January 1998

Back door of Newcomb Hall, 1998

Twenty years and roughly two months ago, I started my first photography class at Tulane University. I had been trying to get into the introductory photo class for three semesters, but it kept filling up with seniors who had a higher registration priority than me, seniors who wanted a “fun” elective to finish out their last year. I had to personally meet with the dean of my college and express how strongly I wanted to get into this class and possibly devote my degree to this study. I don’t recall the specifics of what I said to her, but I guess my urgency or pitifulness was convincing. We registered for classes by phone then, and I still very clearly remember standing near the bathroom door to my dorm room, looking down at the carpet, as I finally heard the computerized voice say, “Art Studio, one, three, five, has been added to your schedule”. After what felt like years of rejection to my 19 year old mind, I was finally on my way.

It’s difficult to explain to my students now what it meant to get into a darkroom, to actually learn what was still deemed the only way to work with the photographic medium. A year prior I had been given a scanner for my computer, and I voraciously scanned color film photographs I had taken with a point and shoot camera, manipulating them with Paint Shop Pro, constructing narratives that were both angsty and satisfying. I received my first copy of Photoshop (7.0) from a guy I had started talking to on ICQ who was kind enough to burn me a CD and send it through the mail. For as much as I loved laboring over these images on the computer, to work in the darkroom was a whole other level. It was the realm of professionals, shrouded in mystery with so much to learn, and to finally have a space in this class, to feel like I was finally worthy of being able to study the subject rather than having that computerized telephone voice reject me over and over… it still feels just as significant of a milestone now as it did then.

“Newcomb Hall”
Silver gelatin print
8″ x 10″
1998

 

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Welcoming 2018

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As I’m hovering in that strange place between Christmas and New Years, with life seemingly on hold, I am looking forward to many events coming up, and feeling quite thankful to have a lot of great opportunities on my plate.

I was pleased to be selected for the 2nd annual LA Artcore Photographic Competition and Exhibition. Some of my very new work, which isn’t even on my website yet, will be traveling to Los Angeles at the end of January.

Also in January, I will be part of a group exhibition of educators using alternative photographic methods at the Fine Arts Center in Greenville SC, curated by Armon Means. It will also feature works by Christina Z. Anderson, Julie Mixon, JC Johnson, and Jamie Tracy. I am also happy to be showing a wide collection of older works in my solo show, “All Hexed Up“, at Starland Cafe in Savannah, as well as have some new work published in The Hand Magazine‘s upcoming volume 19.

I will be participating in the Robert I. Strozier lecture series at Armstrong by presenting “Kodachrome Rumors: Why Outdated Technologies Thrive in the Art World” on Friday January 26th at noon. The talk will cover many topics on photography and art that I have raised through my blog over the years, including the importance of understanding process in appreciating art, and how process ties to reasons for using outdated technology other than nostalgia. More information may be found on the lecture series website.

The fabulous crew at Sulfur Studios here in Savannah has asked me to be a guest juror for “Alternative to What?”, an experimental photographic juried exhibition. Entries are due February 23rd, more details can be found on their website. I have also been working with Emily Earl at Sulfur to develop a monthly critique session for photographers, which happens the third Wednesday of each month, 6-8pm. The turnouts have been great so far — more details can be found on Sulfur’s upcoming events page, and on our Facebook event pages.

I am offering a Cyanotype workshop for adults at the Jepson Center at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, on Saturday and Sunday March 10-11th, 1-5pm. Registration is open through their website. We will be learning to make large format negatives from digitally-captured images, and create photographs in the sun with this 19th-century process.

Later this year, I will have a solo exhibition of new chemigram pieces and installations at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, and be in a Stillmoreroots group exhibition at the Denison Art Space in Newark, Ohio.

This summer should hopefully allow some time for travel and more artmaking as well. 2017 was a year of much transition, as I learned to balance my new position as Assistant Professor of Art at Armstrong State University along with my goals as an artist. A lot of my creative energy has gone into teaching, which has been incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. As my feet are now thoroughly wet, I want to make the time to explore new directions in my work, as I am starting to incorporate prior mediums and even film-based imagery into my ongoing exploration of the chemigram process. Let’s hope 2018 brings some wisdom in the time-management realm.

Gelatin Silver as Alt Process

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Chris McCaw, “Sunburned GSP #733 (Pacific Ocean),” 2013
Three Unique Gelatin Silver Paper Negatives
10″ × 8″ (25.4 × 20.3 cm) each element

I am teaching Alt Process at Warren Wilson College this semester, and I made it a point to have our first class discussion be defining what Alt Process means. I was pleased that their findings led them to a cross between silver-based and non-silver processes: solarization, bromoil, anthotypes, pinhole images. Their perspective confirmed my feelings that the “traditional” definition of Alt Process, tightly linked to non-silver processes such as cyanotype, or historical processes like salt printing, is outdated and has grown to embrace the traditional darkroom.

