Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Some more Michael Jackson

Jackson, #444, 2016

A year ago we introduced you to a fellow to watch named Michael Jackson.  We told you he was out in the UK's west country doing interesting things, photographing ripples in the sand, building paper constructions of mysterious hulking islands, and best of all, playing with light and shadow in the quiet of his darkroom.  He is a prolific artist, we even had trouble trying to calculate how many pieces he'd created - something like one per day was our best, not terribly well-informed, guess, a testimony to both the confidence he has gotten in his system of production and to his obstinate, unflagging energy and creativeness.  At anything near that rate a new Jackson show was a surefire necessity.  Earlier this summer London's MMX Gallery rose to the challenge and exhibited a batch of recent work.  It was a good moment to catch up with him to see how he's doing.

We're talking of course about that part of his output which he terms luminograms, as if to emphasize the primordial role of light in their making (another might call them photograms or skiagrams for similar reasons but let's not get into that discussion) and to distinguish them from the rest of his photographic corpus, which uses light as well, just not primordially.  A slip of theory underlies it: the idea that light, by bending and twisting and refracting, can so to speak show itself, that it can reveal to us something hidden about itself, its inner nature.  So there is a definite quest for knowledge, a search that will have no end because on this earth it seems we can never learn enough; and its waypoints must be intuited, as the knowledge to be found is more likely spiritual than scientific.   

This is very like Mike, his inquisitive frame of mind turning to awe in the face of natural phenomena: he is at home with the big questions and the small to the point of reverence - or innocence.  So that the record of his search becomes the work of art itself, the very pieces we have before us, at once both as documentation and object.  In this examination of his materials - light - Mike can be said to strike at the extreme end of modernism, along with painters like Jasper Johns, Robert Ryman, or Barnet Newman, each with their own quite disparate material obsessions in their day, or of photographers such as the under-recognized Jack Sal.  We can perhaps be grateful, however, in 2016, that his work is less austere than those, and far more sensuous, because the times have changed.  Here are some pieces from the MMX show.  There were 21 in all, each unique, 12 x 16 in. unframed, each of an uncanny beauty.

Jackson, #396, 2016
Jackson, #447, 2016

Jackson, #485 (Valley Landscape), 2016

Jackson, #524, 2016

In the year 1225, Robert Grosseteste wrote a treatise at Oxford in which he said that light extends matter by spreading itself infinitely in every direction and so forms material bodies.  It projects, it induces, it calls into being, it envelopes and continues on.  Mike understands this.  'In a certain sense,' Grosseteste wrote, 'each thing contains all other things.'  Mike gets that too.  He would have been a star pupil.

Jackson toying with light and shadow

Jackson in his studio

installation view at MMX Gallery

The discoveries he makes are not those of the great modern Swiss artists of the photogram, Humbert, Mächler and others, whose results were astounding and simple, astounding in fact because they were so simple.  Rather, he moves from the real world (but what is real about shadows?) to the fantastic and then back again, confusing the two, confounding us in the process and dragging a great deal of references with him, and much of his charm is that his path never fails to astonish.  Jackson is a magician.  Light beckons and he follows wherever it may lead.  'There are senses of reality [in my work],' says Jackson, 'but the rest is so fantastical that it could never be.'

For more information on his motives and methods, check out this video on YouTube produced by the gallery.  I'd like to say 'illuminating' but we're pun-free at the blog.

His website is www.mgjackson.co.uk

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mark-making in light and shadow

W.H. Fox Talbot, photogenic drawing, ca. 1839

W.H. Fox Talbot, paper delivered at The Royal Society, 1841

We've been ruminating about things - it's a slow month - and have begun to feel that our friends who work in cameraless photography come in two distinct species (exclusive of outliers from the heavily conceptual or apocalyptic strains).  First let's identify them, label them, and then let's try to make the labels go gently away.

We begin by plunging into the deep end.  So OK, there are folks who write on their working surface - let's call it a matrix - with a tool, be it stylus, pen, stick, or brush, and encourage these marks, through friction or abrasion, to define an expressive content.  This activity is similar to painting and is modeled after painting, no surprise here.  Most of the work shown in this blog is of this type, but not all by any means, and it is certainly not the only way to go as we'll see in a moment.

