Today, it’s easy for even the average, low-tech, untrained person to take a nice photograph. With a point-and-shoot digital camera. With a telephone. With an iPad. So why in the world would professional photographers approach their art in the most challenging ways – using ancient technology and stinky chemicals, or working with homemade or bulky equipment?
Perhaps the answer is in the results, which you can see at Art Access’s Out of the Darkroom exhibition for a few more days, and in the 35×35 exhibition at Finch Lane all month. From the beautiful simplicity of a black and white gelatin silver print, to hand-colored silver gelatin re-photographed with cibachrome, to viewer-activated cyanotypes on glass – these are thoughtfully conceived and skillfully produced works of art using a combination of historic and modern technology.
Dennis Mecham, who curated the exhibit for Art Access, explains that digital photographers, even the experts, are somewhat limited by the technology of their camera and tools like Photoshop. Photographers who work with film and darkroom processing, on the other hand, have an almost infinite variety of ways to use film, chemicals, and paper. “Everything can be mixed in a variety of ways,” he says. “It’s very hands-on. There’s a lot of time involved in developing your style and technique.”
The 26 photographers represented in the Art Access show demonstrate some of the variety of methods and materials available to film and darkroom photographers. Mecham’s own works in the show are classic black and white silver gelatin prints, characterized by his artful vision and carefully staged models. Two images are from his series taken at the Great Salt Lake, with nude models and parasols. Part of his challenge was to find exactly the right time, when the lake was mirror-still, to capture the perfect reflection of his model.
Mecham notes that for photographers who want to use traditional film processes, most of the same chemicals that were used in the early 20th century are available today. Some things have changed, though, even improved. Papers, for example, now come in more variety.
In contrast with Mecham’s classic, artful realism is the more mysterious vision of Miranda Whitlock, whose litho prints are softer, ambiguous impressions of the human form. And then there’s Erica Wangsgard, who hand-paints on silver gelatin and then re-photographs the images with cibachrome film. The result is an abstract, intriguing hybrid of painting and photography.
For some photographers, like Matthew Allred, “hands-on” means making primitive pin-hole cameras and playing with the whole notion of photography as a way to document reality. Instead of capturing a slice of time in fractions of seconds, Allred sets up his cameras to record a scene over a period of 24 hours or up to six months. The resulting image suggests the blur of movement – from the sun’s daily arch across the sky to the incessant activity of people, cars, animals, and whatever else may cross the path in front of the camera. It’s the things that stand still —buildings, for example, that are recognizable in his images.
Photography has always been something of a game of chance — from the way the sun might light the subject, to the unpredictable things that can happen in the darkroom. But Allred takes the risks and opportunities of chance to a new level. He must attach his pin-hole cameras to hopefully immoveable objects in unobtrusive places where they won’t be disturbed for the exceptionally long exposure times he plans. In one case, the road sign that supported his camera just disappeared. In another instance, the building where his camera was planted was demolished before he went to retrieve it.
Allred enjoys the challenge of working with his exposed film. “There’s a bit of romance to be in the darkroom,” he says. “I like making up chemistry and experimenting. It’s laborious. It takes 2-3 hours to do what might take 2-3 minutes in Photoshop. It’s a tactile interaction with the image.”
Experience in the darkroom as well as research into historic materials and processes inform Allred’s experimental chemistry. For example, he researched historic methods for capturing sun images and learned from Ansel Adams and other photographers assigned to capture nuclear explosions. Allred, an instructor in the University of Utah’s photography department, was selected for the 35×35 exhibit (35 artists 35 years old or younger) at Finch Lane Gallery this month.
Also part of the 35×35 exhibit is Christine Baczek, who, for this particular body of work, uses one of the earliest photographic processes – cyanotype – dating back to the late 19th century. The series of framed cyanotype prints on glass is called “Sensitives” because the images don’t exist until the viewer walks in front of them, activating a motion sensor that turns on LED lights behind framed images.
What the viewer sees are images of plants that grow in southern Utah, near the Rio Mesa study facility owned by the University of Utah. Baczek is doing an artist’s residency there, though she splits her time between photographing plants on site and developing and printing her images in Salt Lake City.
Baczek says she chose the historic cyanotype method because the earliest photographers, too, were interested in botany. Henry Fox Talbot photographed the wetlands in his native England. Anna Atkins, who published one of the first photographic books, used cyanotype to photograph the algae growing off the coast of England.
The cyanotype process is named for the brilliant blue color of the printed image. It’s a fairly simple chemical process involving an emulsion-coated paper or glass, the UV light of the sun, and development of the image in water. It’s similar to the solar printing kits used by children. Baczek, who once worked for a photographic chemical company, says she’s torn between her love for chemical processes and her love for her subjects. This series allowed her to combine the two. Furthermore, the use of modern technology – motion sensors and battery powered LED lights – allowed her to create an interactive experience for the viewer that is definitely 21st century.
What artist doesn’t want to distinguish him or her self from their contemporaries? It seems that in the world of photographic art, the hands-on mixing of materials and process, both historic and modern, allows photographic artists do just that.
Out of the Darkroom can be seen at Art Access through March 8. Art Access is located at 230 South 500 West #125. Artists of Utah’s 35 x 35 exhibit can be seen at Finch Lane Gallery, which is located at 1325 E. 100 S. (Reservoir Park). An artist’s reception will be held on March 8 from 6pm to 8pm. The show continues through April 26. The gallery is open Monday-Friday from 9am to 5pm. During gallery stroll, on the third friday of each month, they are open from 6pm to 9pm.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.