Mak­ing shapes in the dark A new show ex­plores pho­to­graphic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion


Pasatiempo - - PASAMTIEMPO -

ATa glance, it is ap­par­ent that Mrs. S is from a place few of us even dream about. Her ap­pear­ance is ar­rest­ing, com­plex, and vig­or­ous: a col­lage of smooth-tex­tured shapes that in­clude discs, tri­an­gles, straight and squig­gly lines, with in­de­fin­able patches that look some­times ge­o­met­ri­cal and ma­chine-like, and some­times or­ganic. This black-and-white im­age in the new show at Photo-Eye Gallery is a por­trait by a man who has de­vel­oped a most pe­cu­liar abil­ity to rep­re­sent his psy­chic re­sponses to ob­jects, and a lan­guage of forms to ex­press them.

Light + Metal: Unique Pho­to­graphs and Ob­jects fea­tures this and other work by the Bri­tish pho­tog­ra­pher Michael Jack­son, along with pieces by a dozen other artists whose ex­per­i­men­tal work re­lates only tan­gen­tially to tra­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy. One ex­am­ple is David Emitt Adams, who uses the wet-plate col­lo­dion process to af­fix im­ages to tin cans that he finds in the Ari­zona desert near his home. An­other is Vanessa Marsh, who cre­ates pas­tel “lu­men print” land­scapes us­ing cut pa­per, mask­ing, and mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures for her Sun Be­neath the Sky se­ries.

Nei­ther of those artists em­ploys a cam­era. Nor does Jack­son. He does use tra­di­tional gelatin sil­ver (also known as sil­ver gelatin) print­ing pa­pers and tra­di­tional dark­room chem­i­cals — devel­oper, stop bath, and fixer — and a mi­crowave oven to gen­tly warm them up. That’s about the ex­tent of his para­pher­na­lia, but he doesn’t feel like he’s anti-tech­nol­ogy. “I wouldn’t want sil­ver gelatin pa­per in the dark­room to be seen as an ‘old’ process,” he said. “I think that its best days are ahead of it. I just hope peo­ple like Il­ford keep on mak­ing it.”

Many old-school pho­tog­ra­phers la­ment the dis­ap­pear­ance of fa­vorite print­ing pa­pers such 7as Ko­dak Kodabro­mide and Agfa Brovira in the wake of the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion. Jack­son lucked out by pur­chas­ing a large sup­ply of Hungarian Forte pa­per from an­other Bri­tish pho­tog­ra­pher, Paul Kenny, just be­fore the prod­uct was dis­con­tin­ued. “It is beau­ti­ful and quite a lux­ury,” Jack­son said. A cou­ple of his works at Photo-Eye are made with that pa­per; for the oth­ers, he used pa­per from the English com­pany Il­ford.

Jack­son is known for his years­long pho­to­graphic study of a beach in Pem­brokeshire. His lu­mino­grams like Mrs. S re­late back to lessons learned there on the shore. “Pop­pit Sands is a re­mote beach, and I would visit there when­ever the tide was low and the light was OK, so I have been there many hun­dreds of times,” he wrote in an email from his home in Dorset. “When you study some­thing for that length of time, you find your­self re­peat­ing re­sults and then you ei­ther pack up and move on to some­thing else, or you hold on

“I think that if you are hon­est with your­self and lis­ten to your own ideas and trust in that gut feel­ing that sets your belly on fire, then you can’t pos­si­bly pro­duce work that looks like some­one else’s.” — pho­tog­ra­pher Michael Jack­son

and look harder for events that ex­cite you. I chose the lat­ter and held on there for eight years, un­til I found my­self get­ting ex­cited about the sim­plis­tic things, marks made in the sand by sticks that dogs had dragged about.

“By analysing my re­sults over the years and elim­i­nat­ing what I felt wasn’t nec­es­sary for me to get ex­cited, I had man­aged to slowly re­duce el­e­ments on the beach to a very core of what I wanted. And when I reached that point, I re­mem­ber I drove home and took some cut-up shapes of pa­per and moved them around on my kitchen ta­ble, and I was amazed that my ex­cited re­sponse to that con­trol of shapes was an ex­act match to what I was feel­ing and what I was search­ing for on the beach. And at that point I re­alised that I didn’t need the beach any­more, as I could get all that I wanted from work­ing with the re­la­tion­ships of shapes and tones and lines.”

