Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A look into Martha Casanave's world

Casanave, untitled, 2012
Martha's been using a camera for fifty years - for teaching, for portraiture, for staged photography, for essays on artists and writers of the former Soviet Union, the list goes on.  Another equally important part of her work during this period has involved specialized cameras: pinholes, large format cameras, nineteenth century contraptions, wherever her heart directs her.  To my mind Martha's finest book remains the amazing pinhole odyssey entitled Explorations Along an Imaginary Coastline, which is essential reading. 

But at times she dispenses with the camera altogether and creates pictures which readers of this blog are familiar with, if not practitioners themselves: lumens, glassprints (Martha sticks by the term cliché-verre and we'll follow her on this), and chemigrams.  Today we want to look at a group of her cliché-verres from 2012, but first we must set the stage.

Casanave, untitled, 2012

Casanave, untitled, 2012
Let's step back and see how we got here.  W. H. Fox Talbot, around 1835, made a few drawings by setting botanical materials on glass plates.  He wanted to see if he could print these images onto paper sensitized with a coating of silver salts.  He could.  Since sunlight was the driving force, he called them 'photogenic drawings' or drawings arising from light.  A few months after he got around to announcing this feat, in 1839, three Englishmen, apparently etchers or engravers, applied for a patent on a process to make a 'glass print' by drawing with etching needles on sooted glass and printing it on sensitized paper.  It was an improvement on Talbot and a legal tussle may have ensued over the rights, we don't know for sure.  What we do know is that the process was never commercialized, and quietly died.  The three Englishmen returned to their etching.

Across the Channel, a Frenchman by the name of Adalbert Cuvelier, an amateur painter and skilled photographer (photography was booming by the 1850s), invented basically the same process in 1853 and called it cliché-verre (who knew it was a zombie process?)  He lived in a rural area and had a friend nearby who was a painter too and loved to paint landscapes.  His name was Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.  Corot wanted to learn this new technology, seeing in it a way to do quick sketches from nature which later could be printed, then recast as paintings: a transfer process basically.  Cuvelier was happy to show it to him, and he showed it as well to Corot's circle of painter and printmaker friends - Millet, Delacroix, Rousseau and others - who had begun leaving Paris for the more aesthetically pleasing countryside and forests of Barbizon, south of Arras where Cuvelier lived.  Soon the forests were teeming with artists carrying around sooted glass plates, scouting for scenic views, idyllic streams, stoic peasants.  We are in the heyday of cliché-verre, roughly from 1860 to 1875.  Incredibly, many of these glass plates survive today and can still be contact-printed.
Corot, Souvenir d'Ostie, cliché-verre, 1855


Casanave, untitled, 2012
A rapid succession of technological breakthroughs brought this period to a close, along with possibly - we speculate - a certain ennui of the forests and a yearning for the café life of Paris.  First, gelatin dry-plate photography was invented in 1871 to supplant the older, cumbersome, wet-plate process; George Eastman established a company to exploit it, and it now became much easier to photograph a landscape instead of painstakingly drawing it on a plate.  Cameras themselves became smaller, cheaper and simpler.  Eastman introduced photographic film, and in 1888 a small portable camera, the Kodak; a more revolutionary technology for the general public was not seen until Steve Jobs' iPhone more than a century later.  Cliché-verres by now, amazingly, were soon a relic.

Casanave, untitled, 2012
For the next hundred years and merging with our times, most of the history of cliché-verre has been one of scarcely more than flirtation and curiosity, associated occasionally with hot-button names like Klee, Picasso, Man Ray etc, but with no enduring commitment from anyone.  Each dabbled, did one or two, and moved on.  Roland Barthes discusses some of the reasons in his book The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977-78) but I warn you if you go there it's buried deeply.  However, as in all things there are exceptions.  I have my favorites among the modern or modernish cliché-verre artists and I return to their work often: I find it passionate and overlooked.  The list must include Hajek-Halke and Chargesheimer in postwar Germany and Aris Koutroulis and Abelardo Morell in America, the latter two both discussed elsewhere on this blog.  (Two other Americans often cited, Henry Holmes Smith and Frederick Sommer, I will pass over in strict silence.)

