All That and a Bag of Doritos – Christina Z. Anderson and the Impact of Imperfect Paths

Megan Crawford’s portrait of Christina Z. Anderson.

Writer / Megan Crawford
Photography / Kelsey Merritt, Christina Z. Anderson, Kelly Gorham, Megan Crawford


Montana Women Magazine cover of Christina Z. Anderson
Montana Women Magazine cover of Christina Z. Anderson where this article was first published. Cover photograph taken by Kelsey Merritt and printed in Salt print by Megan Crawford.

Wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi? Maybe she meant to say wasabi, but that doesn’t make sense.

Nope, wabi-sabi: the Japanese view of beauty in imperfection— literally the art of imperfection.

I first learned about wabi-sabi in a photography darkroom at Montana State University, standing by a tray of chemistry that wafted a pungent scent of ammonia. It was also the first time that I felt like I could totally mess up and it would be okay. I could absolutely botch a print, ruin it to oblivion, but it would still hold merit, and I would just fine.

It was in Christina Z. Anderson’s Experimental Darkroom class that I learned about wabi-sabi, which she learned from her grad school mentor at Clemson, Sam Wang. Her classes transformed my entire creative process, and they also arguably altered the course of my life (this sounds melodramatic, but it’s in earnest). I learned about magazine design from her, I was able to be an assistant (and now an instructor) at Photographer’s Formulary (a chemistry supply warehouse & workshop hub, set on the outskirts of Montana’s Bob Marshall) because she put in a good word for me. As soon as I took her Experimental class, I knew this was it— this is my niche as a photographer.

Alligator ride by Christina Z. Anderson, Gum bichromate
Alligator ride by Christina Z. Anderson, Gum bichromate

As a student (and now as a general human being), that kind of mentorship is absolutely, 100%, entirely priceless. It’s not something I anticipated when I applied to MSU— I didn’t even know that alternative process photography was a thing.

I remember the first time I met Chris Anderson— I had my gate project in hand, the one that determines whether you continue through the program after your first year or not. I mainly remember her office: the white wicker furniture, a slew of prints adorned to the walls, and books. A whole assortment of books. I also remember being nervous as hell, because at this point, I knew who she was, and I was just a sweaty-with-nerves freshman. I honestly don’t even remember what she said about my work (sorry, Chris), but I remember that I didn’t feel like I was “just a student.” I don’t know if it was the wicker or her slight midwestern accent, but the level of sweaty-with-nerves dropped a few notches. Because, despite being a world-renowned author and alt process photographer, she never acted like it— I distinctly remember times when she would humbly shrug off her number of publications. I never felt like I wasn’t good enough to be in one of her classes or sign up for another office hour with a slew of questions or email her about the dumb printing mistakes I made (for clarity, I can say that my mistakes were dumb because they genuinely were, and yet Chris always took the time to answer them).

Anderson in the MSU photo lab by Kelly Gorham
Anderson in the MSU photo lab by Kelly Gorham

Going into this interview, I’m sent right back to that day freshman year— the good ole nervous sweat and shaky hands. Even though we’re now colleagues, it’s still nerve-wracking to do an interview (especially when the interviewee’s résumé is longer than you are tall). While we couldn’t meet in person, I still poured myself a coffee mug of wine for posterity’s sake. Little did I know that there would be so many things I needed to hear in this interview— it was like a bright neon sign showing me what I needed to hear or a warm hug— familiar, like I was back in her office, sitting in a white wicker chair.

There is no guidebook for life. As much as humans love to have everything neat and tidy, life doesn’t work that way. We love to think that the timeline goes from childhood to school to college to career to family to retirement, but the timeline is nonlinear. There is no one way to get from A to B to C, and usually, you end up going from A to J to W to B instead.

Girlfriends, Christina Z. Anderson, Gum bichromate
Girlfriends, Christina Z. Anderson, Gum bichromate

With 115 shows, 13 books, 40 publications, and multiple degrees under her belt, Chris Anderson is a prime example of living life as it happens.

