Photography Project on an Archive of Light

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RESEARCH PAPER

AN ARCHIVE OF LIGHT

This research began with a very different title and a significantly different aim. I had discovered the last of a certain type of photographic printing paper called Cibachrome. This is a unique analogue printing paper that is a direct positive to positive dye destruction printing technique. In short, this printing process is the only one that can translate transparency slide film into positive prints, in a completely analogue method. The colours, textures and brightness that this paper renders are extraordinarily special. Cibachrome is also the most archival of any colour analogue photographic process. The placement of thirteen layers of azo dyes within the emulsion, as opposed to embedded within the traditional paper base, means the cibachrome has a unique luminosity and depth. It is also extremely expensive to manufacture, and print, requiring especially compatible chemistry for processing and highly skilled technicians to print the medium. Due to these factors of expense and the dip in popularity of analogue printing processes with the rise of more financially efficient digital printing technologies, Ilford discontinued the production of Ilforchrome (Cibachrome) in 2012. In 2015 I was put in contact with a technical printer who was savvy enough to purchase some of the last cibachrome paper in the last shipment from Ilford. Sandy Bernard, a life-long photographic printer in Sydney had been storing up cibachrome chemistry for years, and had finally purchased a role of the last of the cibachrome paper. My wish was to learn the process and assist in the printing of some of the last of the cibachromes. As such, my proposed paper was to be called The Singular Image and was to be printed on the last of the cibachrome printing paper.

As a method of arriving at my “singular image” I began an archive of light. In order to photograph light, I wanted to fill my camera frame with white, eliminating all colour and attempting to avoid any representational form whatsoever. I began photographing white walls, impeded only by the fall of a gentle shadow. This was indeed the tabula rasa I wanted to begin from. The white walls were simply my template however, and it was the light that was the subject, colouring my positive film frames with shades of green and yellow and orange, populating the tiny frames with the hazy forms of half defined shadows and highlights. In my search for an appropriate tabula rasa, I began to photograph the white cube of the art gallery space, systematically documenting the empty spaces and light falls of the art gallery. I would create an archive of 81 slides per gallery space, a veritable colour field of empty white frames. This process became a kind of meditation, a process of looking without searching for representational structure, but instead letting my eyes relax and focus simply on the fall of light and shadow. This action in the art gallery space became a kind of subversive activity; it felt very liberating to walk around a gallery space that is structured with representation and overt displays of artistic intention and ignore that aspect entirely, focusing on the blank spaces and creamy white tabula rasas of empty walls. When it came to select my individual, “singular” image though, I couldn’t pick a singular frame, because it was the archival series, as opposed to the individual frame that remained interesting for me. I therefore decided to incorporate the archive not as simply a means to an end, but instead an end in itself. This decision dictated the final form of my research which was the lightbox sculpture. As I photographed nine galleries, there would be nine lightboxes, all built into the archetypal museum object; the white plinth. The decision to use the plinth instead of wall mounting the lightboxes was an intentional shift to allow the work to act sculpturally, just as I had focused on light as a sculptural object in my frames. I also made the decision to present the plinths at varying heights, allowing the objects to engage physically with the space; to give the tiny lightbox architectures an architecture of their own.

To compliment these illuminated archives of light, I have created a cameraless archive of light in the form of a cibachrome exposure test. Together, these nine light box sculptures and one cibachrome print form the studio component of the body of work An Archive of Light (2017).

The exegesis that follows is a theoretical and conceptual aid to An Archive of Light. This thesis begins with the chapter, A Photograph which is an explanation of the material essence of a photograph and an historical contextualization of photography’s relationship to light. In this chapter credence is given to the experimental methodology of the photographic workflow, and the role that archiving light played in the evolution of skills by notable historical practitioners. Inclusion of these examples gives a longitudinal context to the methodology of my research and posits my area of research as a kind of technical “rite of passage” for photographic practitioners. This chapter also orients the photographic medium as one not implicitly tied to representation, but rather as a medium which is inherently abstract at its essence.

Chapter 2, Light & Shadow, Space & Place follows on from the proposition that photography is inherently linked to an exploration of light itself. This study of light is examined from a cultural standpoint, particularly within the colonial Australian context, and extends to a comparison between the cultural appropriation of light within western and eastern traditions. In this chapter I will reference the works of early Australian photographers such as Harold Cazneaux and Olive Cotton, and mirror these with the works of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto to demonstrate how different cultures regard and utilize light in the establishment of national identity. I will explore the sculptural potential of light as a medium in and of itself with the works of Dan Flavin and James Turrel, and demonstrate how artists like these have shaped my current practice. This chapter also addresses the performativity of certain types of photographic practices, particularly that of German artist Uta Barth, and how these notions have informed some of my earlier practice. Lastly this chapter will address the physiological implications of light as it influences not only our sensorial appreciation of the spaces around us, but also moderates and affects our mood.