In this camp we find the chemigramists with their incisions, their clingy resists, and the glassprinters (cliché-verre artists) with their daubs and scratches, and not forgetting the brutalists (Marco Breuer comes to mind, or Brittany Nelson, along with many others emerging from the schools nowadays, where deconstruction is trendy) with their hammers, tongs, their strong mordants.  The matrix we're talking about may be the photographic paper itself, as in chemigrams, or it may be a glass plate, plexiglass, or acetate for the glassprinters, who will contact-print to achieve their end result.  Have I left anyone out?  I don't think so - they're all included here one way or another, and clearly there is a lot of cross fertilization among them.

Then there are the others, in many ways the more interesting group because their approach is so unexpected, and it is these we want to talk about today.  Instead of a brush or knife, they use that gratuitous, everpresent commodity we know as light.  Using just light and light's dark brother, shadow, they make a trace on photographic paper that is captured by the process of photographic development that we've discussed elsewhere (for instance here).  They have marked the paper, or matrix, but have touched nothing: the paper needn't be handled at all, since the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum does all the work.  This is a very old tradition, which reaches back to the origins of photography and is in some respects its very definition.  Fox Talbot called it photogenic drawing, drawing arising from light.  Moholy-Nagy called it the photogram.  Other names have been used, schadograph, rayograph, vortograph, luminogram, skiagraph, light-painting, the list is endless.  When an artist sees how pain-free this procedure basically is, how miraculous, how magical, he is often so overcome that, ignorant of tradition, he names it after himself, or connects it to terms from a golden age of classicism.  He is unwilling to use the common expression because that word, degraded, cheapened, in the service of the most profane employments, has no common measure with the wonder he is seeing.  That word of course is 'photograph', drawing with light.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Vortograph, 1917

László Moholy-Nagy, photogram, 1925
A few words and examples to get the feel of it.  In the darkroom, something is interposed between light source and the photosensitive paper.  An object, a hand.  Curled paper constructions, as with Francis Bruguière, or cut-outs as with Walead Beshty.  Gauze, as with Wolfgang Tillmans in his Freischwimmer series, which he calls 'abstract photos'.  Gobos, scrims, translucent things, lit by Fresnel lights, pen lights, candles, strobes.  Multiple exposures.  Or nothing at all, just the play of refraction and scattering of light-beams at an edge, or in movement, as in some of the work of René Mächler.  An exposure is made, the paper is developed.

Jaroslav Rössler, Akt, photogram, 1926

Francis Bruguière, Abstract Study, ca. 1926
Lotte Jacobi, photogenic drawing, ca. 1940
Arthur Siegel, Photogram #9, 1946
The work stands firmly in a relationship to the history of silver gelatin photography, to a compendium of darkroom practice, and could not exist without it.  It is reflexive, examining itself as both subject and object.  It acknowledges dependence on the physics of light as a wave phenomenon and on the physiology of the eye, much more so than other cameraless methods do, and it exploits these.  Thomas Young, in his famous 'double-slit' experiment of 1801, had demonstrated the refractive nature of light and both the constructive and destructive interference of waves.  His work is as much fundamental to the photogram journey as Talbot's.

double slip experiment

wave nature of light

When we peer today into the far recesses of pictures where light ends softly and shadow begins, at the roundness of objects, we thank him for helping us understand that.  We see it in Siegel or Jacobi, we see it wherever a reflective surface falls away into a vague smokiness, just as it starts to leave us.  Try these to get the idea.

Kilian Breier, Knicke, 1960-65

György Kepes, Feathery Light, photogram, ca. 1939-1940

René Mächler, Kollision, photogram, 1990

Thomas Ruff, phg.01, photogram, 2012

Fox Talbot, in a journal entry of 1833, wondered if a way might be found to make pictures of things without having to go to the trouble of drawing them, for he was, by his own admission, a terrible drawer.  He was vacationing in Italy near Lake Como and wanted to record impressions of mountains, ruins, old villages.  He set his mind to it and after a few years his attempts at sensitizing paper with silver salts succeeded: you put the paper in the sun with something above, a leaf, a bit of lace, and you get the example at the top of this post.  He called it photogenic drawing.  You couldn't exactly take pictures of mountains with it, the paper wasn't yet sensitive enough, but it was a start.  Sir John Herschel, always more clever than anyone else around (who would shortly announce his discovery that certain salts of sodium could fix, or stabilize, photographs, opening the way for an entire industry to flourish later in the century) immediately devised the word 'photograph' from photos = light and graphein = write, draw, to describe what was happening.  If photography had stopped right there, everyone might be making photograms today.

