Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pierre Cordier sends his New Year's greetings

Cordier, Chemigram 1/9/11 II "Squares in Love"

Douglas Collins, inventor of this nonfigurative blog, has offered me the opportunity to wish his readers a Happy New Year.  Happily I accept: this blog is heaven-sent for all of us who practice or appreciate alternative or extraphotographic experimentation.  The texts are clear, carefully documented, the illustrations well chosen.  To my knowledge, in the world of such things, it stands alone.

For my participation in this first post of 2012, I've gone into my recent chemigrams and picked out three pairs of squares, each measuring just a centimeter on a side.  They have had intimate relations, a rare event among squares.  Presenting geometric forms with humor is the specialty of a French artist I much admire, François Morellet.

These "Squares in Love" are not as sharp and clean as the ones I used to make.  Let me explain.  On my website some of you may have seen the Chemigram 12/1/82 "Zigzagram".  It's a completely controlled work, except for three tiny imperfections cause by spots of dust in the 'magical varnish' I employ as a resist.  Some people tease me by saying, "But those are my favorite shapes!"

Cordier, Chemigram 12/1/82 "Zigzagram", detail

The other chemigram I'd take to a desert island (but what good would they do me there?) is the Photo-Chemigram 4/4/79 "Hexagram".  The fine lines you see in it are disturbed by numerous bubbles, dust and defects in the varnish, like a stream crashing among rocks.  Without these imperfections this image could have been made on a computer, which would have had no interest for me.  So I welcome the random effects of matter and materials, but one has to know whether to accept or reject them.

Cordier, Photo-Chemigram 4/4/79 "Hexagram", detail

At the same time, I now accept that certain shapes be blurrier or more hazy than in my previous work.  That suggests depth.

And if even squares can fall in love, why not imitate them during the new year?  So I make a further wish: that all of you create new images with every alternative technique, both possible and imaginable.

Cordierly yours,


Monday, December 12, 2011

Joys of the darkroom: Martha Casanave

(We asked the California photographer and consummate artist Martha Casanave for a few words on her practice.  Here is what she sent us. - DC)

Casanave, silver photogram, 2007
I'll never forget that magic moment the first time I visited a darkroom - I must have been 14 or 15 - and I saw an image appear on a blank piece of paper in the developer tray.  From that moment on I was hooked.  I had to have a darkroom wherever I was living - first in the family bathroom, later in the bedrooms of a succession of rental apartments.  For the rest of my life, I've had recurrent dreams about frustrated efforts to lightproof a room, or moving to a new home and wondering where the darkroom would be.

For me, working in the darkroom makes photographic activity whole, it rounds out the experience.  The camera work is like the shining part of the moon; developing and printing is the dark side.  There you have it - the whole moon. 

One pleasure of the darkroom is that I can shut out the world, and enter another one.  I can slam that door, check it with my hip, and be entirely alone.  No telephone allowed!  I develop roll film in plexiglass tanks, and sheet film in trays, in total darkness.  All I can see are the glowing hands of the timer and a few glow-in-the-dark stars placed here and there on countertops and walls.

When printing, I enjoy the glow of the yellow safelights, the sound of running water, the music.  The magic of an image appearing on paper has never gone away.  I enjoy the moving around, from paper box to enlarger, enlarger to trays, down the tray line.  Depending on my musical choices, I might even dance (James Brown's "Payback") or sing along at the top of my voice (Otis Redding's "I Been Lovin' You Too Long").  I even enjoy the physical tiredness after a day's work, when the damp prints are finally laid out on the screens.

Casanave, self portrait with Ansel Adams,1981

The pleasure of the darkroom has been such an important part of my process that it makes me wonder about the alacrity with which my colleagues have sold off their darkrooms on eBay and switched to the more cerebral and sedentary digital imaging medium.  Did they never enjoy the darkroom activity in the first place?  Did the magic fade for them?  When I remember what Diane Arbus said, in an interview with Studs Terkel - "Art seems to me something you do because it makes you feel good to do it" - it's as if she were standing with me at my trays, feeding off the same thrill. 

