The f295 symposium and workshops taking place in Pittsburgh this week has brought together quite a few very different kinds of photography. There is lensless photography (photograms), pinhole photography, and traditional or historical chemical processes that are now thought of as nontraditional or “alternative” including various wet plate processes and printing techniques; there is also some attention to the reconstructed aesthetics of toy cameras such as the Diana+ and Holga, and to the integration of various existing processes, including digital printing. The event, organized by photographer Tom Persinger, is in its second year, and attendance has doubled since last year.
While 19th century technologies and aesthetics both heavily inform the work being shown and shared at the symposium, there is a definite 21st century flavor to the willful mixing of technologies and in the attention to the limits of these technologies and the fragility of processes. The tone at the event is a kind of diligent experimentation in the interest of both craft- that is, controlling the techniques- and art, in the sense of evoking the kinds of aesthetic languages associated with 19th and early 20th century photography but drawing attention to both medium and processes. A collodion image produced today cannot but be understood through webs of references that did not exist 150 years ago, and the “imperfections” that make each image unique signify different things now than they did in the technique’s heyday.
Kicking off the symposium tonight, France Scully Osterman’s presentation conveyed her engagement with these particular kinds of contradictions. She noted that 19th century photographers were assiduous about making “perfect” plates, and showed a series of pictures using the collodion process in which “imperfections” were intentionally deployed for effect (Sally Mann’s use of fogging in her “What Remains ” series) or in which the properties of the technique created effects that now resonate (the sky, blown out in a Roger Fenton image). She went on to describe the various precarious moments throughout the process that could result in an effect: wind blowing on your collodion creating an uneven coating; cold developer making ripples; fog; a dirty plate causing the image to slide off. France also did a nice discussion on a color test that she and her husband Mark Osterman did, showing that the process is sensitive to blue (causing it to go to white, which is why we rarely see clouds in collodion images), and warm tones go black (which is why everyone appears to be wearing black in 19th century photographs.
France showed some of her own work: a series of people sleeping in her studio study faces freed of concern (she would invite subjects to come to the studio and take a nap in the morning and photograph them) and a series of slept-in beds printed at life size, digitally, on rice paper are an effective marriage of abstraction and the evocations of the bed.
Historical processes are not reproduced for their own sake, but for the kinds of rewards that were evident in France’s talk. On one hand, there is the very physical, tangible process, with metal, glass and liquids, attention to temperature, light, and time, resulting in a unique material object. On the other hand, there is the serendipity, the controlled accident, that reveals the fragility of the medium and gives the image its “scars”, also contributing to the uniqueness of the picture not as an image, but as a physical object. These pictures may not have been acceptable in the 19th century but they make a kind of sense now as a memento mori for photography; they draw attention to the rich quality of the image even as they show how demanding the process is, and how tenuous.