But it was not to be. The camera obscura, a box that had earned its keep for a thousand years from China to Baghdad to medieval Europe as an intellectual curiosity for the focusing of light rays, was given a new assignment.  Hooked up to the photogram, it came to usurp and far exceed the photogram's function.  The genie was out of the bottle.  Photography was now pointed away from itself - more 'usefully' one might say - out into a world of people, plants, and objects.  Photography had left the shop, taken its notes, and the only ones behind were the men and women whose works you see above.

Accept it or not, this is understood to be how it has been.  Photography is now the province of everyone.  Yet we notice a curious thing: people - artists and amateurs alike - are beginning to turn back to the old methodologies, pausing to examine the beauties left along the path of our adventure - there are so many! - and to reinvent them, remake them in new ways for a new age.  Not in droves just yet, but that will come.  It is a good time then for all of us to rejoin the family of photography, to embrace and reclaim its name and put aside the squabbles of process and ownership, of territory and priority, that have plagued us from the beginning.  We draw with light.

This past summer, a gallery in Germany invited a chemigramist to submit a picture to a group show of experimental work.  He sent them a chemigram.  On the wall it was labeled 'photograph, silver gelatin print.'  No mention of chemigram, skiagraph, bamboozlegraph, nothing.  There is much more that joins us than divides us and I say bravo to that artist and that gallery.  Our words do matter, and our allegiance.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Unbalancing the grid at Amherst

Turnbull, from the Gates series, 2016
Rich Turnbull, in his annual excursion into chemigrams, has given us new images to digest, explicate, and fawn over, as though we were just so many eager students in one of his lecture courses at the Met or F.I.T. and this were a class assignment.  He does this every year.  He's a tough teacher.  The one shown here, part of his Gates series, is on display in a group show at Gallery A3 in Amherst, Massachusetts until July 31.  Let's see what he's up to with it and see whether, after reaching an understanding, we might move to the head of the class.

To tackle obvious matters first, his paper is Bergger and the resist is Liquetex Soluvar.  Many of you will say, aha! Bergger means a high silver content and therefore really dense blacks.  Well, not so fast my friends.  Here at the blog we view that attitude as urban legend - not the silver content per se but the blackness of the blacks, which is not at all correlated with silver content according to Richard Henry in his Controls in Black and White Photography, 2nd edition, 1987, who has done the experiments.  Once you get to Dmax, the maximum black, additional silver does nothing, and you can get to Dmax quite easily with a broad range of papers.  We feel Rich used it because he simply had it available and wanted to finish off the box.

Soluvar varnish is another matter altogether.  In the old days, our experience with Soluvar as a chemigram resist was that it was indistinguishable from Golden MSA varnish and was very good indeed.  Then, unannounced, the Liquetex folks must have added a polymer for brittleness to the formulation, who knows what they were thinking, for Soluvar suddenly assumed a very different character and became a niche product with quirks only a specialist could love.  Cracks, fissures, crazed rifts went everywhere, branching from one another down to the smallest of scales.  For the basic chemigram it was not something you'd want to use.  But Rich is not just anyone.

Let's go to the man's own words to see where he went with it.  'I made the outer and center vertical incisions with an X-acto knife to define the working space,' he says, 'then drew the grids freehand with a pin tool, commonly used in bookbinding [Rich also makes artist's books].  I didn't tape the paper down when coating it with Soluvar, and since paper curls toward the emulsion, the rather soupy varnish pooled a bit in the center so that my incisions didn't quite penetrate through the thicker areas of varnish, resulting in the large open area at bottom center.'

But this must have been a sought-after effect, indeed the entire pivot of the image.  He goes on, while addressing one of the classic difficulties of the chemigram, the tyranny of the grid:  'I've done my share of carefully ruled grids on chemigrams of course, but of late I've worked with hand-drawn grids to unbalance the balanced nature of the grid, which is all about superimposed order anyway.'

The struggle with materials is apparent in all his work, where each aesthetic decision comes about from a meditation on the limits of his tools.  This in turn gives it an integrity, a density, that is exemplary and an unforeseen payoff.

