Paula Riff: works on paper

Review by Wayne Swanson •

Earlier this year, we lost a photographic artist with a truly unique vision when Paula Riff succumbed to cancer. Yet this diminutive Los Angeles artist with an outsized personality left us with a beautiful gift, finished just months before her death. 

Paula Riff: works on paper, like the artist herself, is a small gem. It showcases her singular camera-less photographic works that blend old and new. Using the historical processes of cyanotype and gum bichromate, Riff created thoroughly modern works that push the boundaries of the medium. Riff relied on “her imagination and her creative impulses to construct a unique language of color, shape, and form,”writes Lenscratch founder and editor Aline Smithson in the book’s introduction.

Riff’s work draws on a variety of influences. She writes in the book that in college she fell in love with “all things Japanese,” and she spent a decade in Japan working as an interpreter. As a result, the “minimal and considered aesthetic of Japan” is an important inspiration. Additionally, she cites the aesthetics of minimalism and contemplation found in works by artists like Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, and Mark Rothko; Calder’s “sense of play and use of whimsical shapes evoking the universe and cosmos;” and Kandinsky’s “playfulness and his use of shapes and lines as well as his emotional connection to color and music.”

Color is central to her work. She writes that it “has a way of not only inspiring the viewer but also affecting one’s emotional state. It is like getting lost in the color and shades of color begin to blend into one another.”

The three signature projects presented in the book show how she synthesized these influences to make something uniquely her own. Blue Is Not the Sky explores color, form, and design through abstract constructions that have a strong mid-century modern feel. Shibui honors her Japanese sensibilities, deconstructing natural materials such as lotus and gingko leaves, ferns, and dried grasses and flowers. Circle Games combines circular shapes and colors to evoke the stages of the moon. 

Each construction is the unique result of her improvisational method, which involved coating fine art or hand-marbled paper with multiple layers of cyanotype and gum bichromate. Then she made photograms with plant material or cut shapes, creating one-of-a kind compositions with a 3-dimensional presence. 

This beautifully designed monograph effectively captures the mid-century feel and celebration of color and abstraction that are so important to her work. It showcases the images by presenting them one to a spread, with the title and image details on the facing page. In the sections for Blue Is Not the Sky and Circle Games, the images are accentuated by placement on fields of color that are keyed to each image, while the more delicate Shibui constructions stand out against white pages.

Those of us who were lucky enough to have met Paula will remember her for talent, but also for her warmth and her enthusiastic support for her photographic community. Smithson, who was a mentor and friend, wrote in a Lenscratch appreciation of Riff that “she had a particular way of being fully present and engaged, and as the outpouring of love after her passing showed, she also knew how to make everyone feel special.”

Paula Riff: works on paper is a joyful celebration of color, form, and playfulness by a photographic artist who will be sorely missed.


The Paula Riff Award Fund has been created by the Center for Photographic Art and Lenscratch to celebrate and continue her legacy with an annual awards competition. Contributions can be made here.


Contributing Editor Wayne Swanson is a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.


works on paper, Paula Riff

Photographer: Paula Riff, born and resided Los Angeles, CA

Self-published: Paula Riff, Give ‘Em Hell Press (Los Angeles, CA, copyright 2021)

Essays: Aline Smithson, Paula Riff

Text: English

Hardcover book, sewn binding, four-color lithography, 136 pages, 54 color plates, 8.25 x 8.25 inches, printed in Belgium

Photobook designer: Susan Swihart


Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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