And then there is Martha Casanave.

What moving, mysterious, wonderful pictures these are.  They wake you up, you who've been sleepwalking through the galleries of contemporary photography.  They lie well beyond representation, even beyond structure, but not beyond poetry.  They are calm, profound, and intricately rational like a microscope slide of a human cell, but a cell no one has ever seen before.  How does she manage to pull it off?

She switches from poetry to prose to help us understand.  "I smoke pieces of glass with a candle.  You can do varying densities of smoke, and varying shapes, depending on how you hold the glass.  Then I drop alcohol on it.  I sometimes use just water.  No predicting how it will look of course.  If I don't like it, I just wash it off and start again.  I don't save any of these 'negatives'.  I make 8x10" prints in the darkroom.  I scan some, and make big digital prints."

Casanave, untitled, 2012
Corot would have understood her, if you take out the digital.  The two of them could have smoked their glass over the same candle.

Her website is www.marthacasanave.com





 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

From zombie prints to Lazarus prints

Turnbull, untitled chemigram with additions #1, 2011-15

We've talked a lot about living prints - lumens, pinholes, mordançages, chemigrams - but let's talk now about death and about prints that no longer breathe.

What are dead prints?  We've all seen them, we'd be lying to say we haven't.  A dead print is one that is damaged beyond repair, either by something the artist did herself in creating it - an experiment gone awry, an idea that didn't pan out, a flat-out screw-up - or by an extrinsic act.  Take your pick of these: maybe someone spilled coffee on it, or ripped it accidentally, or got it caught in a door, or they drove a spike through it.  Whatever the case, these prints are off life support.  In the trade (you may have encountered this), dead prints are also known as zombie prints, because in art nothing ever really dies, though there is little argument there are times when it should.

This raises the question, what do you do with them?  You can't get rid of them, after all they're zombies.  They will pile up and crowd around you and haunt you forever.  They will never let you forget them.  To provide an answer, Rich Turnbull has invoked the notion of the Lazarus print, a sort of antidote to the zombie print.  The Lazarus print, like its namesake, is a kind of do-over, a second chance, or what I believe they call in golf a mulligan.  Here's how it works.  You take the zombie, lay it on the table, stare real hard at it, and then start drawing on it.  Simple as that.  You are breathing life into it as you draw.  Soon, the print stirs and awakens.  It lives.

Turnbull, untitled chemigram with additions #2, 2011-15
There are several tips to keep in mind.  One is don't get too serious about what you're doing.  Normally a staid, thoughtful individual, Rich proves that point unequivocably in untitled chemigram with additions #2If you make a mistake, well, it's already dead anyway.  And you'll be surprised that the more relaxed you are in applying ink or paint, the zanier your moves, then the more life you find you're pumping into it, because life really responds to zany.  Here Rich's piece has been quickly revivified and would now look commanding framed on a wall.  Back in 2011 it didn't look so good.

Another tip, don't limit yourself to drawing.  Consider painting, spraying, tearing, collaging, fouling, burning or any activity that comes to mind: nothing is illegal, feel free as a child.  Each activity is as powerful as another in restoring life.  It was after four days that Jesus, in the Book of John, brought Lazarus back from the dead.  He used faith.  Rich used marker pens after four years.  Each is effective.

The critical reader may have noticed that the same errant tool that 'accidentally' led to the zombification of the print earlier may equally, and paradoxically, lead to its restoration as a Lazarus today.  This is true, and is one of the great paradoxes of art.  