Casanave, Balkan breakfast from Kitchen Kama Sutra,1998

Martha's site is

Friday, December 2, 2011

Nolan Preece talks about his work - part I

(We invited the Nevada-based photographer to discuss his artistic odyssey.  This is the first of several parts.  His website is - DC)

Preece, Nolangram #017 (choir), 2001
Let's start off by talking about the cliché-verre pieces from the late 1970s.  It seems I've always had two sides to my art.  I was trained in the Ansel Adams tradition of the fine print and the zone system at Utah State University.  I took a hard core, boot camp zone system class from my favorite photo professor, A.J. Meek.  Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernard, Al Weber, Imogen Cunningham, Jerry Uelsmann and other west coast photographers would frequent our campus giving workshops, lectures, exhibitions and critiques (late 1960s to early 1980s).  I didn't realize what a wonderful experience this was at the time.

Winters were so cold in Cache Valley, where Utah State is situated, with subzero temps for weeks at a time, that my camera gear wouldn't even function outdoors where I wanted to work.  I began to play with chemistry in the darkroom during those cold winter months.  When I went to work on my MFA, I broke with tradition and decided to do my thesis on the "Sabattier Effect."  My second emphasis was printmaking so I have a variety of solvents around the house.  I had researched what Henry Holmes Smith, Frederick Sommer, Francis Bruguiere, Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy had done.  I became interested in the effects of soot on glass simply because it could be put in an enlarger and printed as a negative.  I accidentally dribbled some of the kerosene from the lamp I was using to soot the glass and WOW the most beautiful aray of patterns and 3D-looking landscapes unfold before my eyes.  I immediately started trying every solvent I had, finally settling on mineral spirits as the best and cleanest to the image.  I solarized some of the best "glassprints" and published them in my thesis in 1980.  There are two drawbacks to these clichés-verre: 1) When the solvent is applied, it breaks off bits and pieces of soot, sometimes leaving a matrix that has spots that are difficult to remove from the print.  These days, the matrix can be scanned and cleaned up with the healing brush and clone stamp tools in Photoshop.  2) Many attempts need to be made before coming up with a stunner - you generate a lot of rejects.

I've had a few arguments with photographers about the merits of such work along the lines of: is it really photography without a camera involved?  Douglas Kent Hall, the well known New Mexico photographer (who hailed from my hometown of Vernal, Utah), told me to "become the maestro, name it, teach it and present it to the world."  So I jokingly started calling them "Nolangrams."  We traded prints in 2000, not long before he passed away.

Working in isolation has, in some ways, been a benefit.  Not that I haven't been influenced by others but you get so you draw on something deep inside that starts to surface as your own self expression when you're just working by yourself.

So here I give you a sampling of Nolangrams - or clichés-verre if you prefer, or glassprints.  All are selenium-toned gelatin silver prints from a cliché-verre matrix of sooted glass, printed on Forte Warm Tone paper.

Next time we'll talk about my chemigrams, which have had a different history.

Preece, Nolangram #000(legs), 1979

Preece, Nolangram #026(rolling), 2001

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chemigram shows for rest of the year, including some you'll have to travel to

Man-Kit Lam, 2005

For those with a yen for travel, we've gathered a few shows you may want to catch before the year is out.  All include chemigrams either solely or in part or, in Ms Rossiter's case, include what might be called a chemigramic inflection - and for that reason alone they're all worth seeing, besides the utter beauty and mystery of them.  If we've missed your show, please post a comment and we'll fix it.

Pierre Cordier 
Paris Photo, HackelBury Gallery, November 10-13, 2011, Grand Palais, Paris, France

Dominic Man-Kit Lam
Ink Art: a world without rules, September 2011 & February 2012, Novel Plaza, 128 West Nanjing Road, Shanghai, China

Alison Rossiter
Art Platform LA, Yossi Milo Gallery, October 1-3, 2011, LA Mart, Los Angeles, California, USA

Alison Rossiter
Paris Photo, Stephen Bulger Gallery, November 10-13, 2011, Grand Palais, Paris, France

Edward Mapplethorpe
The Variations, October 5 - November 12, 2011, Dubner Moderne, rue du Grand-Chêne 6, Lausanne, Switzerland

Norman Sarachek
Emerging Artists Annual Showcase, November 4, 2011, Allure West Studios, 15 E State St, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, USA

Matthew Higgins
Pingyao International Photography Festival, September 1 - September 30, 2011, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China

Nolan Preece
Continuitive: Connections Between Parallel Directions, Dec 2011 - January 2012, Truckee Meadows Community College, 7000 Dandini Blvd, Reno, NV, USA

