In synopsis, the video of John Chiara at work is straightforward enough. A photographer takes out his camera, drives to a viewpoint, focuses, loads film, and takes a photograph. He goes home and develops the film himself. There’s nothing unusual in this for a fine arts photographer.
What’s startling is the scale at which all this is happening. Taking out the camera involves hitching it to a truck and towing it on its custom trailer. To focus, Chiara has to tug with all his might to move the camera body out inch by inch. To check focus and load film, he actually enters the camera, or “suffocation box” as he calls it, and tapes a photographic paper to the back. After crawling out through a light-tight garbage-bag chute, he’s ready to expose the shot. There’s no shutter, he simply removes the lens cap for a while. He doesn’t use a light meter or a stopwatch, just his intuition, sometimes blocking off part of the lens with his hand to balance the exposure.
There’s no film big enough, so Chiara shoots directly on photographic paper up to 50x70 inches. Developing the print involves loading it into PVC sewage pipe section almost as tall and broad as Chiara himself, that he has capped so it’s light tight, and agitated by rolling it up and down the clearly much-abused kitchen floor. (Photographers usually agitate by turning their little film tank over every few seconds.)
Chiara, based in San Francisco, is one of seven contemporary artists featured at a new exhibition at the famed J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Called “Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography” it pushes the medium so far that the curator’s tour visits the galleries of four photographers before arriving at one who actually uses a camera.
The wet darkroom
To best understand what these artists are doing, it’s helpful to quickly review the “normal” manual black-and-white photographic process using film, or analogue, cameras. Or, as they are sometimes called these digital days, “chemical cameras”.
Film is exposed and then developed by washing it in a series of chemicals to form a negative. When prints are needed, this negative is projected in a darkroom on to a sheet of photographic paper (labs would offer the choice of ‘matte’ or ‘glossy’) for a specified amount of time, before that paper is also developed and fixed in a series of chemicals.
The chemistry of this development for film and photographic paper is the same. Both come coated with silver halide crystals, among a host of other chemicals. The silver halide reacts when exposed to light, forming a latent image made from an unstable matrix of silver ions.
When the paper is “developed”, this image is set by a liquid reducing agent which converts the silver ions to silver — the darker areas have more silver and the brightest areas have none at all, showing the whiteness of the paper. A stop bath arrests this development as it will eventually work on the unexposed silver halide as well, making the image a uniform black. (This process forms the heart of artist Alison Rossiter’s work, mentioned later.)
A chemical called a fixer washes away all the silver halide, ensuring the paper will no longer react to light, and leaving behind the image, writ, as it were, in silver.
You can see how even a regular photographer has a number of choices in the “wet” darkroom, and anyone who wants to experiment with the process has a huge number of variables, whether chemical choice, dilution and temperature, development times, choice of paper and so on.
It’s photographic paper that’s really the toy at this exhibition. Imagine if your childhood self was given a box of light-sensitive paper to play with. What might you try? You might expose it to the light of the moon, or to flames. You might light a fuse on it, or strike a non-safety match against it. You might submerge it in water and maybe expose it to light as water trickles off it. Or maybe you’d take photographs, but instead of dipping it into chemicals, you might stand it up and pour chemicals on to it.
Every one of those options is a technique on display at “Light, Paper, Process”, but don’t think of the exhibition as merely playful. As Virginia Heckert, curator of the exhibit, says of some of the works, “these photographs are documenting their own making.” And of others, “painterly compositions that happen to be on photographic paper”.
The sunburn series
Let’s first approach this exhibition through a familiar conceit — a photographer who uses a camera, and preferably one you can’t crawl into. That would be Chris McCaw, another San Francisco-based photographer.
His camera is still not accessible to you and me though. Among his accessories is a four-wheeled handcart to get the crate-like device in place, and a cordless electric drill to extend its large bellows. The lens is so bulky, it requires two hands to lift and mount, and unless your grandfather was a light-fingered Second World War reconnaissance pilot, you’re not likely to find it in the back of a cupboard at home.
You see, McCaw’s style connects again with what a child might do with a box of Kodabrome II RC photographic papers: burn holes in it. Says McCaw in a video interview for the Getty Museum, “I’m using the lens of the camera much like you’d use a magnifying glass to burn a leaf.”
McCaw’s photos feature heavily solarised landscapes with the sun’s movement actually seared into the paper, leaving either scars, or cutting right through, leaving gaping arcs with singed edges. In some images, McCaw uses multiple exposures, so the sun burns a hole at several points rather than leaving a trail. With careful calculations, McCaw is able to record the sun’s progress across the horizon on a set of five 40x30in sheets, majestically taking up a whole wall at the end of the gallery.