Turnbull, untitled chemigram with additions #3, 2010-15
 
Another may ask, is this the same thing as hybrid art, where different artistic approaches are combined in a single work?  Well, yes and no.  Often it's a matter of intention versus nonchalance or desperation.  The results may look the same but it's really all about how you get there, and what you learn along the way.  Here's a well-known Saul Steinberg photograph/drawing hybrid recently shown at the Pace Gallery in New York:

Steinberg, Girl in Bathtub, 1949
Clearly, this was conceived in advance as a hybrid, and in fact it's from this that it derives all its charm: neither photo nor drawing can stand on its own.  On the other hand, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, here's a Pierre Cordier chemigram that plays with ambiguous possibilities and suggestiveness.  Are those dark lines around the major shapes laid down after the fact, with a non-chemigramic tool such as a brush or pen?  Very hard to tell.

Cordier, 6/7/81 III, Homage to Robert Capa, 1981

To qualify properly as a Lazarus print a work must have been judged dead by its creator before the Lazarus intervention, and neither the Steinberg nor the Cordier come close to that - happily for us.  Yes, there is an element of devil-may-care desperation in the Lazarus project.  When it succeeds, though, it is all the more wonderful for itTurnbull's recent trio of works clinches the case.

 

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

During the blizzard, chemigrams by candlelight

Franco's studio, Lower Manhattan, January 26, 2015
It's well known by now that light is required to make a chemigram.  You don't need much, and photons of light are very small and don't take up much room, but you need some.  Photons are those things that are neither wave nor particle, or maybe both, depending on how you want to think about them; and for us they are indeed mainly objects of thought because you will never see them.

Especially you won't see them when the electric power grid in the city is flooded with rising seawater, as happened in parts of lower Manhattan during the recent snow emergency that some wanted to call a blizzard.  In Franco Marinai's downtown neighborhood the power outage left many without light, but these are the same folks who had survived Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and they knew how to cope.  They vowed to continue making chemigrams even if by candlelight.  In block after block, candles flickered into the night as chemigramists studied their trays, snatching and pushing photo paper, oblivious to the thickening snowfall outside and the strange silence of the darkened streets.

It was a good time to reflect on the importance of light in the process.  When a packet of light, called a photon, strikes the photographic emulsion, it passes quickly through (at the speed of light!) until it hits a molecule of metallic silver. These molecules are actually ions, or charged particles, embedded in a crystal lattice of many such particles along with ions of bromine or chlorine.  If you could see these crystals they might look like this:

silver halide crystals in a gelatin emulsion, courtesy Kodak
    
Our photon gets absorbed by the silver which then ejects an electron, carrying a negative charge, thus setting in motion a cascade of energy transfer events that will lead to a local region of stable, pure silver.  This becomes known as the 'latent image'.  It's latent which means you can't see it, at least not right away.  But if you subject it to the development process, all these energy transfer events are amplified greatly and of course by then you will see it as a black shape.  But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  Latent is what we want for chemigrams.  While developing it all at once might make a nice photograph, for us as chemigramists the opportunity would have been squandered.  Rather, we want to finesse the process by re-shaping the crystals, breaking them up and rearranging them, with repeated assaults of fixer and developer.  These chemicals can be thought of as acting as tiny chisels.  Through this, the silver gradually gets reconfigured into alternate forms, forms that reflect light in a variety of wavelengths, from long to short, from red to blue and purple, and acquires these colors for our eyes as if they were its own.

Just like in photosynthesis, that other great photo-based process (perhaps more fundamental to life), it all starts with a photon.  Franco knew this, and was able to keep producing work throughout the blizzard.

His website is http://www.marinai.com.










Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A lab note on Kodak Medalist paper, single weight

Privitera-Wilson, untitled, 2014

Rich Turnbull and I hosted a chemigram workshop at the International Center of Photography recently - nothing new about this, we do it a couple of times a year.  But this time, instead of having students gain the theoretically valuable experience of coating their papers with varnish, we decided to forgo the unpleasant odors associated with that task and instead provided them with pre-coated papers.  A sensible idea, right?

