Wednesday, December 29, 2010

glassprint & chemigram workshop in NYC starts soon

Collins, Creation of the World, Part 1, 2010

The annual workshop in glassprints and chemigrams will be held earlier than usual this year, on two successive Sundays, January 30 and February 6, 2011 - so this is your chance to reserve a spot.  Contact Manhattan Graphics Center right away if you're interested, by email or phone.  Because part of the instruction takes place in the darkroom, space is quite limited.

chemistry room, MGC

There aren't many places where you can learn these unusual techniques, which lie at the boundary of photography and painting (with a little alchemy thrown in), but one place certainly is MGC in the Soho area of lower Manhattan.  If you're from out of town or abroad and have always dreamed of coming here, let us know and we'll help you find accomodations that suit you.

By the end of the workshop, you'll feel yourself beginning to develop a personal visual language that will lead to a deepened expressiveness, and you'll be given tools to continue your explorations on your own.  Meanwhile, your best work will be featured in a project-space exhibition in April at the center.  So join us next month to embark on this special adventure.

chemigram workspace, MGC

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Marco Breuer

Breuer, C-995, 2010

His show has just ended at the Von Lintel Gallery on 23rd St, quietly, the way he might have wanted.  But for those lucky enough to have seen it, the lessons of this part-time farmer from upstate New York are not easily forgotten.  For Marco Breuer's work is like a series of urgent dispatches from the field, the results of his ambushes on and abuses of the silver gelatin emulsion he so much loves.  This is point zero of cameraless photography, the ground state.  It doesn't get any more basic.

His method is to violate the photographic surface to see how far he can push it; he pounds, pummels, scrapes and gouges it, and even burns it.  Likening himself to a sculptor, he chisels away layers - literally - until he forces it to give up its expressive core.  The results can be stunning visually - these colors are hidden in photographic emulsion? - but they also can have the provisional and elliptic quality of laboratory results, maybe not everyone's cup of tea.  A picture I like very much, C-1012, may also look, to some, like the electrical discharge from a poorly wired socket.

Breuer, C-1012, 2010

But this is what you get when you strip it down and use the right tools: an utterly gorgeous image.  We will never completely master the sheer physicality of the materials of our art, in their mute resistance and mystery.  Yet we are locked in an eternal embrace with them where we must make them respond or we have failed.  In this struggle, Breuer takes no prisoners.  More of his fine work can be seen on the Von Lintel website.

The recent exhibition had another component, a bit of theater in which the gallery walls were redone in black, scratched with chalk markings, lines, symbols and formulae, as though we were inside the darkroom, sharing intense moments of creativity with the artist.  As I say, a bit of theater.  We sent our man-in-the-street, John LoCicero, to go have a look, and he filed this excited report:

Hand-Tool-Material: the chalked flashes and ghost swipes of a lesson plan - far now from W. H. Fox Talbot, this "pencil" re-draws upon photographic traditions/materials to index immediacy/measure/media - in this outlier darkroom: the power of the center is enacted through a triptych of approximations - angular hard lines score the edges of mysterious colors, tints and complements, miracles of multiple exposure - chalked agitations amplify onto the wall the scratched excavation of chromogenic paper coatings - evoking "the riddle of lumen", cresting angular slices graph sharp anxious contrasts from the containing black.

That pretty much says it all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Resistive notes (2) - to shake or not to shake

Ah, that is the question.  Many emerging chemigramists have written to ask me, when I lay my photo paper in a tray of developer or fixer, do I agitate it there, in its 10 mm or so of liquid, or do I let it rest?  Does it even matter?  Let's approach this question by thinking about it for a moment.

It seems clear that a motion tangential to the surface of the paper (and of the liquid too, if not deep) will produce a shear stress acting on the paper in a manner to dislodge anything clinging there, if given enough time and enough agitation.  Now, to review, chemigram materials resident on the paper might include (1) hard resists, like varnish, (2) soft resists, like syrup, or (3) quite inviscid and nonadhesive fluids like the fixer or developer themselves, for example, or other household chemical agents that may be chosen for suspected properties.  But their rapid dislodgement is not always desirable; it really depends on the effect we seek.  In the case of inviscid, free-flowing fluid, we are usually quite content just to dip and pull, securing the signature mark of the enveloping chemical and moving on to other things.  But just for the record we show, in figure 1, what a shear stress might yield in such an evanescent situation, from one of my own works from 2009.  It's rather hard to reproduce, this effect, requiring a certain lightning-quick flick of the wrist, since the viscosity coefficient of waterlike materials is so small - so don't attempt this if you discourage easily.  Just think about it as a possibility.

