The history of photography is bound up in chemical and technical overhauls, and when artists combine and tweak these photographic processes, new levels of expression emerge. Contemporary photographers Christine Baczek and David Hyams, co-founders of Luminaria in Salt Lake City, are reviving alternative photographic agents and playing with combined processes to create unique work. Twin Lens, their exhibit currently at Nox Contemporary, provides two looks at their experience working as artists in Shenzhen, China and shows different approaches to processing and producing photographs.
While Hyams revives an older method used to create photos, Baczek experiments with the combination of several types of printing: “Dave uses platinum palladium printing in his work for this show because of the long tonal range and his ability to make prints that are very moody and enhance the feeling of a thick atmosphere,” says Baczek. “I chose gelatin silver, chromogenic, and inkjet printing depending on what I wanted to express. The gelatin silver images are more poetic and they utilize selective development and very intentional revealing and obscuring.”
Baczek’s photos, some of the headliners of the show, are in a small room off the main gallery. Along one side is a color panorama of prints depicting repeated buildings that don’t quite align; these are both discreet images and expressions of movement across a sightline. In the center of the right image stands a framed palace with a tiny image of Mao. A handprint in the chemistry stands out against the architecture and sky. On the opposite wall, blue and pink dots arc across a framed, dark palace. The darkest blacks are deep and unknown, mirroring some of the cultural gulfs that keep West and East apart.
“I hang images on top of images and use selective development to obscure parts of the image,” says Baczek. “When I work in the darkroom, I start by making a normal, fully processed image from a negative. I study it and decide what I want to reveal and obscure. Then I print the image again but selectively apply developer with a brush, a dropper, or even my hand to develop selective areas of the image. I like the intentionality of this way of working as well as the serendipity.” The two processes lead to different visual narratives about the couple’s experience in a foreign human and built environment, but they share in a feeling of obscurity, whether cultural, meteorological, or artistic.
In Hyams’s platinotypes, an early photographic process that was eventually eclipsed by the ubiquity of gelatin silver printing, the full texture of the paper becomes visible and the tangible gray and black sections are striking. The platinum palladium prints make the muggy air pop up from the matte darkness of the shadows. With this older style of photography, the image appears when a deposit of platinum is absorbed into the paper in the darkroom. The platinum is more stable than gold, and it’s estimated that the prints can last for thousands of years without losing vibrancy. Although more expensive to produce, these photographs have substance and weight that capture the atmospheric subjects of the photographs.
Hyams’ work captures cities in all their straight lines, repetition, shiny metal, and orthogonal walkways. Reflective surfaces glint and dark corners beckon in their soft, silky silence. Untitled, the photos are not all black and white. Some contain shades of lilac, the chemistry expressing and obscuring objects in the dissolving line of fog. The platinum allows for a great range of gray, from rust to blue. The photographs bend the deposits to confuse dark, light, color and contrast, and express something of the shared environmental challenge of this region of China and Utah.
“These images are about the wind, and the pollutants that we add to it. Pollution has many names; here in Utah, we call it the inversion, in China they chalked it up to being a burn day in Malaysia. It’s far more comfortable to not have to face an issue like air quality head on,” says Hyams.
After spending a year in Shenzhen, Baczek and Hyams opened their photography studio at 14 S. 800 East. The space offers workshops in historic processes of photography and custom printing. Baczek says, “We opened Luminaria in February 2018 and we are one of only a handful of places in the country where you can get a tintype portrait, where you can take a workshop about almost any alternative or historical photographic process you like, and where you can have custom prints made in processes like platinum palladium, cyanotype, gelatin silver, albumen, salt, or van dyke brown.”
This versatility and flexibility are reflected in the couple’s work, with their willingness to explore other parts of the world, cultures, and ways of creating compelling photographic art.
Twin Lens, photographic work by Christine Baczek and David Hyams, at Nox Contemporary, Salt Lake City, by appointment (contact firstname.lastname@example.org) through Friday, June 7.
Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places. Follow her on Twitter @hannahmcbee.