When I met Anderson in 2013, her third self-published book, Gum Printing and Other Amazing Contact Printing Processes, was released that year. As a freshman, I didn’t know that the 336-page textbook was a self-published project from cover to cover.

“You don’t know what you’re going to do, but you have to have a passion,”

Anderson assures.

Our conversation felt like a telling of the Butterly Effect— the theory that every seemingly small decision creates a larger, lasting impact. That one seemingly small pebble, plunked into the shallow shoreline, would create a storm on the other end of the lake.

The youngest of eight, Anderson grew up in an eclectic home in Baltimore, with an artist for a mother and a scientist for a father. Her family life is evidenced in one of her bodies of work, Family of Origin, which captures the odd American vernacular of the midcentury— an understood storytelling, no matter your age or hometown. Narrowed down from a family archive of 120,000 negatives, most of which were marred by mold, Family of Origin is primarily done in gum bichromate, a 19th-century color printing process. The altered negatives, whether from mold or age, lend themselves to the malleable palette of gum prints. From lake blues to tomato reds to sunflower yellows, the prints are like a memory— almost as it were, but heightened by your own altered perception.

Iceland, Christina Z. Anderson, Salted paper
Iceland, Christina Z. Anderson, Salted paper

But, while gum bichromate is now a cornerstone of Anderson’s repertoire, photography wasn’t always. Initially studying painting at the University of Minnesota in the early 70s, Anderson focused on the more “traditional” arts. Relaying back to the notion that there’s no linear timeline, Anderson began her studies in Minnesota before she graduated high school to be closer to her soon-to-be husband, Tom Anderson, who was attending law school. In 1974, with the birth of their first child, Chris pivoted her degree from Art to French to better balance academia and motherhood.

Graduating in 1979 with a degree in French summa cum laude and three kids in tow, the Andersons moved to Hawaii from Minnesota for a year. When they headed back to northern Minnesota, Anderson took on the role of a stay-at-home mom till the 90s. Along the way, they made the move out to Montana, settling down in Bozeman.

“As soon as my last kid was going to go to kindergarten, I realized that I didn’t want to sit at home, so I signed up for beauty school since I always wanted to learn how to cut hair… I thought that would be creative and it would be my outlet.”

After three years of cutting hair, Anderson realized it wasn’t the type of creativity she thought it was going to be. Over the years, she’d worked in painting, drawing, stained glass, quilting, and dabbled in herbology and beekeeping— Anderson is one of the “creative collector” types (and I say this with affection as a fellow creative collector).

Eager to get back to her painting roots, Anderson signed up for a class at Montana State University in 1995. This wasn’t for a degree— it was a class just to dive back into art. “I already had my degree, I didn’t need [another],” Anderson notes, now with multiple degrees in hand.

It got to the point where Anderson had taken enough classes to go for another degree at 40. One of the requirements for her art degree was a black & white photography class, which she was apprehensive of.

“I was intimidated and upset because I did not want to take it, but they wouldn’t let me get out of it. So I signed up.”

12 weeks into the class, Anderson knew that photography was it. That magical thing you know you need to do, almost as if the universe was just waiting for you to find it, leading you there by an invisible thread.

As an unconventional student, Anderson pursued a degree in photography.

“There was no turning back.”

To me, and many of her students, Anderson has always been a photographer. That’s just who she is. Looking at her work, experience, expertise & understanding, you’d think this is something she’d been doing since day one. With a robust knowledge of 19th-century printing processes down to every seemingly small detail and an ever-growing series of textbooks, Anderson has made her place in the alt process world. From the hypothetical to nitty-gritty chemistry, the information is just there. Long-form mathematical equations, chemical reactions, color theory, intricate histories, a Rolodex of names— all neatly filed away in a color-coded spreadsheet. She’s a leading authority on the subject, teaching international workshops, diving into hundreds of hours of research for every book. It’s difficult to imagine her otherwise— how could anyone question her knowledge when she’s written a stack of the books on the subject?