Chapter 3, Materiality and Chance addresses the material reality of the photograph and addresses a number of contemporary photographic practitioners that deal directly with the materiality of the photograph. The works of Alison Rossiter, Sarah Mosca and Daisuke Yokoya are included as examples of practices in which the photograph is presented as an index of itself, as something to be “looked at and not through”[1]. These abstract methodologies in which the signifying function of photography is removed in order to focus on its non-representational and abstract capacities play a large part in the creation of An Archive of Light. This contemporary tendency will be explored as potentially a response against an image saturated world, but also a desire to stretch the possibilities of the photographic medium outside that of merely representation.

The final chapter, The Archival Museum will look at the place of the photographic archive in relation to the personal and collective memory and the implications that the proliferation of an image-based economy has on memory and identity. I will unpack my decision to use the archive as a research-led methodology and my tendency towards the archive as a personal impulse. This chapter will also address the art gallery as a cultural archive and my decision to present the lightbox component of my work as a plinth mounted, museum object.

CHAPTER 1

A PHOTOGRAPH

 

Is Photography anything at all? A minimum answer might be that it is the activity of light rendered on or in various media. A camera and lens are not required; nor are silver salts or developing chemicals or even a photographer. Photography has no specific content, province or use, and so it has no meaning, as such. Its meaning is whatever the maker, user, or consumer, all operating within the culture, ascribes to it.[2]

Photography is a slippery medium; It defies classification, whether as an art form or an everyday tool. It is a conveyor of the real whilst simultaneously obscuring truth. The history, or rather histories of photography are similarly convoluted. For example, it either began with a vista of French rooftops, taken by the hand of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce or with a Parisian street scene, taken by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in 1939, or perhaps it was the salted paper prints of William Henry Fox Talbot that is the true beginning of photography, working in the vein of reproducible negative-positive workflow.

The images described sit within the historical cannon of photography as marking its beginning. I would argue, however, that this observation presumes a very prescriptive view of photography. All of these images are pictures; they are representational in that they depict something that we view as real. I will be arguing in this thesis, that the essential aspect of a photograph is not its representational quality, but rather it’s light sensitivity.

If we accept that the essential aspect of a photograph is its light sensitivity and not its representational capacity, then photography began a century earlier in 1727, with the experimentations of silver salts undertaken by Johann Heinrich Schulze. These experimentations were conducted without a camera, and consisted of copying, via light and silver, words and sentences from paper stencils[3].

Later that century, further experimentation with silver and light sensitivity was undertaken by Thomas Wedgwood and Elizabeth Fulhame, the latter working extensively with creating patterns on cloth using metals with various light sensitivities. Although this duo had mastered light sensitivity, they had not yet fully mastered the art of fixing an image, so no trace of these works remains today. Yet these experiments of Schulze & Wedgewood & Fulhame did exist, and they were successful, and they mark for my research, the beginning of photography.

For a number of these early pioneers, an integral part of their practice was an examination of light itself. Experimentations with quantifying and archiving light were a means of gathering technical information and form a significant portion of the legacy left by a number of practitioners.

Bayard’s collection of light sensitive prints are one such example. They lack any formal representation and in looking at them, we see large vague swatches of blue, an abstract collection of colour fields that lack any formal structure. What we are looking at are small lighting tests. Each colour swathe represents a different length of exposure or source of light. They are, essentially, one of the earliest photographic archives of light. They are also some of our earliest abstract photographs. Bayard treated these images just as he did any of his others; they were archived, mounted and bound in a book. With the hindsight of the broadening scope of modernity, these incremental lighting tests become something more than just samples for archiving, but also legitimate abstractions in themselves and could be said to mark some of the earliest abstract photographs.

The daguerreotypes of Jean Bernard Leon Foucalt work in a similar manner. His daguerreotype Spectre solaire is a working example of the process of archiving light, the vertical stripes all representing an exposure to a certain intensity of light, an attempt to document, photographically, light itself. As Geoffrey Batchen explains, the daguerreotype, which was created specifically for its ability to render the most intricate detail, is here employed as a tool to “a picture of nothing – of nothing, that is, but its own capacity to record anything”[4] . It is reduced to its barest bones, an implement to simply record and quantify light.

Examples such as Bayard’s and Foucalt’s provide an historical precedent for this research. Both practitioners created archives of light as an experimental part of their research workflow. Almost 200 years later, creating an archive of light has been as essential part of my photographic research, positing my research methodology as one contemporary rendition of a practice as old as photography itself. This research has been led by one clear objective – to create an archive of light. This thesis aims to explore this objective through its influences, both historic and contemporary, as well as my methodology for creating the archive.

Framing photography as experimental and abstract situates the medium as one of chance, alchemy and materiality. Light is the subject matter for these aforementioned artists, and analogue photography is their methodology. These historical examples have established a framework from which my practice-based research emerges.

