As a young girl, photographer Beth Achenbach collected small unwanted trinkets and stored them in a box underneath her bed. The treasured collection included buttons, rusty bolts, pinecones, colored telephone wire, and anything else interesting and small enough to fit inside a shoebox. The curious Achenbach took pleasure in laying out her collection of trinkets while admiring them; finding beauty in the unusual.
In the early 1990s Achenbach found herself working at a one-hour photo lab. There she learned how to print and process photographs. By printing hundreds and hundreds of photos she began developing her eye for composition. She was also responsible for selling cameras. In an effort to educate herself on the workings of each camera, she began taking photos. Achenbach explained, “They would let us take the cameras home. We would check one out and take it home to learn to shoot with it.” Not satisfied with just learning the basics, Achenbach made it a point to learn as much information as she could. She said, “I am a curious person and I asked a lot of questions.”
Achenbach started taking photos for personal pleasure after receiving an old manual Pentax camera from her sister. Focused on documenting what she called ‘Urban Landscapes’, Achenbach would shoot several rolls of film during her weekend visits to Jersey City to visit her partner, and now wife, Catherine Hecht, publisher of The Jersey City Independent. In October of 2002, a day before the annual Jersey City Art & Studio Tour, she permanently moved to Jersey City and exhibited her photos in the first LGBT Group Show hosted by Jersey City Lesbian and Gay Outreach (JCLGO). Achenbach remembers, “The first weekend I moved here was the weekend of the artist tour. [My photos] got a good response and I got to know a lot more people.”
As Achenbach began attending more local art shows, she quickly realized she was not the only photographer inspired by urban Jersey City. Determined to stand out amongst the crowd, she started on a new body of work focused on people; her subjects were usually her friends and people she knew. “When I take a picture of someone I find it kind of personal. I become attached to the image of the subject,” she said. Achenbach is also known for her photos of still lifes, flowers, and utensils. She will sometimes photograph objects picked up off the side of the road; things that people just walk by and never notice.
In 2006 Achenbach exhibited her first solo show at LITM titled ‘The Sum of All Parts’. Instead of straight portraits, the show focused on photographs of specific, individual body parts from a number of different people. “That show was all about us. We are all human. We all have the same parts,” she explains.
Achenbach is currently preparing for her second solo exhibit at LITM titled ‘Thaw’. People are absent from this body of work. Instead, Achenbach is focused on photographing frozen inanimate objects. The idea came to her one day while eating a bowl of cherries. Fascinated with the shape, color and stem of the fruit she photographed one. In an attempt to capture the cherry from a different angle, she decided to freeze it in a cup of water before rephotographing it. Inspired by the textures and patterns of the ice and the frozen cherry she observed thru her camera lens, Achenbach began freezing other objects in water.
Thinking back to the first frozen cherry Achenbach said, “I quickly learned there is some science to this because there is mass and ratio and things float to the top.” Allowing objects to just float to the top of the water and freeze was not the look Achenbach was trying to attain. She wanted her objects frozen within a solid block of ice. To achieve this she had to experiment and develop her own methods of freezing, such as layering by freezing a little water at a time. She also experimented with techniques for adding color to ice as seen in ‘Phase Yellow’ (pictured above). Achenbach said at times all of the experimentations made her “feel like a scientist.”
After freezing her objects Achenbach then began the process of composing several images of the items; capturing the various stages of melting. Describing her creative process Achenbach said, “When I go into most photo shoots I always find the first 20-30 photos are a wash. You are getting your groove on with your subject whether it is a person or an object.”
Getting the frozen objects and the ice both in focus proved to be a challenge for Achenbach. She said, “There is a lot of texture in the ice. There are bubbles and these little striations and the ice has depth. So I was trying to make it look clear and trying to focus on the object and the ice but those bubbles become a little out of focus.” Some of Achenbach’s photos spotlight the ice itself absent of any objects. ‘Biosphere’ (pictured below) captures an astounding amount of movement from a cold hard piece of ice.
In addition to the frozen cherry, Achenbach also experimented with freezing leaves, flowers, Christmas lights, straws, paper, photos and children’s toys (pictured below). She not only took special care in choosing the right objects but also in choosing the perfect containers to freeze them in; based on size and shape.
Achenbach has long been a tremendous supporter and contributor of the arts in Jersey City. In 2014, she received the Women’s History Month award presented by Hudson County for her contribution to Jersey City as an artist, curator, organizer, performer; as well as the special events director for the Jersey City Lesbian and Gay Outreach. She is the founder, organizer, and host of Ladies on the Mic, a roaming live event that spotlights female performers talented in singing, writing, acting, and reading. She is known to many as the bagel loving woman with a Jewish accent and a love for extra large eyeglasses under the name Bubbala. Achenbach is also a contributing photographer for JCI magazine.
As a self-taught artist Achenbach was afraid to call herself a photographer for some time. She said, “I felt like I wasn’t a real photographer because I didn’t go to school. So I had this little bit of insecurity.” Her confidence grew over time after admirers started purchasing her photos; many of them owning multiple pieces.
Reminiscent of the young girl who collected unusual trinkets, Achenbach hopes that her photos encourage viewers to slow down and notice familiar things that are often taken for granted. She explained, “I want people to see what they want to see. I try not to make too big of a statement about the work in and of itself because it’s more exciting to me to find out what other people see in it.” For more information on Beth Achenbach and her photography, visit achenbachart.com or follow the exhibit on Instagram @ThawPhotographyExhibit.
“Thaw” will be on view from September 1 – October 3 at LITM, 140 Newark Avenue. The opening reception will be held on Tuesday, September 1 from 7:00-10:00 pm. Admission is free. For more information, visit litm.com or the JCI Cultural Calendar. The exhibit will be part of JC Fridays on September 4 and part of The Jersey City Art & Studio Tour on October 2 and 3.
Beth Achenbach will have photos for sale at this year’s All About Downtown Jersey City Street Fair on September 19 at the Grove Street Path Plaza. For more information, visit jcdowntown.org.
Lead photo by Stephanie Romano.