figure 1
The choices and our ability to profit from them are more varied as we move up the rheology scale to tougher resists.  Some workers may favor a slow progressive erosion of the bonds between paper and resist, others may like it faster.  The difference between the two can be seen in the width of the resultant Mackie lines.  Testing this, we performed a simple experiment three times during the first week of November, using Ilford RC paper, somewhat impure Kodak developer and fixer (but normal for chemigrams), Golden MSA varnish, and common x-acto incisions, to compare a paper that received monitored agitation with one that was left unattended in the tray.  The time to withdrawal was twenty minutes, by which time the effects were amply demonstrated. 
figure 2a, agitated

We illustrate this by one of the runs - they were all similar - shown in figure 2a (with agitation) and 2b (stationary).  When we enlarge them and apply a scale (not shown in this post), we find a Mackie expansion of 10 mm in the stationary case vs 14 mm in the agitated one, a 40% increase that remains significant even if the crudeness of our measurements is discounted.

We can compute a velocity, for those who care, of 4.2 x 10 (exp -2) m/hr.  Not much, but not zero either.

figure 2b, stationary

At this rate, the Mackie line would circle the earth at the equator in a runtime of 3 x 10 (exp 8) hours, or 34,224 years, give or take.  So shaking the paper seems a good way to get where you want to go.  Patience helps too.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Groundbreaking show at the V&A

Pierre Cordier, Chemigram 25/1/66 V, 1966

Adam Fuss, from the series My Ghost, 1999

Garry Fabian Miller, Year One: Ogronios, 2005-2006

The handsomely-installed cameraless show 'Shadow Catchers', at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has opened its doors at last, and all London was on hand to welcome it, with more than 500 revelers, artists, collectors, gallerists, and hangers-on. Only Fox Talbot was missing - well, I didn't see Anna Atkins either, but the spirit of both hovered over the festivities. Parties lasted well into the evening as the lights flickered out over South Kensington.

at the reception, October 12

Later in the week, the New Scientist began their lede with curator Martin Barnes' rhetorical question: what trajectory might photography have taken if it hadn't become obsessed with the camera and the lens? That we've had to wait 150 years to ask this, with the world careening madly in another direction, is testimony both to the stubbornness of tradition and the boldness of his courage, but it is implicit in the thoughts of the author of The Pencil of Nature, who sensed photography's dilemma when he wrote, "the phenomenon appears to me to partake of the character of the marvelous." Marvelous indeed: Pierre Cordier, Susan Derges, Adam Fuss, Garry Fabian Miller, and Floris Neusüss all demonstrate the richness of an alternate, hidden tradition of artists whose work is a meditation on photographic materials and process, reclaiming the visionary from the prosaic and documentary.

Let us hope this landmark exhibit, which runs until February 20, 2011, will be followed by others. Meanwhile, in another wing, the museum has mounted a parallel show called 'A History of Cameraless Photography', with a selection of gems from their vast collection: Man Ray, Anna Atkins, Moholy-Nagy and others. You'll be overwhelmed by Shadow Catchers, but don't miss this one on the way out.

Pierre Cordier and Martin Barnes on Cromwell Road

Monday, October 11, 2010

the maddening ubiquity of digital photography (aka why we need chemigrams)

Rich Turnbull, 10.07.10_01, chemigram, 5 x 5 inches, 2010

We all know that digital photography is omnipresent, that everyone has cameras in cell phones and on their laptop screens as well as the standard issue digital camera...but just how omnipresent is the digital image in daily life? I'd like to offer a small travel anecdote. Just about a month ago I was in Istanbul in Hagia Sophia, the fantastic 6th century Byzantine church with a very complicated history, a building that I tell my students semester after semester is my favorite architectural structure of all time. (Professors allow themselves a certain measure of hyperbole to make their points.) Hagia Sophia seemed as crowded and sodden with tourists as I'd ever seen it, but of course most people were not looking at the structure or the decoration of the building, they were taking photographs (usually involving their traveling partners posed in front of marble panels or particularly fetching mosaics). This is not news, obviously. I have often described the galleries at MoMA here in NYC as hopelessly infected with the digital menace, by which I mean the incessant jockeying of tourists for photos of the paintings they rarely bother to look at after their photo is taken. In Hagia Sophia I tried to compile a small statistical sample by counting the number of flashes that went off in a single minute and I left off before the minute was through because my tally was somewhere above 150 photos, not counting anyone who wasn't using a flash and therefore invisible to me.