In my research light also operates as both the tool and the subject of my photographic practice, consciously employing analogue techniques and outdated methods of production. An objective of this thesis is to contextualize this practice as an investigation of ‘light’ with a methodology specific to analogue processes that have been superseded by digital technology but more recently resurrected in the practices of contemporary image-makers. I am interested in how my practice forms part of this resurgence of analogue image making as well as how I continue to pursue processes that are outdated and a subject – light –that is immaterial.

CHAPTER 2

LIGHT & SHADOW, SPACE & PLACE

The photograph itself is a piece of performance art, and the performer is light[5]

Roland Barthes deconstructs the language of photography in Camera Lucida to suggest that the word photography refers to the Latin process of revealing an image through the squeezing, or extracting of light[6]. Barthes muses that it is a process of mythological significance whereby the subject is immortalized by a precious metal, almost a representation of the sublime, and light is the conduit – the immovable and unshakable foundation on which all other aspects exist[7].

By this semiotic reasoning, it becomes essential to conclude that photography is inextricably linked to light. Light itself has its own set of iconographical references, for example the light of the sun is inherently linked to notions of growth and vibrancy. The sun symbolizes the living, breathing, life-giving natural world and is a powerful symbol of these ideals. Photographs, touted as they were initially as “sun-paintings” and “works of light”[8], put photography in immediate relationship with these powerful ideals, borrowed from sunlight, and an immediate association with nature and reality.

Australian theorist Melissa Miles relays the history of photography as one inextricably bound to light, not simply as a generative agent, but as a powerful metaphor for positivity and truth. Indeed, she explains that in Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 exhibition that it is light rather than human agency that is given responsibility for his earliest photographic renditions of nature. Fox Talbot goes so far as to assert that images in the show “have been obtained by the mere action of Light upon sensitive paper”[9]. The photographic image in this context is synonymous with nature and light, which is associated with qualities of truth and virtue. Miles reflects that these notions of light and reality, which are inherently connected to photography, were pivotal in the early establishment of Australia’s colonial identity. In her book, The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography (2015) she argues that the metaphor of the sun as a positive, vibrant and healthy symbol was seized upon and used extensively in early Australian painting and photography in order to distinguish Australia from it’s motherland and create a distinctive Australian identity.

Early colonial Australia distinguished itself from the cloudy-skied, dreary motherland and the cold colonies of Canada by portraying and perpetuating a ruthless fiction of sun-bleached lands and vibrant youth and these ideals formed the aesthetic basis of Australian photography. In this sense, Miles says that Australia itself and photography share common motives in their steadfast relationship with the sun; both capitalize upon their seeming association with the sun to perpetuate notions of realness, nature and vibrancy.

Miles also relays that light is ideally suited as a tool in the construction of “place”. In this sense, place is understood as a meaningful location that is bound to a sense of being in the world[10]. This place is both real and imagined and plays an integral part in building the personal and cultural narrative of a group of people. Photography plays an active role in this establishment of place, and in Australia in particular, where the birth of colonial independence was rolling out and the independent country was finding its feet and its voice at the same time that early photography was gaining widespread appeal and use. Photography therefore was especially influential in establishing an independent (colonial) Australian identity.

Light is particularly powerful as a tool in constructing a sense of place and our experience of this place. Miles says that we see “with and in light. It alters our perception of form and colour… Different forms of lighting – whether bright sunshine, moonlight, twilight or celebratory artificial light – have different impacts upon space and place, how we move through them and how we relate to them. The changing cultural meaning of light and light effects also informs experiences and meanings of place”[11].

The photographs of artists such as Harold Cazneaux and Olive Cotton all work with a distinctive type of Australian light. The landscapes they portray are sun-bleached, the objects they depict sharp and desiccated, and all the forms sharp with contrast like only a bright light can render. The land they depict is a distinctive one, and was instrumental in positioning light as central to the national Australian mythology.

Indeed, it was photographs such as Max Dupain’s Sunbaker that linked me to a national history. I could sensually feel the muscles of the bather relaxing as they lay in the sun’s warm rays, I could taste the salt drying as it evaporated into the dry sea air. This image is an undoubtedly iconic Australian image and one that resonated with me deeply as something that I could intimately associate with. More than the man in the image, light is the subject of this photograph. The distinctiveness of the coastal Australian light gives a slick silver gradient to the bather’s skin and the dense shadows illustrate the strong, enveloping Australian sun.

That light has become a reoccurring theme in my artistic research is unsurprising, given that my practice has evolved from within this national mythology. The sun played a huge part in my identification as an Australian youth. Summers growing up were measured in scales of how much sunshine and surf we could soak up, and rated in terms of depths of comparative skin tans. Even now, sunshine for me equates to leisure and health, and it is the Australian sunshine that I crave when homesick overseas.

As Miles suggests conceptions of light and how they inform national mythologies is common to many nations, and the way that light is perceived and treated differs markedly from culture to culture. The Japanese aesthetic for example differs markedly from the cultural conceptions of light in an Australian context. In Japanese aesthetics, shadow is considered an emotive and important aspect of the Japanese landscape. This is reflected in Japanese architecture, sculpture and photography.

