BRATTLEBORO — “I love having an idea and then making it happen,” photographer Chris Triebert says, sitting on the steps outside of the new Vermont Center for Photography on Green Street, which she designed and project-managed herself. “That's my probably my favorite thing in the world.”
Making things happen seems to be second nature for Triebert, 70, who is having a 30-year retrospective of her work at the Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts gallery beginning on Friday, Oct. 1 and running through the month.
Beginning with landscapes and moving on through portraits, abstracts, cameraless work, and now turning her art into craft with three-dimensional objects for the home, all the time working alone and at the same time collaborating with many of the other significant artists who live in Windham County - for one thing, she's a co-founder of the Rock River Artists Tour - Triebert has many times manifested an art to embrace a new and different world.
“Art for Chris is lived; it is how life progresses and a story is told,” writes Lillian Lambrechts, the former global art curator for the Bank of America, in the show catalog.
“Nothing is lost in the telling,” she continues. “The images and objects in this exhibition are conversations, leading with questions answered and unanswered, but always put into action.”
“Some artists hit one note,” Lambrechts writes. “Chris gives us a symphony.”
Gallery co-owner Petria Mitchell, herself a painter, points out that Triebert's work is so inclusive that “her entire life is creative experiments.” Triebert, she says, “keeps creating other bodies of work.”
“There must be 17 or 18 bodies of work in the show, and she's continually improving,” Mitchell says.
Triebert's photographic images have been licensed by major publishers, including Graphique de France (Boston and Paris); the Art Group (U.K.); Aperture (New York); and Image Conscious (San Francisco).
Her work is in the collections of the Bank of America, Polo Ralph Lauren, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It has been featured in Art World News, The Photo Review, Shutterbug's Women in Photography column, and Architectural Digest.
A winding road
Triebert's life in Windham County is entirely confluent with her life as an exhibiting artist; when she came here she was a graphic designer.
She was brought up in West Hempstead, N.Y., the third of four children.
“My father was in New York City fireman,” Triebert said. “He was a roofer and a carpenter on the side. My mom didn't work when I was young, but she went back to work as a secretary - what else did women do back then? - when I was in the eighth grade.”
“It was a typical working class, suburban New York family,” she continues. “We didn't have the best education. We didn't live in a fancy neighborhood. But I love the grounding that I had. I belonged, and I knew that I belonged.”
Triebert went to a small college outside of Boston but quit after two years because she couldn't decide on a major.
“I couldn't imagine spending two years studying something I wasn't sure of,” she says.
So she took odd jobs here and there. The die was cast when she answered an ad for a photo lab assistant, “no experience necessary.”
“It was a really pretty bad studio in terms of quality, but I got interested in how things worked. I didn't know anything about it film, developing negatives - anything. And so that's how I got started.”
She worked in photo labs for the next six years, then went to the Art Institute of Boston.
“It was through photography, actually, that I got interested in graphic design,” she says. “I majored in graphic design, but I always took every elective in photography, because I still loved to do it.”
Triebert carved out a successful career in graphic design in Boston. There she also met her future wife, Carol Ross, who was also a graphic designer.
Coming out was not easy for Triebert or her Irish Catholic mother.
“I was in my early 30s, and, no, my mom was not great about it,” Triebert said. “It just took a while. And then she grew to adore Carol.”
Triebert and Ross moved to Vermont in 1990.
“We were both graphic designers, and we were ready to work for ourselves,” Triebert says. “We were just wanting a change. We could have gone anywhere. We were actually thinking of Santa Fe or the coast of Maine. But I came here one time and said, 'I could live here.' And that was it.”
“We went to a realtor, we looked at five houses, and we bought the fifth one,” she continues. “We knew nothing about our neighborhood or about living in the country.”
Coming to the river
The little house the couple bought sits next to the Rock River in South Newfane. They have been adding rooms ever since.
“We must have put on seven additions, and it's still a little house,” Triebert said.
The house had a garage, so Triebert built herself her first darkroom.
“That was so exciting for me,” she said. “And I just started walking the back roads of my new neighborhood with my 35mm camera. I was in heaven. I would photograph what I saw in the landscape and the buildings and the feeling in the country.”
In the catalog, she says, “My approach to landscape photography was about capturing the feeling of a place more than its facts. I used a variety of darkroom techniques such as hand-coated emulsions, selective bleaching and toning, and diffusing under the enlarger lens to create prints with a sensual, moody quality. Making handmade photographs in the era before digital imaging was an intensive, time-consuming process.”
Triebert called these pictures “intimate landscapes.”
