Catalogue Essay: The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg

The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg

Australian Centre for Photography

Essay by Martyn Jolly, Cherine Fahd, Suzanne Buljan

Full catalogue below

 

It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme “That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. Roland Barthes. [1]

Photographs are both pictures of things and emanations from things. Over the last twenty years all the buzz has been on the ‘picturing’ side of photography: we are astounded by the latest estimate of the astronomical number of smartphone images uploaded to the internet every second, we are shocked by the latest sickening images tweeted from a violent war zone, we are awed by the majestic detail in the latest mural photograph mounted behind pristine acrylic in an art museum, and we are habituated to the sleek look of digital images — either Photoshopped into high-dynamic-range conformity or with one selection from a convenient menu of retro Instagram-filters laid on top.

But lately a global movement of artists has been building around the world, not so much interested in the medium as the endless iteration of separately framed scenes, but rather fascinated by it as an ongoing process of chemical and visual becoming. The works they are producing are not photographs of things, they are photographs as things. In various ways these photographers are directly re-approaching the core power of photography — the touching of time and light.

This core power was present at the medium’s birth. Many of William Henry Fox Talbot’s first images in the 1840s were photograms — of lace or leaves laid directly on salted paper in the sun — so that object physically touched the resultant image. Photograms went on to become a staple of high modernism in the 1920s and 30s, with photographers such as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and Max Dupain producing a ‘new vision’ out of pure light. To the modernists these darkroom impressions were a future orientated extension of the technical capacity of new photographic technology; but to subsequent photographers, photograms and other images of their ilk became a way of bypassing the whole corporate apparatus of photography and getting back to the elemental forces of nature itself.

After the rise of industrially manufactured amateur photography in the 1890s, signaled by the invention of the Kodak, Pictorialists began to make their own emulsions in gum-bichromate, or produce ink impressions in bromoil transfer, to declare their independence from the emerging mass photography, and their allegiance to fine art. In the 1970s, handmade emulsion and photograms returned to art schools, which were beginning to teach fine-art photography alongside other media such as printmaking. Courses in so-called ‘alternative techniques’, along with their accompanying ‘darkroom cookbooks’, became very popular.[2] Similarly, pinhole cameras and the construction of camera obscuras have been integral to thousands of introductory photography courses around the world for decades. And, in the 1990s in the immediate wake of the digital revolution, ‘post-photographers’ such as Adam Fuss used pinhole cameras, photograms and other ‘obsolete’ processes to stage spectacular conceptual deconstructions of the transforming medium.

But in the last ten years these longstanding and historically disparate tendencies have combined with new energy and conceptual force. Not only have a thousand instructional YouTube videos from enthusiasts around the world replaced the darkroom cookbooks of old, but more photographers are more seriously exploring the fundamentals of the medium. Many of the artists in the The Alchemists had their initial student training in digital photography, but felt a curiosity for learning about ‘analogue’ photography that replaced the dry, precise, virtual environment of the computer screen with the liminal and wet laboratory-place of the darkroom. This discovery of the darkroom was paralleled by the discovery of vintage cameras and retro processes, not only by art school trained photographers, but by amateur photographers as well, who were able to buy Lomo cameras and refurbished Polaroid cameras from museum gift shops, or Sunprint cyanotype kits from craft stores.

What is ‘new’ about this photography is that: images are magically produced by the simple optical fact of the camera obscura, rather than the factory manufactured equipment of the camera; the photographic print is treated not as neutral screen for the image, but as a physical object layered with light sensitive halides and dyes — potential eruptions of colour waiting to be revealed; hand-made emulsions, such as collodion which is freighted with a hundred and fifty years of historical association because it was used for nineteenth century ambrotypes, tintypes and wet-plate negatives, are used in modern large-format cameras; and photographers continue to find enormous wells of inspiration in the photogram, where three-dimensional objects and two-dimensional images meet and mingle in cradles of light.

This is not just a nostalgic retreat to the past, a hipster reinvention of the outmoded, or a retro fad. Nor is it part of some redundant ‘debate’ between the lost ‘purity’ of the analogue in the face of the encroaching contamination of the ‘digital’. Rather it is a discovery of another mode of making — a slower making, a more curious making, and a making which looks, in the words of one young artist, ‘simultaneously backwards and forward.’[3]

A series of exhibitions and books from London, New York and Los Angeles have already showcased these artists internationally.[4] But, what is happening in Australia and our region? Recently there have been several thoughtful attempts to address the Australianness of Australian photography. While taking different approaches, two books, The Photograph and Australia[5], and Photography and Australia[6], both identify the relatively recent — compared to the US, for instance ‑— colonization of the continent and displacement of its indigenous inhabitants as crucial to our photography. While Australian photography is obdurately oriented to people and land, every realistic portrait and landscape remains nonetheless marked in some way by the ambiguities and complexities of colonization. As Helen Ennis suggests:

These [significant local] differences [of photography in Australia] stem from one inescapable historical reality: photography in Australia is not simply a product of the modern era, but is tied inextricably to the imperialist and colonialist underpinnings of modernity. This distinguishes Australian photographic practice from its counterparts in Great Britain and various European countries, aligning it in crucial ways with that of other colonized countries such as India, Indonesia and New Zealand instead. Of primary importance therefore is the interaction between Indigenous and settler Australians. This has given rise to some of the most potent images in Australian visual culture.[7]

All of the works in The Alchemists are driven by joy and pleasure: the joy of seeing the fundamentals of optics and chemistry magically manifest themselves; and the pleasure of being the one to ride the unleashed processes of transmission, projection, refraction, filtration, sensitization, exposure, impression, reaction, absorption, precipitation, development and fixation to the unknown destination of a material outcome. But at the same time every artist, to varying degrees, attempts to use that joy and pleasure to engage with some other aspect of Australia, New Zealand, or Asia, not to ‘take a picture’ of it, but to materially and critically participate in it.

As one example amongst many, we could cite the oldest work in the exhibition, Catherine Rogers’ The Nature of Evidence, from 1986. This work was an interrogation of the dodgy forensic evidence and popular witch hunt which eventually led to the conviction of Lindy Chamberlain for the murder of her baby Azaria at Uluru, rather than accepting that a dingo had taken it as she claimed. (The trial took place in a media frenzy that mobilized many Australian anxieties about living in a recently colonized country.) Through the bleeding of developer over darkroom projections of multiple negatives, as well as photograms of significant objects such as scissors, the works directly participated in the same ‘aesthetics of the forensic’ that had convinced the jury to wrongly convict Chamberlain in the first place. As Helen Grace identified at the time:

In The Nature of Evidence, each of the frames of counter-evidence [] interrogates both the ‘official story’ of the Chamberlain case and the ‘official story’ of photography itself, since the techniques of photography (at the level of the image rather than the camera) are laid bare.[8]

Like Rogers, other artists in this exhibition also unite various photographic processes with various political, historical, personal, and environmental processes. For example, collodion emulsion and daguerreotypes, literally the stuff of colonial photography, are used by contemporary Australian and New Zealand photographers, some of whom have indigenous heritage, with powerfully ironic results. In these works the past is not just re-enacted, but also, in a sense, optically re-materialized in the present.

Other artists simply mainline themselves into larger forces and expanded networks, either urgent bodily forces of sexuality, slowed-down spiritual forces of nature, or expanded cosmic forces of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Still others engage in the purely formal and abstract possibilities of lines and shapes and tones in a rectangle. But, in all of these works, beauty — the non-descriptive, non-referential, non-semiotic beauty of fundamental propulsions and ineluctable balances — is wordlessly reclaimed.

Finally, hovering above this exhibition, only occasionally directly referred to, but nonetheless always present — are the largest and most indefinable processes on the planet, but ones with the most tangible ultimate results. The processes of mixing, swirling, condensation, melding and melting, which we see at micro scale in so many of the works in The Alchemists, are the same as are happening at macro scale in our atmospheres, oceans and continents as ice caps melt, reactors leak, rivers break their banks, and the ground cracks apart.

Plenty of digital photographs have been taken, and will continue to be taken, of the environment we all share. But photography in the digital epoch can only show us our world as virtual pictures before our two eyes. Alchemical photography, on the other hand, attempts to manifest our world as physical events we must encounter with our whole body.

[1] Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, Jonathan Cape, 1982, p. 80.

[2] Most popular was: Breaking the Rules: A Photo Media Cookbook, Bea Nettles, Light Impressions, 1977

[3] Kylie Banyard, ‘A Politics Of The Outmoded’, Photography & Fictions: Locating the Dynamics of Practice, (ed. V. Garnons-Williams), QCP, Brisbane, 2014, p.44.

[4] Shadow Catchers: Cameraless Photography, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2010-2011. The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography, toured by the Aperture Foundation, 2010-2013. What is a Photograph?, at the International Centre for Photography, New York, 2014. Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, at the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2015.

[5] The Photograph and Australia, Judy Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2015.

[6] Photography and Australia, Helen Ennis, Reaktion Books, London, 2007

[7] Ennis, p8.

[8] Helen Grace, ‘A Shroud of Evidence’, Photofile, Summer 1986, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.

TheAlchemistscatalogue

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