So we looked in our storage locker for papers and pulled out a ream of Adorama RC, 5x7" and a box of Ilford FB, 16x20", which we cut to size.  On the shelf below lay a variety of vintage papers, Velox, Portriga, and the rest.  My hand hesitated, then reached for a pack of Kodak Medalist.  It was unopened, expiration date 1965.  I said why not give some to the students, heck we hadn't had a chance to try it out ourselves, this'll be a good test.  I coated 6 sheets with Golden MSA varnish and shuffled them in with the other 40 or 50.  We headed up to 43rd Street.

That afternoon we came to the part of our workshop where we need the coated papers.  Everyone was instructed to grab a bunch, incise them, and toss them into the tanks of fixer and developer.  On the backs of the paper we'd written what each was, but no one really cared.  Chemigram workshops seem to generate a mist of intoxication that is quite separate from the chemistry used; the students were giddy or serious, chatty or thoughtful, but their eyes were glued on the inexorable changes in the way the front of the paper looked, not the back.

In this type of chemigram process we can speak of the paper reaching a mature phase when the resist on the paper starts to weaken its grip and lift off ever so slightly at the edges.  This could take 15 minutes, it could take 30 or more.  It's at this point, whenever it comes, that the artist must respond quickly to a rapidly deteriorating environment on the paper or lose control entirely.

Among the first papers to reach maturity that afternoon was one by Paulette Privitera-Wilson, seen above.  She controlled it and brought it home in a splendid way.  Others did too, among the early papers to mature.  Rich and I looked at each other and said something's going on here.  They're all deep red, magenta, deep orange, rich purple - and they're all Medalist!  On most papers the chemigramist has to work to get these colors, really work, and often they don't come easily.  But here every beginner in the class was getting them.  We agreed we'd meet later at MGC to talk this over.

Medalist single weight (SW), surface F
The first thing we had to do was confirm this finding.  That night we coated Medalist single weight (SW) papers as well as double weight (DW), using various brush-on and spray varnishes: Liquitex Soluvar, Golden MSA, Krylon Clear Acrylic, Rustoleum Acylic.  As soon as they were dry we performed random chemigram maneuvers on them and brought them through the trays to completion.  Here are some that Rich gave me.

Medalist SW, Liquitex Soluvar

Medalist SW, Liquitex Soluvar

And one of my own using Krylon:

Medalist SW, Krylon Acrylic Spray
On the other hand, when it came to double weight the performance was more mediocre - although we did notice a faster response compared to contemporary Ilford or Adorama, both fiber and RC (not shown).  Here's Rich again, this time with Rustoleum on DW:

Medalist DW, Rustoleum Acrylic Spray

Another observation, a footnote, is that in attempting to make etched chemigrams with Medalist SW we found that the bleach part of the process works fine but the etch part not so much - in fact quite poorly.  The veils vanished before they had a chance to appear.  This may be due to the thinness of the paper but more likely to the thinness of the emulsion itself.  An interesting experiment might involve fattening the emulsion layer with an overcoat of liquid emulsion, such as Rockland Colloid's Liquid Light.  We assign this as homework.


Medalist SW chemigrammed
Medalist SW as etched chemigram

Overall then, what's going on here?  Clearly the thinness of the SW papers made diffusion that much easier, at least through the back of the paper; we don't think the G surface of the DW, lustre, had anything to do with it.  So the attack on the SW was more aggressive and faster, but what about the colors?  Something in the DW was getting filtered out or was being degraded, and that same something wasn't even present in the modern papers.  We decided to turn to the George Eastman House museum of photography in Rochester NY for help.

Nick Brandreth pointed us toward cadmium.  Aha.  That friend of painters for two hundred years and counting, that bringer of life to reds, yellows, and oranges.  Cadmium since the 1950s had been formulated into several photographic emulsions, particularly the chlorobromide or warm-toned ones, for its ability to sharpen tonalities through its anti-foggant properties: it made low-level distinctions sharper.  The side effect was the brilliant pigmentizing of the emulsion, but this would have escaped the notice of conventional black-and-white photographers and would have to await the rise of chemigramists in the new century.  Meanwhile in portraits, the market Medalist was mainly created for, it produced excellent results.  Yet as public awareness grew of the toxicity of materials like cadmium, which doesn't degrade in the environment but keeps accumulating, pressure grew on Kodak to reformulate its emulsions, and it finally did so in the 1970s, selectively, at a precise date unknown to us.  But we do know, from testimonies of photographers from the period, that Medalist was never the same after.

