Photography is now 175 years old, and throughout that span what has separated artist from the layman was a deep understanding of the tools, techniques and desires to create specific images. Once the revered work of professionals, in the 20th century photography became an increasingly democratic medium in which images could be created easily without a deeper understanding of conditions or tools. Today photographs are practically created instantaneously through digital means. To all who understand the merits of photography as fine art, the discussion of process is paramount. Process defines the professional—being knowledgeable and capable of every step in the creation of a photograph—and it often separates a mere photograph from intentional art.
Process, the current exhibit at Photo Center NW, a show curated by Gallery Director Ann Pallesen, takes a deeper look at contemporary artists who work primarily in photography. The results may sometimes appear traditional, but the processes behind the images provide a deeper understanding of the materials, the presentation, and the ideas that photography can express. It is clear that each of the fifteen artists selected for this show are fully capable of a wide range of photographic talents, but their true interests lies in using the medium to create new and fascinating results. As is common among artists using photography as their medium, most of the works come from a larger series through which the artist can explore the limits of these new techniques and their curiosity. These artists are breaking ground in process and perhaps in the history of photography. Consequently, many of the pieces on display are not editioned prints but are irreplicable art objects.
It is clear that the artists in Process understand how their medium is perceived, and each work challenges those preconceived notions. This is a show of smartly created works that are simultaneously beautiful images, many of which come off as abstractions, as well as inspiration for artists already working in the medium of photography. The show features works created from cameras of all sizes, one even being a walk-in camera obscura placed in the front lawn of rural Canada. Reading through the provided labels reveals the use of antiquated cameras, interesting transfer methods, and strange and slightly disturbing use of body fluids as developing agents. In addition to a variety of cameras, photographic paper of all sorts are used, overexposed and under exposed to the desired effect. Even the very chemicals and solutions that are used to develop photographs are explored, some without a camera even.
The work of Chris McCaw best illustrates how both a camera and composition are used in combination with experimental methods and materials. McCaw uses his camera to make mesmerizing images that blend photography and pyrography. McCaw’s unique works depict stark landscapes with ominous burns in the form of holes or streaks across the skies above. An understanding of duration and materials allows the artist to show the movement of the sun as not just a part of the composition but also a physical remnant of the process. During prolonged exposures, the sun physically burns its path through the top layer of the paper and the silver backing becomes exposed beneath. The paper on display in the frame is the large format negative that was used in capturing the image. The physical burning happened in the camera. Hence, the lens required to create the image is massive; McCaw has gradually increased the size of his lenses and cameras and one now fully occupies a truck bed.
The works of Charlie Rubin also speak to the inventive talents and skills of the artist photographer. Rubin manipulates his images in post processing—not through filters or Photoshop, but rather in the process of scanning. During the scanning process, the artist applies ink to prints and negatives, or moves images around ever so slightly, creating a new image from a part of the process rarely exploited for such interventions. Scanning is often just an intermediate step to get images from film onto other formats; it is fascinating to see its role changed and a new role integral to the final work established.
Another theme seems to be the artists’ fearless destruction of their work to make new work. Brea Sounders cuts photographs and negatives into slivers, strange and abstract, which she then rephotographs as abstract collages clinging to transparent acetate film, as if floating. Laura Plageman crumples, tears and prods her photographs, but what we are shown are photographs of those altered photographs. This adds a texture that is almost trompe l’oeil in nature to the final framed work. A strange ray of light in the forest, an unaccountable geometric cloudiness over the sea…such discrepancies demand a closer look, and the simple intervention makes the works question the idea of a photograph as an object. Also in the vein of creation through destruction, Curtis Mann doesn’t even have images in the show but rather overexposes large sheets of light sensitive paper and uses either additive or subtractive methods that imply labor. I had to really question how innovative the act of adding waxed fingerprints or scarring the emulsion by means of an orbital sander could be.
This show can be many things to many people. To the students and avid photographers that roam the Photo Center gallery, these works are certainly meant to be inspirational, reminding creative students of more involved manual processes that can be explored and altered. Many of the works are not technically complicated and could certainly be easily imitated by artists familiar with the equipment, but like all great art, these artists are exploring techniques from a place of genuine interest, and it isn’t the image that is of ultimate importance, rather it is the process.