21
Apr
14

Text / review: ‘A Vocabulary of Printing and the Syntax of the Image’ from the exhibition ‘KHEM’ at Strange Neighbour, Fitzroy, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 11th April – 3rd May 2014

Artists: Jane Brown, Ponch Hawkes, Siri Hayes, Ruth Maddison, Lloyd Stubber, David Tatnall, Claudia Terstappen
Curated By Linsey Gosper

 

A Vocabulary of Printing and the Syntax of the Image

 

“No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.”

“One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”

.
Minor White

 

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As an artist who originally trained in the alchemical, analogue art of photography, the magic of this process will always hold sway in my heart. No matter how many excellent digital photographs I see, there is always a longing for silver – that indescribable feeling of looking at a master printers work, an image that literally takes your breath away. I hardly ever get that in a digital print. For me, it’s the difference between the fidelity of a CD and the aura of an LP, with all its scratches and pops, hisses and, yes, atmosphere.

Minor White, that guru of enlightenment, knew how difficult it was to capture spirit in a photograph. To make a connection between photographer and object, back through a glass lens and a metal box onto a piece of plastic or glass (completing a Zen circle), then printed onto a piece of paper. There are three ways it goes: you see something (you previsualise it) and you don’t capture it in the negative; you don’t see it, and the negative surprises you; but, best of all, you see it and you capture it – the object of your attention reveals itself to you. Then all you have to do is print it – easier said than done. Much testing and assessing, dodging and burning to balance the print knowing that, as MW says, each negative is like a dragon that an image has to be wrenched from.

.
No longer for ears …: sound
which like a deeper ear,
hears us, who only seem
to be hearing. Reversal of spaces.

.
Extract from Rainer Maria Rilke Gong 1925

 

Emmet Gowin printing mask for The Hint That Is a Garden: Siena, Italy 1975

 

Emmet Gowin printing mask for The Hint That Is a Garden: Siena, Italy 1975 (below)

 

 

Emmet Gowin (American, born 1941)
The Hint That Is a Garden: Siena, Italy
Dedicated to Frederick Sommer, 1975
Gelatin silver print
19.5 x 24.5 cm. (7 11/16 x 9 5/8 in.)
Gift of Mrs. Saul Reinfeld

 

 

When you do the analogue printing yourself (or when assessing a digital test print at a lab such as CPL Digital), the most important thing is to understand the vocabulary of printing. In both analogue and digital printing it all starts from the negative/file. If you don’t understand your negative or digital file, what hope have you of attaining a good end result? You must study the negative to understand its pushes and pulls, what needs to be held back, what other areas brought forward in the image. You have to feel the balance within the negative/file in the sensibility of the print. Darren from CPL observes that he has a lot of photographers and students come in and say, “I don’t want it to be like that,” but then they can’t explain what they do want it to be like or how they can get there. They have no vocabulary of printing or how to get the “feel” that they want from the print. I believe this is where training in the analogue darkroom can stand digital photographers in good stead.

What photographers need to understand is the syntax of an image, “the system of organization used in putting lines together to form pictures that can stand as representations of particular objects,”1 where they is a clear association between the structure of photographic prints and the linguistic structure that makes verbal communication possible. Photographers are the Keepers of Light and photography broke the boundaries of the visual field that had been delimited by etchings and prints, to allow human beings to see far beyond the physical field of view, to have photographic power over space and time which fundamentally changed the scope of human consciousness.2 Photography makes drawing unnecessary in the physical sense, but through previsualisation photography is predicated on mental drawing (with light) and through the physical form of the photograph, the print, photography has a syntactical basis – which comes from the languages of the photographer inherent in human consciousness and the chemical, optical and mechanical relationships that make photography possible. Both feeling and technology.

I believe that these two things go hand in hand and when photographers have no language, no vocabulary to describe what they want from a photographic print, then they are basically coming up against the limitations of their feelings, technologies and the machine. “Genius is constantly frustrated – and tempered – by the machine.”3 As William Crawford observes, “You simply cannot look at photographs as if they were ends without means. Each is the culmination of a process in which the photographer makes his decisions and discoveries within a technological framework.”4 “Each step in the photographic process plays a syntactical role to the degree that it affects the way the information, the sentiment, the surprises, and the frozen moments found in photographs actually meet the eye.”5 In the case of the photographic print, this means understanding the emotional linguistic vocabulary of printing through the syntax of the image.

.
With these thoughts in mind, the two standouts in this delightful group exhibition are Claudia Terstappen and Ponch Hawkes. Terstappen’s Brazilian rainforest photographs are as well seen and exquisitely printed as ever but this time they are slightly let down by the nearness of the frame and the colour of the moulding, both of which seen to limit the breathe of the image. Hawkes’ photographs are sublime (especially the two reproduced below), the best silver gelatin photographs that I have seen by an Australian artist in since Terstappen’s last solo exhibition In the Shadow of Change at Monash Gallery of Art. They have wonderful tonality and presence, and a quietness that really lets you contemplate the image through the beauty of the print – and a snip at only $800 each framed!