Not that this discussion is particularly new. In April 2015, Dan Estabrook organized a panel discussion at Penland School of Crafts with Christina Z Anderson, Jerry Spagnoli, France Scully Osterman, and other participants to discuss the current state of, shall we say, chemical photography. We recognized the fad of Alt Process work and how it is frequently used as a crutch to skirt around concept or even technical mastery. We also debated just what is the proper term to encompass these processes, since”Alt Process” at one point meant an alternative to the gelatin silver prints of the traditional darkroom. The darkroom is itself an Alt Process to the mainstream of digital now.

There is simply so much to explore with developer, stop, fix, and silver. No one would consider Chris McCaw’s “Sunburn” series traditional in any way, yet it is achieved with basic silver paper negatives. Alison Rossiter explores non-objective form with decades-old expired and rare papers to which she simply applies chemicals, bypassing negative-based imagery altogether. Even the once most widespread commercial-based form of photographic imagery, the c-print, is harnessed by Marco Breuer to merge photographic materials in with concerns about drawing and physical manipulation. In short, I don’t think we need a brush and a UV lightbox to create imagery with any sort of label of “alternative”.

I am pleased that I have been given an opportunity to explore these ideas further with students in an upcoming class at Penland: Gelatin Silver as Alt Process. Running from July 10-22, we will explore ways to make photographic art with traditional darkroom chemistry. The methods are geared towards darkroom beginners: composite printing, solarization, selective development, paper negative manipulation, chromoskedasic sabattier. I am also looking forward to introducing chemigrams into the mix, introducing the techniques from my Language Acquisition series. Registration for the workshop is open, and the deadline for the Scholarship Application is February 17th.

I feel lucky to be a photographic artist at this time in history. There is so much to be redefined and rediscovered.

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The darkroom: transcending “romantic”

forest-place-darkroom

When I had my tintype portrait made last summer by Giles Clement, I began to follow him on Instagram. This sounds funny to say now, but at first, I couldn’t figure out why so many people in his images were dressed so similarly. And then comments would arise here and there along the lines of: “oh, it would have been a better photo of me if I hadn’t been wearing that t-shirt, it doesn’t look old-timey enough…” or “I shouldn’t have smiled.” And the like. And then I got it — most people view a tintype photo as a more expensive version of your Old West dress-up sepia photograph that you got made on your family vacation. I’m so naively nerdy that I didn’t think beyond the unique object, laborious chemical process, and distinct value range.

Which leads me to say that I am pretty sure that I am looking forward to the time when analog photographic processes are no longer deemed romantic.

I think the assumption is we must do these processes because we love history and all things old. Because things were “so much simpler in the past.” Or maybe we are just too stubborn to embrace new technologies. Surely we will come around and get with it at some point, but isn’t our denial quaint?

I look forward to the time when people will view the darkroom as yet another tool at the artist’s disposal.

And I do understand why this is difficult for the general public to understand… because photography is a technological medium, not an artist’s medium, right? Where is the art in pressing that shutter release button? So why would you choose to practice a technology that takes more time, effort, and money than the current one does? The reason is: we are not using photography as a technology.

Romantic thoughts arise when we feel something has been replaced or forgotten. It’s apt for commercial photographers to have such feelings about the darkroom. But many of us artists over here never left. It’s the workspace where we get our art job done.

How many artists working in woodcut are mocked for not throwing out their carving tools for Photoshop? It would make sense, right? Why would you spend hours carving a block of wood, inking it up, making multiple prints that are no good, that you have to throw away, before arriving at a few that do look good? To my knowledge, that’s not happening because we are so incredibly far-removed from the time when woodcuts were considered technology. Is it possible for photography to achieve that status in our lifetimes?

If there are large groups of people trying to shame printmakers into making art on a computer screen, I’d be really curious to hear that perspective. For now, I am concluding that only analog photographic artists have to endure such pressure among the contemporary art mediums. But for how much longer? When does this become an accepted medium, not novel, or “going against the grain”, or something to get wistful over?

And what will the photographic art landscape begin to look like when that happens?

How big is your lens?

nikkonlens1

Have you ever witnessed a conversation between two painters passionately debating the pros and cons of their paintbrushes?

Honestly, I bet it has happened sometime, somewhere in history. But why is this gear-talk so much more prevalent of a stereotype with photographers? Is the circle of people arguing natural vs. synthetic brushes just so small and esoteric that I am ignorant to it, or am I right that the cries of Nikon vs. Canon are that much louder?