In In Praise of Shadow (1977),the Japanese authorJun’ichirō Tanizaki states that “Westerners use light, not for sewing or reading, but for extinguishing the shadows in the farthest corner of the room”[12]. In contrast to this, the Japanese aesthetic grew out of shadow, “The quality that we call beauty however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to understand beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends”. In a Japanese room, the typical westerner would be amazed at the simplicity of the space. This reaction, whilst understandable Tanizaki says betrays “a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows”[13]. This aesthetic stands in contrast to the sun-bleached lands of Australian rendition, and reinforces Mile’s assertion that there is a reflexive relationship between light and a sense of place, each informing a sense of the other.

Hiroshi Sugimoto is a Japanese artist who has directly addressed this cultural appreciation of shadows. His series Colors of Shadow are a study of the nature of shadow itself. The series were photographed entirely in the interior of a Tokyo apartment and the walls were coated with shikkui, a traditional Japanese plaster finishing which absorbs and reflects light evenly. The series of photographs present as a monotone Mondrian-style painting and reflect aesthetically the history of abstract painting in general.

The series is the first of Sugimoto’s photographic works that were photographed in colour. In this aspect, the work, whilst representing shadow as their subject matter, also indirectly address light, with the colour temperature of the light in the rooms, adjusted by the colour balance of the film, throwing a delicate purple hue on the final prints.[14]

The progression of my own photographic practice is indicative of my interest in unravelling and exploring light and shadow, which is a product of my context as a young Australian unravelling the cultural mythology surrounding me. In 2012 I created a series of one hundred Perspex lightboxes. These lightboxes had portraits in them, and my intent was to create one hundred lightbox portraits, which I accomplished. On installation however, I realized that the success of the work lay not in what the lightboxes illuminated, but the illumination itself, the spill of light from each lightbox, nestled within a honeycomb of shadow.

This was a surprise to me. As a photographer, my creative intent was bound up in representation, what, how and why things were represented. The camera for me was a representational tool, a method for capturing reality and rendering it photographically, but I had always been drawn to light as a subject. On completion of this work in 2012, I decided to explore my fascination with light more closely.

This research led me away from the camera and into a more sculptural methodology. The resulting work, Ryokan was a large-scale illuminated work that abandoned images entirely.

Ryokan was very much a sculptural and experiential work that relied on the participatory aspect of the audience to succeed. It was not so much the work itself which was a success, but the way that the light from the work bounced off the subjects in front and around it; vaguely illuminating their faces and chests, but allowing their backs to sink into shadow.

This work was also informed largely by the space that it was shown in. Like any light-based work, they are necessarily site-specific. Light, in it’s essence, only exists in relation to the things around it. The light of Turrel’s Apani is given form by the shape of the room in which it is contained. Dan Flavin’s light sculptures are just as much about light spill onto the gallery walls as they are about the fluorescent tubes themselves.

With all of these works, it was not the light object itself which I found interesting, but the illuminated spill – the areas where light bled into shadow. The space of scission between light and dark where light slips off into shadow. As Junichiro explains:

We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them. We never tire of the sight, for to us this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament.[15]

It was very satisfying to work sculpturally in this way, to move away from the complications and short comings that I felt representational imagery held for me, but I knew that a return to image making was inevitable. The camera was the tool with which I’d learnt to orient myself in the world, and I felt that any sculptural work that I undertook had ultimately photographic ends. With Ryokan, for example, the work was not finished until it was photographed, and after being photographed, the image was the artwork, not the work itself.

For my masters research I began to look at abstraction in photography and my two worlds of image making and light appeared to synthesize. Indeed, it became obvious that the ultimate tool for an investigation into light, was the camera, as it is the tool of light. As Lyle Rexer put it so succinctly; every photograph is a performance piece, and the performer is light[16].

It was the work of German American artist Uta Barth that was particularly illuminating in this sense. Barth deals with light as a subject and plays with the relationship between abstraction and representation. Her “Ground” series aims to investigate the type of visual landscape that normally constitute the background of images. By removing what is the subject of the image, we are left with sparse, abstract, Zen like spaces, and the act of observing these images becomes less about the actual viewing, and more about becoming aware of the process of looking, drawing our attention “away from the object we are looking at, and toward their perceptual process”[17]. It is particularly her interiors in the Ground series that are relevant to my research. Her process of foregrounding the background of the image subverts the way we typically view images, it creates a scission in the unconscious process of image consumption, creating a pause and motivation for critiquing how we view images and what we prize in them.

By removing what formally constitutes the subject of an image, and leaving us with just the background, the act of viewing means that we insert ourselves into the space of the subject, thus becoming a part of the work itself, just like the viewers of Ryokan becoming subject to the spill and ebb of light from the illuminated panels. As Barth says, “When looking at these very minimal images of white walls and corners, one becomes aware of not only the piece itself, but of the wall around it. The architecture of the light and space falling on the wall all enter your perception (of the work) and become part of it”[18].