Other artists in the exhibition have singular images that are interesting (pictured below), but the major disappointment are the prints of Jane Brown. When I first saw the images of Brown’s Australian Gothic at Edmund Pearce Gallery in 2012 I said that they were, “small, darkly hewn, traditionally printed silver gelatin photographs… surrealist tinged, film noir-ish mise-en-scènes, the ones that emphasise the metaphorical darkness of the elements gathered upon the stage. Photographs such as Big TroutThe Female Factory, Adelong, New South Wales and Captain’s Flat Hotel, New South Wales really invoke a feeling of unhomely (or unheimlich), where nature is out of kilter. These images unsettle our idea of Oztraliana, our perceived sense of Self and our place in the world. They disrupt normal transmission; they transmutate the seen environment, transforming appearance, nature and form.”6 This was again the feeling that I got when I saw the series at a later exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography.

Not this time. The prints shown here are much darker and have become almost ungrammatical; where the syntax of the image has broken down so that the linguistic structure of the image makes communication nearly impossible. It is not enough just to make prints darker and darker, hoping for some mystery to magically appear in the image because it won’t. This is a case of overprinting the negative, forcing the vocabulary of the image through a wish to impart something emphatic, some condition of being from the negative that has been imperfectly understood. Is this because this is Edition 2 out of 7, a different printer and a different size? I don’t know the answer to those questions, but Brown really needs to go back to the negatives and reassess the results, especially as these nearly incomprehensible prints are selling for an overinflated $2,000 each framed.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

 

Footnotes

1. Crawford, William. “Photographic Syntax,” in Crawford, William. The Keepers of Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes. Morgan and Morgan, 1979, p. 2
2. Ibid., p. 5
3. Ibid., p. 6
4. Ibid., p. 6
5. Ibid., p. 7
6. Bunyan, Marcus. Review: Jane Brown / Australian Gothic at Edmund Pearce Gallery, Melbourne, 6th May 2012 [Online] Cited 21st April 2014 http://wp.me/pn2J2-2RL

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Many thankx to Strange Neighbour for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

ps 6

 

William Crawford. “Photographic Syntax,” in William Crawford. The Keepers of Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes. Morgan and Morgan, 1979, p. 6

 

Claudia Terstappen. 'Jungle I (Brazil)' 1991

 

Claudia Terstappen
Jungle I (Brazil)
1991
from the series Ghosts at the Jucurucu
Silver gelatin print
46 x 68 cm

 

Lloyd Stubber. 'Untitled' 2012

 

Lloyd Stubber
Untitled
2012
Fibre-based silver gelatin print
11 x 14 inches

 

David Tatnall. 'Clifton Springs Jetty' 2012

 

David Tatnall
Clifton Springs Jetty
2012
From the series Coastal Pinholes
Silver gelatin contact print
20 x 25 cm

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Bellambi, NSW' 1989

 

Ruth Maddison
Bellambi, NSW
1989
Hand coloured gelatin silver print
19.6 x 49 cm
Vintage print, unique state

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Self-portrait #2' 2004

 

Ruth Maddison
Self-portrait #2
2004
From the series Light touches
Sun print on black and white photographic paper
Vintage print, unique state

 

 

“The process of analogue photography is created through darkness and light. To celebrate the launch of the Strange Neighbour Darkroom this exhibition brings together a group of artists who pursue and extend the practice of analogue and darkroom photography. These artists work across many of the countless possibilities of the medium: 35mm, medium format and large format photography, and their diverse processes include pinhole photography, photograms, sun prints, fibre printing and hand colouring. Contemporary photographers are driving the current resurgence in analogue photography and Strange Neighbour is excited to be able to facilitate this irreplaceable art form. Darkroom practice is unique and magickal, alive and well.”

Press release from the Strange Neighbour website

 

Khem; a possible derivative of the word alchemy, the native name of Egypt, is thought to mean black. Some scholars maintain that Khem is derived from a root meaning wise.1

Alchemy is described as chemistry endowed with magic, and alchemists as those who work with metals and keep these operations secret.2 Apart from the obvious associations of working with metals (silver) and chemistry, there are more subtle and intimate parallels between the art and science of alchemy and darkroom practice.

It is common among darkroom practitioners to consider the process as ‘magic’. When most people encounter printing their first photograph in the darkroom, the simple sight of an image appearing on the paper in the developer tray seems ‘magical’. Even experienced darkroom practitioners never lose this special feeling. Exhibiting artist, Siri Hayes notes, “Watching images come up in developing tray is as mysterious and exciting as any magic show. Perhaps more so as there are no tricks except that the photographic product is the grandest of illusions.”

Distinct from many other forms of photography, darkroom based practice is now specialised, with few people having access to the knowledge, equipment and skills associated with the medium. Like a secret esoteric order, few share this wisdom, and even those willing to teach it may keep special recipes, techniques and discoveries to themselves or within a select dedicated group. Some of this information, although scientific, is not completely understood in rational terms of facts or calculations, but is more related to intuition and perception. It is technical and it is intuitive.