For Turnbull, who in the summer months lives on the edge of a forest in the far western part of Massachusetts and survives, according to some, on a diet of bear-meat and gin, the received impression from the Gates series can be - take your pick - melted nylon, ripped flesh, an old fence where something large and terrifying has bitten its way through and is now roaming ever nearer, and so on.  This is not easy work, but a punishing reward for the mind.  Best perhaps to stay indoors and enjoy it from there.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Cameraless at Atelier pH7, Brussels

Pierre Cordier & Gundi Falk, Chimigramme 11-6-13 I "Resurgence", 2013
In the quiet, leafy neighborhood of Uccle in Brussels, the quiet gentleman (and maestro) of alternative photography, Roger Kockaerts, has put up a show at Atelier pH7 of alternative work that runs until well into the summer.  If it were only for the van dyck browns, the palladiums, the carbon prints, the bromoils and orotypes and of course the gums, it would be worth seeing, but there is a double reason: a significant part of the show is devoted to cameraless work, in this case the chemigram, and some fascinating and instructive work it is.

The above piece, by the Brussels-based team of Pierre Cordier and Gundi Falk, demonstrates the devotion to exacting conceptions for which they are famous.  Here they compound that practice by using one of their frequent ploys, the hidden puzzle, an audience favorite since time immemorial.  If you stand back and squint real hard you can just make out the letters of the title, R-e-s-u-r-g-e-n-c-e, written left to right and then, as in a boustrophedon, a device popular in ancient Greece, from right to left in the line below and zigzagging back and forth down the picture.  As I say, you have to squint.  Who said boustrophedons were easy!  Yet is the supposed boustrephodon here actually a red herring, a trail leading to a misreading?  It's for you to decide.  Here's a blow-up of the lower left corner, which is elegant fun but unfortunately may not help at all:

detail, Resurgence

In a work like this, planning in advance is essential - everything must be scrupulously mapped out, the incisions, the larger boundaries, the form to be taken by the hidden letters of text, the areas to be masked from chemical assault.  'More Mondrian, less Pollock,' as Pierre has said - a lot more.  The good part is that once set in motion the process more or less proceeds to term on its own, and all the artist has to do is shift the paper from one tray to another.  Imperfections, blips, and other small visitations from the gods of photochemistry, when they happen, are accepted into the picture, indeed they are blessed as emblematic.  But I exaggerate somewhat.

To monitor progress (the new reader should review earlier how-to posts on chemigrams, such as this), the artist may use the thickness of dark and light lines as a measure or trace of ongoing activity, a chronometric record not unlike the growth rings of a tree - an idea which, the more we think of it, may connect chemigrams to the larger saga of natural history and to the seasons of the earth.  If you think this connection far-fetched, we've discussed themes allied to it before in other contexts, for instance in the rate of movement of mackie lines around the equator.  Critics and pundits in the future, if there is a future and there are critics, will want to expound on this.

Another work on view by the same team is 'Musigram', a remarkable piece depicting a fantasy musical score that features a staccato of bips, or congealed clumps of musical notes, against an opulent black.  Don't even think of playing it, it's only for viewing.  One attendee at the opening tried to hum it but failed, complaining he needed a bass line to keep time - or perhaps just a refreshed glass.

Pierre Cordier & Gundi Falk, Chimigramme 11-6-13 I "Musigram", 2013
Here's a closer glimpse into this distinctive work.  The unfathomable, indescribable wonder of the chemigram is on full display.  You can scrapbook this one for study later.

detail, Musigram

Douglas Collins has several chemigrams in the show as well, quite different in design and a far cry from the impeccable work of Cordier & Falk.  All were done earlier this year, mainly in the western Mexican state of Guerrero working under, let's say, simple conditions.  Using Foma FB paper outdoors under a tree, he produced this

Collins, Guerrero series #4, 2016

and this

Collins, Guerrero series #5, 2016
and this

Collins, Guerrero series #11, 2016

The quality of the light and of the water in rural Mexico can be expected to have had an effect, from subtle to determinative: the water was from an ancient well, and bore minerals from deep in the mountainside.  Here's some detail:

detail, Guerrero series #4

and again

detail, Guerrero series #11,
A poet once said that knowledge is like water, 'dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.'  These pictures, relaxed and open, suffused with sun, unplanned and unforeseen, seem to partake in the joy of discovering profound secrets when one is least expecting them, or when, rather, one suspects they are already present all along.  