Douglas Collins
New Prints 2011 Selected by Trenton Doyle Hancock, October 3, 2011 - March 28, 2012, Pfizer Corporation, 235 E 42 St, New York, New York, USA

just closed:

Dominic Man-Kit Lam
Sino-French Exhibition of Art Exchange, September 20-22, 2011, National Library Exhibition Center, Beijing, China

Nolan Preece
Xhibit, May 13 to August 27, 2011, Preston Contemporary Art Center, 1755 Avenida del Mercado, Mesilla, New Mexico, USA

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lightfastness of chemigram colors

Collins, Study #14, 2011
We continue to think and wonder about the colors created in chemigrams, where silver halide complexes, embedded in black and white photo paper, can be induced to yield a gamut of colors from the subtlest pinks and yellows to the richest indigos and violets.  Of the many questions evoked by the chemigram procedure - and there are many - one is paramount not just to artists, the chemigramists themselves, but to collectors, dealers and museums, indeed to the whole enterprise, and that is this: how permanent are these colors?  Do they degrade over time?  Which colors change in hue and which do not?  Over what timescales do changes, if any, occur?

First, a practitioner's observation.  Chemigram colors do in fact evolve and mutate throughout the entire creation pathway, as waves of fixer, developer and byproducts besiege the emulsion.  This continues, muted, into the final wash and even to the drying.  We know it because we see it.  It seems to persist for certain tones right into the early days of the post-dry period, though we're not sure where that ends, so lowkey do the changes eventually become.  It could be related to how much silver halide still clings to the paper, or how complete the wash was.  But even discounting that, such changes are real.  That's why some chemigramists prefer to scan their work as soon as it dries, to ensure the vibrancy of the original colors is preserved.  Nothing worse than having your work disappear on you.

a QUV weathering unit
What about the longer term - years, decades - what happens then?  To help find an answer our colleagues in the laboratory at Golden Paints in New Berlin NY conducted lightfastness tests on chemigram samples we provided, using their state-of-the-art QUV apparatus.  This device exposes samples to UV radiation simulating indoor, gallery-lit conditions, but vastly compresses the timeframes: 400 hours of constant exposure in this box is the equivalent of 33 years in the real world (technical details are found on the Q-lab website).  We went for a century - a nice unit! - in three 400-hour segments, at the end of each of which the samples were withdrawn and compared to the original.  These comparisons could have been rigorously quantified in Cielab colorspace, the delta-E or amount of change could have been calculated, etc, but all we wanted was a first-look kind of result.  Here is some of what we found.

fig. 1

In figure 1 the upper right corner piece is the original; the three slices descending toward the left lower corner are pieces that received 400, 800, and 1200 hours of exposure respectively.  While difficult to see at the scale of this post, there is a slight loss of warmer reddish tones by 400 hours.  At 1200 hours there is an overall darkening, or perhaps dulling is a more accurate description, a vague muddiness.

fig. 2
In figure 2 the original is on the right, with progressive exposures increasing toward the left according to the technician's notes on the scan.  Of the many samples documented this showed by far the most dramatic changes, with the warm tones dropping out completely even at 400 hours.  The subsequent gray tone maintains its value, but darkens somewhat by 1200 hours.

It is true that the snippets sampled were not uniform or even systematic: chemigram tray time, paper type, wash time, idiosyncracies of the artists (several supplied samples) all varied considerably.  In addition, the UV spectrum used in the exposures may not be predictive of actual conditions in a gallery, where lighting can vary from fluorescent of various types to daylight.  And yet from this we feel entitled to form certain impressions - a sense of the slow degradation of the colors, some perhaps more than others, against a background of an inevitable increase in entropy.  Left unspoken is the mechanism for these changes, since chemigram colors owe nothing to either dyes or pigments but instead to the size of certain objects - polymorphic clumps of silver bromide or chloride - and the wavelengths of light reflected from them.  The Mie effect was mentioned in an earlier post, and will be revisited in the future.  Still, for now we can be cautiously optimistic in the belief that, if our chemigrams have not altogether gone bad in our trays before we hang them out to dry, they will be around in some form for quite a while, maybe a century.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The hand of Paul Bloomfield

