ctt1963320.20.

3 Edgington, Colin. “In Dream and Soil: A Conversation with Bea Nettles.” Afterimage 44, no. 5 (2017): pp. 15–19. https://doi.org/10.1525/aft.2017.44.5.15.

4 Nettles, Bea, Jamie M. Allen, Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, and Amy L. Powell. Bea Nettles : Harvest of Memory. Edited by Jamie M. Allen and Olivia Lahs-Gonzales. First edition. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019), pp. 16–18.

5 Edgington, Colin. “In Dream and Soil: A Conversation with Bea Nettles.” Afterimage 44, no. 5 (2017): pp. 15–19. https://doi.org/10.1525/aft.2017.44.5.15.

6 Ibid.

7 “About the Photographer.” Museum of Contemporary Photography. Accessed October 20, 2022. https://www.mocp.org/detail.php?type=related&kv=7504&t=people.

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