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





 

8 comments:

  1. Complimenti per questi bellissimi quadri ! Mille grazie

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  2. This does seem like rich turf for making art, and you are right, the Casanave pictures are remarkable. I'm puzzled however by the lack of interest in this technique by the galleries and tastemakers, or have I missed something? Is it because this is 'photography', while photography itself has gone in a different direction?

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    1. You're right that cliché-verre is photography, but only in the original sense of exposing photosensitive paper, with something on it - a drawing, an object - to light. Once the camera was attached to it, photography became more what you saw, not what you made. It was painters and graphic artists who appropriated the original sense of photography for their own ends, and it has consequently had a different evolution. Because of that, cliché-verre is perhaps better thought of as part of painting, and the galleries most inclined to show it would be painting or drawing venues. Nonetheless, it is taught in many photography departments in universities because it utilizes the materials of photography and demonstrates that the lens, in a sense, is extraneous: a teaching point is made. A good question Steve, and one that torments many practitioners.

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  3. Readers might like to know that this technique was published by Nolan Preece in Photo Technique Magazine (2010) and in Silvershotz: The International Journal of Fine Art Photography (2010). Martha Casanave’s images are very similar to those dating back to 1979 on Preece’s website. Both articles and his website reference and describe the same cliché-verre process. Also, in perusing this website, Nonfigurativephoto, I see that it was described here on December 2, 2011. Both the artist and website editor may want to reference Nolan Preece when describing this process.

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    1. What you say is very true - that Nolan Preece was creating work along roughly similar lines as early as 1979, using the same classic methods (soot, alcohol). Others were doing this even earlier, for instance Kepes and the Bauhaus crowd in the 1930s. This vein of soot-and-alcohol abstraction reached a peak in my estimation - this is admittedly personal - with Chargesheimer's so-called light-drawings of the late 1940s. Much of the history of these materials and methods is recounted in Glass & Symmes' excellent Cliché-Verre: Hand-Drawn, Light-Printed, 1980. In discussing Casanave's prints from 2012 we wanted simply to highlight a little-known facet of the overall accomplishment of this West Coast photographer and place it in an historical context, taking a synoptic view of processes.
      Thanks for reminding us of Nolan's cliché-verres, which are definitely worth taking a look at for those not yet familiar with them.

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  4. A colleague alerted me to this post. To the best of my knowledge, the specific cliché-verre process that I began working with in 1979, i.e., solvents dripped on smoke-on-glass to create a matrix that is then printed with an enlarger on photographic paper, was not described prior to my 2010 publications. In 2001, I bought the beautiful book “Cliché-verre: Hand-Drawn, Light-Printed, A Survey of the Medium from 1839 to the Present” 1980, that is cited by Doug. It was listed as a rare book at that time. The receipt order # was 27947406 from Barnes and Noble purchased June 1, 2001 and cost me $121.44, used. I immediately read it from cover to cover. I was surprised to find that my cliché-verre process of dripping solvents on smoke-on-glass to create a matrix, was not described, mentioned or shown in this entire book. The book goes into some detail on 82 different artists varying with bios, working concepts and techniques used to produce their pieces. Many of the major artists that are named as working with a smoke-on-grass process in this blog are covered in this book. I have recently gone through the book again and reached the same conclusion – I had stumbled onto a unique process in 1979.
    I told Martha Casanave about this book in 2011 in an email discussion. There are certain visual characteristics to the work that I create using this process that could be called “style” and now Martha Casanave has created work that imitates this individual “style.”
    Over the years other colleagues have researched this cliché-verre process trying to find out how I did it. One was an exceptional researcher and he asked me one day, “Nolan, how did you do this. I have not been able to find it anywhere!” I told him I wanted to publish it before I would discuss it further which I did in 2010. Granted, search engines are much better today than they were even in 2001. I have not found works by Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes, Heinz Hajek-Halke, Carl-Heinz Chargesheimer or the Bauhaus in the above book or elsewhere that use this specific process. Doug, if you have information on where this work was published prior to my 2010 articles, please cite exact description references and post exact works. I am happy that individuals are using this process; however, it is professional courtesy to cite the individuals who have been instrumental in developing and publishing it.

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    1. Hi Nolan, it's good to hear from you.

      I remind you that we've encouraged readers to have a look at your cliché-verres (I'll use the English plural) from 1979 and later, which are very graphic indeed, and it's easy to see how someone looking for something to do with soot could be attracted to them. As I recall in fact, Martha was interested in using the method as a teaching tool in her alt photography classes, and perhaps I should have mentioned that in the post to make that quite clear.

      As for the aesthetics of the matter and whether or not Martha may have unconsciously 'copied your style' or not, I'll leave for others to decide. I should point out however that if one has a piece of sooted glass, the higher you let the drop fall - oil, water, solvent, whatever - the greater its splash through the sooty matrix and the more likely you are to achieve dramatic effects, which may become further heightened on enlargement. This leads to the observation that, on first order as the scientists say, all high-falling drops onto soot look roughly the same. So there could be a kind of aesthetic convergence here between your earlier work and Martha's. But the aesthetic issue, which I consider moot, frankly, is different from the issue of who was the first one to use the method.

      I do have in my files several images from the 1930s and 1940s that appear to show, without description, the effect of alcohol on soot. I'd be happy to send them to you. To complete the picture (but we're going a bit far afield here) I also have images from what I believe are the first modern users of corn syrup and asphaltum on glass, both sooted and not - again, if you're interested. As in many things it's not who was first, it's what those who came later did with it. Glassprints were patented in 1839 in London by men who today are all but forgotten. But Kepes is not forgotten, nor Corot, nor Picasso, and all of them at one time were glassprinters (or cliché-verrers).

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  5. Her work is very great, and very moving. I am a photography student at a community college. I was given an assignment from my instructor to write and show a sampling of her work. But, she has chosen to omit her early life. very hard to write about a person when she has omitted parts of her life. Now I understand privacy, but the minute she went public with her work, she became public also!

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