Bloomfield, Dark Trees, 2008-10, drawing on photograph

Bloomfield, Heaven and Earth, 2011, oil on gelatin silver photogram

One of my more serendipitous encounters this summer was meeting artist/photographer and teacher Paul Bloomfield at a monotype workshop at Zea Mays Printmaking in western Massachusetts. I talked to Paul about chemigram techniques and in the course of a discussion about the overwhelming presence of digital photography in contemporary life, he revealed that he has long been making what we might call manipulated or enhanced photograms in the darkroom as a way of counteracting the ubiquity of the straight photographic image. Paul's methods are quite diverse: he sometimes "paints" with developer in the darkroom on unexposed photo paper, guided by the intuitive gestural motion of his hand since he can barely see the mark of the clear developer in the dim safelight aura. Sometimes he draws on an exposed and processed photographic image with oil pigments or markers. Sometimes he is content with a straightforward but still inherently mysterious photogram, which most readers of this blog will know is an image generated by placing objects or filters/screens/whatever on photographic paper and allowing light from the enlarger to pass through or not depending on the object's transparency or opacity.

Bloomfield, Mayan Visions II, 2010, photogram

Paul's work incorporates pattern and elements of seriality or repetition as well as marks/forms derived from nature, which he claims in the modest artist's statement on his website allow him to meditate on systems, manifestations and impermanence. Some of Paul's work appears painterly and photographic simultaneously, which of course is the point: by reworking the lines and forms of a conventional photographic image through applied pigments or markers, for example, Paul reclaims the space and "trajectories" in the image from the otherwise inherent flattening quality of a photograph. (This is indeed the case in "Dark Trees," seen above.) The resulting work is a hybrid form that while not necessarily new (photographers have drawn on their prints before) suggests above all a reimposition of the hand in the photograph...which I've suggested in an earlier post is one of the strategies we might use to survive photographically in an overwhelmingly digital world.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A word about greenery...

While spending a couple of weeks this summer at the wonderful Zea Mays Printmaking in western Massachusetts investigating green (i.e. non-toxic) printmaking techniques, an opportunity came up to show and share the mysterious beauties of chemigrams, which in turn led to a query about the safety of chemigrams and photographic processes in general. In a world where most of us are exposed to any number of potentially harmful substances on any given day, this is no small matter. I had to admit to my fellow printmakers that as far as I know, there is no green way to produce a chemigram. Even apart from the toxicity of developers and fixers used in standard black and white processing, those of you who have experimented with hard resists (e.g. the various varnishes discussed in many of the posts on this blog) already know that the only ones that really work are those soluble in mineral spirits (Golden's MSA varnish and Liquitex's Soluvar, for example) and that these varnishes in turn need to be diluted with mineral spirits (full-strength, not odorless and not Turpenoid, neither of which work) in order for them to slowly lift during the chemigram development process. Some of you have probably had the pleasure of experiencing a mineral spirits-induced headache after a night in the darkroom or the printmaking studio. The only thing I can suggest to health-conscious chemigramists is to make sure you have adequate ventilation in your work area (darkroom ventilation is a given must-have, even if you are just doing basic black and white work) and wear disposable gloves at all times. Do not mistake your solvent jar or container for your coffee cup in the dim light of the darkroom.

I would certainly be interested in hearing from anyone who has suggestions to make chemigrams greener (cyanotype chemigrams? non-solvent based varnishes?)...but I suspect it may be one of those processes, like traditional lithography, that carries with it certain hazards no matter what. A safety-conscious chemigramist is of course a happy chemigramist...

Monday, June 27, 2011

The iterative art of Brittany Nelson

Nelson, Mordançage2, 72x72", C-print, 2011

She started dismantling photographs around 2006, as a student of Christina Z. Anderson at Montana State.  She had lots of acid and copper chloride and hydrogen peroxide laying around, and stacks of photo paper, and a secret drive to be a mad scientist.  She continued at Cranbrook outside Detroit, in the MFA program.  Hmm - what if we just remove the silver gelatin emulsion from the paper?  What happens then?  And maybe re-stick it over here, on another piece of paper?  And then expose it to UV light, in increments?  Or maybe quench it in different redevelopers, for different times, and take notes on everything?

Welcome to the art of Brittany Nelson, featuring mordançage, or gelatin relief as some prefer to call it.  One of the few alt-photographic methods to have developed in the last century (along with chemigrams) rather than the previous one, it was mentioned at least as early as 1927 in Louis-Philippe Clerc's La Technique Photographique, but didn't receive much attention among fine-art photographers until Jean-Pierre Sudre rediscovered it in the 1970s.  While most applications have been possibly a bit too mundanely representational for Brittany's taste, she was pulled in by the endless possibilities for permutation of the variables, and for the pure physicality of the process.  You have to get very close to the materials for this kind of thing to work, and the bad part is they are largely poisonous.

