June 14 – July 31, 2021
On::View Residency, Sulfur Studios, Savannah, GA

I am fortunate to be spending the next month exploring a new body of work that not only satisfies some new technical directions, but helps me conceptually process the last 15 months of these challenging times. Anyone in the Savannah area who would like to be photographed as part of the project can sign up here — my last day for sitters is July 9. Below is my proposal, written on March 20, 2021, explaining my impetus for the project.

“I plan to use this residency as a way to ease back into interaction with the wider public after a year of strict Covid-induced isolation, and to pose questions about trust and welfare within our society. The actions involved in the creation of this work will be just as crucial as the resulting art pieces. The final outcome will be a series of portraits created through the experimental photographic process of chemigrams. I plan to use the space as a photo studio to photograph willing participants as I hold a discussion with them about the ways in which the pandemic has changed their interactions with others.

With my husband being at high risk for complications from Covid-19, we took our last unnecessary foray into public on March 13, 2020. As a social person who charges her batteries by sitting in coffeeshops with her laptop to do work, I feel like a certain part of my brain has had to shut down in order to get through the lack of physical interaction. Another part of my brain has overpowered these needs – what I refer to as “darkroom variable brain” – where I learned how any and every small step of creating a traditional photographic print in a darkroom all factor into its visual outcome. The virus has pushed me into levels of control which I would have mocked over a year ago, as darkroom variable brain now dictates all my possible risks of being in public, and ways that I might be putting my husband and other vulnerable people at risk. Having recently been vaccinated, I can finally see an end to this daily impediment, but I know that I won’t be able to just hop back into public with the flip of a switch and undo the year of conditioning I have placed upon myself to feel physically safe.

As a photographic artist, portraiture has never been a comfortable subject for me. But as I try to crawl out of isolation and force myself into the uncomfortable position of being back in public, no other subject seems more fitting to tackle as I fully push myself out of my comfort zone. As I deal with high levels of mistrust due to peoples’ behavior during the pandemic and their ability to impact the lives of others, I feel I must force myself to hold in-person conversations with others. This is not only to share in and express the trauma we have all experienced, but to record a visual document of my time spent physically among people. To do this I will manipulate the controls of my camera to lengthen to exposure times. Therefore the portraits will not be strict representations of each person’s likeness, but lengthened exposures of multiple seconds resulting in an abstracted likeness of the person. Like many of my collage  pieces which take words, cut the letterforms, and abstract them into a new form to embed the word’s power, in this project I make photographs to embed the passage of time over which the conversation took place, as proof of my own action towards healing. I intend to ask my sitters a series of questions concerning what has changed in their lives over the course of the pandemic, specifically in the realm of their understanding of and trust in others. I hope the conversations may grow organically into whatever topics are comfortable.

The outcome of these prints will not be traditionally-printed photographs, but will take on another level of transformation by using the chemigram process. Chemigrams are silver gelatin (light-sensitive) prints that are made without negatives or a darkroom, but simply by applying various substances (resists) to the paper in order to create imagery akin to drawings or paintings. The paper is processed in traditional developer and fixer chemicals in normal daylight to create a final stable visual outcome. For many years I have been planning to use screenprinting as a method of applying the resist, so that I might return to photographic imagery in my work. Chemigrams are a way to free myself from predictable outcomes in my artwork, given the many variables that can influence how the images take form in terms of their color, value, texture, and line quality. In this case, chemigrams also serve as a way to separate myself further from expectations of portraiture, and perhaps to even touch on my ambiguous feelings about being physically present with my subjects, as I very slowly accept the “new new normal” of being able to be in close interaction with other people again. As I dance with my comfort levels, portraiture is the push and the chemigram process is the pull.”

 

lumen_header

I had the pleasure of taking a class on Cyanolumens with The School of Light in December. I’ve made lumen prints, I’ve made cyanotypes, but somehow the combination of the two was never something that clicked in my brain. Merging standard silver gelatin with “alt process” seemed enticing. 

We started with some basic lumen prints, where I was able to explore the color palette of a variety of papers. The added blue/green/yellow of cyanotype made for an expanded range of colors depending on which papers I used. The process also allowed me to travel down the rabbit hole of questioning when is photography a document of another object, and when is photography the art itself? As an artist who deals with photographic paper as an object, I had to reconcile the impermanence of the lumen print with its documentation, and allow that to be art itself. I can’t say that I am pleased that the final art object would be an inkjet print, but it is what it is. My eyes saw the finished result — the wild range of colors that rivals a chemigram — and my documentation clings to that reality as best as I could reproduce it, without added drama of contrast or saturation.

These thoughts interestingly coincided with a great conversation I had as part of Cameraless Photography Month with the Experimental Photo Festival in Barcelona, Spain. My breakout room question dealt with what the relationship is between cameraless photography and The Decisive Moment — namely that there seems to be a lack of such moments without the presence of a shutter in the artist’s toolbox. As a chemigam artist, I found myself comparing The Decisive Moment, as Henri Cartier-Bresson might have defined it, to the moment you know a certain resist is about to disappear, and how I can achieve a color or a pattern based on the progression of chemical steps. I have learned to somewhat control the chemigram process to achieve compositional goals. And similarly, the documentation of a lumen print boils down to a particular knowledge of what will happen to a composition given a certain amount of time and exposure to light. I began to understand how a print would change if I didn’t document it immediately, or how the composition might shift in my favor if I waited. 

Subject-matter-wise, I really appreciated the opportunity to be able to scour the grounds of my home and acquire plants as a way to document my immediate environment. This seemed particularly fitting during a pandemic — while we aren’t formally in a lockdown in Georgia, my household basically is, due to pre-existing conditions. The last time I freely left my house without concerns was March 13, 2020. I’ve gone through various waves of acceptance and wanting to jump out of my skin over our isolation. But I felt grateful making these lumens — the fact that I have some land to wander during this isolated time — less than many, but much more than those locked away in apartments in urban centers. I can also be grateful to live somewhere that still has some green in winter, something alive, something growing in the month of December. I was able to harvest a handful of ferns trying to squeeze their way through the cracks of the back deck, my stubborn Mexican Petunias, a yard of clover, various unnamed volunteers, and even one last struggling tomato plant who gave two more fruits before the class concluded. The fact that these objects touched the paper, rather than relying on the intermediary device of a camera, that these plants were dealt the fate of blooming during this incredibly difficult year, make these prints as objects even more precious. Perhaps the fact that the print-objects can only be viewed briefly, under low light, like some of the first photographs ever made, is fitting for the slowing-down of life we’re experiencing at this time. 

 

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

 

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.

darkroom_button_in_hand_72

 

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?

 

lens

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.

 

no_photography

 

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.

 

 

tintype

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.