“A New and Mysterious Art”: Ancient Photographic Methods in Contemporary Art @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 52 works by 12 different photographers/artists, variously framed and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space and the second gallery next door. The show was curated by Jerry Spagnoli.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their processes, dates, and details as background:

  • Takashi Arai: 6 daguerreotypes, 2014 or 2016, sized either roughly 7×5 or 29×87, in editions of 3
  • Stephen Berkman: 8 albumen prints, n.d., sized roughly 14×11, in editions of 10
  • Dan Estabrook: 5 pencil on waxed calotype negative and salt print diptychs, 2002, 2005, or 2012, each sized between roughly 5×4 and 10×8 (or reverse), 3 waxed calotype negatives, 1998, 1999, r 2002, each sized between roughly 4×5 and 15×18 (or reverse), 1 watercolor and gouache on salt print, 2006, sized roughly 11×8, in an edition of 3
  • Adam Fuss: 3 daguerreotypes, 2009, 2014, sized roughly 35×29 or 34×38
  • Luther Gerlach: 1 enclosed set of 2 relievo ambrotypes, each consisting of 3 glass plates, 2016, sized 18×22
  • Vera Lutter: 1 gelatin silver print, 2006, sized roughly 56×89, unique
  • Sally Mann: 1 wet plate ambrotype on plexi in six parts, 2010, each plate sized roughly 15×14, 3 collodion wet plate positives on metal with sandarac varnish, 2012, sized either 10×8 (set of 9) or 15×13
  • Matthias Olmeta: 3 ambrotypes with wet collodion on acrylic glass, with varnish, paint, and gold leaf, 2016, each sized roughly 28×28
  • France Scully Osterman/Mark Osterman: 3 archival pigment prints from photogenic drawings, 2010, each sized 48×36, in editions of 15
  • Craig Tuffin: 4 daguerreotypes, 2016, sized fr0m roughly 7×9 to 10×9 (or reverse), 1 ambrotype, 2014, sized 20×24, and 1 wet plate collodion tintype, 2014, sized 8×10
  • Unknown: 9 daguerreotypes, date unknown, together sized roughly 10×9

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the unforeseen byproducts of the digital revolution in contemporary photography is that the deterministic perfection of the technology has led to a newly dominant aesthetic that mirrors its exacting precision. Between the technical power of the cameras and the manipulative features of the software, it’s as if both chance and the hand of the artist have been deliberately removed from the art making equation, leaving us with a sea of over sharpened, color enhanced, extra perfect imagery.

For some, the emergence of this new aesthetic has felt like a move against everything they find interesting about photography – they’re intrigued by uncertainty and want more hand crafted personality in their work, not less. And as a reaction against the cold machined clarity of this engulfing look and feel, many have wholly rejected the new digital technologies and have instead turned backward, hoping to coax a path forward from now ancient and obsolete photographic methods that once offered more aesthetic options and choices. Workshops and classes have sprung up across the country featuring experts holding forth on the ins and outs of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, wet collodion, photogenic drawing, and other now arcane processing techniques, creating a veritable cottage industry of resurgent DIY experimentation.

This diverse group show takes stock of the recent back-to-the chemicals movement, gathering together a broad but well edited sampler of works made using these rediscovered (or revitalized) methods. The key question that faces the artists who have embraced this approach is how to avoid the seductive trap of “old timeyness”. Depending on how an obsolete process is employed and the subject matter/styling are chosen, it’s altogether possible to recreate or approximate the feel of original photographs made long ago. The problem is that this time warp homage doesn’t take us anywhere new artistically. Pictures made in this way feel airless and precious, like they are trying too hard to impress us with their retro intelligence. So while these works do satisfy the maker’s need to feel the immediacy of the engagement with the photographic process and to welcome the slowness, decay, and unpredictability that are part and parcel of working in this way, they’re oftentimes lacking in transformative thinking – just being a modern woodburytype doesn’t make a picture inherently exciting.

The best of the works on view here deliberately push beyond historical tropes, extending the strengths of the particular processes into new areas of artistic experimentation. While the original daguerreotypes from the 1840s and 1850s were most often intimately sized portraits, known for their amazing clarity of detail and their highly reflective almost mirrored surface, modern daguerreotypes by Takashi Arai and Adam Fuss leverage those same characteristics in unexpected ways. Arai has consciously mixed old and new, making images of rockets, missiles, bombers, and fighter jets, using an old technology to document the streamlined danger of something more modern. He’s also made large multi-part daguerreotypes that shimmer like tiles, the menace of nuclear war (and its associated enduring hot radioactivity) echoed by the searing polished surface of the works. Fuss takes an alternate approach, looking to expand the usability of the daguerreotype process to larger scale images. His pictures of the architectural majesty of the Taj Mahal and the up-close detail of its carved floral reliefs take full advantage of this increased size, maximizing the intense precision of the process to make images unlike any made before of the famous Indian landmark.

The wet collodion process developed in the 1850s used an entirely different set of chemical reactions to create its photographic sharpness, and it has become a favorite of contemporary photographers who are looking for more evidence of physicality and improvisation in their artworks – depending on how it is managed, the process can allow watery drips, splashes, and other forms of fluid messiness (in a rich chocolate brown) to interact with the underlying images. Sally Mann’s recent self portraits take full advantage of this expressiveness, adding a shadowy element of mystery to her intimate profiles and close ups. She smartly uses the process to add a kind of romantic uncertainty to her images, alluding to history but refashioning it to add tactile ephemerality rather than exacting permanence.

As a technology, the camera obscura goes back to Aristotle, its inversions created by a darkened room and a small hole in one wall. Vera Lutter has reimagined that ancient process on a controllable scale, making monumental prints that capture its elemental truths and harness its unpredictable nature. Here she shows us the rooftops and skyline of Venice in dark/light reversal, giving a modern architectural view a sense of eerie timelessness.

In the end, all of the approaches shown here (even the ones that less successfully distance themselves from the past)  return to the idea of consciously injecting something personal back into photography, the very fragility of the various techniques being employed ensuring a heightened level of attention, care, and involvement on the part of the artist. Against the backdrop of the instant gratification of digital photography, these obsolete processes are inherently slow and painstaking, and that elongation of time opens up possibilities for inspired tinkering. By immersing themselves in these artifacts of photographic history, these photographers have built a durable alternative to the mainstream digital world, simultaneously channeling the ghosts of the past and reaching outward to the future.

Collector’s POV: The works in this group show are priced as follows:

  • Takashi Arai: $4000 or $130000
  • Stephen Berkman: $4800 each
  • Dan Estabrook: $2400, $2700, $3200, $3500, or $4200
  • Adam Fuss: $40000 or $55000
  • Luther Gerlach: $50000
  • Vera Lutter: $75000
  • Sally Mann: $22000, $68000, or $76000
  • Matthias Olmeta: $9000 each
  • France Scully Osterman/Mark Osterman: $3800 each
  • Craig Tuffin: $5000, $9000, or $12000
  • Unknown: $25000

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Read more about: Adam Fuss, Craig Tuffin, Dan Estabrook, France Scully Osterman/Mark Osterman, Luther Gerlach, Matthais Olmeta, Sally Mann, Stephen Berkman, Takashi Arai, Vera Lutter, Howard Greenberg Gallery

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