Monday, November 30, 2015

Cameraless at Soho Photo

Soho, New York City

Soho Photo, formed nearly half a century ago and still going strong, is a cooperative photo gallery tucked into Lower Manhattan opposite the ultra-hip Roxy Hotel.  Its shows are always of interest, and every year they put on an alternative process exhibition where you can view some of the best in historical methods: tintypes, calotypes, daguerrotypes, cyanotypes, gum bichromates, lumens, and (not so historical) chemigrams.  We went down to inspect the turnout this year and our eye was immediately lured by the cameraless end of the roster, where beautiful and accomplished chemigrams predominated.  Is it my imagination, or has the number of chemigrams represented increased over the years?  As I recollect, a decade ago they didn't even know what a chemigram was -  I phoned them back then and they had to look it up in a dictionary.  This year there were four chemigrams on the walls.  So, at this rate...

First, here is Veronica Hodgkinson with The Grid (2015), looking unselfconsciously minimalist like an early Cordier or, to make the point more emphatic, like a Carl Andre version from 1969 at the Tate in London.

Hodgkinson, The Grid, 2015
Andre, 144 Magnesium Square, 1969

If you love your chemigrams you'll love this one.  Each square seems to be relaxed about where its imagery is heading; nothing's in a hurry.  The chemistry and resist do the work, with Veronica looking on patiently, tweezers in hand, for the right moment to assist or not.  It's the classic look but I never tire of it.  Incidentally, the resist was not what you think: it was sticky labels - Rich will be excited to hear that - so we can assume the whole procedure took relatively little time, start to finish.  The paper was Kodak AZO, single weight, expired 1977, and her chemistry was from Sprint.

Hodgkinson, Losing It, 2015

In a somewhat different vein is Losing It (2015), a glorious, dancing bit of hybrid work, with photogrammed blots of human hair, presumably the artist's, merging with tiny pools of chemigramish material at each station of a balletic space.  It was created on Kodak Polymax II RC paper, expired 2003.

Nolan Preece is seen with The Clearing, a resist-driven piece, the tiny crackles and fissures in the surface amounting to a signature of sorts for the type of acrylic floor wax that he used.  The whole conception is simple and rather effective and quite welcome.

Preece, The Clearing, 2015
 Here's a detail from the lower left of the picture:

Preece, detail

His linework has an almost fractal quality, in that the closer you get the farther you see you must go to get it all.  It is this infinitely self-generating property of chemigrams and their resists that endlessly fascinates.

Eva Nikolova will not be left out, contributing a large paneled work entitled Tributaries (2015) consisting of 12 chemigrams 5x7" each on Dupont Defender Velour Black, expired 1944.

I never quite know how to talk about her work: is it history or geography, vision or curse?  Are these deep placid rivers draining a ravaged landscape to the sea, where it will be cleansed and renewed?  Like so many chemigrams, this one must be seen up close (maybe at 3 inches!), so we will look for clues there.  Especially telling is the deft treatment of her trademark resists - peanut butter, guava paste, marshmellow fluff (see the previous post), but for us they both reveal all and hide everything as quickly.  And like in Preece's work, the closer you get to it the more you realize you don't know anything.  It's that damned fractality of chemigrams that gives us amazing work like this - in part, but the rest is pure Eva.

Nikolova, detail

Nikolova, detail

Friday, November 13, 2015

A recent chemigram workshop at ICP with Eva Nikolova

figure 1

At the last minute, Rich Turnbull, my usual co-conspirator and fellow chemigram artist, couldn't make it - they needed him at the Metropolitan Museum to lecture on some bizarre topic that he's expert on, or soon would be if you gave him an hour or so with Wikipedia.  Rich is their back-up academic star and they know it, which, if I were less diplomatic, I would call star abuse.  So I had no choice but to turn to Eva Nikolova to fill in for him and what an unexpected surprise that turned out to be, though I'd had inklings of what was going to happen: I'd seen her work in shows around town for several years, her scarred depictions of ruined dream cities made of the most chaste of materials, and had become a big fan.  What I hadn't counted on was how ready she was to communicate her secret processes to the New York public, for that was to come.

