Alchemical Ensemble show focuses on obscure processes
By AMY WILDER
Photography is a medium marked by its ubiquity, particularly since the advent of digital processes. Pretty much everyone has a camera and access to instant publishing via social media. In this age of instant gratification, few people experience the suspense and magic of a latent image appearing, or in some cases not appearing, on a seemingly blank page immersed in chemistry. But photographers around the world still turn to hands-on, in some cases deeply involved, processes to make art, and some of these artists are represented in the latest show at Columbia College’s Sidney Larson Gallery, Alchemical Ensemble: New Visions in Historic Photographic Process.
The 20 represented artists, invited by curator and Columbia College art professor Scott McMahon to show their work, live as far away as Poland, Germany and the United Kingdom. They are as diverse in subject matter as in approach, but are united in that they all create work with some of the earliest known photographic processes. These simultaneously require the lowest- and highest-tech gadgets and techniques. The show comprises a wide range of approaches, from rare and difficult-to-create daguerreotypes to pinhole photographs, gum bichromate prints, mixed media creations and even sculptural cameras.
These include a display of cameras and darkroom tools and a humorous, engaging showing of the cameras and images of pinhole photographer Jo Babcock, a St. Louis native who now calls San Francisco home. Babcock’s work has been shown in institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Babcock creates the lensless tools of his trade out of objects most of us wouldn’t see as potential cameras: a food container or a toy kitchen stove, for example. There is a tongue-in-cheek relationship between his imagery and his camera: With the stove camera, he made a gelatin silver print of a kitchen scene from inside an oven and titled the collective product “Kitchen Stove.” The sense of meta playfulness is even stronger in his “Quality From Babcock,” with a camera made out of what appears to be an ice cream tub or other food container with the “University of Wisconsin” and the phrase the artist took for the title printed on its surface. The image mounted above it is of the silhouette of a man wearing a brimmed hat and apparently looking away from the viewer. There’s something anachronistic about the figure; it almost feels like a photograph of a photograph.
The work of Polish pinhole photographer Tomasz Dobiszewski similarly connects medium and message — even referencing Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” directly in one of his pieces, a video installation with still images hung in close proximity — but with a somewhat darker bent.His images “Re-medium CO1” and “Re-medium BO2” depict a nude male figure, genitalia obscured or covered, in crouched or strained poses. The figures are repeated in multiples, overlapping on the picture plane. It almost looks like an Eadweard Muybridge homage, but that’s not what Dobiszewski had in mind, he said in an email.“In this work lenses were made from empty pill packs,” he wrote. “These photos are self portraits. I have eaten all pills from pill pack and after that I have taken a photo under influence of these pills.”There is something disturbing and enigmatic about the results. The work seems like poetry in that it speaks in metaphor and stripped-down language that hints at something but doesn’t quite attach to it directly. It is also, like good poetry, a puzzle box to be wrestled with over time — something that might reveal different meanings in different contexts.
Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer are spouses and longtime artistic collaborators whose individual and collective achievements are remarkable. They founded and co-direct an organization devoted to preserving and promoting pinhole photography and photographers and co-edited “Pinhole Journal” throughout its 21-year tenure.They both have exhibited, taught and lectured around the world. Their work in this show takes a macabre look at the body through zone plate photography, a process related to pinhole in which an aperture attached to the camera body diffracts light. A grid of six of their collaborative prints features images of internal human body parts. The softly focused results have a glowing quality and lend a romantic sensibility to imagery that might otherwise translate as grotesque. They appear to be created from images from an anatomy textbook and are titled by their represented organs or systems: “Meninges” depicts the outer surface of a human brain, for example; “The Heart” is a human heart. There is a sort of magic at play in this show. The nuanced and somewhat unruly effects of time, light and chemistry lend spirit to the resulting work that rarely, if ever, appears in digitally captured work. Many of the processes require long exposure times.
Walter Crump’s work is a meditation and a play on time and technology, or more accurately, the human measurement and manipulation of these ideas. In his images, complex and apparently defunct machinery takes center stage. In “Time Machine,” the entrails of a clock are shown, springs unsprung. “Machine Without a Purpose” depicts a complex work of metal, gears, valves and connections in a crooked, imposing assemblage photographed from below its midpoint. Around the machine there appears a ghostly fog that lends a mysterious and organic aura to the piece. “I use a lot of expired paper,” Crump said in a phone interview. “A lot of times expired paper doesn’t work … or it might have a magical addition to the image you would never get with a clean piece of developing paper. I tend to be really fascinated by accidents. I think of accidents as possibilities, not as failures. “ An accident, or rather an unexpected incident, led Crump into the realm of pinhole photography. He was trained as a painter and printmaker and began picking up photography when he was asked to teach it. He started out using SLR cameras and tools of the day, until all of his equipment was stolen from his car. He began making cameras out of boxes and other materials and exploring the possibilities of the medium. That reflects two of the hallmarks of photographers who prefer to work in these alternative processes: resilience and curiosity. Within the bounds of a given process, the only limitations are self-imposed. There’s a childlike wonder and playfulness in the approach to this work that is every bit as alive and magical as the experience of seeing an image come to life in the red glow of a darkroom. There is also a reflection on the temporal and impermanent nature of the world. Nothing is quite as static as it feels, although the general architecture of land and buildings appears relatively motionless. But it’s not. The changing of light across an object in the course of a day or year alters one’s perspective of it by changing its appearance on a superficial level. In the progression of time, real changes appear even in the most rigid monuments against it. Trees grow or fall. Edifices decay. Buildings change hands and change shape. To capture the dizziness and contrasts of those shifts in visual terms isn’t as easy as one might think, but long-exposure photography is particularly open to this.
The work of James Huff exemplifies this, and the bright colors of streaking lights in his pinhole images are saved from garishness by an anchoring neutral background. The abstractions of light captured during a long time period create something like a drunken rainbow or particularly animated aurora borealis on the page: flowing, shifting lines captured over time in warped chromatics. The practice of alchemy was centered on transforming materials. These photographers paint with light and transform the page with chemistry and keep the mystery and awe of photography and the illusory visual world alive in their work.
Photography is a mysterious process, even after centuries of use and practice, even after a transmutation to pixels, ones and zeros. The challenge and mystery of the work draws some artists like moths; the best of these create haunting, seemingly haunted, work.
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