Saturday, November 26, 2016

Nikolova's method

Eva Nikolova, Untitled III, 2016
For a long time now I've wanted to get down into the trays with Eva Nikolova, and I know I'm not alone in this.  Folks have been writing me, stopping me in the street - ever since we began publishing her tortured paeans to memory, loss, and deracination, first in our post in 2013 and another in 2015 - to ask how she makes these pictures.  Some of the early ones looked like drawings with a smudge of chemigram thrown in, here and there, for mood, like Edmund Teske used to do in the 1960s in his faux-heroic portraits of Kenneth Anger, yet they were always beautifully and confidantly executed, charting a path of moral witness totally without precedent in cameraless photography.  When we noticed there were no people in these pictures (for even conventional war-zone photos coming to us from Aleppo had people in them, or their ghosts, adrift in the ruins) we grew to realize that here it was the artist herself who was the lone survivor of her particular armageddon, the one with the tale to tell, she who would live to imprint it with the human stamp.

detail, Untitled III

detail, Untitled III

Her methods have matured and will continue to do so, but her project remains.  This past summer she embarked on a series called 21 Fragments of Yesterday and Tomorrow, one of which, Untitled III,  was a selectee in the recent Alternative Process Photo Competition at Soho Photo in New York.  We decided to investigate what goes into making these pictures, just how they are formed.  Unsurprisingly, it turns out they begin as drawings (we were right), but the tools she is using now are chosen with a view toward a bleach-etch and glassprint endgame, so that as she works, photographic constraints and opportunities are forefront in her mind.  It's best to let her tell it.

'I start on a medium-weight drawing paper using graphite, charcoal, white chalk, and thin sharpies, often overlaid with a cross-hatch of white gel pens and maybe even a touch of white oil pastel.  I like to mix different materials when I draw, but because the visible tones of the materials do not coincide with their opacity - this is what matters when making a negative to print from - I photocopied the drawing onto ordinary printer paper, then contact-printed it under the enlarger.'

Since the resulting print had plenty of blacks, it was easy for her to bleach-etch, most apparent in the dramatic upper part of the picture.  The reader may wonder why the blacks in the lower part didn't bleach-etch as well and the answer lies largely in her strategy of mixing tones in the original drawing, that dense cross-hatch of white and black lines that she spoke about.  She articulates it so well: 'What preserves some of the blacks from lifiting off are tiny islets of white that act as anchors.'

Because the black areas therefore were impure, the etch was insufficient to affect them to any great extent.  Furthermore, she brushed on developer to these areas after the first etch to solidify the blacks found there.  For the upper part of the picture, the sky, now dense with veils, she delicately applied a weak and contaminated developer in an effort to bring out color, then left it to redden in the summer sun.

There is a lot to admire here for practitioners, and to learn from.  And we haven't begun to speak of the impact of her work on a viewer, which can be altogether staggering.

Contact the artist at her site, for more information.


  1. So - I'm a little confused. What kind of cameraless photographs are these? You mention bleach-etch and glassprints. Is that what you would call them, or is it something else?
    Thanks for describing the method, even if I don't quite understand it.

  2. Your question is a good one and there are different ways to answer it. I'll try one approach.

    If in your work you are trying to emulate historical processes, you generally have to identify yourself with one process or the other, like calotype or gum bichromate, or if you are making a hybrid of different processes you have to identify each in turn. This is what's expected by that community, and on that basis your work will be judged. Work like Eva's on the other hand is not beholden to the narrow confines of historical processes because she is part of a different community, a much wider and greater one, that of what we call the art world. She is free to do whatever she wants and to reveal it or not, to attribute it or not: she is an artist, not a replicator of historical crafts. As such, she might call these pictures 'works on photographic paper' or 'cameraless photographs', or, to force the issue in a radical sense, simply 'photographs'. The various intermediate techniques she employs in her work - and she does employ many - do have names and traditions but this is all quite beside the point for her: she has her eyes on that prize which subsumes all intermediate steps.

    Against that, if that indeed represents even a part of Eva's thinking, I want to restate that this blog joins together many strands of photographic endeavor, and part of our mission is to explicate and plumb ways of doing things in or near the analog darkroom. From that perspective it makes good sense for us to describe what an artist is doing technically (if we're able to) so that the readership, allied in many ways with the artist by background and temperament, can gain a deeper understanding of what's going on in a picture.

    Thanks again for writing. I just hope I haven't left you, inadvertently, more confused than before. Eva - can you help me on this?

  3. It’s not hard to see why one would be confused over labels - perplexity over categories and naming are an inherent part of working experimentally with processes that are for most, mysterious and obscure even without being combined. Doug’s detailed and eloquent answer is right on in pointing to the fluidity of designations and their dependence on the frame of reference – indeed, I have shown this same work under various different media labels according to my intent and the context in which the work would be encountered. And it has rarely been a straightforward decision. To describe something as a “work on photographic paper” is very different from calling it a “photograph”, because as Doug rightly suggests, even though both would be factually correct, each stakes out a different critical position, which then is also subject to interpretation by the viewer. So for example, to assert that the work in this post is simply a "photograph", may represent a radical insistence on re-examining the accepted parameters of photography, but in most other settings is more likely to result merely in a misreading. Indeed, almost always when I have labeled my work simply as “gelatin silver photograph” a designation which describes the final state without giving much of an indication of the process through which it was created, most viewers inevitably assume that what they are looking at must be an image produced by a camera and subsequently modified.

    Having the above analysis that delves thoroughly and intelligently into the making of this work is a rare luxury that renders the need for an accompanying label here almost superfluous, but in many other contexts, the media identification may be the only clue for a viewer to grasp or at least guess at what they are looking at, so I try to be as descriptive as possible and mindful of the likely audience’s background. In addressing printmakers for example, I’d label this work as “Bleach-etched cliché verre”, since “cliché verre” figures in every printmaking glossary; but at other times I have also used “Bleach-etched glassprint”, “Glassprint, mordançage” and various combinations thereof.

    I hope this clarifies things a bit.

  4. Just incredible!! The chemigram really is a mix of photography, printmaking and painting. You have articulated this very well and your words get me excited to once again try painting with chemistry. Beautiful work along with beautiful description!


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