INSERT IMAGE OF VIEWER LOOKING INTO LIGHTBOX

Like Barth, I have focused my camera on the incidental aspects of an image. The shadows, corners and blank interior facades of the museum and gallery space serve as my subject matter. I travelled to five galleries across the United States; The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney, the YBCA in San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and four galleries in Australia; the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia. These galleries were chosen based on their importance as archives of the visual arts.

Within them, I documented the variances in light, and shadow thrown on the white walls of the gallery space. I focused on gradients of shadow and distinctive lighting of the spaces, for example, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is lit with a large amount of natural light, as opposed to the predominantly fluorescent lighting of the Guggenheim.

Through the documentation of these spaces, I have created an archive of ‘nothingness’, a typology of empty space. This documentation of space is heavily informed by a Japanese sense of light and shadow which regards shadows as objects in and of themselves[19].

I was very cognizant of the tools I would use in this documentation of light and shadow. I used a camera and traditional methods of film processing and mounting in the production of my slides. However, the photographic production does not follow the traditional negative > positive workflow that is prioritized by most analogue photographers. Historically, a lens focused light into a camera, which recorded a latent image onto photosensitive film. This film would be processed to create a negative which would then be taken, and have light shone through, to create a positive image on photosensitive paper. The film would, by its very nature, need to be some sort of transparent material, onto which a photosensitive substrate is coated. This film negative would not be the final product, but merely a conduit between the latent image and the positive print. This negative > positive workflow is the underpinning aspect to almost all of traditional photography and responsible for the endless reproducibility of the photographic medium. There existed early on a number of positive photographic processes such as daguerreotype and wet plate collodion, but these were not commercially successful and widely available because they lacked the reproducibility factor of negative film. The medium I have chosen is a colour positive process. This means that once the film is processed, it will show a colour positive, as opposed to a colour negative. Historically, these film types were used for projection and archival purposes, where secondary printing into a positive was not required. For my research I have used the one type of film for all of my gallery investigations, Fujifilm Provia 100. Each type of film has its own colour profile and individual personality. Fuji Provia is a daylight balanced low speed film, rendering accurate colours in daylight.

I chose colour film in order to capture not only the tonal gradation of light and shadow, but also the hue shifts. Just as Hiroshi Sugimoto used colour film for the first time for his series of monochrome shadow documentations, I would be using colour slide film to document the subtleties of light in white spaces.

Most of these subtle shifts in the colour of light happen beyond the comprehension of our conscious eyes. Light is constantly changing and shifting in colour, but our brain is constantly compensating for these gradual shifts in colour in order to balance out to a neutral white. We measure these gradations in the colour of light with a measurement of colour temperature that we call kelvin. Even in the natural environment, the kelvin, or colour temperature of light will shift over the course of the day. In the morning, the kelvin is at about 4000, which is a very warm light. As the day becomes brighter, the colour of the light will shift into a cooler spectrum; around 11,000 kelvin. As the day comes to an end, the cycle moves back toward the beginning, with the kelvin lowering to around 4,000 again at dusk, before disappearing almost completely with nightfall. All of these shifts in colour are not consciously registered by our eyes because our conscious is constantly balancing out those shifts to record a neutral light. Colour temperature of light shifts even more so with artificial lighting. Incandescent, halogen and LED lights all have their own unique colour palettes that are invisible to the naked eye, hidden as they are by the white balancing act of our brains.

Photographic film however, doesn’t have the ability to compensate for differing colour temperatures, which is why they are all graded for specifics environments, for example, Fuji Provia is a daylight balanced film, where Kodak Ekachrome 64T is balanced for tungsten environments. This made photographic film the perfect medium for an archive of the shadow and colour of light. Through limiting the frame of my camera to the walls, curves and shapes of the monochrome white gallery space, the process of documenting the gallery space, became one of capturing and archiving the hue palates of differently lit gallery environments. Each gallery space is lit by a variety of lighting systems, but most favour one specific lighting system throughout their space. A white wall documented with daylight balanced film under fluorescent lighting, for example, will appear not white, but green.

Therefore each gallery, based on their preference for a specific type of lighting, will have their own colour palette, invisible to the naked eye.

Melissa Miles explains that light informs our construction and experience of place, it alters our perception of form and colour, and designates how objects that we view within it are perceived[20]. More than that though, experientially, the colour temperature of light explained above, also regulate our physiology. Our circadian rhythm, which is used to standardize mood and energy, is regulated by colour temperature. This is why, in a natural environment, as colour temperature peaks during the middle of the day, we are most energized, and at the end of the day, a dip in colour temperature will correspond to a dip in our energy levels. Thus light, whilst being a construct maker in terms of national mythology and photography, is also a construct maker in our own physiology. [21]

CHAPTER 3

MATERIALITY & CHANCE

Geoffrey Batchen introduces his essay “Photography, an Art of the Real” (2014) with an extrapolation of a work by Alison Rossiter. He describes the work as “all surface and no depth… the most elemental of photographs, the result of a volatile, unpredictable relationship between light and chemistry… Rossiter presents photography as something to be looked at, not through, and to be made, not taken. This photograph is not of something, it is something”[22].