What's the point of all this photography? Yes, yes, I know that people like to make photographic records of their travels as a kind of visual reminder after the fact. I understand that photography is probably more democratic now than at any point in its almost two centuries old history. But how much photography is too much? When everyone can take and make pictures by the millions if not billions every year and all these photos begin to look alike and everyone posts them online so we can all see each other's vacation photos (a very specific kind of hell), has the digital camera become nothing more than a more visually sophisticated Blackberry or iPod? Is photography (like e-mail and digital music) so omnipresent that it is no more than a component of the information cloud we all inhabit and occasionally choke on?

Cameraless photography offers alternatives to this cloud and also a way for the hand to reenter the realm of the photograph. I suspect Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy knew this, also Raoul Ubac and Herbert Bayer and Pierre Cordier and Alison Rossiter and any number of photographers who worked or continue to work outside the boundaries of what we have to call conventional photography. I know that it's difficult to figure out how to talk or think about non-standard photographic images like the chemigram that I posted above, made about three days ago, and I know that whatever dialogue there has been about chemigrams has tended toward process and technical concerns, but I think it's useful to see the chemigram and other forms of cameraless photography as a means to resituate photography within the aesthetic discourse of painting. We all thought this argument about whether photography is really, truly an art form was put to rest by St. Stieglitz about a hundred years ago, but it seems like Stieglitz's division between documentary photography and art photography is again being tested, this time by the all-devouring documentary properties of the digital camera.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Alison Rossiter

Rossiter, Nepera Velox, expired August 1906, processed in 2010

Rossiter, Fuji, expiration date unknown ca. 1930s, processed in 2010

Rossiter, Eastman Kodak Royal Bromide, expired March 1919, processed in 2010

If you've ever had the good fortune of seeing Alison Rossiter's work in Canadian galleries like the Stephen Bulger in Toronto or Art45 in Montreal, her one-of-a-kind pictures are hard to forget. It's not that she's been known merely for cameraless work - she is an extremely pure exemplar of that word - but rather for pictures without any conscious imagery whatever: from a background in photographic conservation and an obvious love for the history of photography, she collects vintage photographic paper at auctions or rummage sales and develops it, to see what strange marks time and chance may have left. Dings, abrasions, smudges, spills rich in old chemistry - these become remarkable and somehow moving in her hands, and can be seen on her site and elsewhere.

More recently she's been invoking the spirit of these rare papers by inoculating them with a bit of developer, creating simple but haunting photograms or chemigrams. In her new show at Yossi Milo in New York City, it's shocking at first to realize that these darkly elegant shapes, created only this year, are executed on papers which may be nearly a century old. Velox, Ansco, Kodabromide, there is a roll-call here of legendary names most of us have forgotten or never known; the drama of their return to center-stage is staggering. The edges of the papers, as you dare get closer, are sometimes discolored, and why wouldn't they be. The whites display a gamut of tints, from bone white to thin yellows to faint mauves, representing, one might say, the dreams of bygone epochs in which they were conceived. And then the blacks. The regions where her hand has passed or where she slowly tilted the paper charged with developer, the blacks are pushed to maximum density, unmodulated; they possess a massive authority and seem to engage in a mute, secret dialog with the whites. In some pictures Alison gives us the added surprise of a second layer of black, this one not allowed to proceed to full development. Its dusklike tones dance at the edges of still darker areas, suggesting movement, twisting, indecision, and life.

Some have called Alison's work minimalist, and at first glance it's easy to see why. Her methods, her commitment to a process, a spare, arbitrary imagery - in conversation she said someone even compared her to Barnett Newman. But the more you stand in the presence of these works, the more you feel the operation of an intense personal engagement and emotion that rises above minimalism, and puts it far behind. You must see this show.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bobby Bashir's lumens

Bashir, Wasting, 2010

Bashir, Lasting, 2010

Bashir, Holding, 2010

Bashir, Feeling, 2010

Roberto "Bobby" Bashir is a young man living in the valley below my mountain cabin on the Monterey Peninsula. He works as a seafood cook, and when he's not inspecting new shipments of squid or salmon or arranging things on a plate, he likes to make lumen prints, which he does out back behind the restaurant. He uses the bounteous wildflowers of the region, grasses, leaves, and more recently the leftover food from customer plates, trimmings, and kitchen scraps. He picked up the technique down the coast in Ventura, and does it to amuse himself.

Bobby mostly uses Foma FB paper from Croatia, which he gets from Freestyle. He likes the reds and earthy oranges, and the delicate feel of it as it dries. He exposes for 20-30 minutes (we're in California mind you), fixes in ammonium thiosulfate for maybe a minute or two, washes ("have to do it, but I lose the great deep blues and cyans from the fixer"), then usually soaks it in Kodak Rapid Selenium toner until he's satisfied. Then a final wash, and dry. And yes, he wears gloves and is very careful not to contaminate the kitchen, but he asks us not to reveal the name of his restaurant. Just in case.

