Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Lumens, photograms, chemigrams: new pictures from Bashir

Bashir, Falling, 2014
After a 4-year hiatus (see the Bashir post for Sept 2010 here) I wanted to see what Bobby Bashir was doing - I never seemed to catch up with him although we'd spoken on the phone often enough.  I knew he'd left the Monterey Peninsula and was working somewhere near Paso Robles.  So a few weeks ago I called to say I was coming down.  He asked me to bring fixer and developer because he had none, and could I lend him some Foma and maybe some Forte, if I had any, two of his favorite papers?  It seems like he'd run out of supplies a few months back and just hadn't gotten around to reordering.  By midsummer he slows down, he says, the drowsy days make him less keen to do much outside of work, and his artmaking pretty much comes to a halt.  My visit hopefully would change that.

It was afternoon when I pulled in.  He greeted me outside the restaurant in high spirits and fussed over details of my trip.  Was I tired?  He insisted I eat before doing anything.  He signaled to a red-smocked girl leaning by the kitchen and in no time a huge plate appeared, laden with steaks of abalone, squid, peppers, squash and tomatoes - I was ambushed.  "But Bobby, you didn't have to!"  "You've got to try my new salsa on the abalone - it's a secret recipe!" he grinned.  We sat outside.  Business was slow, so Bobby helped me finish a bottle of cab as we traded gossip and laughed.  Before long - I'd finished what I could - he took me to a shed in the back where he kept a sort of studio which doubled as a gardening closet for the winter garden of the restaurant.  He was eager to show me his newer pieces. 

Bashir, Gathering, 2014

Bashir, Watching, 2014

Bashir, Knowing, 2014
I couldn't hide my excitement on seeing these.  A lot had changed: his palette was freer and darker, his intent more dramatic.  And yet he was working as he has always done and as he was taught, with simple steps and few variables.  The choices are still there: paper, developer, fixer, wash, sunlight, material to draw with, and time.  "Time is the most important of these, just like in cooking.  It's how everything happens, even life - especially life," he says, talking from the other Bobby inside of him.  "It took a billion years for the first bacteria to emerge on earth.  So I ask myself, how long should I leave a piece in the sun?  Where is the sun in the sky and what kind of light are we getting?"
As he talks he begins to assemble a few materials on a piece of Foma.  This one will feature blueberries and a few small leaves.  As a rule he wets the surface with tea, coffee, or fruit juice, or spritzes it with fixer or developer - just a smidgen - or sometimes sprinkles a few drops of a random chemical from the gardening supplies.  He's done and now moves quickly toward the sun, the paper and blueberries pressed between two sheets of glass.  The smush of berries leaks out the side.  He encourages this and rocks the setup back and forth so that liquids bathe different regions of the paper.  Then he props it on a wad of napkins on a crate, letting the sun strike it at an angle.  How long?  "Five minutes to an hour, that's my world.  Everything I do is inside that."  He says he's particularly fond of the slanting reddish light at the end of the day, the long rays favored by the poets.  He looks more serious today than I remember him.  Yes, there are still the festoons of flowers (or flowerlike materials), and the twisty garlands of tones that have given his work its special rhythm, but his intensity speaks of a determination to push this thing as far as he can, far beyond decoration and niceness.  I'm wondering if he had a fight with Chris.

While we wait for the sun and juices to join forces on his paper, he sets up trays, apologizing:  "I rarely use developer for more than a second, if that.  Still, I need that tray ready."  He has a fixer tray and a wash tray close at hand, and an eyedropper and a brush.  We have a moment, so he pulls out some lumens from earlier in the year to show me.  I'm reminded suddenly of the Flemish baroque masters who trafficked in that same conceit of flowers.  Here's Nicolaes van Verendael in 1676, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Van Verendael, Flowers beneath a cartouche, 1676

I realize too that what Bobby is making is really a photogram, in a sense, as well as a chemigram - that there is a continuum that takes us over all these separate 'disciplines' and demonstrates their common ancestry.  Chemicals, juices, stencils, cutouts, resists - these are the tools and it's just a shift in emphasis or outlook to pass from one to the other.  I watch now as his hands fly over the trays and minute interventions are made on the piece he's creating.  Then, at a certain moment, a moment very familiar to chemigramists, he stops.  "Done!" he cries, and there's that grin again.  He hangs it to dry; it'll be called Falling and it's at the top of this post.  He puts together a bundle of lumens to take with me.  We have an espresso, a hug, and it's adiós.  The red-smocked girl runs to my car at the last minute with a chicken tamale, all wrapped for the ride.