The form of cadmium that was used in emulsions may have been mainly cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide and in hindsight the quantities were negligible, though very significant and helpful to a chemigramist.  Should we sound the health alarm?  Probably not.  By far the greatest part of our cadmium intake comes from the food we eat and the air we breathe, from soils, plants, aerosols spewed up by volcanoes, and so forth, and not from handling Medalist.  A good summary is found in a 2010 article at Environ Health Perspect. Dec 2010; 118(12): A528–A534.  

And not all emulsions had their cadmium stripped out at the same time, not even at Kodak.  I've been told that Ektalure's emulsion contained cadmium until the mid 1980s.  Perhaps a reader can confirm this.  It would not surprise me to hear of a photo paper made somewhere in the world that still employs cadmium.  I'm a buyer if you can find it for me.

The next workshops in New York are scheduled for February 28 at Manhattan Graphics (Turnbull), March 28 at ICP (Collins/Turnbull) and five Sunday classes at JCC Manhattan (Eva Nikolova), April 19 - May 17.










Sunday, November 30, 2014

Christina Z Anderson's etched chemigrams

Anderson, Angel, etched chemigram, 10x8", edition 1/1, 2014

Christina Z Anderson has been an influential artist, educator, and author in the alternative photography arena for more than a decade.  You will recognize her name: it is woven into the very fabric of this blog in uncountable ways.  During most of this time her own creative work has centered on gum bichromates where her efforts have come to redefine the prevailing standards of technique in that exacting process, while permitting her at the same time to develop in her images very personal takes on home, family, memory and loss.  A sense of this substantial achievement can be seen on her website.

The news I have to report - and it is big - is that Chris is not just producing a lot of chemigrams these days, which up to now have been a sort of sideline with her, but etched chemigrams.  This method was first introduced in August 2014 at the end of our post on Leonor-Leigrano papers and in the accompanying comments.  To make an etched chemigram, you first have to make a chemigram itself.  In a way this is the larger challenge, to make something that has an intrinsic value worth destroying.  Not only does this require mental concentration, it also takes time, often a lot of it: Chris reports that some of her chemigrams take up to 6 hours to complete, a believable figure although we each work differently.  So after 6 hours is she ready to rip it apart in copper chloride, acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide?  It seems so, and we're indebted for her courage in this. 

In her series called 'Remnants' Chris applies the method to the emotions she felt on revisiting New Orleans recently, ten years after Katrina.  Stairways leading to ravaged houses, stoops smashed and scattered among the weeds, vacancy, despair, it's all here.  The starkness of the etched chemigram, with destruction of the image as premise, seems the perfect way to convey this.  And with her deep experience in mordançage after years of teaching it, Chris is finding this to be a natural fit.

Anderson, Wave, etched chemigram, 10x8", edition 1/1, 2014

Anderson, Stoop 3, etched chemigram, 8x10", edition 1/1, 2014
At times she dispenses with the chemigram form altogether (since how much good stuff can anyone want to destroy) and jumps right into the mysterious, pitiless world of bleach-etch without preamble.

Anderson, Stoop 5, mordançage, 8x8", edition 1/1, 2014
She brings to the enterprise considerable chops from a chemigram journey that shows no sign of ending.  The compulsive note-taking, the careful observations of paper reactions and toner compatibilities, sets a high bar for anyone wishing to enter the field and a model for those of us in it already.  One day we'd hope to publish a summary of her experiments.  Here's an example from a group of chemigram exercises on Adox Fineprint, using Krylon Crystal Clear acrylic spray as resist.  (Ventilate properly and wash hands after use; the MSDS can be found here.)

Anderson, Novel 1, chemigram, 8x10", edition 1/1, 2014
Incidentally, she finds selenium on Adox a wonderful toning choice, using it at the lower end of Fotospeed's dilution recommendations of 1+3.

