Sunday, September 13, 2015

Luminograms from Wales

Jackson, Luminogram study #98, 2015

Jackson, Luminogram study #216, 2015

Jackson, Luminogram study #115, 2015

Michael Jackson is a photographer from Pembrokeshire, Wales (UK).  He lives in a darkish valley just a short distance from the ocean, a proximity that has had a major influence on his work.  He hikes along the cliffs, stares out at the rocky stacks off the coast, or he descends to the tidal coves and spends hours and days alone with his camera, studying eddies in the sand, patterns of flux and reflux.  He listens, watches, and feels.  He meditates.

the artist on the sea-cliffs

Back in the studio, he seeks ways of transmuting this heightened experience into images on paper that will remain a source of continual challenge and excitement for him - to the point where, in fact, it is these that become the main event.  He calls it 'creative play'.  Years of working in the darkroom have honed his method to a fine pitch and reduced it to its essence, which is the study of light itself: what light can do to fool or enchant our perceptions when it's bounced off the silver compounds in the paper, what magic-lantern effects it leaves us bedazzled with.  If this sounds just a little familiar it should be, for these things, these prints, have been known as luminograms since Moholy-Nagy in the 1920s.  Mike had no idea until Gottfried Jäger pointed it out to him - he thought he'd invented it by himself, the same story many an alt-photographer tells about his or her corner of the craft.  

He uses no camera  - doesn't need it - and no film.  As to the light, it may shine squarely down, from an enlarger, or shine rakishly, beaming in from the side; he may have erected scrims or gobos in the light's path or maybe not, depending on inspiration; we do know, or strongly suspect (he's justified in his reticence), that he moves structures around during the exposure, uses torn or folded papers, small constructed models, objects at hand in the darkroom, and maybe even waves his hands back and forth in there too, in a sort of shadow performance.  He calls his work 'gestural' if anything, and that's a clue, but even then he's not finished.  Think of everything you can do in a darkroom and Mike has done it: double exposures, paper negatives, solarization, more.  His technique is evolving with a rapidity only matched by his production - more than one completed print per day over the last six months.  Someday, when he's not so busy, Mike will tell us all.

Jackson, Luminogram study #167, 2015

Jackson, Luminogram study #243, 2015
Readers will want to know some darkroom details and here's what I can share with you.  When he began he used expired RC paper because it was given to him and it'd be crazy not to use it, but he's moved on to fresh material, typically Ilford Multigrade Glossy.  Both work about the same.  Fiber based paper on the other hand doesn't work well at all in Mike's version of the process, he's not sure why.  His experience with some of the great vintage papers referenced here on the blog is slim; he's fine for now with what he's doing.  He uses standard Ilford developer and fixer, nothing tricky there, but he has done a lot of trials varying both their temperature and their mode of application: dripping, spraying, etc.  His solarization methods are what most command my attention - they appear extremely refined and successful, with an almost mezzotint-like delicacy of soft-focus edges and limpid greys; he admits this had been a major area of trial-and-error for him.  He should be very happy with the results.

Jackson, Luminogram study #102, 2015
Somewhat the exception to much current practice, he treats each print as unique and has no interest in editioning them.  'I want to do a print, learn from it and then for it to be in the past - rather than reprinting it over and over... I like the idea of it being similar to how painters work and move forward.'  The advance of time is relentless, just as the oceans continue to slowly grind away at the cliffs of Wales.  There's no looking back.

Jackson, Luminogram study #288, 2015
For those needing to know Mike Jackson better - and you should, there's much more than I've told you here - go to his site at and explore with open eyes.  I don't think I'm alone in finding his work profoundly amazing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Why etched chemigrams?

Collins, etched chemigram 71914-5, 2014
This is a story about my journey from simple photogenic drawings to chemigams and finally to etched chemigrams - these latter have been mentioned a couple of times in the blog recently and have caused a small stir.  I hope this may be of interest to some of you.  Consider it a response.

I began making chemigrams - of a sort that didn't have a name - about ten years ago, on a day like this one in the middle of an endless summer when I was fiddling around with my trays in the darkroom, bored with books and friends, just looking to pass the time.  I knew nothing of the modern history of what I found myself doing and didn't care; in due course I would correct that, but for now I was simply lost at play.