Bashir, Loving, 2014
Bashir, Dreaming, 2014

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Leonar-Leigrano photographic paper, R.I.P.?

Cordier, Chemigram 28.8.76 III, 1976.  Private collection courtesy Gitterman Gallery
In the years prior to WW II, many of the most popular papers in Europe came out of the Leonar Werke AG, whose main plant was in the Wandsbek area of Hamburg.  The papers had special qualities and features to appeal to both amateur and professional alike, and brand names like Rano, Lumarto, Imago and Leigrano each gained wide followings.  Our interest today lies with Leigrano, if only because that was the paper of choice of Pierre Cordier after his invention of the chemigram in 1956.  The chemigram above is an example of a work done on Leigrano.  Leigrano 111 hard, to be precise, expiration date unknown.
Pre-WWI view of Leonar

Camera construction section ca. 1914

The Leonar firm had begun in 1893 as a partnership of a chemist and a merchant, manufacturering and selling photographic chemicals.  Soon the partners expanded into printing-out (POP) papers, popular at the time, and to the production of cameras: their first developing-out paper wasn't made until 1907.  Led by strong research and engineering, Leonar by the 1920s was able to introduce new types of paper coatings and emulsions to the industry, which helped establish it as a major player in most aspects of photographic developing and printing.  It introduced mass production methods to its factories and expanded its markets.  In 1932 it went public.

Leonar in the 1930s
Rolls of finished paper awaiting shipment

In 1943 Leonar was heavily bombed by the British and the Americans.  In the postwar years the firm rebuilt and modernized its operations (let no disaster go wasted).  Certain lines were discontinued, others given prominence.  Leigrano was singled out and seen to be a paper remarkable in its versatility, rich in silver, with a cool-tone bromide look in most developing agents; it had become popular with photographers of all types - in the street, in portraits, in the fine arts.  It's probably not an exageration to say that every German photographer in the postwar period used Leigrano at least in part, and that includes names like Otto Steinert, the Bechers, Hajek-Halke and Chargesheimer.  Not to mention the Swiss, French, Belgians and Austrians.
Leonar papers.  Note the interesting stains on the middle one.

But good things come to an end.  In 1964 Leonar was merged with Agfa, then owned by Bayer, which in turn merged with the Antwerp-based firm of Gevaert - the sort of corporate mischief so common in the history of photography, even to this day.  The separate identity of Leonar was allowed to disappear.  By the mid 1970s it had suspended operations entirely.  Requiescat in pace.

Yet somehow, like a revenant, it lingers with us, not only in memory and imagination but also tangibly in people's attics and cellars, for the Leigrano secondary market, despite the odds, is alive and well - when you can find it.  Just ask Wolfgang Moersch, the prominent fine arts photochemical manufacturer, inventor of ECO 4812.  When someone not long ago spoke to him of Leonar-Leigrano he said simply, "The very name melts on your tongue."  Michael Hummel recently brought to my attention a photostream on Flickr devoted mostly to lith printing that is chock full of outstanding examples of prints on long-expired Leigrano. 

I've now entered the fray myself.  Last month I acquired some Leigrano from the descendant of a German prisoner-of-war interned in Alberta, Canada; he wanted to sell me his canteen and some medals too but I carefully declined.  Here's an etched chemigram I made from a sheet of it, Leonar-Leigrano 2a, expiration ca. 1945.
Collins, untitled etched chemigram, 2014
 I expect we haven't seen the end of Leigrano. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Preece retrospective at the Nevada Museum of Art

Preece, Unsettled Grid, 2014

This summer the Nevada Museum of Art celebrates forty years of experimental photography by the great darkroom pioneer Nolan Preece with a long-awaited retrospective of his work.  You've seen some of it on this blog, along with his writings, but never together in one space.  Here it is.  Until August 10.

Mounted in spacious quarters in downtown Reno on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the show is a revelation of Nolan's journey from early efforts in the glassprint or cliché-verre technique, such as Dancer below, through a more recent, sustained period of chemigrams, some dramatically life-sized.

Preece, Dancer, 2001
Installation view

It's a must-see event, especially if you're a student of analog photographic abstraction, because there's no place else we know of to enjoy such a wealth of invention, of unabashed joy in the making of pictures using just developer and fixer and maybe one or two other odd chemicals lying around the studio - and light and paper.  He's a wizard with materials.  After spending an hour looking at his pictures, you will want to stop by the gift shop, buy supplies and make some yourself.  If only it were that easy.  The good news is that he does offer workshops and you may contact him for details.

