Inspiration: Zohar Studios

I’m tempted to write, as many would, about Zohar Studios without irony or wink — but I can’t. What at first seems like a strange-but-true glimpse of a forgotten 19th-century photography studio is, in fact, the work of one clever contemporary man: Stephen Berkman. Berkman photographs his elaborate sets, props, and backdrops, using early photo processes — mainly wet-plate glass negatives and Albumen prints (a process very much like the Salt Prints we’ve been making.) His attention to period detail is so good that the fiction is almost unshakeable. It should be no surprise that Berkman is the guy people call when they need authentic tintype portraits made for period films, like Cold Mountain and The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford. Take a look:

I often say that using these old processes puts one in some dialog with the past, no matter what. Stephen Berkman takes it to a perfectly absurd extreme… His show Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years is up at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until February, 2021.


I’ve noted before that there just aren’t that many contemporary artists using the Salt Print process out there, so it’s been tough finding things to show as inspiration. The slides I showed the class on our initial Demo day included historical work, plus varnished Salt Prints from France Scully Osterman, and a project by Matthew Brandt. The latter work included photographs of bodies of water, printed using salt water from the same source. More intriguingly, Brandt also made portraits of people using body fluids related to that person, mixed into the Salt of the print…

Matthew Brandt, Takiya, 2007
Salted Paper Print with Takiya’s blood
5 1/8 x 5 7/8 inches

For the most part, however, a survey of Salt Prints made in the last 20 years don’t look that much different from those made in the first 20 years of Photography (although the negatives are sharper now!) What I mean is, one will see a lot of landscapes and still lifes of flowers… Nevertheless, they will certainly be beautiful and luminous, to show off the long tonal scale of this particular process.

Salt Print by Ramiro Elena.

Christina Z. Anderson has a fantastic book on Salt Printing, easily the best and most practical if you want to get into this process. For Ellie Young’s deep technical dive, find her book here. In full disclosure, I do Salt Prints too

Big Blues

I have no idea what led me to think about giant photographs today (generally, I’m more a fan of small works), but the Guinness Book of World Records pegs this cyanotype by Stefanos Tsakiris the World’s Largest, at almost 3,000 square feet!

Doing these body-print Cyanotypes on big sheets has always been a fun way to begin a summer Non-Silver workshop (you know, back when people could lie on a sheet in the sun together…) So here are a few more to fire up the imagination:

Rosie Emerson held a previous world record in 2014 with this one in London

Constanza Isaza Martínez with her 2015 record-breaking attempt…

A French attempt by Vincent Martin and Michel Miguet

And here’s the largest contact print ever made, by an “Italian experimental photography group” called Branco Ottico.

Art Words

Aside from the technical and aesthetic concerns we have in this class, I also want to look at how we speak and write about photographs. This should be a concern for any art class, to be sure, but it’s become easier and easier to get away with jargon, clichés, and vague pronouncements of intent, instead of any real truth about what we do when we make work. There’s no reason not to speak honestly about our intentions as artists, nor is there any point to using the tired, obscure, and often misused psychobabble (like “aporia” or “caesura”) that shows up in a lot of art writing of this century. We can say what we mean — deeply and importantly, even — while speaking or writing clearly. “Big Thoughts in Plain English,” I call it. We’re going to try to do a small bit here this semester.

I used to collect the worst offenders from artists’ websites and gallery press releases, but the babble is so prevalent now that there are hardly any non-offenders out there anymore. I may have hit the apex ten years ago now, with two concurrent shows (both of which I liked.) One was by the German artist Tina Berning, for her show, “The Passengers.” Here’s what the press release said:

With “The Passengers,” Tina Berning continues to explore the relationships between conditioned aesthetics and supposed subjective ambition in the canon of contemporary visuals. The drawings formulate the artist’s own images of the human body, its inadequacy and its fundamental relation to self-determination.

Tina Berning releases figures out of their heteronomous, medial contexts and shifts them into an interplay between voyeurism and exhibitionism. She uses her paintings and drawings as carriers to extricate subjects from the contemporary alienated incapacitation. Codes and matrices blanket faces, streaks of colour lie like shadows over the delicate silhouettes. Interventions that follow Tina Berning’s study open the plainness of schemes into the ambiguity of expression. She makes subtle corrections to the standard, uniform face and figure, enabling a look of physical expressiveness to return. Even when they appear fragile and vulnerable, the faces and images of the people take on a form that is more resistive.

Tina Berning, postcard for The Passengers

At the same time, Sally Mann opened her show of portraits of her husband, called “Proud Flesh”, at the Gagosian Gallery uptown. Now, to be fair, Sally is a notoriously spectacular writer, but just check out the honesty and human truth contained in her own words:

I am a woman who looks. Within traditional narratives, women who look, especially women who look unflinchingly at men, have been punished. Take poor Psyche, punished for all time for daring to lift the lantern to finally see her lover.

I can think of numberless males, from Bonnard to Callahan, who have photographed their lovers and spouses, but I am having trouble finding parallel examples among my sister photographers. The act of looking appraisingly at a man, making eye contact on the street, asking to photograph him, studying his body, has always been a brazen venture for a woman, though, for a man, these acts are commonplace, even expected.