Don’t get me wrong, I like to learn about camera technology — I feel it is important to my medium. There are cameras I wouldn’t mind owning, like a Mamiya C330, some lenses that I wouldn’t mind having for my DSLR. But that is hardly central to any conversation I want to have about the medium. You can hear the itch in the ravenous photographer’s voice when he asks: what was the focal length of the lens you used? What’s the widest aperture on that lens? Did you use Vibration Reduction? And on and on. If I am in critique, and one of these details is necessary to know because it reflects something conceptual or compositional about the outcome of an image, then I will ask. But I really don’t feel the need to discuss these points as conversation topics over drinks.

Yet it seems as a photographic artist, by extension, I am supposed to be inherently and primarily concerned about all these technical details. Case in point: some colleagues of mine recently witnessed me taking a quick photo of something whose destination was a Facebook page. They both laughed quite a bit when I used my iPhone to take the picture. I didn’t understand why. When I asked them to explain what was so funny, they said, “The photography teacher is using an iPhone.”

On one level, I can step back and see that as amusing, and I wasn’t offended in any way (nor did I have reason to be). But I also don’t assume the drawing teacher will be jotting down all class notes in silverpoint. Or that the painting teacher will use oil paint for grading slips. Nothing in the photograph required the larger sensor of my DSLR to render the aperture with a blurrier depth of field over what my iPhone provides, nor did I need the higher amount of megapixels of my DSLR to make a large print of the image. It’s simply a technology that allowed me to quickly upload a snapshot to a social media platform — that was the goal.

Thus comes in that very understandable confusion of photography as a technology vs. as an art medium. I would never allow my students to use a cell phone in my photography classes. The context of my class is to learn the tools available on a DSLR camera to make meaningful expressions. The context of an iPhone is primarily a technological tool (making art with an iPhone is not off the table but not really part of my discussion here).

So my mind drifts to the person who feels they need to pick up their DSLR over their phone to make this very simple shot for the web. Is the intent to make a piece of art, that will then happen to be showcased on the web? By all means then, go for it. But for our day-to-day shots, do we really need a $1000 lens to document what’s for breakfast? I can’t help but feel there is something inherently braggart and secretly insecure about doing this. Just because you have the technology/knowledge to do this task “better” than most of the general public, does it mean you have to use it every single time? Can we just let context inform our choices, not simply the gear we have access to?

Because context is why it seems funny for someone to pick up a paintbrush to write a note to their dean. Why are camera-based people held to different standards? When I say some of my students have better cameras than me, a lot of people laugh, but it’s true. My camera does exactly what I need it to for the type of art I make. I don’t need a full frame sensor and three different lenses. If I were a wedding photographer, that would probably be different.

Context.

So of course it boils down to that joke about the photographer who goes to a dinner party. He meets the host, who says, “I love your photographs, you must have an amazing camera.” Later at dinner, the host serves the meal, and after eating, the photographer says to the host, “I love your food, you must have an amazing oven.”

When was the last time you looked at a painting and all you wanted to discuss was whether they used a round sable brush?

Yet again, why I am hesitant to call myself a “photographer” sometimes. The fact that I use a camera doesn’t make me a gear-head, and I look forward to the day when that presumption fades.

Photograph as consumerist act

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I used to get offended when I would find calls for art shows that would appeal to “artists and photographers”. As though the two were mutually exclusive. However, in the last few years, I find myself shying away from the term “photographer”, as an unexpected sympathy towards this distinction which I shunned in years past has surfaced. I now instead refer to myself as a “photographic artist”.

I use the term because I am describing the tool with which I choose to use to make art. Painters and sculptors do not have to explain themselves. No one in my city introduces themselves as a painter and is then asked “what kind of houses do you paint?”. Yet if I were to call myself a photographer, I am asked whether I would shoot someone’s engagement photos. The word association goes straight to the commercial aspect of the profession, not the artistic medium. And I am empathetic as to why — I do understand most people use photography for its practical purposes and not its expressive ones.

I am not attempting to construct a hierarchy by separating commercial from art photography. But what I have developed a sensitivity to is that the term “photographer” lends towards the act of taking rather than making. It appeals to those who believe they have to travel to some exotic location to make good images, those who need to be directed on what to shoot in expensive workshop outings, who want to talk about their lenses until they are blue in the face. They have to capture. They need a portfolio of items to collect and claim as their own: the peak fall foliage, the swaddled baby with the angelic expression, the skillfully HDR’ed sunset, the tasteful black-and-white nude.

In short, photographers, by my definition of the word, go out into the world and take images of that which they think strikes others, who may possibly pay for said images. Photographers are not fueled by personal meaning, and then explore how a camera may or may not be able to embody that meaning. That is what photographic artists do. They are curious, and they experiment. Photographic artists are not obsessed with pinning down every possible variable imaginable in order to achieve success in their pre-determined vision. They celebrate mistakes and their potential, they embrace process.

