Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Alternative Process: Thomas Aguila, Etsuko Kato and Kelly O’Neill Get Physical with Photography

In Utah, photography historically has been behind the times. If it was happening 30 years ago in New York, then it’s probably starting to happen now in Salt Lake City. photo_dot_alt proves this wrong as three artists bring the national dialogue on alternative photography to Finch Lane Gallery. Thomas Aguila, Etsuko Kato, and Kelly O’Neill each use a different alternative process to further explore the message behind their work.

The ubiquity and ease of digital photography has expanded the photographer’s toolkit while simultaneously becoming a catchall medium for artists. When digital photography began to overwhelm analog forms at the end of the 20th century, the dialogue in the photographic arts was polarized: artists used film, sellouts went digital. This dialogue underscored a bigger story happening in consumer culture. As online marketplaces like Amazon grew — outcompeting small businesses and changing how we experience the world of stuff — handmade, boutique outlets like Etsy emerged to say, “Hey, what I do is unique and only I can sell it to you.” This desire for handmade items in consumer culture is perhaps the same paradigm shifting that is happening in the photographic arts. We are seeing artists explore alternative photographic media as tools of the hand instead of tools of the cursor. A few years ago, a love affair with cyanotype — an alternative process characterized by rich blues — surfaced as artists used the medium because of its inherent characteristics beyond the label of alternative photographic process. Today, this trend has moved throughout the catalog of alternative photographic process to expand the toolboxes of all artists.

Thomas Aguila’s GOLD 400-5 uses his family archive of color film to poetically explore memory. Many of us have boxes of negatives or film canisters documenting our family history that we digitize to preserve and easily access the visual information. Aguila began this process for his family archive and found corrosion in the color film, primarily in the blue layer. This led him to think about the physical makeup of color film — layers of gelatin and pigment that capture different wavelengths of light and are combined in the negative and printed together. As he faced the physical corrosion of these family records — many of himself — he began to see the fragility of the film as a metaphor for that of memory. He began manipulating these records, his memories, by first taking deteriorated layers of recorded light (i.e. film), translating it to numbers (i.e. digital files), and translating it again into recorded layers of light via gum bichromate and cyanotype printing, two 19th-century printing processes. He uses these alternative processes to explore the multiple layers of memory and create images that are muddy with color, as if to say this moment is too full of contradictions, too heavy with doubt; or of high contrast, as if to say there was only black and white in this moment. Some images contain so much subtlety that you are lost in nostalgia as your own childhood memories surface.

Some do not possess relics of their past. When disaster — either humanmade or natural — strikes, lives are lost, buildings collapse, and the evidence of personal and family histories may vanish. Since Etsuko Kato’s family archive was destroyed in the bombings of Japan during World War II, and the only way for her to see images of her pre-war homeland is in museums, Kato has become acutely aware of the fragility of film records and the importance of an image. Yet as she confronted digital image-making and the assumed permanence of digital files, she became more and more drawn to alternative photographic processes that seem ephemeral but persist and survive. In Memories of Disaster, Kato explores the human capacity to move forward after disaster and forget the turmoil they cause. In 2011, a massive earthquake triggered an equally massive tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan. Ancestral lands and structures, passed down through generations, were destroyed and abandoned, the relics of personal histories erased. Kato revisits this region biennially and photographs the now desolate landscape. This simple act of recording marks this place at this time while memorializing what happened six years ago. During her first visit to the region, Kato stopped in a museum and saw images from a century before showing an equally desolate landscape. A large tsunami had struck the region, yet no collective memory of the event remained in the area. Encountering this photographic record made her think about the fragility of memory, about how easily it can be erased by the human need to survive. To address this idea, she takes the photographs from her trips to Tohoku and uses the albumen printing process to create an old patina in the image, as if to create a timeless relic that could be anywhere. The albumen process is time-consuming and expensive, consisting of egg whites and silver nitrate used to create a homemade photographic emulsion. These are precious objects that underscore the importance of the event that happened at each coordinate. Kato’s incredibly moving story is not obvious at first glance, but spending time gazing into each desolate landscape and studying the small architectural details that remain provokes heartbreak, especially in light of today’s recent natural disasters in Puerto Rico, the American South, central Mexico, and elsewhere.

Where Kato explores the landscape as precious relic, Kelly O’Neill explores the landscape as an ignored presence. His body of work, Extractive Industries, uses Google Maps’ satellite views of the industrial evaporative ponds on the edges of Great Salt Lake to confront the beautifully rich and lucrative ecology of the lake. The minimalist images are simultaneously specific and vague. Isolated and small on the paper, the evaporative ponds lose context and scale, becoming graphic studies of line, tone, and shape. O’Neill uses the salted paper process (a homemade combo of ammonium chloride, silver nitrate, and gelatin size) to connect the image to the object. Using ammonium chloride — a salt that is harvested from the lake — in the printing of these vast, industry-touched landscapes creates an object that is inextricably connected to a specific time and place. The overall aesthetic of an old sketch, perhaps something quickly made by an artist or geologist studying these ponds, connects these photographs to the artists and engravers working to record events and places before photography existed. They are both record and interpretation.

These three bodies of work are tied thematically and by the use of alternative photographic processes. This is where the national conversation comes in. Alternative photography has long been its own category of “art.” It was seen as a highly technical printing craft and not a tool for delivering meaningful content. There are many reasons for this. One is that many of these processes are expensive and time consuming to learn, meaning that the person who has access to them is probably of a certain socioeconomic background. Another reason is that knowledge of these processes was difficult to easily find. In the Information Age, the knowledge barrier has begun to break down. Digital imaging and printing technology has also made it possible to forgo using large-format cameras and film (previously a requirement for most alternative processes) as large-format negatives can be printed digitally, cutting costs. Access to these processes is growing and we are seeing them used more and more by artists as additional layers in the message of the image.

I am excited to see photo_dot_alt bring this dialogue to Salt Lake City. And, while I appreciate the cleverness of the exhibit’s title, referencing digital image file types and the underlying idea of using digital and analog processes in tandem, I look forward to the time when these artists can leave the box of “alternative photography” altogether and simply be artists with something to say.

photo_dot_alt, work by Thomas Aguila, Etsuko Kato, and Kelly O’Neill, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 17. Gallery Stroll reception Oct. 20, 6-9 p.m. with an artists’ talk at 6 p.m.

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