I have looked hard at my husband since the first long strides he took into the room where I was languishing on a ratty chenille couch in some student apartment. My eyes fastened on him with bright interest, squinting to better get the measure of this tall man. Within six months, we were married. That was forty years ago, and almost the first thing I did was photograph him.

But that long history of picture-taking didn’t make it any easier to make the Proud Flesh photographs. Rhetorically circumnavigate it any way you will, but exploitation lies at the root of every interaction between photographer and subject, even forty years into it. Larry and I both understand how ethically complex and potent the act of making photographs is, how freighted with issues of honesty, responsibility, power, and complicity, and how so many good images come at the expense of the sitter, in one way or another.

These new images, we both knew, would come at his.

It is a testament to Larry’s tremendous dignity and strength that he allowed me to take the pictures that I did. The gods might reasonably have slapped this particular lantern out of my raised hand, for before me lay a man as naked and vulnerable as any wretch strung across the mythical, vulture-topped rock. At our ages, we are past the prime of life, given to sinew and sag, and Lorry bears, with his trademark god-like nobility, the further affliction of a late-onset muscular dystrophy. That he was so willing is both heartbreaking and terrifying at once.

Most of the pictures I take are of the things I love, the things that fascinate and compel me, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to look at or take. Like Flaubert, two things are sacred to me in my process: impiety and perfection – the former often hereditary, the latter always hard-won. Beyond the felicitous ”unifying accidents” that occasionally grace the work, making art requires tenacity, a temperament born of an ungodly cross between a hummingbird and a bulldozer, and, most of all, practice. Practice looking.

I look all the time, at the people and places I care about, and I look with both ardor and frank, aesthetic, cold appraisal. And I look with the passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart, there must also be a splinter of ice.

And so it was with fire and ice, the studio woodstove too far away from the light to do him any good on a cold winter afternoon, that Larry and I began this work of exploring what it means to grow older, to let the sunshine full voluptuously on a still-beautiful form, and to spend quiet afternoons together again. No phone, no kids, two fingers of bourbon, the smell of the ether, the two of us – still in love, still at work.

Sally Mann, from “Proud Flesh”

More Blues

We’re finally getting everyone set and safe to work on campus here at Pratt, although we’re still working remotely, or two-at-a-time — all that’s allowed in the Non-Silver Room for the time being. And so the work continues! Everyone has negatives now, and some familiarity with the workspace, so we’re spending the week getting deeper into the chemistry and process of making Cyanotypes.

Next week we will finally get to meet in person (in small, distance and masked groups) to talk about toning and troubleshooting, and to begin imagining what a semester-long project in these new (old) processes might look like. That makes it a good time to dig around for more ideas and inspirations. Luckily, there are a lot of contemporary artists actively using historic photographic processes — the Cyanotype is particularly popular! — and plenty of exhibitions that showcase this work.

This past February, The Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, CA had a great show of contemporary artists using the Cyanotype process, called Winter Blues: Contemporary Cyanotypes. Lenscratch has great coverage of the show, so naturally I stole pics, below… Check out the original post here.

By the way, for you Cyanotype Completists out there, you can view all the pages of Anna Atkins book, “Photographs of British Algae”, digitized here at the NYPL.

Cliché Verre

This week, our class is focusing on making enlarged negatives for contact printing. Almost always, this is done digitally, using transparent film and an inkjet printer, but I wanted to suggest some other ways to make negatives and images for all of our contact processes. My favorite alternate method may just be the cliché verre.

Simply put, cliché verre is the term used for a transparent surface (usually glass) prepared for photographic printing. This surface is darkened with paint, printer’s ink, soot, or varnish, and then marked or scratched into to create an image. When the print is made, this transparent design transmits light to the photographic emulsion, reversing the tones. Although this process has been traditionally used for line drawings, it is capable of a wealth of subtle tones and other effects.

The process comes from the earliest days of Photography’s invention, but was popularized by the landscape painters of the Barbizon School in the 1850’s or so. The most famous practitioner of cliché verre was the painter Corot.

Painters and printmakers have returned to cliché verre time and again as part of their practice, many drawn for its abstract possibilities, but photographers have long experimented with its potential, too. Check out this abstraction by Henry Holmes Smith, made using syrup and water on a glass plate, and exposed with a spotlight. (Remember, too, that Smith effectively grandfathered the late-20th-century “Alternative Process” movement through his students Betty Hahn, Robert Fichter, and many others… )

Henry Holmes Smith, “Dancer”, 1952. Gelatin Silver Print

A little more recently, the photographer Abelardo Morell made a body of work using cliché verre for a book published by The Museum of Modern Art. These were done by pressing leaves and ferns into half-dried layers of ink on glass.

Finally, some beautiful work by photographer Martha Casanave, using her own tears and a microscope. Each cliché verre print (done in the Salt process) references the emotions at the time of tear collection — “Tear No. 482: Having to go home”; “Tear No. 721: Suddenly slathered with snow in a Moscow sauna”; or “Tear No. 802: What? No, I thought it was your idea…So, do you regret it?”

Inspirations: Meghann Riepenhoff

Meghann Riepenhoff has taken the joys of handmade photography and made them even more direct (and even more joyful! Check out the process shots and see how fun this looks…) Her Cyanotype prints (here from her series “Littoral Drift”) are essentially photograms of the sea’s waves. Done in multiple panels, they become huge, wall-filling pieces that capture the might of the ocean.