What I love about his process is his use of juices and teas as a thin bath for the plants or foods on the paper. As these liquids dry, they lightly develop a trail on the paper, creating an illusion of depth or shadow which goes well with the quiet lyricism of his work. He favors the multifruit concoctions so prevalent nowadays like orange-pineapple-mango, and the unsweetened iced teas. Another advantage of using liquids where plant meets paper is that you reduce the problem of things sticking to the paper, a problem common in lumen printing, particularly in long exposures. Jalo Porkkala's excellent Finnish site 'vedos' discusses these and many other issues in lumen printing in a fairly thorough way; interested artists should consult it. I also recommend spending time looking at the late Jerry Burchfield's work, both his pictures and his articles on lumen printing. Meanwhile, back to the kitchen with Bobby Bashir.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mackie himself was never sure..

Collins, Florence H., 2010

Photoelastic fringe pattern

Obama solarized

Alexander Mackie arose at a meeting of the London and Provincial Photographic Association in 1885, as colleagues advanced theories about lines that sometimes appear around a figure or shape in a photograph, a bit like halos. "No, no, sir!" he cried. "That simply won't do. That doesn't fully explain it at all." For each theory brought forward to explain the mysterious lines, Mackie disproved it with a counter example. He showed pictures, he demonstrated his theses with objects, vases and tables. Optical illusions, effects of radiation, disparity between central and marginal rays of a lens, exhausted developer, nothing withstood his intellectual rigor. When the matter was revisited in subsequent meetings Mackie was again there. He haunted these meetings. He garnered a reputation: the guy with the lines nobody can explain. After thirty years of this - thirty years! - he could take no more, and wrote a letter to the august British Journal of Photography (64, 11-12, 1917) saying (in effect), "Hey, everyone associates these lines with my name as if the matter were settled, but that's far from the truth. We still haven't a clue."

If Mackie himself was never sure what a Mackie line was, no one else was quite sure either. But certain ideas have stuck, and have spread out in the world. In the field of photoelastic stress analysis, for example, they use the edge effect of pseudo-solarization (also known as Sabatier) to construct models of the stress distribution in materials; the lines of stress are called Mackie lines. You want to know where an I-beam will break, you find its Mackie lines.

In his Theory of Photographic Process (1942), C.E. Kenneth Mees was already able to describe Mackie lines as "the commonest adjacency effect" and said it was a white line formed at an abrupt enhancement of density at a border. Later, in his landmark monograph on photographic solarization (1997), William Jolly discussed a half-dozen border effects including Beck lines, Mach bands, Sabatier border lines and Mackie lines. He put Mackie lines in a special class very near to Sabatier border lines and (with a little arm waving) described a back-and-forth flow over the border of developer and reaction products and their excitatory or inhibitory effect on silver grains.

I've always thought highly of this explanation, but when I'm standing over my trays, poking at my paper, I can't help but feel otherwise for the case of chemigrams, which have had a somewhat closeted history since Cordier's discovery of them in 1956. The erosive appearance of border lines seen in chemigrams looks to be due to straightforward chemical attack, in developer and then in fixer, during the gradual, progressive removal of overlying resist. The developer darkens, the fixer lightens, each does its normal job, and the border recedes. At least this is the simplest explanation; the gentleman from Ockham taught us to always choose the simplest.

You could construct, or imagine, other scenarios. Trans-border diffusion of bromide, counter diffusion of developer, electromagnetic radiation collected in the exposed areas causing an inhibitory heating effect in adjacent areas, etc etc. Yet to me the evidence is merely suggestive at best, and the border appearance in chemigrams may not warrant such involuted theories anyway. This is because what we want to account for in chemigrams doesn't have the same origin as what we want to understand in other border situations, in Sabatier or in solarization - the phenomena arise differently.

I must confess though, at the end of the day the border effects in all these can be seductively similar. For that reason, for that similarity, we choose to retain the name Mackie line for the characteristic erosive line in chemigrams. Mackie wrote to the Journal about everyone using his name for these lines and said, "the connection has not arisen from any choice on my part, but was adopted merely as a convenient expression for avoiding an inconvenient descriptive formula of words." If he were alive Mackie would grumble a complaint to our blog, and we would know he's right, but it would change nothing.