Rossiter’s work is but one example of a larger movement of artists of which Alisson Rossiter, Sarah Mosca, Meghann Riepenhoff and Daisuke Yokoya are members who are intent on re-contextualizing the role of a photograph. These artists have shifted the emphasis of photography away from its signifying function, to examine the material and imaginative basis of the photographic experience[23]. By abandoning signifiers and withdrawing representational subjects, these artists allow photography to “stake a claim on our lives not as politics as hithero, but as poetry”[24].

Mosca’s large format print presents at first as a large, almost monotone colour field. There is a faint band of yellow hovering above a very pale field of pink. The print is like an inverted Rothko colour field, all candy pinks and pale yellows. At the edges the colours bleed through green and finish in a neat edge of black. There are punctures near the corners; six in a row, all evenly spaced and sized; a clue as to the surface. At the top left edge of the image there is a curiously carved ridge; the final clue as to what the materiality of this work is. For most photographers, this work is immediately recognizable as a piece of large format film, a medium utilized for its excellent rendering of clarity and with the right camera, incredible detail. Even in the contemporary age where digital media is the main currency of photography, this large format film medium outstrips digital in its accurate rendering of detail. Mosca uses this medium intentionally, but not for its accurate rendition of detail; it could be said that the colour field above doesn’t contain any detail whatsoever, it is at its essence pure abstraction, thus her methodology is intentionally subverting the intended use of the medium.

Even at its furthest though, abstraction does hint at a truth, and Mosca’s work is still a trace of an event. Instead of using the film to render a visual image of an event, Mosca uses the film as an index of the physical experience of the event. The work above is a documentation of an expedition out onto ice. The film was buried within the ice for the period of time that it took for an expedition in 1897 to scale a similar glacier. What results is a formless rendition of the event, a blank canvas of silver halides, made vaguely colourful by shifts in temperature, by the immediate presence of century old ice and the contact of the artist’s skin. The resulting photograph is abstract in its final form; it is a photographic image, that although not having an immediate relationship with the object or event it has recorded, still has a sensorial or essential relationship in that it to the event.

As Lyle Rexer suggests, “the guarantee of a photograph is not in its image, its representation so easily conflated with its subject; it is its surface, its utter two dimensionality”. This is especially true of Mosca’s work, it is all about the surface. The photograph above signifies nothing but it’s own surface, suggests nothing more than its own abstraction and the brief legacy of some natural materials.

Contemporary practices like Mosca’s play off against the “Archaic codes of art photography[25]”, seeking new or novel ways of seeing in order to articulate a view of the world. These ways of working come at a time where images are more pervasive than at any stage in history before, and this shift towards an abstract rendition of imagery is a reaction against this image saturation. It has been said that the “abstract photograph signifies not the given but the possible. And in an image-choked world, perhaps this signifies a necessary antidote to a growing image-blindness”[26]. Contemporary artists respond to this assertion by re-engaging with the materiality and process of photography and by stretching the representational capabilities of the medium. Practices like Mosca’s also expand photography into a performative practice, where the image performs the event as an action, harnessing a more elusive rendition of reality than the traditional role of the photo image as information. Practices like this deal with the material as visceral trace rather than pictorial representation of truth or fact and open up the medium’s capabilities. Meghan Riepenhoff cyanotypes similarly stretch the bounds of an image-based medium. The cyanotype process that she uses becomes less a vehicle for the representational image, and instead an index of actions and feelings.

Reipenhoff elaborates on her methodology:

“ Eluvium is the residual deposit of soil, dust, and sand produced by the wind. To create the images in this series, I cast sand on sheets of light-sensitive paper in the dark. I then spoke, sang, laughed, screamed, cried, and breathed in almost touching proximity to the paper, my actions moving the sand into formations. I exposed and processed the paper, titling each image after what I said or did to create it.”[27]

My practice differs to Mosca’s and Reipenhoff’s in that it is not performative in the same manner. I engage with the materiality of the photographic medium in a much more removed manner, focusing my photographic medium towards the empty expanse of light, as opposed to using it in a performative sense to record a non-visual event in a visual manner. My practice has parallels with those above in that we are all using photography in an unconventional manner, challenging its representational limits to come up with new ways of expressing ideas or actions.

Varying practices such as those described above belong to what I would call the “Analogue Abstractionist” methodology, a term that captures a large number of contemporary emerging and established artists that use photography as a physical and conceptual tool for investigation. All of these artists engage with the “physical facts of photography”[28] as a toolkit for examining the politics of seeing. These artists don’t necessarily use analogue means of photographic production, but they will often use the analogue photographic framework as their site for investigation.