A trove of free photo-print­ing pa­per fa­cil­i­tated his tra­jec­tory into lu­minog­ra­phy. A man who lived near Pop­pit Sands gave him stacks of resin-coated (RC) pho­to­graphic pa­per, an eas­ier-to-use sil­ver-based medium than fiber-based pa­pers like the Forte and Il­ford. “Two months later, I was print­ing for an ex­hi­bi­tion, and while in the depths of dark­room tech­ni­cal­i­ties, I started to ex­per­i­ment with these sim­ple small cut-up bits of RC pa­per,” Jack­son said. “I be­gan to no­tice that if I con­trolled light in a cer­tain way, then the sil­ver gelatin pa­per would give a dis­tinct and, as you say, or­ganic look that I had not seen be­fore. I stopped work­ing on any­thing else and started ex­per­i­ment­ing prop­erly. It took me ap­prox­i­mately one year to work out a se­ries of steps and chem­i­cal tem­per­a­tures that gave me re­peat­able re­sults.”

Four years into the prac­tice of cre­at­ing lu­mino­grams, he con­sid­ers sil­ver gelatin pa­per “as much a medium in its own right as oil paint or draw­ing or sculp­ture.” Be­sides the ma­te­rial’s mag­i­cal pho­to­sen­si­tiv­ity, he loves the fact that it phys­i­cally changes at a chem­i­cal level, a sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ence from pen­cil or paint added to pa­per or can­vas. “And I of­ten think of the lu­mino­grams as a kind of sculp­ture, just sit­ting there on the pa­per — al­most as if you can reach in and pick it out of the frame.”

He still ex­er­cises the same per­cep­tion, in­tu­ition, and me­chan­i­cal skills as when he first delved into this realm. “I dis­cov­ered that I could see a sub­ject, and I could recog­nise how that sub­ject made me re­spond to it. I can then go into the dark­room and make marks on the pa­per with light that mir­ror the ini­tial re­sponse.” He de­scribes the process as “an ob­jec­tive re­sponse to a sub­jec­tive re­sponse. So I am try­ing to show my re­sponse in a phys­i­cal form — on pa­per — carved out of light. How crazy is that!”

The artist fine-tuned his sen­si­bil­i­ties with a de­ci­sion to rep­re­sent his re­sponse to a color, specif­i­cally the color of the fields of sum­mer flow­ers in south­ern Eng­land. “Ob­vi­ously colour has no phys­i­cal shape, so when I make a lu­mino­gram about the colour yel­low, I am show­ing my re­sponse to that colour yel­low. When I am mak­ing the lu­mino­gram, I re­spond to it in the same way that I would when look­ing at yel­low.”

Yel­low is in the Photo-Eye show, as are ex­am­ples of his por­trai­ture. For Mrs. S and her “sib­lings,” he ad­dressed a new set of tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. He stud­ied pen­cil por­trait draw­ings by John Singer Sar­gent “to build up ideas of a head, neck, shoul­ders, and how they all fit to­gether as if they had weight.” At this point, Jack­son feels, “The hu­man head is as lim­it­less as the beach.”

In a video state­ment fea­tured on the Il­ford Photo web­site, Jack­son says his process “al­lows your ideas to be very, very ob­vi­ous on the pa­per.” There is no ques­tion that he has evolved a set of ideas that are quite un­usual and dis­tinc­tive. “I think that is be­cause I worked on the process from the ground up,” he said. “I didn’t have any help at any point — I just added steps that I liked and took out steps that failed. And that way, even­tu­ally, you get a unique num­ber of steps that give a unique body of work.

“I think that if you are hon­est with your­self and lis­ten to your own ideas and trust in that gut feel­ing that sets your belly on fire, then you can’t pos­si­bly pro­duce work that looks like some­one else’s.”


Light + Metal: Unique Pho­to­graphs and Ob­jects; through Sept. 15 Open­ing re­cep­tion 5 p.m. Fri­day, July 27 Photo-Eye Gallery, 541 S. Guadalupe St., 505-988-5152

Lori Vrba: Mem­oir, 2017, en­caus­tic pho­to­graph on tile, chain, and pi­ano bridge; above right, David Emitt Adams: Ea­gle­tail, 2014, wet-plate col­lo­dion tin­type made on ob­ject found in the Sono­ran Desert

Jack­son out­side his dark­room in Dorset

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