by Jaimie Baron
Photography means “writing with light.” Not limited to works made with cameras, the term may refer to any lasting inscription produced through exposure to light. When Light Becomes Form: Processing Photography, curated by Sharon E. Bliss, Kevin B. Chen and Sean McFarland (with help from SFSU students), investigates the perimeters of this inscriptive form, which in this exhibition involves both archaic forms of photography (lumen printing, cyanotype, daguerreotype) and state-of-the-art digital technologies. Though both trends point in opposite directions, they seem to be gathering momentum — the latter especially, evidenced by the sheer number of recent exhibitions (e.g., Uncanny Valley at the de Young) featuring artworks based on AI-enabled surveillance methods.
As a primer, the curators, in the back of the gallery, set up a camera obscura – a room or a box with a pinhole “lens” – which casts images and often served as a visual aid to artists as far back as the Renaissance. However, since the camera obscura creates no inscription, it cannot be considered photography. Nevertheless, by enabling viewers to witness passersby –– live, in color, upside-down and oblivious – it serves as a pedagogical tool for the show at hand.
The artists represented are all deeply engaged in investigating the definition of “vision” and “photograph.” For instance, using heat-imaging equipment borrowed from NASA, Lisa K. Blatt has produced landscape photographs that look like abstract paintings, which she calls “heatscapes.” This series of untitled images reminds us that speaking of what something “looks like” does not describe the object but only our particular, human experience of reflected light. Human vision is unique and hardly uniform; other animals see things differently, even when their eyes are focused on the same object as ours. Blatt’s glossy pools of brilliant color represent indexical traces of reflected light just like any other photograph; it’s just that, like that of nonhuman animals, this visual apparatus “sees” light differently.
Visual technologies also categorize and extrapolate differently. Adam Chin’s SAGAN portraits rely on computer algorithms to “see” a human face. Computers can “recognize” things by analyzing large amounts of relevant data which they synthesize into an average or composite. Depending on the data set and the task, the results can
sometimes be uncanny. Trapped by the pandemic, Chin took 800 self-portraits and asked friends to do the same. He then fed these images into a machine-learning algorithm and instructed it to create a single photograph that was indistinguishable from the originals (an impossible task). Out of the algorithm’s 8,000 attempts, Chin chose 16 of the resulting images and placed them in a grid. Although compositionally reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge’s late 19th-century motion studies, these series do not present succession in time but, rather, evidence of the strange “eyes” with which computers “look” back at us.
Another instance of nonhuman – perhaps superhuman – vision appears in Kijas Lucas’ series A Search for Home. It’s a deeply personal project in which the artist traced her family’s emigrations across the United States using plant clippings and other materials gathered from those places. In a gesture reminiscent of contact printing, Lucas places these items directly on a scanner. The three evocative images from the series on display are utterly startling in their clarity. The extremely high resolution at which these scans are rendered allows them to be blown up – in one case, to wall-size – without perceptible loss, offering much greater detail than the unaided human eye could apprehend. The enlarged magnolias – a deeply nostalgic flower for anyone who grew up near them – are magnificent in size and visible complexity. Lucas applies the same treatment to two pieces involving dirt and pollen, yielding a strange mesmerizing luminosity.
By contrast, some of the works in the show eliminate vision from the photographic process entirely. To make STURGEON-WOLF (6 month exposure), Chris Duncan laid a piece of dark fabric on top of a large, disused industrial object and left it there for six months. When he removed it, the sun had “written” a message that looks like a portal to heaven, which the artist then stitched to a red backdrop: a literal inscription of light made possible by sun and time.
Ron Moultrie Saunders also works without a camera. Isolated at home during the pandemic and unable to gather the plant materials he typically employs in his photograms, he began to think about how he received information from the outside world. His postal mail, he found, included numerous security envelopes – the kind banks use to send sensitive documents, with detailed patterns to obscure what’s inside. Saunders began making contact prints of these diverse and often fetching patterns, placing the envelopes (which served as negatives) under an enlarger to make prints from whatever light came through. The resulting series of 12 large prints, titled How Secure Is Your Mail?, reveals the beautiful forms that can be found in the strange ways we try to communicate and conceal information.
Several artists explore the diverse possibilities of cyanotype, the tinted contact printing process still used to make architectural blueprints. Felix Quintana derived the source images for his Los Angeles Blueprint series from Google Maps Street View photos of his South Central LA neighborhood, searching for those that accidentally included people. He then made cyanotypes of these images, scratched words and details on top, and gave them titles that only a local would fully understand. The resulting images appear full of life and energy, a record of a community’s experience that stands in sharp contrast to the detached topographical orientation (and surveillance) function Google’s maps generally serve.
Andrew Wilson’s two glass doors bearing ghostly, translucent cyanotypes – one of the artist’s grandmother in Eastern Star regalia, the other of his uncle dressed for a cotillion — generate a sense of ghostly presence. This is amplified in two quilts, which incorporate fabrics printed with cyanotype images that refer to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. By sewing these haunted fragments into quilts, which often signify collective memory, the artist constructs metaphors of repair and perseverance.
To mark time during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, Amy Elkins made cyanotype self-portraits with various objects – a shower curtain, utensils, an Amazon Prime bag, the clothing in her closet – and transformed them into what look like parodies of haute couture. The result is Anxious Pleasures, a series of 377 photographs of which we see only a small selection. In every image, Elkins appears wearing a different get-up, her face often disguised as if she is barricading her face and body (as most of us were at the time). The images are often playful, but the uniform cyan hue lends a sadness to the series, which reads as a coping strategy, of trying to find or wrest variety out of enforced, endless sameness.
Photography is, of course, an attempt to capture and create a record of our experience of time. We employ it to leave behind ghost-like traces, some more durable than others. Rachelle Bussières’ lumen-printed works investigate that phenomenon using photographs that have not been fully fixed (with chemicals) so that they fade away when exposed to light.
By contrast, Binh Danh’s series (see above) of daguerreotypes emphasize duration: an attempt to preserve memory indefinitely. Daguerreotypes – positive and negative images etched directly into silver-plated copper – may be the longest-lasting type of photograph. Rather than use Louis Daguerre’s technique for traditional portraiture (as it was used in the 1840s and 1850s), Danh photographs the Lafayette Hillside Memorial (a collection of crosses, crescents, and stars of David marking the lives of soldiers lost in the Iraq war) and the community members who maintain the site. Like the individuals represented by grave markers, daguerreotypes are unique objects that cannot be reproduced. Their irreplaceability and preciousness as objects echo those of the lives lost and mourned in these ghostly, doubled images.
Photography is the art of showing us things that light – that most magical and inexplicable substance in the universe – can do and reveal. Whether using archaic or cutting-edge photographic processes, the artists in this show consider the immense possibilities of “writing with light.”
# # #
“When Light Becomes Form: Processing Photography” @ San Francisco State University Fine Arts Gallery through March 31, 2022.
About the author:
Jaimie Baron is a professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.