The chemigram at top, Florence H., is pure Mackie lines.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Richard Turnbull to speak at Christie's

Richard Turnbull, Istanbul, Turkey, 2010

Rich will speak on Photography Transformed: The Digital Revolution and Beyond, 1990-2010 at Christie's Education, 11 West 42 Street, NYC, October 5, 2010, 6 to 8 PM. His talk is part of a four-lecture short course program conceived by Christie's Photographs and Christie's Education aimed at perfecting connoisseurship skills, and will cover topics such as historical processes and photography's place in contemporary art. The program is scholarly in intent and is not open to the general public. The course fee is $450.

Rich Turnbull holds the chair in art history at F.I.T. and lectures on photography at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum. He is also an artist and a contributor to this blog.

Christie's will follow up this course in December with a Champagne Tasting Master Class.

Monday, August 30, 2010

2 routes to color

Collins, Aachen window #5, 2010

Collins, Problematic, 2009

Both pictures here are made without a camera but they are in fact quite different, one from the other. The upper one is a chromogenic C-print, made in total darkness in the color darkroom. As a process, it could be termed a color photogram or more accurately a color luminogram, since no objects were interposed between light source and paper. It is printed on color paper, Fuji or Kodak Endura. The colors arise from what is called the chromogenic reaction. Silver halide in the photo emulsion is reduced by developer to silver particles, while the newly oxidized developer reacts with a 'dye coupler' found in each of three layers of the photopaper. These developer-coupler reactions produce dyes of the three 'subtractive' colors of white light, namely cyan, magenta and yellow or CMY. The silver gets bleached out and the dyes give the color.

The lower picture is a different beast entirely. It is a chemigram, made in daylight on black-and-white photopaper with a chemistry of black-and-white developer and fixer. Standard chemigramic methods were used: dipping and snatching. The element of luck, absent in the other picture, here was sought out and embraced; a number of attempts at achieving this image were discarded. The creation of a color picture from b & w materials cannot help but fascinate. What's going on? How does it happen? William Jolly spent many years at UC Berkeley trying to answer this and related questions. He attributes the color to the Mie effect, by which small particles - their size must be on the order of the wavelengths in the visible spectrum - reflect back incident light on a range of wavelengths from short to long, which our brain assigns the such names as 'blue' and 'red' (the references are in his monograph). These particles of course are grains of silver, reduced by developer from the silver halide in the paper's emulsion. There are not only grains of silver, there are silver-bromide complexes, silver atoms, and other short-lived forms of silver too, all of different sizes, all buffeted by an ever-changing environment of developer and fixer and the byproducts of their interactions. It is from this stew that we get our 'color'.

Chemigramists have noticed that colors may sometimes change even in the washing or drying phase of the process, when no obvious chemical assault is occurring. That is because within the emulsion, at a very local or nano level, the action between substances may continue, although at much slower rate, before equilibrating and finally damping out altogether.

There is more to be said on this, but we'll leave it for another time. It's enough to show that there's more than one way to get color with photographic materials.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Natalie Cheung

Cheung, S. with Child 1995, 2009

Cheung, Portrait-W 1916-1918, 2009

Natalie Cheung is an exciting young artist from the mid-Atlantic region who uses cameraless photography as her prime means of expression. The chemigrams presented here, from a series called Facsimiles, more of which can be seen on her website, represent for her an investigation into recurring forms and images throughout the history of art; clearly though, they stand up quite well on their own. A bit of method: they are created on Ilford glossy paper, which she cuts to 30x40" from long rolls. Her black-and-white chemistry is from Sprint, whose QuickSilver print developer is PQ-based (phenidone plus hydroquinone), which may have a slight tendency to decrease effective emulsion speed and thus graininess - this is perhaps a topic for research in a chemigram setting, where development times are intermittent and cumulative, and occur in a context of falling pH.

Whatever the case, Natalie's art is bold and arresting. She observes and works closely with random effects, using them freely to further her conception. Indeed, it could be said that what she has done is the most difficult type of chemigram to pull off, the one that relies not on a methodology of resists and schemes but on an intuitive feel for spraying, smearing, dunking and snatching. Natalie is quite skilled at this, and arrives at a wonderful expressiveness. Be sure to check out her other work as well, in photograms, gelatin reliefs (mordançages), and cyanotypes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Koutroulis, Glassprinter

Koutroulis, Caroline's Garden II, 1968

One of the prominent names in the contemporary section of Symmes and Glassman's Cliché-verre: Hand-Drawn, Light-Printed (1980) is Aris Koutroulis, dean of the Detroit school of glassprint experimenters in the 60s and 70s. I admit my ignorance: I had no idea who he was. But over the years I've been drawn back to the few images of his work I can find, whether glassprints, lithos, or paintings, the glassprints most especially. He had learned the dye transfer process from his early teacher, Caroline Durieux, and began producing glassprints in color, but in a reductive style. I sensed that here was an artist, working within and sensitive to the conceptualist and minimalist paradigms of the art-world at the time, who inevitably, because of who he was, pushed against those limits to strive for a more personal statement. He doesn't seem satisfied with stopping short of that, or ending a picture where another artist might have. Or could it have been the other way around, that he felt he had to dress his expressionistic urges in a cloak of minimalism? We'll leave that for the critics.