Nelson, Mordançage3, 72x72", C-print, 2011

As a refresher, let us recall the basics.  A silver gelatin print is placed in a bath of copper chloride, glacial acetic acid, and hydrogen peroxide, which does several things at once: the print is bleached, the emulsion (mainly in the black areas) is gently loosened, and everything becomes soft, mushy and mobile, depending on the length of the soak, the H2O2 concentration, and so forth - some of Brittany's variables.  The CuCl2 acts as an etch and mordant, which has a further consequence of promoting color shifts upon re-immersion in developer.  At this point the image can be reorganized, the bleached areas can be left white or not, the options are many.  For an excellent overview see Anderson's page on unblinking eye, extracted from her essential Experimental Photography Workbook.  Jalo Porkkala has an outstanding bleach-etch page too on his Vedos site, where he runs you through actual examples of the possibilities, but one has the feeling that even he leaves off early, refusing any deep confrontation with materials at the exact moment where Brittany's odyssey begins. 

Nelson, Mordançage4, 72x72", C-print, 2011

What can we say of the images she has given us thus far in her young career?  It's as if they were lab reports from another planet, the result of tweaks of a strange parameter: wisps and banners of emulsion streaming and foaming, pointing to processes beyond our knowledge.   She goes to lengths not to be gestural, but in vain.  She is curious and obsessed and it shows.  The payoff is beautiful.

For more on Brittany, visit her website.  Notice too that, like others who work in mordançage (it's a niche activity, definitely) she scans her fragile, diaphanous work, to create the relative permanency of a digital file from which she makes chromogenic prints, truly monster ones.  New York would be fortunate to see these some day, and richer for it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Chemigrams in the IPCNY summer print show

There's something special, or especially elusive, about chemigrams that makes them one of the hardest of art objects to pin down, for those who like to classify things.  Are they paintings?  Mapplethorpe's new show suggests they are: in gesture, scale, ambition.  Or photographs?  Well, they're created on photographic paper by manipulating silver gelatin emulsion with fixer and developer, so they have the parentage.  Or are they prints, with affinities to lithographs and etchings?  The summer New Prints 2011 show at the International Print Center of New York, curated by Trenton Doyle Hancock and running from June 9 to July 29, 2011, proposes the latter.  Prints are about process, where the methods and restrictions in creating a plate often determine what the image pulled from it will look like.  The layers of work that go into it, the hours and days of drawing and scraping on a plate, are part of this process too, so when we consider a print we must think about time, a time of creation, very legible in the finished product in front of us.  In his remarkable curatorial essay, available on the IPCNY website, Hancock speaks not only of this time but also of timelessness, the infinite continuum in which the print resides: 'I am humbled by its disregard for the now,' he writes.  Where prints come from is a sacred place, and their very existence can lead us beyond our limiting temporality.

Collins, Things to come and the ways of coming, 2010

The chemigramist, of course, understands this intuitively. He has observed the mysterious kinetics of what happens in his trays, the physico-chemical reactions.  He watches shapes emerge, morph, and vanish, only to reappear elsewhere or in other guises.  His hand is respectful as he lifts off resist; as an artist he is a minor player.  He influences, but someone else is at his shoulder, some spirit.  He knows this.  So it was perhaps no surprise that two chemigrams by Douglas Collins were selected for this show, and yet these are the first chemigrams ever displayed at IPCNY, a capital in the world of printmaking.  The old order is giving way to the new.

Collins, Gentle bodies, 2010

A technical word: these pieces used Golden MSA varnish and were printed on Hahnemuehle German Etch paper with an Epson Stylus Pro 11880 printer.

Collins on left, Hancock on right at opening

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Edward Mapplethorpe's Variations

Mapplethorpe, installation view

The Foley Gallery on West 28th Street has taken a big commitment to cameraless photography with their current, very elegant show of The Variations, a group of related chemigrams by Edward Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe, Variation 10, 2011

Mapplethorpe, Variation 3, 2011

The colors dazzle from the moment you walk in - yellows, oranges, red-browns enmeshed in swirls of black and white structural elements - and you fall into a kind of trance until you leave.  These are large works too, up to 42 x 64", and tactile: each is unique, and traces of developer are visible on the paper surface.