This is why McCaw uses military lenses, which are “exponentially” brighter than regular camera lenses. This, and his use of expired black and white photographic papers from the 1970s and 1980s, allows the sun not only to burn into the paper, but also leaves remnants of the landscape — usually a horizon, to orient us. (All details would normally disappear over so many hours of exposure.)
Expired but not dead
The innate abilities of expired photographic papers bring us neatly to Alison Rossiter’s work. This is a photographer who doesn’t use a camera or film. She doesn’t even use light. Her minimalist works are created completely in the darkroom using expired photographic papers and developing chemicals.
It happened by accident, when she was given a box of paper that had expired in May 1946. She wasn’t sure what to do with it, but thought she’d simply develop one of the sheets and see what happened. The results, she says in the catalogue of the exhibition, “... was an image that looked as though someone had rubbed graphite over a rough piece of paper, like rubbing on a gravestone”.
This led to her to look for more “latent images” on these papers, the shapes and textures created by mould, fingerprints, accidental light exposure, physical damage, or simply, the uneven degradation of the chemical coating. The results range from the Rorschach ink blot of a mould pattern across two sheets of Kodak paper that expired in 1927, to the presumably long-gone photographer’s fingerprint on the Kodak paper that expired in 1946.
Or there’s simply the shadowy edges and grainy textures of the triptych of papers (as small as business cards), one developed for maximum blackness, the surprisingly metallic looking one developed for midtones, and the white one that’s put straight into the fixer, no development at all.
Not all papers yield images though. Rossiter has a collection of papers from every decade of the 20th century and found that the earliest ones tended to develop straight to black. So she began her “processing experiments”. Instead of dipping the paper entirely into the chemical tray, she tried different ways to put the two into contact — pouring it on to the paper, or folding the paper and pooling the chemical, or only partially dipping.
These techniques sound simple, but I’d agree with curator Heckert who said both in the catalogue and on her tour of the exhibit on June 4, that Rossiter really hit her stride with the landscape series. The simple act of dunking the Kilborn Acme Kruxo paper, expired in the 1940s, at two different angles for differing times, results in a tight, evocative dunescape that’s been compared with American photographer Edward Weston’s work.
By pre-wetting the paper and causing developer to wick upwards from its dip line, she creates a fuzzy interface that’s so much like an out-of-focus picture of a tree-lined lake that it’s hard to believe the image wasn’t already there.
These darkroom manipulations are taken even further by the two other featured artists, Marco Breuer and James Welling.
Breuer, a German photographer, is described by Heckert as “operating in an intermediary space between photography and drawing”. As Heckert’s tour began in his gallery, she said that this was an artist “who refuses to follow directions” and it’s true that there’s an almost bullet-headed fearlessness in his work.
For example, in one set of images, coals from his stove were used to burn images on to photographic paper. (Yes, for a while he lived off-grid and had a coal stove). That sheet with a neat hole in the centre ringed by a black and orange halo? Caused by taking an electric drill to a package of photo papers. The sheets with the dizzying textures? Abraded with sandpaper. The one that looks as if it’s been fired at with buckshot? Well...
Many of his works (including the one with concentric circles) are made by scratching chromogenic, or colour, photo paper. Depending on the pressure, this either removes or exposes the layers of chemicals that respond to each colour — cyan, magenta and yellow — creating lines with varying colour information.
James Welling’s work is an interesting analogue in how it’s softer and more about water than fire or scratches. In his “Water” series, he exposes photo paper to light just as it’s being removed from the developer, recording the ripples and waves as the liquid flows off the surface. He also creates chemigrams, images made by painting on to the light sensitive paper. By using fixer, nail polish, acrylic or ink to create shapes and resists, he creates complex, deeply textured abstract images.
The curator described these works as recordings of “performances in the dark”, and it’s really here that the heart of the exhibition lies: the openness and importance of the process that created the images.
The evidence of process
Let’s take Lisa Oppenheim’s images of the moon in her “Lunagrams” series. The deep, dark, almost holographic silvery objects take on even more magic when you learn they were exposed by the light of the moon in the same phase as pictured.
Oppenheim doesn’t use a camera either, but her modus operandi is different again. She “borrows” images from archives and the internet, and re-exposes them. For instance, her lunagrams are taken from a glass negative by John William Draper (1811-1882) who is credited with taking the first clear photograph of the moon.