Another installation view

Preece, Hole in Zone O, 1989

Preece, Silver Conglomerate, 2012

Rich Turnbull and I flew out for the opening.  It was a beautiful evening, a band played, drinks were served and before long everyone had a chance to file in and pay attention.  A great setting for wonderful art.

Rooftop, at the opening

Nolan's website is www.nolanpreece.com.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cy Twombly's photographs

Twombly, Landscape, Villetta Barrea, 2008
The lushness of his paintings remains, that is the surprise.  But if so it's in a muted and muffled form, as if the earlier work had succeeded so well that the eye is now allowed to come to rest.  The scrawls have departed, and the huge canvases in rose madder and creamy white so admired by the public, with their quotations from Ovid and Homer, their antic and ancient energies amid swirls and loops and delicious doodles, are off hung in the greatest museums and sometimes, as with the Menil Collection in Houston, in museums all their own.  The photographs too are lush, but it's of a quiet, very settled kind of lushness, solid, mature, at times mannered perhaps but always masterly.  Another surprise is that these small works are every bit as powerful in their own way as the paintings, yet very few people seem to know about them. 

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) had been taking pictures, as we say - as opposed to making pictures - at least since the 1970s, often using the popular and inexpensive Polaroid SX-70 instant camera which was introduced to the market in 1972.  He was far from alone in this: Andy Warhol and even Walker Evans and Ansel Adams also toyed with it.  Twombly's dedication appears to have been much deeper however, seeing in the oddly pictorialist palette of the camera and its frustrating focusing system a way of celebrating memory, or the memory of a memory, though these are not his words.  In his painting and sculpture meanwhile he was ultimately addressing this same theme, using other tools.

He didn't show his photographs until late in life, in 1993 at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York - nearly half a century after exhibiting his first paintings.  The occasions for the photographs seem to be moods of reverie he found himself in, at times prompted by a desire to distance himself from his ongoing studio work whether in Italy or America.  An object would capture his attention, an idle view of fruit or flower - a hazy, deliquescent moment - you can imagine a smile crossing his lips or a tear welling in his eye, Verdi on the phonograph in the other room, as he got down close to snap the picture.

Twombly, Interior, Rome, 1980

The soft focus and the peculiar color saturation were part of the simple system he was using, but he was alert to its possibilities.  He tinkered with the photos, blowing them up, cropping them.  At some point - the histories have yet to be written - he found himself in Sauvigny-sur-Orge outside Paris in the workshop of the Fresson family whose ancestor, Théodore-Henri Fresson, in 1899 had invented an early type of carbon printing process.  Pigment-based, unlike the dye methods becoming common in the 1980s, the Fresson process, now using four colors, assured photographers of an unassailable archival quality to their prints.  For Twombly, the process turned his Polaroids into editions of unexpected nuance and sensitivity. 

Twombly, Tulips, Rome, 1985

Twombly, Interior, Bassano in Teverina, 1980

Twombly, Lemon, Gaeta, 2008

Twombly, Studio, Lexington, 2009

Gone from these are the glorious brushstrokes of his paintings, the excitement and freedom of his almost giddy imagery.  In its place he has given us complete intimacy and peace, sensuous and literary at the same time.  'I would have liked to be an architect,' he says.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Naming wildflowers in the desert

Casanave, Wave Machine, Monterey Bay Aquarium, 2013

(A guest post by Bobby Bashir)

When my boyfriend Chris suggested we drive down to Arizona to look at the wildflowers I said why not and we began planning it right away.  I don't know why I hadn't thought of it first.  But Chris does whims very well, that's one thing (there are others) I love about him.  It was February after all and in a few weeks we knew the first yellow blooms of brittlebush would dot the high deserts and mountains east of Phoenix, sending all who hiked up there into transports of joy or at least disbelief.  We exchanged a brief kiss to seal the deal and decided that's something we wanted to be a part of.

Bashir, Near Apache Junction, Arizona

I called Omar - could he cover for me at the restaurant?  No problem.  Next I had to tune up the old van with new belts and brakes for the 10 hour drive ahead, then freshen up the living space in back and I don't just mean redecorate although that too - we had found some royal blue Ralph Lauren floral patterns and I had a few notions about how to use them.  Then we put in new supports, not springs exactly but what you could call a distant relative of the spring, under the saggy bed, cleaned the espresso machine and test-ran our slow-cook oven - my big contribution from a trip last year to Bodega Bay - on a bulging chicken tamale I confected for the purpose.  It worked.  By Saturday everything was ready and we headed out.