The example shown here, Caroline's Garden II (1968), was done using Kodak matrix film and transfer dyes; the entire process is now an historical footnote since Kodak discontinued manufacture of all such materials in 1994. The cluster of veils of film emulsion at the top, the soft ribbons of it descending, the gentle color - that's the picture. Today, Koutroulis might have used the gelatin relief method known by some as mordançage to achieve similar results. Jean-Pierre Sudre, its modern advocate, didn't even give it a name until later.

He received training in lithography (why did so many nonfigurative photographers begin as printmakers?) at Tamarind when Tamarind was just a bare-bone start-up in Los Angeles, with two presses; in time he became one of their first master printers. He printed editions for many leading figures of the 60s. His edition of Josef Albers' Hommage to the Square (1963), printed with Ken Tyler and John Dowell, hangs in museums worldwide. His original work is scattered today and generally unavailable, occasionally showing up at estate auctions in small Michigan communities. A true shame.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Warm tone, cold tone

Collins, 072510CH-1, 2010

Collins, 072510CH-9, 2010

I'm not going to be systematic here, but simply want to illustrate what some of the options are. The two examples above were printed together, in a single run, in Dektol developer, acid stop bath, and acid fixer (ammonium thiosulfate) with hardener, choices that were somewhat random because that's what I had in the darkroom that day. In general you don't want hardener (alum) in your fixer, and you may want to try an alkali fixer with or without an acid stop bath. So be it. We started with Dektol at 1:7, although concentrations aren't always important in a chemigramic process as contamination occurs routinely and may even be encouraged, depending on technique. The paper on the bottom is Adorama FB warmtone, the one on the top Ilford MGIV RC. No toners were used. Between these two papers, tonal contrast is immediate and vivid.

We could have attempted to modify our results further by fiddling with developer ingredients such as accelerators and restrainers, but that would have meant separating the trips the papers made down the printing pathway - no big deal, but not what we intended. Sodium carbonate, an accelerator, might have been invoked to bring a colder tone to the Ilford, or sodium or potassium hydroxide for that matter, while a restrainer like potassium bromide or even table salt could have brought warmer colors to the Adorama. If we had used a developer like Ethol LPD, which produces cool tones at high concentration (1:1) and warm tones at dilution (1:7), further pushes in corresponding directions could have been expected.

The resist used in both cases is Golden MSA (mineral spirit acrylic) picture varnish, diluted 1:1 in mineral spirits.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Resistive notes (1)

Collins, 071210CH-1, detail

In the simplest chemigrams (the word 'simple' is deceptive, since these are often some of the most powerful works), form, body and color are applied in a direct way by merely dipping and dunking the photopaper in fixer or developer. To get more complex effects, one usually employs a resist of some sort. Resists are materials that block or delay the action of chemistry on a region of paper until a later moment, when surrounding areas will have already transformed away from their original state. When the resist is finally removed or erodes by degradation, chemical action can now begin in these areas as well, which because they have 'fallen behind' the others, will have a contrasted appearance. This is the source of much of the imagery in chemigrams.

Resistive materials are many and varied, as are the strategies for using them. What I like to call 'soft resists' are materials whose lifespan on the photopaper is quite limited, counted in seconds to a minute or so. Materials like white glue (polyvinyl acetate emulsion), corn syrup or other food products, tape, chewing gum, and clay are found in this category. The list extends, and among chemigramists it is a matter of some joy to identify new candidates for inclusion. Ideally, a resist should not totally resist, but instead should have a little give around its edges, so that as the resist begins ever so slightly to lift off, the paper beneath is quietly and progressively changed - and this may continue for a while - before the big moment when all or most of the resist at last raises itself and sloughs off. This creates drama and interest. In technical terms, what is left behind is a sequence of Mackie lines, or tidal marks of erosive history. They can be seen in the illustrations accompanying Rich's post of June 27, or better yet, in much of the work of the great Belgian artist, Pierre Cordier.

If we have soft resists, we must also have hard resists. Hard resists are materials that endure several orders of magnitude longer before leaving the photopaper, sometimes up to an hour. Several are known. Perhaps the most effective and reliable (as far as my knowledge allows) is mineral spirits-based synthetic varnish, and there are a number of them to choose from, some good, some not so good for various reasons. Some in fact inhibit others, if used on the same piece of photopaper.