Similarly, her heliograms, or images of the sun, are created by exposure to sunlight from particular times of the day or year. Her “Smoke” series features images of clouds of smoke cropped from pictures of fires, that are exposed on to photo paper using the light from a burning torch.
Matthew Brandt, who at 33 is the youngest artist featured in the exhibition, uses the same self-referential idea, except that he incorporates materials from his subjects, resulting in the curator describing him in the catalogue as “a hunter gatherer meets mad scientist”. For example, the photograph of his crying friend Will uses those very tears in the development of the print, made from a laborious technique from the early days of photography called salted paper printing.
His outstanding series of images of Rainbow Lake have been enhanced and destroyed by soaking photographs of the lake in its water for days or weeks. The colourful abstract disruptions to the image are glorious. In fact, with the longer soakings, it’s the original image that disrupts the swirls and ripples of reds, oranges, lavenders, purples and blues caused by the lake water and its chemical and microbial constituents.
The film revival
It’s tempting to think of film photography as the outpost of these renegades, almost a toy now at their hands. But in truth, like a lot of technologies the public assumes are dead, film never went away. Film in 35mm and 120 rolls, as well as large-format sheets are, and have always been, readily available from companies, such as Fuji, Kodak and Ilford. In fact, in the last few years, there have been rumblings of a film revival.
Ilford, a venerable UK-based film, paper and chemicals brand, conducted a survey on film photographers at the end of 2014 and discovered heartening statistics. They found that 30 per cent of the respondents were under 35, and that 60 per cent of them had used film for less than five years.
Though the methodology and number of respondents aren’t available, there’s the strong suggestion that film photography isn’t being driven just by the ageing stalwarts raised in wet darkrooms, but by a significant number of people who, if a little too old to be digital natives, were at least heavily exposed to digital photography at a young age. The hipster revival of the art of lomography has helped as well, with its use of deliberately “lo-fi” cameras with cheap lenses, and the embracing of extreme distortions such as light leaks or fisheye lenses.
Over and over, film photographers and artists say it’s the slowness and complexity of film photography that’s an attraction, not a deterrent. Talk to Chiara, for example, whose giant camera work is so laborious that a single image is all he can take in a day. Even with more portable cameras, large format photography is so painstaking that photographers can hope to take at most four or five images in a day.
And yet, Fred Newman of the online View Camera Store has found the sales of large format film to be stable, and may even be increasing since he founded the business in 1994 — that’s through even the war years of digital going mainstream. (Large format is any film size 4x5in or larger, with cameras by brands, such as Arca Swiss, Canham and Shen Hao.)
But what’s surprised even Newman, as he tells me in an e-mail interview, is the continuing presence of the ultra large format market. While certainly not as arduous as Chiara’s suffocation box, working with cameras that use film 8x10in or larger, requires serious dedication.
Newman reports an increase in sales last year for Ilford’s annual ultra large format worldwide special order. Rather than simply stop production of its niche products, Ilford collates orders once a year for this special run. “I think Ilford has been responsible for the consistent sales of film,” says Newman.
Holding out through the slump has been beneficial for some businesses. Extant film developers and printers can get very busy indeed as they take on business from a much larger area through mail order services. Another online company, the Photographer’s Formulary specialises in “hard-to-find black and white photo chemicals”, replicating recipes that have stopped production, or developing new ones, such as their T-4 fixer that eliminates the stop bath and wetting agents.
Or consider Chamonix View Camera, a new company that makes beautifully engineered large format cameras in China, ranging in film sizes from 4x5in to an incredible 20x24in, with the option of ordering custom sizes.
A young medium
In general however, this is a medium that disappeared from public consciousness only 200 years after the first photograph in 1800. It’s easy to forget how young analogue photography is. (It’s likely that those who conflate digital and analogue photography will be less inclined to after seeing this exhibition).
“I do like to see some aspect of the origins of photography in contemporary work,” says curator Heckert in an interview after her tour. She went on to say that these aspects are harder to incorporate into digital work. “I find the role of accident and chance, gesture and performance to be interesting and those are more easily controlled or reined in with digital. I like the unexpectedness of results [as with analogue photography].”
At no point in this exhibition is there a sense of defensiveness or need to prove the value of one medium over another, and Heckert herself seems uninterested in this line of inquiry. She directs my attention to the last scene in the video of McCaw at work, the photographer who uses the sun to burn holes in his images.
“Analogue photography isn’t dead,” he exclaims, waving his arms in strong emphasis, shelves of photo paper in the background behind him. “There’s places to go we haven’t been!”
Gautam Raja is a writer based in Los Angeles.