Silverfish by Christina Z. Anderson, Gum bichromate
Silverfish by Christina Z. Anderson, Gum bichromate print

Taking an alternative process class from Rudy Dietrich in 1998 became another guidepost to it— not only photography, but the ephemeral, handmade print.

Graduating from MSU with a degree in photography in 2000, Anderson began teaching in the fall, again by being in the right place at the right time. Applying for grad school but still needing a functioning darkroom, Anderson applied to teach at MSU, mainly for the darkroom access. Three weeks later, she was teaching a beginning photography class.

Three years into teaching, Anderson began looking into graduate school. “I applied thinking everybody would love me and want me— of course they would, because I’m so great!” Anderson laughs.

“Well, that was a real joke!” Six applications out, six rejection letters back. Again, knowing Chris now, it’s wild to think that she’d be rejected from anywhere.

But again, by chance or fate, Anderson emailed her application to Sam Wang at Clemson University.

“What is it about my application that’s so badthat six schools would reject me?” She asked.

At Wang’s advice, Anderson then flew down to Clemson— “it was the same thing— I get to Clemson, I walk on campus— this is where I am. This is where I’m supposed to be.” Again, in the strange ways of the universe, things fell into place. As much as the six rejection letters stung, they were another set of guideposts.

Graduating with an MFA from Clemson, Anderson boomeranged back to Montana.

“I realized that what I really like to do in life is research and then blab my research,” Chris laughs. “What better way to do it than teach students? Never would I have been a teacher, never, had I stayed in Minnesota, had I not taken my first [photo class].”

Summer rain, Christina Z. Anderson, Gum bichromate
Summer rain, Christina Z. Anderson, Gum bichromate

Now, 20 years later, Anderson is a tenured full professor at the university and an integral member of the photography department. So, of course, with a wealth of knowledge, an aptitude for extensive research, secured professorship, and now three degrees, book writing was the next obvious step.

“I’ll tell you about my next failure!” Chris laughs again. “You need these things to realize that you’re not all that and a bag of Doritos.”

Anderson had written two spiral-bound alt process manuals and sent one to FocalPress/Rutledge in 2009, which went through a round of independent reviewers. “One of the reviews was so scathing—” a review that Anderson still keeps— “[they said], ‘if this book got published, it would be a disservice to the field of gum printing.’”

With a slew of rebuttals at the ready, Anderson went back to the publisher only for the whole thing to fall through. A similar sting to the grad school rejection letters, but again another opportunity to change course. Going the self-publishing route, Anderson taught herself InDesign and layout and learned the intricacies of publishing, which led her to create a Nonfiction class in the MSU photo department.

“Every time I get an idea, I write it down, and I stick it on this list,” Anderson reflects. “I just read my list from 1999, and it said… ‘write a manual.’” We share another set of laughs.

“When you write things down you want to do or try— it could be cooking, it could be travel, whatever it is— when you write them down, they get embedded in your subconscious.” Anderson also emphasizes keeping all the lists— every idea, every goal, everything— so that someday down the road, you can look back. Maybe you clear off the list, maybe your life takes a turn and the list becomes a set of stepping stones that take you to where you’re meant to be. Maybe you say you want to write a book, and twenty years later your books have been sold in 40 different countries.