By way of launching the discussion, here is an example of W&N ConserveArt varnish (green arrow) having thickened its activity to the point of quenching the normal spread of Liquitex Soluvar (red arrow), when the two varnishes were mixed together. The illustration is at 40 minutes of history. The Soluvar effects began to be evident at around 9 minutes along lines of incision (another story), while at that time there was no sign of ConserveArt activity. Then, insidiously, cracks appeared in the non-incised areas, while Soluvar effects seemed delayed. The cracks soon became larger and formed tilings, with tiny, characteristic Mackie lines. Comparison with other experiments led to the conclusion that this was ConserveArt activity. By now Soluvar activity had ceased altogether.

In notes to follow I will explore these and related topics, share observations from my studio, and try to find a basis to understand the mechanisms involved. For with understanding comes wisdom and with wisdom, art. Or something like that.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sigmar Polke

Polke, untitled, 1969

In Norm Sarachek's recent comment on the Student Work post, he expanded my allusion to classic cameraless style by mentioning Wolfgang Tillmans. Right away, I smiled and thought about poet Kenneth Koch, whose most famous line could be put to use here to read, "One great artist may hide another." Like many of us, I was pondering the life and achievement of Sigmar Polke, who left us June 10. Experimentalist to a fault, among the breadth of his work in painting, collage, sculpture, installation, drawing, cinema and so forth, is a body of work in photography that seems always, whether it satisfactorily 'works' or not - and that may just be the point - to be on the very edge of what one can dare to do. I am not familiar with much of his output, but his piece in the recent Surface Tension show at the Metropolitan Museum caused me to revisit it on 4 or 5 occasions, each time more in awe.

Monday, June 28, 2010

New student work

Huebsch, untitled, 2010

We finished our annual class in Glassprints, Gum Bichromates and Chemigrams at Manhattan Graphics Center in a great splash of chemistry, as the popular chemigram section, held last, took off like a party. As soon as theory was dispensed with - so tiresome! - and notebooks stowed, the now unfettered students were free to plunge their photo paper into developer and fixer again and again, altering their movements at will, letting the forces of gravity, inertia and diffusion exercise their magic. Results were predictably ecstatic and the best ones saved.

This piece by Rand Huebsch, a book artist of note, displays an almost classical use of soft resists, in this case tape, interleaved with fixer applied by brush. It recalls in a perhaps more controlled and lyrical way the early work of Chargesheimer in the 1940s, now at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.

The next class is scheduled for Spring 2011.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Two images made within the last 48 hours at the Manhattan Graphics Center in New York...the top image was made on Adorama fiber paper with the edges hand-torn (like there is any other kind of tear?) because I figured the chemigram process would stop at the edge of the emulsion (and sure enough it did). The bottom image was made on Adorama RC paper (a full sheet of 8x10) after coating with Soluvar varnish diluted 1:1 with mineral spirits and dipping the uncoated area of the paper into fixer first, then immersing in developer for the usual developer/fixer/water cycle. I have full notes on the technical procedures, which after three weeks of practice are starting to seem at least partially consistent, but these images are notable for being the first ones I've tried without coating the entire sheet of paper, i.e. selectively painting the exposed surface with diluted varnish before going on to further mark-making.

So far I just use numerical codes for images corresponding to the date and order in which they were made, but the tentative title for the bottom image is "Galactic Event." (A half-hour ago it was still "Galactic Apocalypse" but that sounds like a Justice League graphic novel so I modified it.)

The chemigram process still seems magical and infinite tonight, but it makes more sense by the day.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Norman Sarachek in Philadelphia

Norm's beautiful work has hovered in my mind ever since I saw my first chemigrams several years ago. Its lyricism of spare gesture, radiant space, fleeting dark forms cutting cleanly across a diagonal have remained a model for the quiet elegance this art is capable of. Working with the simplest materials, water, developer, fixer, and black and white photo paper, he creates a world you want to believe in, where abstraction is pushed to a palpable limit and the feeling of a true humanist is never far off, an echo of his early dedication of documentary photography. You can now enjoy his work in a group show at the new LG Tripp Gallery, July 9 through August 21. Located in the Old City just a few blocks from Penns Landing and the Betsy Ross House, the LG Tripp Gallery is committed to bringing new abstract artists to the attention of the Philadelphia public. Here we present a couple of works which we hope will be in the show, Icarus-3 and Kokoro. For more information you should definitely check out Norm's website, which is full of history, methods and motivation.

