great opportunity to take work I’d completed a while ago and put it in a different form. The goal now is to make a trade edition.”
Chervinsky’s energetic, mixed-media still lifes involve creative assemblages of both found and constructed objects, often with drawn elements. In The Analysis, he poses chalky, white grids above and below a white lily held in the clamp of an antique chem-lab stand. Such contraptions have entered his visual vocabulary through a career as an engineer working in applied physics. He has been at Harvard University for 28 years and is currently with Harvard’s Rowland Institute. For 18 years, he worked with a particle accelerator — one of his tasks was analyzing art for museums.
“The accelerator I ran was in our material-science department, mostly for elemental analysis using the Rutherford backscattering technique. You accelerate ions and hit a sample, and the ions backscatter into a detector, and by looking at the energy you can tell what atoms they hit. So if you have some kind of sample, you can tell the proportion of elements and the thickness of various layers. In art analysis, you could hit a painting and tell what elements are in the pigments, for example. That was a very rewarding part of my career, and it was one of the things that got me interested in working with art.”
Chervinsky was familiar with photography from an early age. His father, a factory worker in Niagara Falls, was an amateur photographer. Chervinsky has a shoebox full of his negatives going back to the 1930s. “A long time ago he gave me a 35mm Kodak Retina camera, and I moved up the format chain pretty quickly,” he said, referring to larger cameras that use larger film and yield sharper images. “The [medium format] Minolta Autocord twin-lens reflex really started me on a more serious path, then all of the work you see on my website was done with a 4 x 5 view camera.”
He has done his own darkroom work for many years, but for one body of work, the colorful and cryptic Studio Physics series, he also incorporated an element added by people on the other side of the world. “Most of us photographers have our cameras set up to shoot at a certain interval, usually from 1/1000th of a second to 20 or 30 seconds. I started thinking about someone like Chris McCaw, whose
images take place over the period of an entire day, and I thought about extending the image-capture period over weeks.
“So what I do is set up a still life and I shoot it and I take a cropped section of that and make a digital image of it. Then I send it to China. Then the people in China send back the painting, and I reinsert it into the still life and rephotograph it. I became aware of these painting factories that have been going on for hundreds of years there, so I thought it might be a cool idea if I could somehow connect with that, because I’m shooting objects that have a particular arc in time, like bananas, that will change over weeks.”
The photographs in An Experiment in Perspective were made with Polaroid Type 55 black-and-white film. Chervinsky has stockpiled a supply of Type 55, which has not been manufactured for seven years. It is a treasured material among fine-art photographers because it produces an instant positive print as well as a high-quality negative for printing or scanning.
He composes his tableaux in his attic studio. His light source for An Experiment in Perspective was a window, plus some subtle enhancements directed toward the subject by light-reflecting panels. Throughout the series, his backgrounds are consistent: a vertical blackboard and a horizontal blackboard, the juncture of the two providing a horizon line that is usually placed on the lower half of the image. “A camera has a single point of perspective, and I was thinking simultaneously about human knowledge and human perspective, so I was basically trying to connect those two items in the project.”
In his artist statement about the series (which first opened in 2005 at the Griffin Museum of Photography, in Winchester, Massachusetts), he says the images are not intended to be scientifically factual, nor to be instructional. He sees them simply as “posing questions without easy answers.”
Many of the works incorporate partial erasings of chalk-drawn lines and formulae. “Well, you know, a lot of these images end up being personal conversations about certain things. And it’s not to say that I’m trying to express the conversation such that I want the viewer to know what I was thinking when I made them, but there are a lot of revisions, and they deal with philosophical issues. It’s just things that I think about: Maybe life is this way, or maybe it’s this other way.”
One photo from the series that is not included in the Photo-eye show is Meander . It is unique in that it has a thick border in sort of an Aztec pattern and imagery that is perhaps more obviously symbolically loaded than in his other photos. A black widow dangles over a picture of Jesus Christ — who appears to be looking up at it apprehensively — and a chalkdrawn tick-tack-toe graphic. “The unfinished game, the unwinnable game of tick-tack-toe,” Chervinsky said. “This is not one of my favorites. It was a few years after the bombing of the World Trade Center, and I was thinking about religion’s role in society and whether it’s more trouble than it’s worth — and do we have religion because we’re basically afraid of nature?
“But I don’t want my images to provoke people. I don’t want them to know my politics, because that wrecks it for me. I don’t want them to decode my thoughts but to have associations of their own, to use their imaginations in the same way that I did when I made the images. Because, let’s face it, the images are very ambiguous. They don’t deal with heavy-handed metaphors.”
Like Meander (with its spider, Jesus, and ticktack-toe graphic), Entropy is another piece (this one is in the show) that divides its subject into three. It’s a partially erased formula, a drawn representation of an earthlike orb rotating on a dotted-line axis, and a delightful jumble of gears — a depiction that recalls the neighboring domains of science and engineering.”I started out in 1987, and we were making mechanical drawings on graph paper. We’d have these experiments we’d have to run, or we’d have to build devices for graduate students. It’s applied physics, so I would have to come up with some kind of apparatus for our machine shop to build.
“All these scientists would sit around tables at lunch, and they would make these drawings and say, ‘Like, could we could do this experiment?’ They were these wonderful little sketches. They look like art to me. So to be able to take those and use them as motifs in art was really satisfying to me.”
The Analysis , 2005; opposite page, from left, Design , 2003; Entropy , 2003
All images archival pigment inkprint
Work , 2004; right, Abstract Implosionism , 2007