They seem to be made using the freehand chemigramic method we've alluded to occasionally on this blog; most recently, for example, see the work of young Kathleen Adams.  This means you paint, daub, drip or smear on your fixer and developer as inspiration dictates, going this way and that, covering your surface, each layer modifying the previous somewhat, and then you proceed very quickly until a final fix and wash locks it up.  Chance clearly plays a role, and the artist in the end makes creative decisions as to what works and what doesn't.  Although Mapplethorpe wouldn't comment, it appears to my eye that he also used some hydroxide and thiocyanate to inflect the colors (Adams does too), available from Arista or Clayton.  For paper, it's my impression he's using the large rolls of warmtone from Ilford or Kentmere.

Mapplethorpe, Variation 7, 2011

Previously Mapplethorpe had been known for rather haunting portraits of one-year-old children, their eyes precociously heavy with wisdom, as well as for abstract experiments in various darkroom techniques which earned him a certain recognition - but none of it presaged his current work.  The good news is that the current work is quite accomplished, much of it beautiful.  For someone who traffics in gestural imagery, Mapplethorpe is able to convey the verve and thrill of the approach while maintaining focus and control, thanks to a fastidious skill in handling large paper sizes, large trays, and no doubt gallons of chemicals, not an easy thing - just ask Pollock.

opening reception, May 12

The show runs till June 18.  We think you should bookmark this artist.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Glassprints and chemigrams from the 2011 workshop

During the month of May, Manhattan Graphics is hosting an exhibit that celebrates student work from the most recent workshop in glassprints and chemigrams.  You should see it - much of it is very inspired, even unanticipated.  Each year the emphasis shifts a bit in the workshop, reflecting the makeup of the new student group as well as fresh approaches to the teaching of the material, including reworked views of

Kathleen Adams, chemigram

David Thomas, glassprint

what that material should be. This year saw, on the glassprint side, a loosening of old restrictions as to what a glassprint represents.  Gone are the fusty rules about carefully mimicking, in brushed ink or smudged marker, a genre scene on acetate.  No landscapes are found here, no vases of flowers on tables with hunting horns.  I used to think that was good strong medicine but it seems the patient is cured.  Instead, we found greater freedom than expected with gobos (Andrea Matura) and scrims (David Thomas), sandwich compositions (Thomas again) and paper negatives (Matura again).  In chemigrams we did some of the usual dip n' dunk, spritzing on the hydroxide and the solvent, but we also got serious about hard resists, and many students went into their toolbox for intricate iconography.  The results show.  Paul Kleinman's resist-filled composition is outstanding; Kathleen Adams' flirt with dichroic dangers is a lot of fun too.  Here's more pictures from the show.

Eva Nikolova, chemigram

Paul Kleinman, chemigram

Andrea Matura, glassprint

David Thomas, glassprint

Paul Kleinman, chemigram

David Thomas, glassprint

Andrea Matura, glassprint

Kathleen Adams, chemigram

Friday, April 29, 2011

More tips on silkscreened chemigrams

Building on Rich's silkscreen post, we're going back to the studio for some additional silkscreen hands-on in a chemigram context.  But first let's ask ourselves: why bother with silkscreens at all, if ultimately we're aiming for a chemically altered work on photographic paper?  Two reasons come immediately to mind (later we'll think of others, but it may be too late for this post).  One, since silkscreen can be thought of as basically a stenciling process, as soon as our imagery gets complicated or uses repeated motifs it makes sense to invoke silkscreen as a convenient way to immobilize it, and to deliver it effectively to the photographic paper.  You "shoot" the image to the screen, locking it in place, and that becomes the delivery matrix.

figure 1

figure 2

In figures 1 and 2 we see a design created digitally (in this case) that has been transferred to a screen and squeegeed out onto photo paper, then finished as a chemigram.  In fig. 1 we started with fixer, in fig. 2 with developer.  Notice how, from a common starting point, the images evolved differently in the 30 minutes to completion, due to accidents, imperfections, and random effects along the way - interesting.  You'll want details: screen mesh was 160, Golden MSA was undiluted, the paper was Bergger.  Other choices of mesh, resist, dilution and paper will lead to other results even with the same initial silkscreen design.  Clearly, if you opt for a more viscous resist you may want a larger mesh, otherwise your resist won't get through; I've used a mesh of 60 for honey, which is almost a hardware-store mesh level for screen doors.

