F295: 21st Century Photography
The “F295 Symposium on Lenseless, Alternative and Adaptive Photographic Processes” has
been renamed as the “F295 Symposium on 21st Century Photography ”. The symposium
convened in Pittsburgh last week for the third year in a row, bringing together pinhole,
photogram, and various chemical and material process practitioners, as well as toy camera enthusiasts, all who belong to the large and active F295 online community . The name was changed, noted organizer Tom Persinger, not only to move away from the long and clumsy older title, but to distance F295 from antiquarian and limiting associations attached to “traditional” or “historical” processes. While many F295 members use processes associated with the very earliest years of photography (with a wide variation of historical adherence), the general direction among f295 photographer-artists is, as Persinger says, to “mix and match across time to use processes to create something new.”
This “reaching across time” is conducted in many different ways, demonstrated in the range of presentations at the symposium. No single aspect of these alternative processes was invoked through all of the work, nor was there even a common sensibility about the relationship between past and present. But all of the work shown shared in having a strong historical reference as a component. This reference was at times literal or figurative, and at times technical or material. Often it was philosophical, a 21st century technoromantic celebration of plasticity in art-making and sublime beauty,
Dan Estabrook, Double Still Life, 1997. ambrotype with oil paint. 8″ x 10″
Some of the photographers riffed on the visual language of 19th century photography, incorporating the iconography and the look of the medium to raise questions about the distance between now and then: Jarosław Klupś created daguerrotypes for an installation in which the objects reflected the light off of a video projection of famous daguerrotype images, creating a dialogue of light between old daguerrotypes on new media and new daguerrotypes on old media. Mark Osterman , a conservator at Eastman House, presented ambrotypes that humorously satirized the tropes associated with 19th century processes, including a series of tintypes depicting himself as “Dr. Bumstead”, a travelling snake oil salesman. More subtly humorous were Dan Estabrook’s ambrotypes and salt prints from calotype paper negatives of his own constructions, small scale tableaux that were created and photographed in a manner consistent with the images that have survived from the 19th century. Estabrook’s pictures are materially convincing, produced with care and then distressed and destroyed with equal care in order to produce an imaginary and surreal history of photography. His images are visual jokes: (ie a stereoscopic image in which the two images do not match) but also speak to how the material disintegration of the photographic objects is itself a symbol.
Other artists almost entirely bypass the conventional history of photography, the in which pictures are windows that offer a framed view correlating to sight. Elizabeth Opalenik explores the possibility of a photograph’s plasticity using the Mordençage Process to create unique photographs that are in many respects painting or sculpture, as she teases chemical films off of the surface of the image and into relief by hand. Martha Madigan makes cyanotype photograms that address the one-to-one size ration of the subject’s size to that of their shadow, creating beautiful full-size photograms of people of all ages, and of entire sections of Philadelphia bridges. In these cases, the process becomes both the means and the subject of the piece.
Along similar lines, Carol Panaro-Smith and James Hajicek have produced a series of photogenic drawings using plant matter (and cicadas, whose wings, explains Hajicek, are ultraviolet filters) directly on paper, making long exposures under the Arizona sun. This work is inspired in part by Wiliam Henry Fox Talbot’s experiments in the earliest days of photography. However, where Fox Talbot sought data on the natural world, the artists note, they are seeking transformations; their work evokes a sublime beauty by incorporating organic material into a physical and chemical process that ultimately yields a material product that is neither purely natural nor purely manufactured. Instead, it’s both index (not only because of the light passing through the “subject” material but also because the organic materials have introduced their own chemical character) and description of the process of transformation.
Other work presented was more conventionally representational. Michelle Bates offered a survey of photographers using “toy cameras” such as the Diana and Holga in her book Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity, including James Balog, Teru Kuwayama, and David Burnett. National Geographic photographer Robb Kendrick showed his wet plate project on American cowboys and his tintypes of Mexican mummy museums (as well as the inside of his custom darkroom trailer: 6 air compressors, 6 speakers).
One unexpected and particularly compelling group of images shown, however, was not produced through any exotic process but rather with a digital point and shoot. Panaro-Smith and Hajicek showed diaristic snapshots in which they recorded their everyday lives with a digital camera. What was striking about these very intimate pictures is that they completely resonated with the artists’ presentation of their photogenic drawings, in which they at first sought to address alchemy but along the way found themselves dealing with the transformations in their relationship with one another. In both cases the pictures are a result of an honest process of enquiry, with its associated vulnerabilities.
By highlighting the digital snapshots I don’t mean to downplay the richness or care of the other artists’ work or the symposium on 21st century photography’s organization around a range of non-conventional media. Rather, I want to draw attention to artistic honesty at the symposium as evidenced in so much of the work shown in which artists walk a line described by technology but are driven by personal and philosophical mandates. Digital snapshots are of course 21st century photography and it is appropriate that there is a place in which they fit here, defined not only by medium or meaning, but by process and necessity.
Why discuss this somewhat esoteric province of photography on a website devoted to documentary photography and photojournalism? First, because the work is good and offers practical examples for expanded definitions of photography. But also, because documentary fine art photography appropriates the styles and technologies of other media, even if it may not take on the “reasons” associated with art photography generally. One challenge for documentary photography has always been to be able to speak as “art” while also speaking as documentary. Looking at other kinds of photography that is self consciously art offers an opportunity to recognize that work which appears to be old or looking to the past can speak to new priorities in a new language, and that truth and beauty in art and documentary both rely on honesty and rigor.