The digital photography revolution was the blessing of the photographic artist. It freed the photographers from their unwanted labor of the darkroom, and allowed them what they really find joy in — shooting — more more and more. No more film to inhibit the photographer, simply make more images and hand the card off to someone else to print from — or not. A computer screen might just suffice. This isn’t to say that photographic artists must work in darkrooms. But I can attest to the fact that 0% of the people who work in my darkroom are trying to meet a newspaper deadline, and pretty much 100% are there in the spirit of discovery.

A photographic artist is concerned with the final physical object. Even a 2D artist is still making an object. It could be pigment on inkjet paper — but the photographic artist still wants to know what ink and what paper. The image capture is, at best, half of the journey.

Yet…

Were Henri Cartier-Bresson a young photography student today, I feel he would choose to shoot digital. It pains me a little to say that with my traditionalist tendencies, but I know it’s true. “The photograph itself does not concern me. What I want is to capture a minute part of reality,” said Cartier-Bresson. He didn’t care to print his own photos, he just wanted another roll of film so he could get back out into the world. But I get giddy when I have the opportunity to flip through a book of his images. The ambiguity of the moments he captured created images that have kept me thinking for years, kept me revising my thoughts and interpretations of his compositions. Some are awkward in their subject, unlikely in their configuration, or even — gasp — undesirable to hang over a couch.

He created for himself. And he didn’t have a checklist of items to capture, to consume, to piss on and claim “mine”. He wandered into the world, sharpened his intuition, and learned to press the button at the perfect moment when the compositional stars aligned before him. He may not have cared to make his own prints, but he honed a skill that was not born of any consumerist practice of photography.

The consumer knows what he wants to buy, and when his product doesn’t arrive in the format he anticipated, he gets angry, he complains, maybe he even sues. He doesn’t play with the circumstances of what mistakes could beget. He thrives on the accuracy and promises of the latest technology.

The artist knows technology is a waste without a message, or worse, that technology is an embarrassing excuse to get out of needing one.

 

Photograph as event

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This weekend, I had my portrait taken by tintype photographer Giles Clement, an event hosted by Old North clothing store downtown. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to have it done when I arrived, I really wanted to just bask in the photo nerdiness, and support a pop-up darkroom with an historic process being practiced in my own town. At first I couldn’t figure out why I should get a photo of myself made. It’s not like I’m going to put a picture of myself on the wall in my home.

It’s really not a flattering photo at all. Aside from the fact that I look like I just murdered someone (“#stonecoldbridget” was my favorite response thus far), large format photography spares no detail of my aging complexion, and the angle just seems to emphasize where I’ve stowed away all that craft beer over the last few years. But here’s the thing — I love this image.

And I’m trying to figure out why. I’m trying to figure out if it’s the same reason that the Facebook likes are piling up — which I think has to do with the fact that it looks “old-tmey”. In talking to Giles about it, he said people ask him if he lives his life in other “antiquated” ways to match his tintype process, to which he said no. That was also an amusing statement to me…. it never occurred to me that someone would assume Giles would be pickling all his home-grown vegetables and making his own soap just because he makes tintypes. I guess that’s the photo dork in me talking.

So is it really the lack of highlights in this image that makes people think of the Old West and get tickled? Is it the subconscious detection of minute detail afforded by a 4×5 negative which digital photography can’t yet replicate?

Later that evening, I debated with a friend the importance of having this image made by someone else. As much as this has piqued my interest in learning tintype photography for myself, that is an apples and oranges sort of experience compared to having someone create this photo.  I think the reasons I decided to go with it are twofold.

One is the importance of the tintype object. It is a freaking photograph on a metal plate, a suspension of collodion and silver nitrate that presents grayscale values which people psychologically equate to me. How many of us are satisfied on a daily basis with seeing images on a computer screen? One woman waiting to be photographed said, “I know I will want to have this when I am old.” She’s talking about the object in addition to the image it holds. She’s not fantasizing about gazing upon Facebook or whatever will exist in 50 years.

The other factor of importance was the actual event of being photographed. Why did I put my name on a list and wait an hour and a half? Why was I fussing so much over my hair? How many times are we photographed on a daily basis now and don’t give a shit — I could have completely filled up my phone with selfies for the time it took anticipating this one shot. The truth is that I kind of liked being nervous to have this one image made. I don’t just get to delete it and try again. I have to do it right, and maybe that pressure is enticing in these times.

Giles even offered to let me do another one since I looked so damn angry. Which I debated momentarily. All throughout my life however, strangers have approached me on the street and asked me to “just smile.” I’m really quite happy on the inside I would say 95% of the time, I guess I tend to suffer from the condition of “Resting Sad Face”. So in that sense, I decided to stick with this photo, accepting that it best reflected my most common reality. And here I had given up on the belief that any form of photography could still convey truth. I’m pleased to be wrong.