In our little chemigram community, Eva is known for introducing strange new products into the process such as guava paste, marshmellow fluff, peanut butter, lipstick - the list goes crazily on.  If you divide chemigram resists into hard and soft depending on the length of time it takes them to loosen their hold on the photographic paper, the items in Eva's toolbox are all soft resists, which can be used separately or together with 'traditional' soft resists like PVA glue (Elmer's glue) or Karo syrup.  Some are displayed in figure 2, waiting for students to overcome their uncertainty and try them.  Most definitely, Eva is not a purist.

figure 2

Herewith I give you samples of the work our group turned out by day's end, much of it fascinating, all of it entertaining; space limits me from showing more but I could.  As facilitators and guides in this, our job is to point the students in certain directions, show them established methods, suggest possibilities, and then let them have a go at it.  At first they proceed tentatively, feeling their way along, but soon enough they find the handle, or a handle, and begin to assert themselves.  One of the joys of teaching this is to watch the inventiveness of these encounters, student to photographic paper, with their quirks and the individual trace of their personalities, as they embark into regions not only unknown to them but, we soon realize, oftener than we like to admit, to us as well. 

figure 3

figure 4

Here's one that's as rich in depth as you could want, done with what appears to be a combination of guava paste and peanut butter - correct me, readers, if I've got this wrong.  Any lipstick?

figure 5

There's more.  Figure 6 (fig. 1 and 3 as well) shows the rich dark reds obtainable from certain vintage papers, dating from those golden days before papers got their cadmium reformulated away (see our post on this here), not to speak of other mystery substances.  Taking a page from Alison's notebook, Eva thoughtfully provided us with a bounty of gifts: Kodabromide E4 SW expired 1941, Kodabromide F-1 Glossy DW expired 1967 ("dreamy blues, lavenders, silvery greys" says Eva), Dupont Defender Grade 3 DW expired 1951, and Ilford MG 26K FB Velvet Stipple DW expired 1962.  It makes my eyes misty to think about it.  My contribution was the comparatively prosaic Adorama FB Glossy and Fomatone FB Matt, with odd leftovers of Ilford thrown in.  

figure 6

In figure 7, note the canny use of the remaining hard resist (Golden MSA varnish) as design element on a piece of Ilford FB paper.  Most would have continued until all the resist had lifted - I might have too - but not this artist.  A nice call indeed.

figure 7

Figure 8, below, shows what can be done with PVA glue if the snatch point is carefully calculated - by intuition of course.  If snatch point isn't already a keyword in this blog, let's make it one.  That's the moment, usually quite early in the tray dance if you're using soft resists, when you snatch the paper out of one chemical very quickly and thrust it into another, in order to suddenly arrest the action.  A matter of seconds can make all the difference.  In the lower part of the picture observe the white skid marks from the hydrodynamics of a sudden thrust into developer from a fixer launch.

figure 8

We can learn something from each image we present - each has a tale to tell.  For now, pay particular attention to figure 9, where two thickly slathered arrays of Eva's resists have received the same chemical attacks.

figure 9
In one peanut-butter is the main actor, in the other it's lipstick.  Here's a detail of the upper part:

figure 9, detail

Let's look at more work, picking them almost at random.  Here's a soft-resist I like.

figure 10

And another, with hybrid marks drawn from different traditions.

figure 11

Sometimes, the softest marks are those that stay with you the longest.

figure 12

Participants included Mary Alestra, Michelle Bratsafolis, Carol Chu, Sarah Davis, Mira Dayal, Nadezhda Neusypina, and Kiera Wood.  Hats off to all!