But let us go back to the etched chemigrams of 'Remnants' for a moment.  In thinking about the power of these pictures - I do find them powerful, most of all Angel - I suspect it may derive from the gap the artist creates between an underlying reality (photograph of the scene, the house) which we know must have been there, somewhere, and the imagination of it as filtered through the mechanics of the chemigram prism, which in turn gets further deconstructed and scoured by a few exquisitely controlled strokes of bleach-etch.  The ruined house migrates and becomes part of our dream-world (the 'angel'), yet paradoxically - dreams are rife with paradox - a very tangible one, almost brutal.  It is this immediacy that elevates what had been a simple photograph far beyond what any photograph could do.

Thank you, Christina.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Gottfried Jäger at Photo Edition Berlin


Jäger, Fotopapierarbeit 1986-VI-1-3, 1986

In photography, the 1960s was a period of considerable excitement, uncertainty, and turmoil.  The achievements of the great experimental work of the Bauhaus, both German and its later incarnation in Chicago, were behind us, even if its aesthetic and methods were not fully absorbed by a wider public.  Scientific uses of photography began to tantalize with big steps forward in photomicroscopy and electron microscopy.  The advent of digital was on the horizon, nascent but inexorable.  Color photography was emerging and becoming an attractive, and soon a required, addition to black-and-white.  In painting and sculpture, abstraction of one kind or another was the ruling mode.  For certain photographers, there was a growing dissatisfaction with the dominant ethos of representational photography, of pictures that sought simply to capture and reproduce what was seen by the lens.  They had the radical vision of a photography that was about nothing but itself, not the messiness and the contingency of the external world.  They called for Fox Talbot's 'photogenic drawing' but for a new age.  They wanted to create, not re-create.  They debated what it even meant to be a photograph, that stubborn physical object composed of animal protein, silver salts, and light.

Jäger, 111104.4, 2011

Into this mix came a young artist and theoretician named Gottfried Jäger who, in a series of group shows beginning in 1968, crystallized and formalized this restlessness into an agenda, or more accurately several agendas, with robust-sounding names like Concrete Photography and Generative Photography.
Jäger, Fotopapierarbeit 2011-III-1-2, 2011

In reaching back to the antecedants of concrete photography, Jäger found a forerunner in Alvin Langdon Coburn, the early British abstractionist and disciple of Ezra Pound; another touchstone was Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who had preached the primacy of the emulsion as the ultimate locus of photographic expressivity.
Coburn, 1917

The name for his movement though not the doctrine as a whole came from Theo van Doesburg's 1929 manifesto on Concrete Art, which followed the De Stijl movement and the thinking of Mondrian.  Mondrian liked straight parallel lines and primary colors and more than anything, precision.  (For a while van Doesburg and Mondrian clashed over diagonals and broke off relations for several years).

Time has been kind to us and Jäger's turn of the concept was more tolerant: it embraced a broad spectrum of non-objective photography from computer-driven images (the term Generative Photography stems largely from this) to entirely cameraless work using chemical action operating at the emulsion surface; even strange apparatus had a place in his system, from oscilloscopes (Franke) to light-filtering contraptions (Humbert) to pinhole cameras (Jäger himself, early on).
                                       
Moholy-Nagy, 1922
What was important - what remains important - is the idea that you can create or discover a new reality of space and time just by rethinking the most minimal elements of photography, the physics and physicality of it and its optics.  It is this search for a crossing-over, a transmigration mediated by process and technique, that shapes the Jäger aesthetic in order to finally become one with it: ostensible 'beauty' is not a critical category here at all.  In this it is consummately postmodern.