Or, according to Collins, they could express something else entirely, and that's okay with him too.

* * * *

Pierre Cordier and Gundi Falk will be seen at Galerie Volker Diehl (Berlin) in August and at Paris Photo/Scheublein + Bak (Paris/Zurich) in November.  Gundi Falk has a solo show underway at Barbado Gallery (Lisbon).  Collins has work currently on view at IPCNY (New York) and at the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, California).

Monday, June 6, 2016

Preece at Wickiser Gallery

Preece, Woodland, 2014

Nolan Preece continues the sequence of interpretive landscapes that we first saw in his piece at Soho Photo last fall, this time at the Wickiser Gallery on 11th Avenue in New York where he comfortably shares the spotlight with four other photographers, each bending the rules of photographic art in their own way.

Preece however goes beyond the facile jockeying of pictorial motifs so often encountered in abstract photography, and indeed such as even seen in some of his own early works from the 80s and 90s.  With these pictures, evidently his mature style, he has found a way to turn his chemigramic language around and redirect it to concrete issues of ecology.  Somehow - you have to stare at these pictures for while for the sensation to grip you, but it will - he manages to draw the viewer into a ragged, moon-struck environment at a level that is close to the ground; we feel the way a small breathing creature must feel, a bird darting in the brush, a small snake, a muskrat, though none are seen; it is a world under our eye but totally alien to our species, devoid of humans.  In this way it becomes uncanny, and this in turn is responsible for its strangely compelling hold on us.  We should get used to it he seems to be saying.

Preece, Valley, 2016
How does he do this?  By his choice of colors for one thing: inverting what we expect in a representation of nature he puts, in the foreground, earth colors, bearers of life and hope (or a chance of hope and maybe life), and dark colors above, the realm of death.  There are no angels here.  It is a primeval scene that could go either way.  Nothing stirs.  It awaits our signal, our consent, perhaps our involvement.  Here's another picture by Nolan:

Preece, In the Grove, 2014
It is only from the fractured, dessicated bramble in the lower part of the image that providence may come, while the cursed black orb watches from above.  Again, in an apparent homage to Ansel Adams, where 'Chemigram' may be located on the outskirts of Hernandez:

Preece, Moonrise Over Chemigram, 2015
Bright moon of our dreams rising over a stricken earthscape - a remarkable image.  In the years I've been following his work it has only been with this show that his twin passions, darkroom tinkering and recognizing our stewardship of the earth, have come together in an unapologetic fusion that is of the most potent art.  It should be seen.  It runs until June 21 at the Wickiser Gallery.

The prints are enlargements from scanned original plates, i.e. the primary chemigrams on paper, and are available in two different sizes according to taste.  Prices framed range from $1300 to $2500.  The prints are on Epson Exhibition Fiber or Epson Premier Lustre, depending on size and the printer used.  Original plates were either Kodak Polycontrast or Ektalure G.

Nolan's site is www.nolanpreece.com.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Using Kodak HC-110 for that grand gesture

Higgins, Ilfosol study #1, 2013

Matt Higgins' new book-length exposition on chemigrams - their history, their workings, and perhaps where they're heading in a not so distant future - is finished at last, although as yet unpublished.  You'll remember that we teased you with it back in 2013 as a glimpse of things to come, when we had no idea it would be this good.  It's called Chemical Potential: The Darkroom Upside Down and delivers on the promise of its title, leaving little that hasn't been tried in the chemigram-friendly darkroom.

Higgins, Ilfosol study #2, 2013

I've been browsing it lately and thought we might want to take a few pages from it for further discussion, so today, to pick a topic, we'll try to figure out what it is he's doing with Kodak HC-110, or Ilfosol-3, the more-or-less Ilford equivalent - we'll get to the differences in a moment - and show you some examples and some how-to.  For Higgins fans, a cautionary note: this matter is not major stuff for him, and he treats it almost in passing.  So while on the evidence he has had great fun exploring it, it would not be warranted to grant it much of a central role in his work to date.  Once you learn from him how to handle it however, and can pirouette boldly down the paper with it, it may easily seduce you and find a home in your own darkroom work.