I had seen, of course, a lot of abstract photography of the twentieth century, I was not naive.  Coburn, Moholy-Nagy, Bruguiere, Kepes, Hajek-Halke were on my shelf, and I was spending a fair amount of time making and thinking about glassprints, those black-and-white pictures created on transparent material and contact-printed under an enlarger which have recently figured in this blog - and will do so again.  And so it was that, like many before me, I stumbled onto the chemigram method by chance.  I didn't know even that it had rules and methods, predecessors, active giants in the field, a history; so in my ignorance I kept exploring it to its perceived limits and stopped, dazzled like an early explorer on the verge of some dark continent, and not a little scared too.

I researched it - surely someone must have come this way before.  Soon I found a man living in Belgium named Pierre Cordier who claimed to have invented chemigrams, or perhaps discovered them depending how inherent you believe chemigrams are to the world.  Incredibly, he'd been making chemigrams for half a century; it was he who had bestowed on them a name, created a doctrine of method, and was their most fervent apostle.  I climbed on a plane and was off to visit him.

Collins, etched chemigram 72814-2, 2014
In my suitcase I carried some chemigrams which I thought represented me and where I was at fairly well, but as a neophyte I wasn't sure I exactly wanted to show them to Cordier.  But he turned out to be the most generous, warm-hearted person imaginable and we quickly become great friends, chattering away days and nights about one thing or another concerning art and - yes - the rest of life (if there is any).  And I will say this: Pierre taught me a lot and I listened.  In due course I was making chemigrams strongly influenced by his teaching (much is contained in his book, The Chemigram, Editions Racine, Brussels, 2007) and this is still the method I use in my workshops - for me it remains the classic approach.

The use of resists as a first step was key, a major innovation that, as a printmaker and etcher, I grasped immediately.  The search for newer and better resists, or ones with special characteristics, began to consume me; tests were conducted, emails fired off, comparisons made; early posts to this blog in 2010 attest to that, and this endures as an important area of investigation.  Today, chemigramist Matt Higgins in Australia is at the forefront of that effort.

Other critical issues also occupied us.  How to plan the incisions that you make in the resist, which cut to make first, then second and so on, and which one to start off in fixer and which to start in developer - these become the subject of many trials and reappraisals.  Color on the other hand had evolved away from the fugacious tones of Cordier's great colorist period, the 70s and 80s.  The fleeting hues of dye coupling agents were no longer on the market, while the article by Dominic Man-Kit Lam and Bryant Rossiter in Scientific American (265, 80-85, 1991) taught us about the Mie effect on color refraction in crystals and showed the way to potassium hydroxide and sodium thiocyanate as enhanced or supercharged developers and fixers, giving us a new source of color.  No one told us we'd need a magician's wizardry to make them work, but they were still a possibility.  So for several years that's what I was doing - my version of Cordier's teaching, with a few tweaks added.

Collins, etched chemigram 71914-7, 2014
I suppose I peaked in this approach around 2011.  An example I still point to with stubborn pride is the untitled picture at the the top of the blogpost on lightfastness in chemigam colors from August of that year.  It has gone by various titles and been exhibited widely - I love saying that even if nothing I do is 'exhibited widely' - most notably at the Center for Photographic Art in California.  Click back and look at it.  You have the linearity that comes so effortlessly to chemigrams, the black lines, the white lines, the colored areas so easily controlled, the pastel-y choices leaning toward the cool; the clean finish, the modest amount of jumble to give it a rhythm.  Maybe not your cup of tea but not bad you must admit as planned execution.

And yet even then I was beginning to feel trapped by the very tools and approaches of the classic chemigram.  I wanted to break out from them, from the patterns, the motifs, the graphic tricks that come so readily to it, but I didn't know how.  Something was missing for me in chemigrams and I wasn't quite sure what that was - an authenticity maybe, a soul, or the mark of the hand as Rich would say?  In despair I began abusing the photographic paper, punching holes in it, burning it; I tried bleaches and acids.  Then in 2012 I went to Pittsburgh and learned the basics of mordançage.  It wasn't until I found that the old books called it bleach-etch, a name I liked better - more gutsy and literal - that I cautiously began trying it on chemigrams, stripping off the emulsion and basically trampling and desecrating it, then rebuilding it as an alternative face.  It's a daunting, unforgiving method, but in these pictures I'm showing you today - pictures both pristine and devastated - I began to see some of the pain and beauty I had sought.  Chris Anderson came by the studio, saw them too, and dubbed them simply 'etched chemigrams'.  Then she did some herself.

