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 preecenolan@gmail.com.



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 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 www.marthacasanave.com





 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

From zombie prints to Lazarus prints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

-->

Thursday, January 29, 2015

During the blizzard, chemigrams by candlelight

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

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

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

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

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

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