HC-110 and Ilfosol-3 are both advertised as film developers, which doesn't mean you can't use them for paper as well - you can.  They have a surprisingly long history: their patents, in both America and the UK, go back to the 1960s and HC-110 was brought onto the market in 1962.  They are concentrated developers, designed to be used in dilutions which can be extensive if not homeopathic, 1:32, 1:63, even 1:100, which is a boon for the budget-minded photographer.  In appearance HC-110 is straw-colored, very viscous and syrupy, Ifosol-3 clear and somewhat less viscous.  Their applications in film development will not concern us here, but let us just say, in the shorter dilutions or even undiluted, as we would most often use them, their developing action is vigorous, not to say precipitous.

Chemically they are not particularly unusual products; it is the physical character that is exceptional.  Both are hydroquinone-phenidone based developers, with common accelerators, restrainers and the rest.  What distinguishes them is a heavy debt to glycols at the expense of water as the functional solvent, especially, in the case of HC-110, to diethylene glycol (DEG).  DEG is a large molecule and is perhaps most responsible for the high viscosity, the wonderful thickness of the product, and the reason we're even here talking about it. 

So let's start.  For equipment you'll need lots of paper.  Higgins says RC paper is best, and I would bet on expired paper as a check on the development speed of modern papers.  A syringe, plunger, or squeeze bottle is practically an essential applicator tool.  Also, bring to the task the quick reflexes and persistence you honed in your dip-and-dunk chemigram phase. Alright, here we go.  In daylight you wet the paper and you drip or squeeze a blob of HC-110 onto it.  Quickly the blob shifts into development mode, changes shape, possibly colors, oozes here or there, slides around - and turns everything black.  You blew it, be faster next time, start over.  You have to learn to squelch what you set in motion - not easy. 

Higgins, Ilfosol study #4, 2014
If you're successful and move quickly you'll get one like study #4, where Ilfosol was dripped, this time, from an extended arm position, allowing the droplets to shudder back and forth on impact to create a winsome effect.  In general, the basic setup for Higgins is a tray with just a few millimeters of water in it and the paper lying just below the surface, at which point you hit it with your chemistry.  If you increase water depth you obtain different effects, as the developer diffuses on its way down, which of course may be a short way down.

Higgins learned of the method on a trip to Nevada in 2013 to visit Nolan Preece, who had been using it since around 1999.  Here's a very early one by Nolan, done with HC-110 on Oriental paper:

Preece, Vessel, 1999

In perhaps a take on this, Higgins did the one below in 2013, using Ilfosol.  'I wet the paper and laid it on a flat surface, then dropped concentrate over it and finally let a sizeable amount of water run over it,' he says.  'You have to be careful to get all the concentrate off.'

Higgins, 198-3, 2013
Both Higgins and Preece report on methods within methods, for instance they may put Ilfosol in the refrigerator to make it more syrupy, or for the same purpose they may let it stand a couple of days in a tray to let the water part of its formulation evaporate.  In our nonfigurativephoto testing lab (NFPTL) we couldn't confirm the efficacy of this, in limited testing, but in theory it sounds good.  A further area of investigation is in toning, and in treating these imaging activities with booster chemicals like potassium hydroxide or ammonium thiocyanate.  Again, we haven't gone there yet.  Our first foray with HC-110 produced the one below, and the one below that.  Don't judge us too harshly, we're just testing.

NFPTL, HC-110 test, April 2016

NFPTL, HC-110 test, April 2016

This post wouldn't be complete without the powerful and disturbing image that kicked it off, from Higgins' book:

Higgins, 527-2, 2013
The Kodak HC-110 technical data can be found at www.kodak.com/global/en/professional/support/techPubs/j24/j24.pdf

The shelf life of both Ilfosol-3 and HC-110, while not infinite, is very long, much longer than with other developers, and this is another attraction in using them.  Their longevity is perhaps due to their very low water content, which tends to oxidize materials in the formulation.