Collins, etched chemigram 10715-3, 2015

Collins, etched chemigram 91714-3, 2014
Collins, etched chemigram 93014-1, 2014
The chemigram is not gone but on the contrary stands at the center of this enterprise, if only as the house into which we go to destroy it.  Without it as point of departure, or better yet without the belief the chemigram is founded upon, namely that paper and gelatin and silver salts must be reckoned with at the most intimate level if we are ever going to make a true picture, we wouldn't have a chance.

There exist other pathways from the rigors of the chemigram, this is just one.  You will find the others on your own.

Douglas Collins

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

For some, the earth is a darkroom tray

Preece, Walker River near Shurtz, NV, Nov. 2014
Those who follow this blog closely know that Nolan Preece is an experimental photographer, an adept of the darkroom in all its dimensions, a zealot for the secrets of the old chemistry.  He has spent a lifetime producing work, mostly cameraless, driven by this, work that is finding itself increasingly praised for its grit, inventiveness, and engagement.  Many examples can be found in these pages, particularly the three-part series in 2011-2012.  But how many of us know him also as a naturalist, an environmentalist, even an activist, in the Great Basin region of his beloved Nevada?  What are the points of contact between his environmental photography, at its grandest scale as seen here, and his abstract and relatively intimate chemigrams?

The truth is, he was an ecologist and surveyor of wildlife before he even thought of plumbing the recesses of nonfigurative photography.  For years, back in the days before computers and GPS, Nolan would trek into the remote badlands of that vast arid region between the Wasatch Mountains in the east and the Sierra Nevada in the west known as the Great Basin, with notebook in hand, recording everything he saw, plants, birds, animals, snakes, lizards, whatever lived or moved.  It was a sagebrush ecology: cold winters, torrid summers, prehistoric lakes with no outlet to the sea.  After a century of overgrazing and misguided water management it had also become a fragile and endangered environment, with ancient habitats dwindling, riparian woodlands eviscerated, riverbeds run dry, but one with a terrible beauty for those sensitive to it.  Nolan was its advocate. 

Preece, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, Carson Sink NV 2013

Preece, Quinn River-Black Rock Desert Wilderness, NV 2009
In recent years he has been renting small Cessnas and flying out over the Basin, leaning from the window and taking pictures.  He returns with images that bear witness, that show and document, and they have all the power of the bare unencumbered look - just as a chemigram shows us what has eroded and what remains in the tray, and we just stare at it.  The pictures tell the story.  There is no aesthetic trickery in Nolan's images, no code to decipher, no conceptual agenda: it is as if the earth itself is doing the talking.  Earlier this year he exhibited a large group of these pictures in Carson City, the state capital, and the project continues, just as the problems and concerns raised in it continue.

Preece, Lahontan Dam and Powerstation near Fallon NV, 2014

Preece, Willow Lake, Carson Sink - Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, NV, 2013

Preece, Quinn River Sink - Black Rock Playa, NV, 2009

These are clearly the shapes and patterns of an overpowering natural world, to which Preece is acutely attuned.  They have resonated over the years in his darkroom work, in his chemigrams and glassprints, and have given it both a clarity and a greater intensity than it would have without it.  Here's a chemigram from 2012, made quite possibly after a flyover of an ancient sink or a parched riverbed:

Preece, Colony Collapse Disorder #2, detail, 2012

For more information on any of this, contact Nolan himself at

Friday, June 12, 2015

Saluting Frank Cassara

Cassara, untitled photogenic drawing, ca. 1970
Growing up, Frank Cassara observed with both eye and heart; his vision was uncloudy.  He became an assiduous student of the forms of life, its myths, hopes, dreams, and its deceptions too, and when he later was a sought-after professor at the University of Michigan, the following generations became indebted to him.  The picture above, a sketch on photographic paper using fixer and developer, came late in his artistic life as he began to concentrate his focus on an investigation into materials, a quest that would last throughout most of his mature career.  Frank today is 102 years old and is alive and well, but very much retired.  His memory is not what it once was; dates and names tend to slip away; he speaks softly and stares off and smiles a lot to himself; and yet his presence is palpable.

Rivera Court, Detroit Institute of Arts
We do know that as a young art student in Detroit in 1932, he camped out at the Detroit Institute of Arts trying to catch Diego Rivera creating his mural (1932-33), later regarded as one of the greatest in North America.  A tarp had been hung to block the view but Frank would pull it aside and peek.  Frida Kahlo, Diego's young wife, was there, pregnant; she would shoo him away and draw the tarp back.  He kept returning; it was a game he was good at.