the choice of photographic language

First of all, thanks to Doug for enabling this blog in the first place and providing a forum for the kind of photographic discussion that doesn't always have the highest level of visibility. I've succumbed to Doug's enthusiasm for glassprints and chemigrams and have begun my own experiments with both forms in recent weeks. What strikes me about cameraless photography is the relentless desire to remove the camera from the equation of photography, to both negate the historical progression of photography (to a point, anyway, that point usually being the invention of photograms in the post-WW I period) and simultaneously claim its technical (or optical/chemical) language. As someone who for years maintained a makeshift black-and-white darkroom in various bathrooms and basements and who derived more aesthetic satisfaction from, well, non-traditional darkroom techniques like tilting the composing easel, sandwiching negatives, making double and triple exposures and the like, I understood even then (the then here being the late 80s and 90s) that pursuing and achieving the perfectly crafted conventional print was just not going to happen in my photographic lifetime. I set aside my camera except as an occasional recording device for years and used digital photography mostly as a way to create imagery that could be reconfigured in the computer and subsequently transfered to prints and artists' books; in other words, I saw the digital camera as a photographic means to a non-photographic end.

In the history of photography classes I've taught at FIT, Columbia and the Museum of Modern Art, I love to engage students in discussions about the digital revolution and the fundamental change in the way we make and use photographs, and I suggest somewhat provocatively that we are now readying ourselves for post-digital photography and let the students attempt to guess what I'm talking about here. (This often fails tragically, by the way, but my classroom is an experiment and experiments sometimes fail, yes?) What I mean is this: photography has now so infiltrated popular culture and visual sensibilities that the instantaneous possibilities of the digital photograph have become an unanalyzed given. What was once revolutionary is now omnipresent and almost literally unthinkable. Or to restate yet again: where can photography possibly go from here?

Let's make a brief comparison to modern painting. Jasper Johns once explained his early flag paintings from the mid-1950s by stating that choosing such a ready-made and ubiquitous subject allowed him to work "on other levels" in his paintings. Maybe this is where we now are in photography: perhaps the absolute, inescapable crushing presence of the digital image as tangible record of almost everything tactile or event-based in everyone's daily life allows art photographers (for lack of a better term) to withdraw from representational duties and work on the "other level" of the abstract. What better way to rebel against your photographic parents, after all, than to eschew the camera itself?

A long opening salvo, I realize, but just that, an opening.

rich turnbull

Friday, June 18, 2010

Uta Barth's pictures

Barth, 1996

When you look at Uta Barth's photographs, the only thing more disconcerting than the 'subject' of the pictures - they have no subject - is the point of view of the observer, which is very hard to define. Am I here, or am I there? Am I moving, crouching, standing still, or dreaming? Your attention slides and gropes, lost in some middle ground, in undefined spaces of ignored nooks and edges. Barth wants to leave you in a soft-focus limbo, and by doing that seeks to draw you back to a consideration of perception itself. Her favorite quote is from Paul Valéry's Notebooks: 'to see is to forget the name of what one sees,' which is also, more or less, the title of the Lawrence Weschler biography of Robert Irwin, one of her heroes and a fellow LA-based artist. Her show at Tanya Bonakdar has just closed. The picture above is 'Field #19' (1996) from her Field series.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Upcoming Show at Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Miller, 2006

A big, highly anticipated show of nonobjective photography entitled "Shadow Catchers" opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London this fall. Curated by Martin Barnes, it includes work by some of the better-known lensless (or nearly lensless) figures of the past few decades: Pierre Cordier, Adam Fuss, Susan Derges, Garry Fabian Miller, and Floris Neusüss. So if you're anywhere near London between October 13 and February 20, 2011, be sure to drop in. We don't know if this work will be in the show, but here's one we like, by Garry Fabian Miller, the British artist who has done a lot of work with dye destruction techniques. It's called "Year One - Samonlos 1", from 2006.

Welcome to nonfigurative photo

This blog will talk about things, events, people, images, processes, and ideas connected in some way to the art of nonfigurative photography, especially as this art is being practiced today in its many forms, both in the US and around the world.

It will be inclusive rather than exclusive: we encourage news and discussion of approaches that might range from photograms to chemigrams to luminograms and points in-between or beyond. While many posts will likely relate to cameraless work, other kinds of abstract photography will find a place here too, if they seem to us concerned about inventing a reality rather than commenting on or representing one. This theme will be developed in time.

And when there's nothing left to say, I'll comment or muse on some of the technical problems I encounter in my own work.

Meanwhile, welcome to the nonfigurativephoto blog!

Douglas Collins