I let Chris drive and we followed the old pony express trail known as Interstate 10 till we got to the Arizona border.  He's tireless behind the wheel, I really admire him for that.  Too talkative maybe, depending on your mood and whether you want to hear the same crazy stories again, true they're a little different each time, a new inflection here, a new character there, but it gave me time to figure out where we might want to go once we reached what they call the East Valley around Scottsdale and Mesa.  It was then I noticed that Art Intersection in Gilbert was about to open a show of alt-photography called Light Sensitive 2014.  I scanned the entries online and recognized several names.  Hey, we could drop in, it's just down the road from Mesa.  Chris was a fan of my lumen prints so he thought it'd be fun to check it out too.

Darkness was falling when we found the gallery.  The opening was in progress upstairs, lights blazed and you could see figures moving about at the windows, but I for one was pretty tired and hungry (I'd taken over the wheel after crossing the Colorado River) so we said let's eat before we go up.  On the ground floor was a place called the Euro Cafe that looked active.  We got a table and I ordered the spanaki balls (spinach, rice, mozzarrela and provolone), an overwhelming portion that I shouldn't have gone for, medically speaking, while Chris had the pork molise, grilled pork wrapped in bacon topped with an apricot & cherry sauce, alongside horseradish mashed potatoes.  We staggered out, leaning and bumping into each other, well fed but already nostalgic for the delicate wonders of California seafood.  Could we survive in Arizona?
Bashir, Art Intersection by daylight, Gilbert, Arizona
Bashir, At the opening

Yes, as it turned out.  The gallery was more spacious and attractive than we'd thought, and the pictures handsomely lit and hung.  The attendees, probably locals from their weathered tans, seemed unexpectedly alert and knowledgeable about the niche interests of 19th century hand-crafted analog photographic art, if we properly judged their somber nods and whispers.  We circulated.  There was considerable mystery on the walls and, often, beauty as well.  You had gum bichromates, bromoils, ziatypes, tintypes, argyrotypes, platinum palladium prints, a few chemigrams and pinholes and even a lumen if I'm not mistaken.  Have I missed anything?  No mordançages this year, sorry Brittany.  Chris's favorite was Martha Casanave's low-angle pinhole with very selective hand coloring called Wave Machine, which recalls the dreamy theatricality of her great book, Explorations Along An Imaginary Coastline, still available from Amazon and which everyone should rush out and get.  The critics haven't yet come close to doing justice to Martha's work; she awaits her ideal interpreter.  But I predict her day will come.

My own salute goes to Douglas Collins' strange, and strangely funny, untitled piece, a chemigram.  Don't ask me what it 'means,' but I'm told there's no story behind it, no allusions.  It is what it is as they say.  Later Chris and I, up in the Tonto National Forest north of Apache Junction, spent a whole evening talking about it, reaching no agreement whatsoever, and then going off in tangents from it after our third bottle of wine.  That's what alt-photo art can do to you.

Collins, untitled, 2013

Bashir, A creosote bush

So this post has become more about the art in Gilbert than the wildflowers we came all this way to see.  Let me show you some pictures to prove how wrong you are.  Did you know that cacti have flowers?  I like to taste their flowers too, I keep them in my shirt pocket and nibble on them as I ramble and roam.  There were also lupines (mementos of home!) just coming up, and desert marigolds, and here and there a creosote bush, lots of yellow, yes, you have to wait later in the season for more of the blues and whites like peppergrass, one of my personal treats.  Chris thinks I'm nuts.  Let him say that.  Another time I'll tell you about his problems.

Luckily we didn't meet up with any scorpions but that's not what you think of when you're having fun. 

Bashir, Somewhere in the Superstition Mountains

Bashir, Near Pinnacle Peak

Bobby Bashir
Seaside, California

Monday, March 31, 2014

Nasreen Mohamedi's photographs

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1980s

There are very few of them so far, the photographs released from her estate.  Just a handful.  Done mostly in the 70s and 80s, the first ones were shown publicly hardly a decade or so ago, a few years after the death of this great Indian modernist in 1991.  To see them again at the recent show at the Talwar Gallery in New York gives a shiver of recognition: the depth of her work is like no other.  To call it artistry is to miss the point completely.  There is no irony here, no conversation with history.  It is sheer presence, denuded to the point where the art we've been comfortable with simply falls away.

Her eye was attracted to the motions of lines, especially skewed ones, to waves on water and sand as well as traffic directional signs on pavement, to crescents, arcs, and to looms weaving wool, all lines that propagate in ranks, veering off the page endlessly.  They echo the delicate patterns of line in her drawings which are now celebrated in the art centers of the world, yet exist with their own energy.