The complex rituals associated with the process allow practitioners to get into a headspace that is conducive to contemplation, bringing forth intuition, allowing space for chance and universal cause and effect. In this art and science there are so many variables with endless possibilities. Ruth Maddison‘s Sun prints are made without camera, film, enlarger or developer. She states, “the tonal range depends on variables like paper stock, length of time in sun or shade, whether the objects are wet or dry…. and an unpredictable magic that happens when light sensitive paper is touched by light.”

In this unpredictable environment often mistakes lead to new ideas and create new methodologies. One of the charms of analogue processes is the discovery of beauty through error. Ponch Hawkes recalls this as disasters and wonderful happenstance. Claudia Terstappen remarks it is the number of variables in the darkroom that leaves the creative process wide open and it is often these inaccuracies caused by chemical reactions that lead to a new meaning. This is what makes analogue processes so valuable and irreplaceable. There are many effects in the analogue process that one can recreate with digital technologies, but not invent.

Imperfections caused by these variables or ‘mistakes’ may imbue the image with a ‘spirit’ and otherworldliness, as if the energy of a place or person has been captured. Black and white photography too has the ability to transcend time, memory and death. Jane Brown says, “I examine this a lot in my work – landscapes seem to have vestiges or traces of past life and memorials become otherworldly.” Claudia Terstappen’s work, “is motivated by the stories, beliefs and histories of the people who live there. Here people spoke about the forest spirits that one should be aware of. B+W images suggest a kind of silence.” At a symbolic level, silence is part of most sacred traditions3, and it is part of darkroom practice.

Using analogue processes and working in the darkroom can be aligned to the slow movement, of valuing quality over quantity and returning to a feeling of connectedness. For the images in this exhibition David Tatnall has used an 8 x 10 inch pinhole camera and made contact prints. He expresses of this technology, “my reasons for using this slow, cumbersome and fickle means to make photographs is because I feel it conveys the interaction of the sky and water, the presence of wind and the pulse of nature. I am particularly interested in how the long exposures and lack of sharpness make these features merge into something else… (The) simplicity: no lens, shutter or batteries, no need to upgrade, no click or buzz, no flashing lights or mega pixels no viewfinder and no distortion.” For Ruth Maddision, “she says of working with hand colouring, the pleasure of it – I love working on the real object again, and away from the screen.”

Clearly there is belief and an element of trust in the medium. Lloyd Stubber‘s images in this exhibition are taken from a one-month round the world trip. On return he processed the 15 rolls of film in his laundry. Perhaps the potential fear of loss is overwhelmed by the sense of anticipation, surprise and the flood of memories that return on seeing the work at a later date, as compared to digital, which is immediate and holds none of the mystery.

Another important distinction of darkroom and analogue practice from other forms of photography is the presence of artist’s hand throughout the entire progression of creation to final outcome. In each step of the process, significant choices are made from the many possibilities, from exposing light sensitive film in the camera, developing the film, to printing and finishing the art object. The artist’s mark is therefore not only discernible but also inherently valuable. To Ponch Hawkes, being the maker is of significance. For Terstappen, The physicality of arriving at the ‘perfect’ Gelatin Silver print – with its deep tonal ranges – is something that I highly value.

Contemporary artists are driving the current resurgence in analogue photography. This is a treasured, magickal4 and irreplaceable art form. It is with great pleasure that I declare the Strange Neighbour Darkroom open, and may it provide the space and opportunity for the love of darkroom practice to be enjoyed, shared and fostered.”

Linsey Gosper, curator, darkroom lover, 2014
1. Francis Melville. The Book of Alchemy. Quarto Publishing plc, 2002, p. 6
2. Kurt Seligman. Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion. Pantheon Books, 1948, p. 84
3. Ami Ronnberg (ed.,). The Book of Symbols. Taschen, 2010, p. 676
4. Magick, in the context of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, is a term used to differentiate the occult from stage magic and is defined as the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will, including both mundane acts of will as well as ritual magic

 

Jane Brown. 'Decommissioned Art History Library, University of Melbourne' 2012-2013

 

Jane Brown
Decommissioned Art History Library, University of Melbourne
2012-2013
Fibre-based gelatin silver print
44 x 49.5 cm
Edition 2 of 7

 

Jane Brown. 'Lathamstowe' 2011- 2013

 

Jane Brown
Lathamstowe
2011- 2013
Fibre-based, gelatin silver print
46 x 44 cm
Edition 2 of 7

 

Ponch Hawkes. 'Silken Seam' 2005

 

Ponch Hawkes
Silken Seam
2005
Silver gelatin print
34 x 34 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Chrysalis Gallery, Melbourne

 

Ponch Hawkes. 'Rouleau' 2005

 

Ponch Hawkes
Rouleau
2005
Silver gelatin print
34 x 34cm
Courtesy of the artist and Chrysalis, Melbourne

 

Siri Hayes. 'Aquatic listening device' 2009

 

Siri Hayes
Aquatic listening device
2009
Silver gelatin print
39 x 45 cm
Courtesy of the artist and M.33, Melbourne

 

 

Strange Neighbour
395 Gore St, Fitzroy
Victoria Australia 3065
T: +61 3 9041 8727

Opening hours:
Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm

Strange Neighbour website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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