Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Why etched chemigrams?

Collins, etched chemigram 71914-5, 2014
This is a story about my journey from simple photogenic drawings to chemigams and finally to etched chemigrams - these latter have been mentioned a couple of times in the blog recently and have caused a small stir.  I hope this may be of interest to some of you.  Consider it a response.

I began making chemigrams - of a sort that didn't have a name - about ten years ago, on a day like this one in the middle of an endless summer when I was fiddling around with my trays in the darkroom, bored with books and friends, just looking to pass the time.  I knew nothing of the modern history of what I found myself doing and didn't care; in due course I would correct that, but for now I was simply lost at play.

I had seen, of course, a lot of abstract photography of the twentieth century, I was not naive.  Coburn, Moholy-Nagy, Bruguiere, Kepes, Hajek-Halke were on my shelf, and I was spending a fair amount of time making and thinking about glassprints, those black-and-white pictures created on transparent material and contact-printed under an enlarger which have recently figured in this blog - and will do so again.  And so it was that, like many before me, I stumbled onto the chemigram method by chance.  I didn't know even that it had rules and methods, predecessors, active giants in the field, a history; so in my ignorance I kept exploring it to its perceived limits and stopped, dazzled like an early explorer on the verge of some dark continent, and not a little scared too.

I researched it - surely someone must have come this way before.  Soon I found a man living in Belgium named Pierre Cordier who claimed to have invented chemigrams, or perhaps discovered them depending how inherent you believe chemigrams are to the world.  Incredibly, he'd been making chemigrams for half a century; it was he who had bestowed on them a name, created a doctrine of method, and was their most fervent apostle.  I climbed on a plane and was off to visit him.

Collins, etched chemigram 72814-2, 2014
In my suitcase I carried some chemigrams which I thought represented me and where I was at fairly well, but as a neophyte I wasn't sure I exactly wanted to show them to Cordier.  But he turned out to be the most generous, warm-hearted person imaginable and we quickly become great friends, chattering away days and nights about one thing or another concerning art and - yes - the rest of life (if there is any).  And I will say this: Pierre taught me a lot and I listened.  In due course I was making chemigrams strongly influenced by his teaching (much is contained in his book, The Chemigram, Editions Racine, Brussels, 2007) and this is still the method I use in my workshops - for me it remains the classic approach.

The use of resists as a first step was key, a major innovation that, as a printmaker and etcher, I grasped immediately.  The search for newer and better resists, or ones with special characteristics, began to consume me; tests were conducted, emails fired off, comparisons made; early posts to this blog in 2010 attest to that, and this endures as an important area of investigation.  Today, chemigramist Matt Higgins in Australia is at the forefront of that effort.

Other critical issues also occupied us.  How to plan the incisions that you make in the resist, which cut to make first, then second and so on, and which one to start off in fixer and which to start in developer - these become the subject of many trials and reappraisals.  Color on the other hand had evolved away from the fugacious tones of Cordier's great colorist period, the 70s and 80s.  The fleeting hues of dye coupling agents were no longer on the market, while the article by Dominic Man-Kit Lam and Bryant Rossiter in Scientific American (265, 80-85, 1991) taught us about the Mie effect on color refraction in crystals and showed the way to potassium hydroxide and sodium thiocyanate as enhanced or supercharged developers and fixers, giving us a new source of color.  No one told us we'd need a magician's wizardry to make them work, but they were still a possibility.  So for several years that's what I was doing - my version of Cordier's teaching, with a few tweaks added.

Collins, etched chemigram 71914-7, 2014
I suppose I peaked in this approach around 2011.  An example I still point to with stubborn pride is the untitled picture at the the top of the blogpost on lightfastness in chemigam colors from August of that year.  It has gone by various titles and been exhibited widely - I love saying that even if nothing I do is 'exhibited widely' - most notably at the Center for Photographic Art in California.  Click back and look at it.  You have the linearity that comes so effortlessly to chemigrams, the black lines, the white lines, the colored areas so easily controlled, the pastel-y choices leaning toward the cool; the clean finish, the modest amount of jumble to give it a rhythm.  Maybe not your cup of tea but not bad you must admit as planned execution.

And yet even then I was beginning to feel trapped by the very tools and approaches of the classic chemigram.  I wanted to break out from them, from the patterns, the motifs, the graphic tricks that come so readily to it, but I didn't know how.  Something was missing for me in chemigrams and I wasn't quite sure what that was - an authenticity maybe, a soul, or the mark of the hand as Rich would say.  In despair I began abusing the photographic paper, punching holes in it, burning it; I tried bleaches and acids.  Then in 2012 I went to Pittsburgh and learned the basics of mordançage.  It wasn't until I found that the old books called it bleach-etch, a name I liked better - more gutsy and literal - that I cautiously began trying it on chemigrams, stripping off the emulsion and basically trampling and desecrating it, then rebuilding it as an alternative face.  It's a daunting, unforgiving method, but in these pictures I'm showing you today - pictures both pristine and devastated - I began to see some of the pain and beauty I had sought.  Chris Anderson came by the studio, saw them too, and dubbed them simply 'etched chemigrams'.  Then she did some herself.

Collins, etched chemigram 10715-3, 2015

Collins, etched chemigram 91714-3, 2014
Collins, etched chemigram 93014-1, 2014
The chemigram is not gone but on the contrary stands at the center of this enterprise, if only as the house into which we go to destroy it.  Without it as point of departure, or better yet without the belief the chemigram is founded upon, namely that paper and gelatin and silver salts must be reckoned with at the most intimate level if we are ever going to make a true picture, we wouldn't have a chance.

There exist other pathways from the rigors of the chemigram, this is just one.  You will find the others on your own.

Douglas Collins