One of the most positive things that has come out of the pandemic are the ways in which we can reach audiences that wouldn’t have been accessible to us in the past. Thanks to the Experimental Photo Festival in Barcelona Spain and their online programming throughout 2020, I was put into contact with Heather Palecek. An incredible practitioner of pinhole photography, I feel fortunate that she asked me to give an online artist talk through JKC Gallery in Trenton, NJ. Not being able to see my own photo community through Sulfur Studios’ photo critique group for over a year, I felt warmly welcomed as we all stayed online way past the talk chatting about our practices. Big thanks to Heather and the crew at JKC Gallery, as well as my co-presenter Rich Hundley. The full talk can be viewed here.

 

I had the good fortune of teaching in Cortona, Italy, for the University of Georgia for two months this summer. The experience ran the whole gamut of exhilarating to challenging, with some melancholy thrown in. I was a graduate student in 2001 when I first visited Cortona, a handful of months before September 11th, and this was my first time back in 18 years. I had no recollection of many aspects of the town, but sometimes I would take a turn down a small alley and long-forgotten memories would come rushing back.

With all the students cleared out of the darkroom in the last week, I was able to open up the windows and get in one last chemigram session in the Severini darkroom. I had already done some work in the classroom with more readily-available light, but something told me to get into the darkroom proper, to pull open those heavy Italian window shutters. I had been weighing all the possibilities of everything else I should be seeing in Cortona that I had been putting off all summer, but something told me to get to work that day. I was a few hours into my work session when I realized what that voice was about.

The Severini Darkroom was somewhere I never set a foot into as a student in 2001. At the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, I was at war with Photography when I was there. I attended a Printmaking-intensive Maymester in Cortona, as I had found in my first year of grad school that printmakers understood my drive to experiment with process, whereas the realm of Photography was fraught with landmines of “right” and “wrong” practices. I felt relieved to escape its obligations and judgmental glare. Printmakers had no problem calling themselves artists, but photographers were photographers.

For years I have relayed the story of how on my one-day trip to Rome during that month, I didn’t even bring a camera. I think it was a conscious act of defiance, but the details are fuzzy. The huge unexpected takeaway of that day was that being cameraless freed me to truly see my surroundings. I learned the difference between the pictures I take out of tourist obligation and the pictures I choose to bring into existence because I need to. Everyone around me snapped with their point and shoots all the relics they needed to show their friends back home; I found myself falling behind the crowd, lingering, looking. I saw details that I needed to be in person to really absorb — the textures, the craftsmanship, and the incredulous realization of how much more history was present here than in my shallow American existence and own personal family details. I could have long awkward staring sessions with everything — I didn’t feel the pressure to snap my shutter and move right along, as seems to often be the proper response to such experiences. I got to share this story with students of my own this summer, in the very environment which taught me those valuable lessons. And I made sure that they made photos of Rome this summer, about their own experiences there, rather than took them of things they could have just bought postcards of.

So that last week in Cortona, when maybe I should have experienced a dip in the city pool, or taken a hike to Le Celle, I instead started furiously making chemigrams alone in the darkroom, for the last time on July 24th. And partway through, I could sense that the moments making the work were far bigger than the seconds from which they were composed. I felt calm, I felt lucky to be making art right then, right there. In 2001, the darkroom was basically the only method of making photos that had any validity, it was the default. In 2019, being in the darkroom is a conscious choice, and all of the reasons that made me so angry and wanting to avoid the darkroom all came around full circle — here I was making artwork in a place that relied on analog processes to even be possible, in the very place I refused to walk into for all of that frustration with the Photo world. I’m thankful to have been doing this photo thing long enough to have participated in the whole purpose for a darkroom shifting, transforming, and turning into something far more wondrous and exciting than I was even taught that it could be 18 years ago.

Long story short, I think I made peace with the Severini Darkroom that day. We’re good, and I hope we meet again.

 

severini1      sevchemigrams

 

Pattern-Speak 2

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.

 

Chris McCaw

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.