                                                   *  *  *

For those interested, Rich Turnbull is doing a chemigram workshop on November 21 at the Penumbra Foundation, just 8 blocks south of here in midtown Manhattan.

International Center of Photography

Eva Nikolova

Penumbra Foundation

Douglas Collins

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The end of the photogram: Roger Humbert

Humbert, IMG_2699. 01.10.2013, 2013

When you first see a picture by Roger Humbert, you know you're in the presence of an artist unlike any other who has dealt with light.  It is a medium he has made his own (as if he had the authority to do so), along with its consorting twin, shadow.  Each defines the other, whiteness and darkness, energy and its absence.  His mind runs over the wavelengths of its spectrum as a pianist's fingers run over the keys.  It's both immanent and elusive, and he thinks about it all the time.

Humbert, IMG_2764. 01.10.2013, 2013

Much has been written of his connection in the early 1960s with the movement known as Concrete Photography, which promoted the idea that a certain minimalism had a philosophic content, or perhaps the other way around, that phenomenological currents in intellectual circles led to a reductive photography.  Influenced in any event by the writings of Max Bense and the graphic work of Swiss compatriot Max Bill (all these Maxes in the service of minimalism!) it found its roots ultimately, going back further, in the Bauhaus teachings of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and before him to Coburn.  We touched on that in an earlier post last year.

That agenda - and the work of the four or five artists gathered at the time for ground-breaking shows in Basel, Bern and Zurich - seems at this juncture, in my opinion, to have been little more than a pretext for critical ponderousness or puffery for a sales pitch to an uncomprehending public.  Addressing those critics, it's not helpful or insightful to claim that photography was becoming self-referential, gazing at the processes that undergird it.  That comes off as obvious, but only because those making the work had driven themselves to do it: it was not necessarily in the plan.

Humbert, IMG_1429. 15.12.2011, 2011

Humbert, IMG_1960. 20.04.2012, 2012
Humbert, IMG_1160. 03.11.2013, 2013

And still, the record shows Humbert preceding the movement by a decade and surviving it happily for many more, no thanks to the commentariat.  He is the real deal, and he is still producing the work.  His is not a postured minimalism but rather one informed by a passion to understand - and, if not understanding fully, for who can, then to depict at least what light really is for us or may be, this thing that is not object but event, surface, density, and more.

Mächler, Sechs quer strahlend, 1971
Even his great countryman and contemporary, the late René Mächler, was not able, in the end, after many years, to approach the mysteries of light with the sensitivity of Humbert.

It all began in the darkroom in the late 1940s, with an enlarger and a tray of photographic chemicals.  Using stencils he would cut out and computer punch cards, a relic most readers of today have never seen, he created photograms.  Then he would move light around to make luminograms.  He used all the methods others have used to explore light (Matter, Jacobi, Arthur Siegel) but without the theatrics or the sentimentality.  Some would say he has paid the price but he would just give us that wan enigmatic smile of his and say he has only gained by it.

Humbert, untitled, 1955

Today he has transitioned to digital in keeping with the times, but here are some earlier works, all analog, now housed in the Fotostiftung Schweiz.  Notice how much the energy in these earlier pictures was made explicit through rapid gestural shifts and the layering of photographic material, whereas now, to imply this energy, all he has to do is massage the depth of field and the bokeh, and use the reductive tension set up by nuanced pools of darkness.  Humbert is a master of this and his recognition is growing.  Photo Edition Berlin recently hosted a solo show of his latest work and published a catalog from which some of these images are taken: you should go out and get it.

Humbert, untitled, 1968

On YouTube, in a conversation with Gunther Dietrich, he recently said he's approaching the end of photograms and of his life-long study of light, that there's nothing more to be done.  From this it's evident that each picture for him is more than just a picture, or less than one: it's an exploration, a journey.  His work is as much science as art.  There is no need to revisit where he has gone before, he has already shown us what is there.

Roger Humbert, 2015