Sunday, September 2, 2012

The classic reach of some recent chemigrams

Preece, Ag Conglomerate, 2012

Nolan Preece is a chemigramist, which is to say he makes pictures on photographic paper using, basically, the simplest of means, developer and fixer.  No camera, no darkroom, no enlarger.  Since he has spoken with us often about his artistic methods, I thought I’d leave him alone in the Nevada desert for a while with his projects, no need to bother him.  That is, until one day recently when he sent in a picture of his latest work, Ag Conglomerate, shown above.

The scale and aspiration of Ag Conglomerate shot an immediate rush of recognition through me.  Where had I seen this device before?  

I remember now: that heap of pictorial elements rising toward an apex in a kind of emotional crescendo somehow caused me to think of Tintoretto’s Ascent to Calvary (1567) or Rubens’ altarpiece for the abbey of Afflighem, Christ Carrying the Cross (1637), the best version of which may be an oil sketch completed a few years earlier and now hanging in a museum in Berkeley, California.  The size certainly helps too.

Rubens, Christ Carrying the Cross, U. of California Berkeley, 1632

But there is also the basic structural gambit, that pyramid of multitudes of interchangeable parts that grow into a great, rankless disturbance, each part in the act of rising, tossing, or falling.  The hierarchy in each artist’s imagery is fluid and impermanent; there’s an uncanny resemblance in the way each is organized, even though one was created on commission from a powerful, wealthy institutional client many centuries ago and the other essentially on a notion and a shoestring just yesterday.  The two pictures are conjoined in my mind like blood relatives.

Preece, Ag Conglomerate, detail, 2012

I had to ask him how he did it, not the conception but the details.  Here’s what he tells me.  He starts his chemigram by applying an acrylic resist to a standard piece of 8x10” photo paper.  Before the resist dries, he impresses substances into it, the way one uses a soft ground in etching.  He then proceeds to the chemigramic fix-develop-fix routine, and once that’s done to his satisfaction he washes and dries the print.  Next, he then takes it over to his Epson 4990 scanner and scans it, using Silverfast as the scanning software.  He sets the output to the largest he thinks he’ll need, 48x72” at 300 ppi.  From there the image is pulled into Photoshop Camera RAW to work over the color balance, density and contrast of the image plus give pre-sharpening.  The laborious part is coming up: using the clone-stamp tool in Photoshop to rid the scan of dust spots, a process that can take hours, switching magnifications back and forth depending on the size of the desired print.  He calls this ‘dust farming’ the image.  Nolan has a nice little short-cut here – he sets the Photoshop noise filter to ‘dust and scratches’, radius 2, threshold 20, which cleans up most of the small stuff.  When he’s finally done, he does a ‘crop test’, cropping a small representative area of the print as a sample to print out and get an idea of what the whole print will look like.

His friend Dave Staley operates a digital photo lab nearby in Reno called Outdoor Plus.  Nolan takes him the file and they consult on any further adjustments needed.  Once they’re ready, the file is routed to Dave's Light Jet, a continuous-tone, digital C type printer, and the final print is made on Fuji Crystal Archive, a silver-based photo paper that Nolan loves for its rich color saturation.  Now he’s ready to go for mounting and framing and that’s it.  Ag Conglomerate will be the first of a new series.  Keep an eye on his website for more.