Another reason to use a silkscreen approach to chemigrams is to allow you to work with photographs.  Sure, you can always do a chemigram and over- or underlay a photo, but if you really want to mackie-ize it you've got to run it through a screen.  Here there are several options mostly involving photoshop and in the future we want to devote a post just to this.  To whet your appetite, we leave you with a detail of a Cordier photo chemigram, from that distant period before photoshop:

Cordier, Hommage à Nonyme 1972, 1976, detail

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Major glassprint show in San Francisco

Practitioners of the ancient arcane art of glassprints, or clichés-verre, can emerge from their darkrooms, squint and celebrate: a significant show of a spectrum of work in this technique has been mounted by the Jenkins Johnson Gallery of San Francisco.  Entitled "Cliché-Verre in the Digital Age" perhaps to dramatize how long it's been since the last such show, it features work by an international cast whose best-known member, to a New York audience, must be Abelardo Morell (see earlier blog post), but there are other fine contributions as well.  Here are three of them:
David Symons, 2009

Fredrik Marsh, 2000-2011

Suzanne Izzo, 2004

In New York we get a smattering of glassprint shows but no one talks about them much.  An exhibit of the Barbizon school clichés at the Peter Freeman, or a show on Roger Catherineau at the Gitterman, Corot and Millet at the Public Library, a few pictures by Man Ray at the Jewish, the annual class show of glassprints at the Manhattan Graphics Center - that's about it unless you expand the definition of what constitutes a glassprint.  Oh, and the Morells at the Benrubi.

With a show like this, much as it's belated and welcomed, one can easily overlook the fact that many artists not normally considered glassprinters (in fact not ever) but instead mere painters (though of some international stature) may glibly draw from the long history of glassprint methods to create works which the art press will later go on to identify as 'hybrid' or 'mixed media'.  Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Wolfgang Tillmans come immediately to mind, big names all; there are many others.  Just yesterday I saw an Anselm Kiefer at the Morgan Library that will blow your mind, but no mention of glassprint - yet it was.  The present group seems motivated by quite different concerns however, one of the main being their allegiance to photographic process not only as starting point but as the platform on which their final efforts are meant to be judged, and for that they signal by waving the cliché-verre flag.  They're not addressing the history of art with these works, generally: they've given that up, or maybe were never interested in that to begin with.  Maybe they're 'just photographers', whose conversation runs to filters and hydroquinone when they get together.  So soon we start asking how this or that picture is made, what are the steps, the conceits, the tricky sub rosa moves.  In addition to admiring, often - and we can't help ourselves - the arresting visual results.

For those unfamiliar with the scope of glassprint methods this show is a good place to learn, because it illustrates a broad range of technique, and because it's hard for the uninitiated to understand what you can achieve with just photo paper, developer, fixer, and a few household items (for the most part).  Schoolchildren should go - tell your teachers! - as should artists, scientists, collectors (never forget them) and the general public.  Once the surprise wears off, which could take generations, we can get down to accepting glassprint methods in a general approach to art.

Other exhibiting artists not mentioned above include Jo Bradford, Peter Feldstein, Maggie Foskett, Fred Parker, Frank Rossi, Käthe Wenzel and most especially Courtney Johnson, for bringing this show into being.  It runs from April 7 to May 3, 2011.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Coffee break

In a remote period before the birth of the prophet Mohammed, maybe in the 6th or 7th century, there lived, according to legend, in a place variously identified as Yemen or Ethiopia, a goatherd named Kaldi.  One day Kaldi noticed that his goats became especially peppy after munching the leaves and berries of a certain bush.  Kaldi grew curious.  He climbed the ridge, investigated, collected berries, then took them to the nearest monastery, a few days distant through the dusty haze.  On sampling the berries the monks were soon set frolicking more or less like the goats but - strangely - they also discovered a strengthened ability to concentrate on the sacred manuscripts, their assigned occupation.  Thus coffee was born, and from there the story of its paradoxical power spread across the earth.