An artist such as Marten Elder uses the medium of digital photography to extrapolate the way that analogue photographic film creates a codified view of colour. As he explains:

“Color {sic} film was designed to replicate images as humans see them, as accurately as possible. The method was fairly convincing, but never perfect. Over time we became accustomed to the specific way color film rendered the world and accepted it as accurate representation. Film has since been superseded by the image sensor used in a digital camera. Images produced using a digital camera undergo a default processing that is meant to approximate the look of film. But this processing discard other, real information about the world that the new image sensor is able to record. That information can be extracted and mapped to the entire spectrum of tones that the computer display or printer can reproduce. The color information may seem synthetic at first, but those colors exist naturally in the world in the same relative relationship to one another. With conscious attention to visual perception, one can become sensitized to these color relationships.”

Elder systematically documents Los Angeles streetscapes, using his unusual extrapolation of colour to create hyper-vibrant abstractions of every day vistas. His works use the vehicle of street photography and his unique method of rendering discarded colour to make a comment on the subtle methods that photography has used to shape the way that we view the world; particularly how we view and perceive colour in this instance.

An Archive of Light is similar in that I am using a methodical archiving of the white cube of the gallery as my vehicle to investigate the subtle colour balances of white light. There is a large element of chance in this methodology. The colour temperature of most lights, which gives each frame it’s subtle hue, is largely invisible to the naked eye. Thus, when roaming the floors of the Guggenheim in New York, snapping at corners and crevices, I was never really in control of what hue each frame would render. That hue was left up to the colour temperature of the available light in the space, dull greens for fluorescent lighting, warm oranges for tungsten and cool whites for natural light.

The overall colour hue of the gallery lightbox was not an artistic choice, it was instead one in which my materials (film and light) determined the colours for me. It is this sense of the materials guiding the output that I really enjoyed, and that sits at the heart of a number of visual arts practices that have been influential on my research.

A number of these artists use cameraless means of production, doing away with extra apparatus in order to get to the essence of the photographic medium; light on silver. Walead Beshty’s beautiful large scale colour photograms are a prime example of the medium reduced to it’s bare bones in order to create new ways of seeing and allowing chance to direct the final outcome of the work.

These works of Beshty’s are also an example of photographic works that use traditional photographic means of production, to convey senses and experiences beyond the visual. The unexposed colour photographic paper is adhered to a wall with magnets and then exposed to cyan, magenta and yellow light, which describes “all of the possible colour interaction between the primary and subtractive colours”. Beshty says that the final work renders not only the colour of the light and the tension of the paper stuck to the wall, but also the minutiae of the situation in which it was exposed; the subtle vibration of the building, the hum of the air-conditioning system, the reflection and shadow of the artist’s body during exposure, all of which affect the registration of the colours[29].

Daisuke Yokota also works in an unconventional way with his medium. He develops his analogue film in ways that are “intentionally incorrect, allowing light to leak in, or singeing the negatives using boiling water or acetic acid. The purported subject fades, and shadows, textures, spots and other sorts of visual noise emerge.”[30] This method of working frees photography from its representational capacity and welcomes in chance and error to be celebrated, not extinguished. Yokota says he “wanted to focus more on emulsion, on the different textures, more than on the subject being photographed”[31]. There is a sense of freedom in working with sensitive materials in an uncertain way and a great satisfaction in working with the physicality of a medium, and the physical reality of analogue photography is that of emulsion, silver, paper and film.

The analogue tool set of emulsion, silver, paper and film were extremely instructive in shaping my research. The confines of these tools were quiet constrictive, limiting the creative capacity and breadth of my experimentation, but it was these limits that helped to structure my work. For An Archive of Light, I wanted to work solely within the analogue medium. I didn’t want to resort to digital scanning and enlarging, I wanted to work within the predefined conditions of the medium I chose, 35mm positive film. Working within these confines allowed me to create multiple frames and work within a serial workflow. I was not confined to the singular image, but instead had the freedom to make cohesion within a larger framework, that of the archive.

CHAPTER 4

THE ARCHIVAL MUSEUM

 

With the convenience and ubiquity of computers and smartphones, the majority of photographic images are being recorded digitally rather than on film. As this transformation has broadened access to photographic images—both in making and in viewing—in many contexts it has also obviated the need for photographic prints. Snap shooters, photojournalists, and commercial photographers rarely produce material objects as the final step in their process. As a consequence, photographs in the form of image-bearing sheets of paper are scarce outside of the art world.

Because personal and collective memories are so inextricably intertwined with photographs—the result of the medium’s progressive saturation of everyday life for the past century and a half—this revolutionary change in the production and dissemination of photographic images is altering society’s relationship to memory.