For further information on any of the above contact Matt Higgins directly.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Handcrafted: the book as fine art

Brittany Nelson, mordançage

Dan Estabrook - salted paper

There's a book on the market many of you have not had a chance to peruse, for reasons we'll get to, and that's really too bad because it's a beauty.  In China where it's published my sources tell me it has skyrocketed to become one of the best-selling photography books in the country, which is all the more surprising as its subject is alternative photography, that broad but laborious and demanding set of 19th century processes spiked, if you stretch its definition, by a clutch of contemporary craft methods, from bromoils, albumens and wet plate collodions to mordançages and chemigrams.  We in America don't often associate this niche activity with China, but the appetite for it, on the evidence, is overwhelming.  From this moment forward our preconceptions will need re-adjustment.

The book is Handcrafted: The Art and Practice of the Handmade Print by Sam Wang, Sandy King, Christina Z. Anderson and Zhong Jianming.  The authors, widely respected educators and photographers, saw an opportunity to satisfy a growing interest in American alternative photography after a lecture tour in 2006 to Chinese schools.  They met photographer Zhong Jianming at the Nanjing University of the Arts, who convinced the others that it was time to publish a book for the Chinese market, featuring real work by real artists, with emphasis on the word 'handcrafted' or shougong in Mandarin.  A proposal grew from that and was accepted; a first edition appeared in 2014 from Zhejiang Photographic Publishing Co. in Hangzhou (www.photo.zjcb.com, ISBN 978-7-5514-0957-5), celebrated by a string of exhibitions across China; a second edition came out in 2015 and a third is forthcoming in 2016.

exhibit in Pingyao, 2014
At almost 400 pages it's a big fat book, it takes up space, it weighs a lot.  Multiple works are shown by some 34 artists, many of whom have years of accomplishment behind them while others are hardly known beyond the community, all judiciously curated by the authors however to cover a range of specialties.  Though the accompanying text is in Mandarin, an English translation can be found at the end, along with bibliography, artist's statements, and notes on each process.

Yet it is not a textbook: you would never think of taking it into the darkroom with you - though some have.  Nor is it, in the kindest way of saying it, a manual of contemporary developments in esoteric realms of photography.  Rather, and this is where Handcrafted is unexpectedly a standout and a more general one than its authors could have wished, the book is, with its sumptuous textures, its fine paper coatings, its inks and their subtle application, a brooding and singular presence and object of fascination all by itself.  Imagine a coffee table book that is also sculpture, sculpture that can be touched, exposed, explored.  That is something of the feel of Handcrafted as it rests open before you.


We begin to understand what's going on when we reflect on the culture that produced it.  Chinese civilization, largely unhindered by outside influences, has been advancing through history for four thousand years since neolithic times, accreting to itself along the way those sensibilities, those allegiances that define it still.  A taste for drawing, first on silk, then on paper, which it invented around the 1st century BC; a reverence for ink, its manufacture and nurture and use foremost in the holiest of pursuits, calligraphy, then in the portraiture of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), later the landscapes of the Tang (618-907).  There are texts from the 10th century that describe how inks are made from pine trees of a certain age, how to drain the resin and forge the lampblack and how, if desired, you can add gold powder or essence of musk to obtain certain coveted qualities. The 'ink meditation', a concept as far from our understanding as could be, became not just a monastic exercise, but a pathway to enlightenment and nirvana, embraced at the highest levels of society.

It should surprise no one that a culture that cares this deeply for paper and ink will make a book like this one.

Zhong Jianming, vandyke brown

Clay Harmon, polymer photogravure

Cynthia Huber, chemigram

Jill Skupin-Burkholder, bromoil

Douglas Collins, chemigram
Philip Schwartz, carbon

Shelby Koth, tricolor gum bichromate

You've come this far and you say, well then, how do I order it?  Good point.  It's not yet what you would call readily available in the West.  Online it can be purchased at www.amazon.cn (Amazon China) or www.taobao.com (owned by Alibaba), and while these huge Chinese sites do have an English tab to click on, the experience can be daunting - and you might not feel comfortable giving them your credit card, since most of the information is still in Mandarin.  An Australian site may be for you, at www.goldstreetstudios.com.au, and they do carry the book.  But we buy ours from Xinhua Bookstores, the Chinese government -owned book chain, which is starting to go international.  They have stores in New York, San Diego, London and elsewhere.  It's best wherever you go to identify the book by the ISBN number.  At the New York store the book arrives in 2 weeks and currently costs $71.50, which, all things considered (but don't say anything) is a steal.  And keep checking with amazon.com because sooner or later they too will want to carry it, if I'm Jeff Bezos.