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1970s
Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1970s

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1960s

Movement was crucial to her but it was always aimed toward the unity of that point at infinity where movement converges, and often she would go there and bring that point back to the center of her attention, from movement to stillness.

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1980s
In 1971 she wrote in her diary: develop form through intuition from point to point.  She was thinking of her drawings but it could apply to her photographs as well.

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1970s

Mohamedi, studio at Baroda, India, date unknown
A year later, the only entry was: a day of thinking begins.  You have the feeling she was holding her breath until she could think again, that every day was a trial and a release.  

For March 1981 she carefully wrote the single line: the shadow came and stood in its place like yesterday.  Nasreen is a penitent from a vanished order of an ancient faith, and with her hand she traces the remembered epiphanies.

At the end, prematurely, she succumbed to Parkinson's disease.  In Geeta Kapur's memoir, she's on the beach in Kihim south of Mumbai one May morning with her sisters watching the waves on the Arabian Sea near their small beachhouse.  'Sitting as if in preparation,' Kapur writes, 'she passed on suddenly without a sound.'

Monday, February 17, 2014

A deep connection to materials at ICP

Breuer, Untitled (C-1189), 2012

(The following is a guest post by Eva Nikolova)

Currently on view at the International Center of Photography under the title "What is a Photograph?", a selection of the work of 21 contemporary artists purports to challenge our very notions of photography.  A provocative title, and while we may not be able to put the answer into words given the range of photographic experimentation from the last four decades that are the focus here, we still assume: we’ll know it when we see it.  But an ostensive definition can no longer encompass the works of those artists who are engaged in stripping bare the very basis of that recognition.  So what must be still present for a work to constitute a photograph?  Clearly not the camera: fully a third of the artists in “What is a Photograph?” have abandoned the iconic device, and some have gone much further, casting aside almost everything assumed indispensably photographic.
Breuer, Study for (Metal/Day), 2000

Dispensing even with the action of light or chemistry, here are some of the highly tactile, deliberately modest-in-size works of Marco Breuer.  Dazzling in the inexhaustible inventiveness of his methods, Breuer scrapes, scratches, sands, folds, burns, drills, and otherwise mutilates his photo paper creating unsettling tension between image and surface violation.  “Deliberate misuse” is his own phrase for the way he treats his materials, but plain "abuse" seems more apt: how else to describe scorching the paper with red hot coals, dynamite or a frying pan, or shooting - with a gun not a camera - a box of photo paper?  In fact, shooting with a camera is what Breuer has done the least of, even when starting out – his introduction to photography was through photograms.

Rossiter, Defender Velour Black, expired Jan 1946, processed 2011 (C), 2011

Rossiter, Fuji Gaslight, expired date unknown, ca. 1920s, processed 2009 (D), 2009

And then, there are the works of Alison Rossiter, which she describes as “found-photograms”. Rossiter seeks out gelatin silver papers that have expired many decades ago, and as if out of veneration for these relics of the photographic past, keeps her interventions minimal: she simply develops the entire sheet of paper, or else applies a little developer to a part of it.  For all the evocative shapes, planes and shadows that materialize onto the papers as a result, the subtly colored monochrome abstractions represent nothing external, just their own particular histories – ghostly traces of time made visible through darkroom chemistry.  In a one piece on view, the photographer withdraws almost completely: she presents to us a small rectangle of Eastman Kodak Solio, presumed to have expired around 1910, that she has left unprocessed.  Perhaps she felt the one hundred-year-old paper had endured enough - its incredibly rich, copper-like surface certainly suggests as much.  Like commemorative markers, Rossiter’s works simply bear the names of the paper, the year of expiration and that of processing.  If this elegy for darkroom photography seems merely nostalgic instead of poignant, and the concerns hermetic instead of urgent, it may be that to fully take in the impact of the work, you’d have to feel a deep connection to such materials and a personal stake in the continued existence of analog photography.  But even if you are not similarly moved, the works’ sheer visual presence - at once sumptuous and spare, sensuous and severe – may feel like a revelation.

Although working at seemingly different ends of a spectrum, Rossiter’s principled withdrawal and Breuer’s intensely physical engagements both share in the creation of objects that operate at the very edge of our assumptions of what a photograph is.  And where exactly is that elusive edge?  Perhaps it has become so razor-thin, so exquisitely whetted by the attempts to penetrate the obdurate essence of the medium in the last forty years, that it’s invisible until touched by the right hands, and then, suddenly, we see the mystery and beauty embedded in the materials we have taken for granted, laid bare before us.

Eva Nikolova