Photo Edition Berlin has embarked on the staging of a two-part exhibition entitled 'Concrete and Generative Photography 1960-2014' which is meant both as an homage to what Gottfried Jäger was instrumental in launching as well, perhaps, as an announcement of future work to be done.  Part One - The Pioneers, runs until December 20, 2014, and includes many of the original posse: Heinz Hajek-Halke, Herbert W. Franke, Pierre Cordier & Gundi Falk, Roger Humbert, Hein Gravenhorst, Karl-Martin Holzhäuser, René Mächler, Gottfried Jäger.  Part Two, with a contemporary and possibly more international cast, will arrive in the fall of 2015.

at the opening, October 18
You can download a pdf file of the informative 46-page catalog at the Photo Edition Berlin site.  For a thorough account of the history, concepts and methods of a large roster of experimental and non-objective artists, consult Jäger's Bildgebende Fotografie (Köln 1988).  The Folkwang Museum online is an excellent source of images.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New chemigrams from Australia (signed MH)

Higgins, Untitled 377-4, 16x20", 2014

Matt Higgins (see March 2013 post here) is a man who inhabits his darkroom trays the way a monk inhabits his monastery or a lighthouse keeper his lighthouse.  He never leaves.  If he does he may miss something, an insight or a vision.  A chemigram, he knows, is a process based only provisionally on a plan; once set in motion it must be allowed to grow on its own, like a child, to hatch surprises that one is never quite prepared for, to show off marvels that you won't want to miss.  He calls the darkroom 'my playground.'  He almost apologizes when he has to dash to the airport to see off a girlfriend - no time to waste here.

He works with hard resists, not soft: after all he's Australian and don't they wrestle with crocodiles?  Epoxy enamel is his favorite hard resist.  He flashes the paper briefly, then rolls on the enamel, letting it dry overnight.  In the morning he'll attack the paper with what he calls a scalpel, a tribute to the surgery required for deep art.  He has pre-dulled the blade by running it over concrete, for if it's too sharp it will cut right through enamel, emulsion, paper and make a hash of everything.

Ilford is his paper of choice though he finds Kentmere equally good, and he's also been experimenting with older papers, some of which give him a greater tonal range because they take longer to develop.  He uses mainly RC versions but fiber based paper is not overlooked, as with Untitled 197-3 below, done by using a varnish similar to Golden MSA and letting the varnish harden, then crunching up the paper in a ball, flattening it and immersing it in developer until a satisfactory pattern emerges.  It's helpful to have a heat press handy to give it a final pressing after a fix and wash.

Higgins, Untitled 197-3, 11x14", 2014
Matt works two papers at a time, taking them down the trays at a rate which allows him to concentrate on one while the other soaks.  Working under safelight, as an area is revealed beneath the resist he'll flash it with his phone to get a good black, then move on.  Areas meant to be white aren't flashed.  The pictures are all unique; he does not edition them.  As for chemistry, he goes by the book: Ilford Multigrade at 1:9 dilution, Ilford non-hardening fixer at 1:4, both at 20 degrees celsius.  He likes his stop bath a little warmer to help soften the paint.

If the bulk of his current work is black-and-white and shades of grey, that doesn't stop him from engaging in some freer dipping and dunking occasionally to achieve the classic gamut of chemigram colors.  He does these like star turns.  Here's one that uses nail polish, out of the Cordier playbook, with lights on and short residence times in both fixer and developer:

Higgins, Untitled 256-3, 11x14", 2014
One of the recent pieces I like best is this one, where Matt's skill with scalpel is in the service of a sensuously muscular concept:

Higgins, Untitled 254-5, 20x24", 2014

Here's another, this one done last year, a truly bravura display of mastery.

Higgins, Untitled 178-4, 16x20", 2013
At one point in his writings he recites the litany of the chemigram darkroom like this: 'Developer, water, fixer, water, touch, push, tease, feel, developer, water, fixer, water, touch, push, tease, feel.  On it goes until I'm hungry and have to face the world outside again.'  His obsession makes us feel totally privileged.

He'll be part of a team from the Australian National University to host an art summer school at Penland School of Crafts, North Carolina, USA, June 7th-19th, 2015, with Prof. Denise Ferris and others.  If interested contact Matt directly at matt.higgins@anu.edu.au.