Monday, May 22, 2017

Denis Brihat

Brihat, Lichen, oxidation, 40x50 cm, 1975

Denis Brihat, once you see his work in person, and you really must - there's no other way to appreciate it - never leaves that part of your brain that thinks about photography.  Even when you're right up into it, even when you're literally breathing on his immaculately sculpted surfaces, you have to persevere to truly comprehend it.  How can it be so intense and focused, yet so delicate?

His subjects, they are simple: flowers, fruits, and vegetables from the garden outside his back door in the south of France - but it's then that you realize you've never seen these subjects quite in this way before.  They are transformed.  The poppies, spurges, dandelions, onions and lichens are as if touched by a hand and an eye that believes unreservedly in them, that wants nothing more than to give to these humble organisms underfoot a merited reverence in the pantheon of nature.  He places them at center stage, rendering them an austere homage.  And Denis, in ways substantially unchanged, working slowly at the rhythm of the change of seasons in the country, has been doing this for more than forty years.  His accomplishment is extraordinary.

Brihat, Lichen, photographic etching, 13x18 cm, 1981

Brihat, Wild Carrot Blossom, photographic etching, 50x60 cm, 1988

Brihat, Slice of Kiwi, iron toning, 50x60 cm, 1990

Brihat, Crumpled Poppy, gold toning, 30x40 cm, 1994

Brihat, Heart of Buttercup, sulfuration, 40x50 cm, 1999

Brihat, Yarrow Blossom, photographic etching, 10x15 cm, 1970

Brihat, Heart of Poppy, selenium and gold toning, 40x50cm, 2000

His pictures start life on black and white photo paper, but he often modifies the images through toning, beginning with selenium and marching through a fair list of the transition metals, well known for their ability to form colored compounds: gold, iron, vanadium, copper.  He also has developed his own method for treating images with sulfur compounds, which he calls sulfuration.  At its simplest, think of silver sulfide, which if left on an image after incomplete washing will produce a brownish cast.  You can arrive at sulfiding by using sodium sulfate, thiourea, or other materials, and by adjusting temperature, agitation, and concentration you may wind up, if you wish, with some nice sepia tones.  If you're new at this, try The Photographer's Toning Book (2003) by Tim Rudman, which has all the information you'll need.  Of course when Denis was starting out he didn't have that, and had to discover methods on his own.  Still, some of the books of a general nature from that earlier era remain incomparable - I'm thinking of Pierre Glafkides' Chimie et Physique Photographiques (1976, 4th ed.), which very likely inspired him in his researches.

So from the beginning, in the 1960s, Denis found himself engaged in a private, unremitting dialog with the silver gelatin of the photographic emulsion.  The primacy of silver was overthrown; in its place other metals were given their say.  Soon he began to question the place of gelatin itself.  He and his friend Jean-Pierre Sudre, similarly motivated, studied early reports on the manipulation of gelatin and gained insights from clues widely scattered over the literature.  A researcher at Kodak in England named A. Marriage had published in the British Journal of Photography (1944) a description of a way to excoriate the gelatin wherever silver grains had formed while leaving the white areas untouched, and with this in mind, or ideas very much like this, the pair embarked on a long course of experimentation, trading ideas and results over many Provençal dinners.  In time they chose what worked best and settled on a methodology, Brihat naming it 'grignotage' while Sudre favored 'mordançage'.  They shared an approach: copper chloride, hydrogen peroxide, and acetic acid, and each took it in a direction in tune with their vision.  [A modern practitioner is Brittany Nelson some of whose work can be seen in a blogpost here.]

from a retrospective in Campredon, 2012

a nook in the studio

Denis Brihat

Eventually, for Denis, the surface of a picture which had been treated with this new process - for convenience and for now we shall call the process 'bleach-etch', a name given to it by some of the first researchers - was suggestive of the acid-biting of an etching on a copper plate, with its reliefs and depressions.  He dropped 'grignotage' (nibbling) and renamed it 'gravure photographique' or photographic etching.  He liked the feeling of a third dimension, the feeling that, in a small way, it approached sculpture; it seemed to validate the notion that these fruits and flowers exist within the world, not on a flat surface, that the depth (however small) gives them the power they deserve.  Several pictures above use the technique, although the evidence is hard to demonstrate unless the reader is already intimately familiar with the technique's capablities and limitations - a large subject best left for another time.  In the hands of Denis Brihat, a consummate craftsman as well as artist, the telltale signs are concealed by his rigorously controlled redeveloping after bleach-etch, and perhaps by his fiddling with his beloved metal salts.

We are thus led back to our point of departure, that this work must really be seen to be appreciated.  You could say this of much that is great, but this time we insist.   In Paris his dealer is Galerie Camera Obscura.  In New York it is the Nailya Alexander Gallery.