San Francisco-based photographer Liz Hickok likens Ground Waters to “a school science experiment;” to create her uncanny shimmering scenes, she first constructs a landscape or cityscape in miniature, then engulfs them in liquid chemical solutions, which evaporate to leave behind a casing of fine crystalline structures.
Hickok was initially inspired by the children’s game Magic Garden, by which users pour liquid over a barren garden set and in doing so, trigger the formation of crystals that resemble leaves and blossoms. The photographer makes her own solutions by dissolving powered chemicals like the prism-forming Monoammonium Phosphate and Alum, or a double sulfate salt in water. Each tableau she builds by hand using foam core, tubing, screens, and wire. Once submerged, the pint-sized worlds are set to rest until they become shrouded in cooled, hardened crystals, a process that takes anywhere from a few hours to a period of weeks.
Although she understands her materials and the solutions with which they will best interact, Hickok admits that there’s some degree of mystery with every new experiment. MAP, for instance, can yield either soft, almost floral crystals, but when it is immersed in water, those crystals become more dense and lose their delicate quality. Even after she has finished shooting, Hickok’s scenes will continue to evolve, and although the crystals will stay in place, they are often fragile and their colors will lose their brilliance over time.
With Ground Waters, the photographer hopes to probe at the ambiguous space between the real and imagined, as well as the natural and the manmade. Her chemicals, she suggests, might stand in for the evident if invisible pollutants that flood our world. She frames her images to challenge our perception of space, to imply that although we might know these scenes to be small, they could easily play out on a life-size stage. While they might be captivating—organic even—the crystals blossom in a realm without people, sprouting and flourishing in our absence.
Liz Hickok’s work is currently on view at Bedford Gallery.
All images © Liz Hickok