Watch a pro work with the Tri-Color Gum process…
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…
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.
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…
Anything but Blue
As we near the end of our Cyanotype module, we were lucky enough to meet in person for a troubleshooting class. We also squeezed in a toning demo, using simple chemistry to chase away the Blues, so to speak. Check it:
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.
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.
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.
Betty Hahn. Soft Daguerreotype, 1973. From the series “Daguerreotype Messages To The Past”, 1973. Electrostatic print on synthetic silver fabric in velvet and satin case. © Betty Hahn
I completely forgot to take a picture of the ridiculous setup I had going on for yesterday’s class — laptop on a counter, iPhone on a tripod, chemistry on the table, etc… I was trying to show everyone around the lab they’d be working in, and ended up carrying my laptop around the room, and moving the tripod all over the place. It got more absurd once our quick Cyanotype demo started, but somehow it all seemed to work.
I know I’m not alone in my mild revulsion for Zoom at this point, but I’ve learned one important thing, at least: Take a damn break. No one, I mean no one, wants to stare at the screen for four hours straight. I think 30-40 minutes is about the human limit before one feels a little crazy. We crammed all our introductory information into 3 40-minute sections, with breaks in between: “Syllabus and Bullshit”; “Get Up On Yr First Cyanotype Demo”; and “A Quick & Completely Subjective Look at Photo History.” It’s as sane as a remote studio class gets, maybe.
I missed a lot of things doing this first class remotely, especially meeting everyone in person and getting a real sense of who they are (and, I hope, giving them a sense of who I am.) What’s more, one of the best things about working with so-called Alternative Processes is getting to print with sunlight. It’s a great first-class experience, loading up a print frame with your first Cyanotype, and walking out of the lab into bright late-summer sunshine… Every art class should have a required Lawn-Sitting module. Oh well.