By the mid 1930s Cassara began painting murals himself, first for Roosevelt's WPA program and then for the Treasury Department, in schools, post offices, and public works projects, mainly in southern Michigan.  The prevailing style was muscular and mythic, somewhere between bolshevik and Thomas Hart Benton, and he was fluent with it.  We should recall that in those days Detroit incarnated heavy industry in a way that was total and almost unimaginable to us today; it needed its visual poet.  Here is some of Cassara's work from that period:

Cassara, Days Without End, oil on canvas, ca. 1937

Cassara, Conversation During Lunch, lithograph, ca. 1939
Cassara, Early Settlers (mural study), East Detroit Post Office, 1939-1941
Cassara, Lansing Water Board, mural, 1938
After WW II Cassara embarked on an itinerary of relentless experimentation in support of his new responsibilities at the University of Michigan in printmaking and of etching in particular.  This would take him into the early 1980s.  He filled notebook after notebook with formulas for etching grounds, some little more than hypothetical as if they were projects for a future history, glimpsed but beyond present reach; under an exhaustive list of conditions he tabulated the behavior of the ones he was able to concoct and demonstrate.  Solvents were studied, pigments, inks, binders, glues, washes, and papers, all in similar fashion, all in numbing detail.  Then it happened, a breakthrough.  In a 1963 issue of Artist's Proof, the printmaker's journal of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he published results he judged both novel and helpful.  The article, with no fanfare, was called 'A Unique One-Bite White Etching Ground' and it can be read here.  In precise and evocative language that is a model of exposition, Cassara not only established the need for a new kind of etching ground - a bold step in itself - but produced a formula for it and gave examples of its use.

Now there are those of us who believe that no innovation in etching will prove to be of greater consequence, when the accounts are finally written, since the invention of aquatint in the 18th century - and that's obviously saying a lot.  Still, to date the ripples have been small (as if matching the modesty of Cassara's voice), but in time - a decade, a century - that should change.  There is a built-in conservatism in etching; etchers prefer to look backward to Rembrandt rather than forward to - well, anything.  Cassara offers them a way.  Etchers, go read his article.  Here are some of the examples he published:
Cassara, Musician, white-ground etching, 1960

Cassara, Big City, detail, white ground etching, 1960
This gives us a sense of the range of his curiosity.  So the photogenic drawings - in an echo of Fox Talbot, these are my words not his - that he toyed with and even exhibited locally should come as no surprise: it was just another material whose substance and plasticity wanted to be developed.  He never thought of himself as part of a photographic tradition.  And yet what he left us, in a brief period of cameraless play half a century ago, fits right in with our present project and we recognize it today as bright, lively, and beautiful.
Cassara, untitled photogenic drawing, ca. 1970
Cassara, untitled photogenic drawing, ca. 1970

I visited Frank and his daughter during a sunny, snowy week this past winter.  Frank was impeccably gracious.
Frank Cassara, January 2015

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Higgins explosion

Higgins, ANU Gallery installation view, 2015
It's by small increments - tiny repeated actions and reactions - that the chemistry of the analog darkroom works its magic on photographic paper, but the sum of it can be of astonishing beauty.  If you could make an animated film of the process and run it back, it might look something like Chemical Potential: A Darkroom Upside Down, Matt Higgins' wonderful, compendious new show which ran at the Australian National University in Canberra this past March.  He filled the ANU Art Gallery's hangar-sized space with 99 pieces, just one short of the shameless triple digits possibly out of concern for our senses.  He needn't have bothered: just one of his pictures nearly stretches to the limit what we can absorb and understand of the mysteries of emulsion (see previous posts on his work here and here).
Higgins, ANU Gallery installation view, 2015
Higgins, ANU Gallery installation view, 2015
Higgins, ANU Gallery installation view, 2015
Higgins, ANU Gallery installation view, 2015

Higgins, ANU Gallery installation view, 2015

These works are but a sampling of what Matt has done in the period 2011-2015 and cover most of his favorite chemigramic techniques: acrylic resists, repeated motifs with variations, calculated use of safelight for the control of whites and blacks.  Paper sizes range from 8 x 10" to 20 x 24".  The physical labor to produce this output alone is impressive and reminds us acutely of the scale of the vast land he is from.  He's a non-stop working dervish, driven only by the dream of the very next chemigram - and the one after that, and wherever his imagination and hands may take him with it.  A couple of years ago he spent a few weeks with us in New York and we never saw him except for meal breaks, so intense was his focus.  He had barricaded himself in the darkroom.