“I started to print really small, little two-by-three enlargements,” she said. “I really wanted this sense of intimacy. I had found family contact prints from one of the old early-edition Kodak cameras. I would look at them really closely and realize how much you take in when you come up close to something, as opposed to something that's big on the wall, and you stand back from it.”
She showed her work at the late and lamented Windham Art Gallery, and was surprised when she sold every piece. Thus began her career as an exhibiting photographer.
She turned some of those landscapes into note cards.
“They were picked up by a big note card company,” Triebert says. “This was in the 1990s, before desktop publishing and before email. The boutique card market was very, very hot. I got picked up by that company and that was kind of a big deal for me.”
“The cards were everywhere,” she recalls. “They were in Europe. I'd walk into a bookshop in New York City and see this sign, 'The Christine Triebert Collection.' And I'm walking through the store, and no one knows it's me. It was just marketing, but it paid a lot of bills.”
Every time the couple traveled, Triebert took her camera. Each trip - to the U.S. Northwest, to Italy, Ireland, the English Cotswolds - brought its own set of photographs.
“For each one, I would develop a print style,” she said. “What I really loved about my work is that with everything that I shot, or every place that I photographed, I tried to find the way to express it: What does this feel like? What do I want this to feel like? And so the landscape work went on for a while.”
It was the illness of a friend, a dead plant, and approaching menopause that led her to the elegant egg photographs - black-and-white photos of eggs in baskets, in cartons, in crates, in a bird cage.
“I was in an antique store just rummaging around then I came upon this antique egg carrier thing,” she says. “And the things connected - a friend who's had a hysterectomy, this dying plant in her room, and the end of the egg-producing thing. So a body work grew out of that”
Triebert has a mantra: “Notice what you notice.”
“So I notice what I see,” she says. “And I notice what I'm interested in. And I notice the thoughts that come to me. So when I noticed the egg carriers, I did something with it.”
Portraiture, her way
Another body of Triebert's work is represented by her portraits.
“The portraits came out of an interest after my brother died in 2002,” she says. “And then another friend's son died suddenly, two days after that. Another friend's twin sister died the day after that. It was this boom, boom, boom experience.”
“I had a lot of existential questions,” Triebert continues. “So I had this interest to create my own vignettes about the human experience, the depth, the struggles, living life in the body, mind, and spirit - where do they come together, where do they conflict? And that became a body of work.”
In her most notable series of portraits, she gave each subject a plain white sheet, told them to completely disrobe, and then to “present their elemental self to the camera,” she says in the catalog.
“The sheet being like the pure cloth we're wrapped in at birth and again at death,” she says. “I used a variable focus lens to intentionally blur some areas of the image. Prints were made on treated aluminum, referencing the polished metal that ancients used before mirrors to see their own reflection.”
Her goal in those portraits “was to offer a unique view of ourselves and each other - not fully known, but fully alive as a manifestation of divine presence,” she explains.
Triebert even left her camera behind for one body of work.
“I experimented with simple, direct methods of photo image making,” she says in the catalog. “I finally found my way when casting shadows of the objects across the darkroom with a modified desk lamp and capturing their shadows on a sheet of gelatin silver paper.
“Other exposure methods of natural objects to silver paper followed, with each producing unique properties created by the direct action of light. After exposing and developing the paper negatives in the darkroom, I brought them to the studio where they were scanned, toned, and printed in archival pigment inks.”
These techniques produced striking series of abstractions from nature; she is now turning these images into pillowcases and into lampshades with bases made by local craftsmen.
Then there's the Sycamore project.
Triebert noticed that the pods dangling from a downed branch of a sycamore looked like musical notes. She plopped a branch on paper lined for musical notation, then called cellist Zon Eastes and asked him if he would like to collaborate.
Eastes wrote a three-minute piece, “Song of the Sycamore,” and played all four cello parts. The piece, recorded locally by Billy Straus, will be playing during the show.
You could say that making such a rich artistic life happen here has been Triebert's biggest and long-lasting creative accomplishment. Supporting herself for 30-plus years as a graphic designer, a photographer, a commercial photographer, an artist, and a craftsperson in the Windham County wilds proves that the couple landed in the right place.
“My stories come from this place,” Triebert says. “The stories come from my life being rooted in this place. This is my home.”
She says she's sharing herself with the community, for which she's grateful for years of support.
“In the catalog, I say there's no better place than Brattleboro, Vermont to be an emerging artist,” Triebert says. “There's always the sense that you belong here. You're part of this art community. Art is supported. Artists are supported. There's an appreciation here for people who create things and bring them to the world.”