This year, with classes ending abruptly in March, Anderson began to revisit a project, The Altered Landscape— a series on kudzu, a climbing, coiling vine native to East Asia, in the American south. 17 years in the making, the project is now thinned down to 200 images with another 5 years left until its completion. Kudzu’s rampant and wild, beautiful destruction, taking over whole towns with its viridian vines, is a continuing narrative on Anderson’s focus on contemporary Vanitas, a call back to her art background. Vanitas, a 17th-century genre rooted in the impermanence of life and the certainty of death, weaves its way throughout Anderson’s works. From mordançage prints (an experimental gelatin silver process that lifts the paper emulsion, creating “veils” in the shadows of a print) of fleeting snowflakes to images of natural destruction, from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the Camp Fire in Northern California, her work is a narrative on the duality of life. Growing up in a family with wealth but a mother that battled alcoholism was a dichotomy that carries itself through Anderson’s work on family, sexism, gender roles, and the American vernacular. Every body of work is long-form, developed over years— each print intentionally created layer by layer.

Afternoon Siesta, Christina Z. Anderson, Cyanotype
Afternoon Siesta, Christina Z. Anderson, Cyanotype

Now, as a renowned author and editor, all of those rejection letters and redirections make more sense. It’s one of those “if x hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have done y and become z” timelines— that proves, in the long run, you don’t have to have it “all figured out” by whatever preconceived age the world says you have to have it figured out by. Any sort of chaos, floundering, feeling like the ground crumbled away below your feet is temporary. Sure, it can be absolutely shitty at times, but in the long run, it could just be a stepping stone to something else.

“I’m not this sage person who has it all together when I teach— I am a peer mentor, where we’re all on the same level, all on the same page,” Anderson notes. That open sharing of knowledge is what makes Anderson’s classes, workshops, and books so damn good. You never feel like you’re being taught at— there’s always an open dialogue, a space to ask any question. That’s what I loved about those classes: I felt like a peer. I felt like I was part of the research because I was part of the research. Even with her experience, there wasn’t a hierarchy in those classes. We were all there, learning, together.

That’s how I became a TA for her Photographer’s Formulary workshops and subsequently became an instructor; how I came to love text & image and subsequently became the owner and editor of Montana Woman; how I got my first lines of publication, my first internship; how I found my place in photography in alt processes. I found it through her classes, all because of the way Chris allows space for the wabi-sabi— the imperfections we stumble over on life’s journey without realizing the stumble was a major stepping stone.

I don’t mean for this to be some long-winded, gushy article— this is just a retelling of a story, a life, and the domino effect each action and decision has. She’s a force to be reckoned with— a no-nonsense instructor, but also the kind of instructor who will get Potato Olés from Taco John’s for the class when she’s stuck in the drive-through, someone who can effortlessly rattle off long division and chemical equations and poignant life advice all in the same breath.

Throughout the interview, Anderson mentioned influential educators, from high school teachers to college professors. The educators that teach, really teach, are the ones that stick— the ones that go beyond the walls of a classroom and teach beyond the curriculum. From sitting in the wicker chair across her desk to interviewing her for this magazine, I never could have imagined being a mentee, a colleague, and a friend of Chris Anderson’s for the past few years. I never thought that I would have that kind of mentorship. Every pebble, no matter how small, no matter how seemingly insignificant, creates a swell— an unstoppable force.

“In my life, I’ve fallen into things— I have not fought them. I have always been, blessedly, at the right place at the right time… Instead of sitting there going ‘oh, I’m not ready to do that, I’m not good enough,’ I don’t question it— I say yes.”

This article was first published in Montana Women Magazine. Megan Crawford is an alternative process photographer, workshop instructor, and the owner, editor, & designer of Montana Woman Magazine. She works at the intersection of art, history, science, and luck— where magic meets paper. See also Megan Crawford’s website.

1 thought on “All That and a Bag of Doritos – Christina Z. Anderson and the Impact of Imperfect Paths”

  1. I assisted Christina at two short workshops which she taught for the Museum of Photographic Arts (San Diego)/Grossmont College Series. This article brings back great memories of those happy times which now seem so long ago. She is not only a great and inspiring teacher, she is also a wonderful down to earth lady. My life was, and continues to be, enriched by her as I continue through these final years of my life. At 91, I am still using and enjoying the many skills which were enhanced by my association with her.
    Stay Happy And healthy Christina.

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