Coffee, or more properly one of the scores of substances in coffee - caffeic acid? - is a reducing agent.  In the presence of the silver chloride or silver bromide in photographic emulsion, it causes electrons to pass to the silver, allowing the metal to stand alone.  It helps to have an alkali activator present as well, because this really only works at higher pH.  If we use sodium carbonate, commonly known as washing soda, a pretty good alkali, with some of Starbucks' Instant Italian Roast (Extra Bold), we get images such as figure 1.

figure 1

An observation is in order.  At the center of this image there is an area that resembles what is called dichroic fog, a fog generated by an excess of silver halide complexing agents in the developer.  We don't want to go too far into this - it's a fairly indeterminate subject anyway, the more so the farther you go into the scientific literature - but these complexing agents are often sulfur-containing compounds, where the sulfur gets exchanged for the metal, and the kinetics get kind of rapid and hazy.  Thiosulfate, thiocyanate, thiourea, and mercaptans are some of the many complexing agents that work with silver halides; another way to think of them is as silver halide solvents, which is why you find them often in fixer formulations.  In figure 1 we have mixed into the Starbucks a little thiocyanate.  If we keep at it but this time reduce the Starbucks a bit, and change the amount of thio and sodium carbonate, we arrive at images like figures 2 and 3.

figure 2

figure 3

These seductive colors are produced not by adding to the mix, but by pulling back from the dichroic edge with reduced aliquots.  A little practice is necessary, but is soon rewarded.  In the end, after becoming the ethereal colorist you've always wanted to be, you may wonder what the point of the coffee is: metol, hydroquinone, catechol and so forth are reducing agents after all that yield similar results.  Well, now you have a way to finish your cup, after it's grown cold.  And in your chemigrams there just may now lurk a hint of Kaldi's goats and their supreme vision.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Installation view at HackelBury

When the Pierre Cordier show opened recently at the HackelBury Gallery in London, I blogged it and posted a group of pictures from among my many favorites in Cordier's work.  What I neglected to do was give a sense of the space the pictures were shown in, so here it is, an installation view of the main room as you enter.

If there is such a thing as a warm formalism, this must be it: impeccable framing, tasteful lighting, a procession of compact, powerful pictures drawing the eye toward the early evening sky above Launceston Place, an outline of clay chimneypots against deepening blue.  No bombast here, no cries, no shouts.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Pierre Cordier year

HackelBury, the prestigious London gallery, has mounted a major and very timely exhibit of Pierre Cordier's work, overlapping with but not eclipsing the still-running V&A show, and not to be confused with the HackelBury booths at the AIPAD and Armory shows in New York at which we are promised still more Cordiers.

Cordier, egggram 1/6/65 I, 1965

This is the year for Pierre Cordier - and for chemigrams.  It's been a long time coming.

Cordier, chemigram 29/11/76 Mineral vegetable animal, detail, 1976

In a moment now legendary, Cordier hit upon the chemigram method one day in 1956.  Well - that's his story and it makes good copy.  But just as Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, so did Cordier have his antecedents, Teske, Kesting, Tabard, Chargesheimer, others.  Fox Talbot, in the opening pages of The Pencil of Nature, recalls his startling experience of stumbling upon color in silver salts in the year 1838 ("I discovered a remarkable fact of quite a new kind").  Cordier's insight, however, was to see what no one else saw: that photography is not just about looking and recording - he had done a bit of this himself in his early twenties, so he knew - but about evoking and extracting imagery that is essentially trapped, as a capacity inherent in material, within the physical and chemical confines of the very stuff of his art, the silver halide emulsion.  For him the artistic enterprise is always a dialog with the bruteness of matter.  That's where it starts and ends.

Cordier, chemigram 22/6/87, detail, 1987

He has spent a lifetime thinking about how to make a photograph from the inside out.

Cordier, chemigram 6/11/62, 1962

Cordier, chemigram 15/8/63 I, 1963

In the HackelBury Gallery, we are fortunate to have gallerists sensitive to the stunning beauty of these works.  I withhold my preferences: there is altogether too much wealth here.  Let it simply be said that the inspired, grueling labor that went into 'Mineral vegetable animal' (1976) will likely never be repeated.

Cordier, 15/8/59 III, 1959

How can we begin to learn from his work, his methods?  One way is through his writings.  His great monograph, Le chimigramme/the chemigram is the place to start; because of the 'Shadow Catchers' show, it's available at the V&A Museum shop in London and they'll ship anywhere in the world.  There's also Martin Barnes' catalog for the V&A, with an important chapter on Cordier, and finally, for those still needful, the in-depth interview with Cordier in the upcoming March-April issue of Photo Technique magazine.

In future posts we intend to examine aspects of the Cordier oeuvre, with some of the grit and the how-to, for the benefit of practitioners.  The lesson plan says to start by seeing this show.  It runs till March 31.