Thursday, October 13, 2016

All-silver excitement in Virginia City

Jeanne Chambers, 2016

High in the scrub desert above the Truckee River basin, the old silver mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, was already a legend in the 19th century when fortunes could be made there overnight, then squandered by daybreak in the saloons of C Street.  In a way, not much has changed except that fortunes today are made only in selected of salts of silver, those famously light-sensitive ones - silver bromide and silver chloride - couched in the emulsion of photographic paper.  You dig out the pure stuff not in rocky red igneous earth as in the wild west days but in darkroom trays.  Yes, we're back in the wonderful world of chemigrams.

The annual Nolan Preece chemigram workshop, three days and nights at the end of September, was all silver, nothing digital: the tenacious ghosts of Virginia City wouldn't have it any other way.  Ten students gathered from as far away as Massachusetts and California with Nolan at the helm, in the spacious, well-appointed, and, according to some, possibly haunted St Mary's Art Center.

St Mary's Art Center, Virginia City

Virginia City
We could go on - but won't - about the accommodations in this unique building, constructed during the bonanza heyday 150 years ago and now converted to printmaking and photographic residencies.  You gather a sense of it from the size and airiness of the studios.

chemigram workshop at St Mary's, September 2016

We will want rather to get into the work itself. 

Nolan designed a curriculum to cover all bases of the modern chemigram: dip and dunk, soft resists, hard resists, the effects of various polishes and varnishes, hybrid methods, exotic developers and papers and more, much of which has been touched on elsewhere in this blog.  To witness the refreshing variety of chemigramic response he was able to elicit in just three days made us think of one of the big differences between chemigrams (and other contemporary cameraless procedures) and the methods of craft photography often presented under the label of alt-photography - and that is that once you have a fundamental understanding of where the process is going, you can, in fact you must, sooner or later, break the rules you've just been taught in order to make your own artistic statement.  And that is because it is an art and not a craft: fidelity to rules will lead only to rote applications, to trite expression.  The goal is to overcome that.

Remarkably, in this workshop we already see signs of a stirring in that direction, a pushing at the boundaries.

Mike Clasen, 2016

Nancy Raven, 2016

Greg Albertson, 2016

Debbie Wolff, 2016

Diane Kaye, 2016

Vanessa Stephens, 2016


Susan Watson, 2016

Piera Bernard, 2016

David Laws, 2016

On a technical note, many of the papers provided in the workshop were expired - Kodak, Forte, Luminos, Agfa, Azo - and purposely so, as this is known to be a productive path to follow in chemigrams.  Everyone was encouraged to explore the ways these handled and colored, and to discover the paper's individual signature.

The work turned in by these workshop participants is of a high order indeed, and I believe many veteran chemigramists will come away impressed by it.   Let us hope they continue, for this is just the beginning, not the end.  Each of these artists has taken steps that will become more momentous the further they go, toward an emergent vision, toward something which today they only dimly see but which will unfold as they develop and as the monotonies of the everyday recede.  They arrived with imagination, and now they have the tools to nourish it as well.

If you have questions on particular methods, you may contact Nolan through his website

Nolan will have a solo show at Missouri State University's Brick City Gallery, Springfield, January 24 - February 22, 2017, and a two-person show at The Loft at Liz's, Los Angeles, February 18 - March 20, 2017.