A respite is in order.  He and Denise Ferris will be conducting a workshop in Physical Photography (how can you not love that title?) at Penland in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, USA, June 7 - 19.  It's been sold out and there's a significant waiting list.  Matt's a rock star of the chemigram world.  You may want to get yourself there all the same and hang out, it should be worth it.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New takes on the old: Alison Rossiter

Rossiter, Gevaert Gevaluxe Papier Velours, expired. ca. 1930s, processed 2014, from the series Latent

Alison is very comfortable in uncomplicated surroundings: the vintage photographic papers she is known for, a basic darkroom set-up of trays, standard chemicals.  Her Manhattan studio is light and airy; along one wall a cage of shelves houses finished work, experiments, work-in-progress, neatly catalogued in rising ranks of exhibition boxes.  In another area, around a corner, she keeps old papers awaiting the right time or inspiration; a whiff reaches you of the musty trace of departed photographers.  She points to a pack of Leigrano, probably pre-war, with stains on it, and smiles.  The stains are its history; more will be drawn out later.  Her work tables beyond are covered in thin white paper, prepared expressly as if for a quiet party, perhaps of one: the paper is bare, there's nothing on it, you hesitate even to set your notebook on it, and she doesn't invite you to do so either.  You feel an unspoken decorum, severely followed.  Then, as you sit across from her on a folding chair, she warms up by trying out stories on you, tales of the early days of the Velox Company maybe, smiling and laughing easily.  She entrances you the way her pictures do and have done for years, in that sensuous and crisply bookish way you like.

Her preoccupation is photographic papers, from their earliest appearance near the end of the nineteenth century up to the 1970s, with even later ones sometimes piqueing her interest such as Tura Excellent, a paper that at one time rivalled Leigrano in esteem, in Europe anyway.   At this stage, on the occasion of her new show at the Yossi Milo Gallery, it won't be necessary once again to describe in detail her method, it has been well covered in the press and on this blog.  In brief she acquires papers at auction or distress sales, opens the box under safelight, develops, fixes and dries it, and looks at what's there.  Or she may test a part of a sheet by exposure to light before developing, to see how the blacks look.  Time, atmospheric contaminants, microscopic life, spills, light seepage, all take their toll in ways large and small.  The paper becomes a record of these events and of the human intensity or frailty behind them, in essence a sort of meditation on that history, in which Rossiter, by her judgment and compassion, her choices of selection - by her art - is participant.

Rossiter, Nepera Chemical Company Carbon Velox, shipped Nov 8 1897, processed 2014
Yet along with a methodology that would not be out of place in a quality control lab there is another, savvier side to her program: the choices of what to expose, of what to save and show.  Her newest work, while still at least nominally based on the chance discoveries lurking in expired paper, exploits this forthrightly.  She hoists and hinges together groups of pictures, where a dipped black edge on one is matched to a dipped black edge on another, to achieve a strong, clean, highly graphic effect.  The Haloid Military series is an example of it.

Rossiter, Haloid Military, expired October 1957, processed 2015
Installation view, Yossi Milo Gallery, 2015

My colleague Rich Turnbull in a 2010 comment noticed this tendency, which in the present show, though not dominant, has grown in scale and purpose.  He called it the 'reinstatement of the hand' into the work and the distinction is useful.  Some purists may bemoan it, others not.  To those who have come late to Alison's work, we should remind them that at one time she was drawing images of horses with a light pen and making photograms of books.  A true darkroom buff, she is entitled to be curious and have fun, wherever that may lead.  The common thread is her totally uncommon elegance (and her deadpan humor).

Here's a picture at the Bulger Gallery in Toronto, from her Book Project series of 2004.  You should look at them all - Darwin, Ovid, Ruskin.  It tells you a lot about what she's reading too, not a bad choice.

Rossiter, The Wisdom of Confucius, 2004

Despite all we've said, I admit I'm still partial to her revelations of what the old papers have to say to us, their little explosions of uncanny beauty when Alison pulls a sheet from her tray, the elaboration of processes as natural as the turning of the earth.  This week marks the birthday (and so I'm reminded) of another great cameraless artist, Anna Atkins, who did similar work, taking pains to get right what the natural world gave her.  Her great book Photographs of British Algae (1843) appeared just 4 years after the invention of the word 'photography'.

Rossiter, Ansco Cyko, expired Dec 1 1917, processed 2007
Anna Atkins, Halidrys siligrosa beta minor, 1843

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