In the midst of this change, many contemporary photographers are making work that addresses, either directly or obliquely, the potential consequences of the medium’s metamorphosis. Some artists dig deep into photographic materials as though searching for the locus of memory, while others incorporate found snapshots into their work as virtual talismans of recollection. Both kinds of work highlight the presence of the photographic object and function as self-conscious meditations on photography’s ongoing reorganization of our mental and physical landscape. [32]

Photography for me has always been associated with memory. Photographs operate for me almost as talismans of the locus of memory. History, both personal and universal is constructed and given physical shape through photographs. In the personal environment, photographs operate as a kind of patchwork quilt of family history, stitching together a linear, visual narrative of our family’s history and thus position us in relation to the world.

I link my obsession for the archive back to the absence of it in my familial history. My mother’s father’s side of the family’s personal archive was lost, along with their history, their business and their place in the world when they escaped from Germany in 1939. Half-finished sentences and rumours were all that were left to try to piece together that quarter of my past, that 25% of my patchwork quilt. I have never been able to put faces and names and body shapes and styles to the German names that my grandfather would never mention, so I, alongside most of the women on that side of the family developed a kind of obsession for the archive, for collecting the missing pieces of that patchwork quilt.

For me that manifested in a collecting sensibility and a kind of mania for the archive with photography as my apparatus. It was my method for capturing and cataloguing things, experiences, colour and textures. It was my way of collecting and sewing in my own fabric patches into the big patchwork quilt, keeping safe things that could too easily fall into the clutches of a faceless history. It was also a personal method of wrangling the disorder of the present and the past. As Susan Sontag suggests this instinct is a universal one, with the human impulse to take and collect photographs akin to an attempt to gain order and control. She surmises that “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality… One can’t possess reality, but one can possess images… one can’t possess the present, but one can possess the past”[33]. Thus I believe the archive as a structure and a research methodology is a method and tool for gaining control and a sense of structure in a fluid and changing environment.

The archive as a methodology has formed a large part of my practice. For my series 100 Hundred it was about archiving faces, creating a typology of expression. For An Archive of Light, it was about archiving light, creating a typology of shadow and light, discovering patterns of colour and form and essentially investigating light itself. On a psychological level though, it was about creating an archive of nothingness, a homage to the Void, but more than this, it was about creating a homage to the void in spaces that weren’t even remotely personal. It appeared on a subconscious level that I was trying to make work about things that were completely separate to myself. This is a trend I’ve noticed in my work, this attempt to get as far away from the vestige of the personal as possible, to extricate myself from my practice, as if the two could exist mutually exclusively. For my series 100 Hundred, it was one hundred portraits of people that weren’t myself, for this project it was about documenting spaces that were as alien to me as any other person. I think this impulse links back to my unease with the power dynamics of photography as Sontag describes below, a tiredness with the over-representational quality of contemporary image use, but also with an uneasiness with finality.

As Susan Sontag says “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt”[34]. The archive is the archetypal example of this notion. The archive, by its very nature, is evidence of things past. The family archive, the museum archive and the photographic archive all dictate a typology of things past. Indeed, it is the archive that structures the way that we envision the past.

Bernd and Hiller Becher typological surveys act as totems to a time past. Their methodical workflow have come to symbolize a whole aesthetic movement within photography, but also came to represent the distinctive aesthetic of the industrial movement. In this sense, the photographic archive has potential to shape the way our collective memory remembers the past.  In this paradigm, photography and the archive are synonymous with each other, both represent and embody the past as factual information.

Photographs themselves address time, and every photograph is inevitably a reference to the past, as it can only reference what has been. In this sense, every single photograph is by its very nature a legacy of a moment past and thus an archive in itself. As Uta Barth explains, “For seventeen years I have made work that consists of sequences in order to talk about the passage of time while looking at things that don’t change much at all.”[35]

In this sense, photography is always about the past, and every act of photographing something, immortalizing it in silver or formulations of data, is an act of banishing it irredeemably to the past.

My decision to photograph and archive particular gallery spaces could be seen as coming from an underlying impulse to make an intervention into what I view as archival spaces. The museum and art gallery are the archetype of the archive for the visual arts. The physical space of the art gallery is simply the blank canvas or empty shell which is populated with art and meaning as works are installed. But the space itself has a value and a character and is worthy of documentation and study. It also felt like a wickedly rewarding subversive act to walk around notable and culturally important galleries and turn my attention and my camera away from its presumed object of attention – the works of art of cultural importance, and instead focus on the empty expanses of the gallery walls. In a performative sense this was very satisfying, watching the reactions and bewilderment of other gallery-goers who were intent on photographing all the works of art, as they strained to see what I was intently focusing my camera on. It was nice to make these informal interventions into the script of how one is meant to perform when in a gallery setting, a small disruption to the hierarchy of what warrants being photographed in the gallery space.

My decision to present my slide images in the format of the lightbox, in the shape of a plinth was to engage with the formal sculptural characteristics of the archival museum object. The collection of slides act as an archive of the immaterial light of the gallery space. Museum objects are traditionally displayed on a plinth in formal presentation, so it made complete sense, that these museum objects, which are indeed objects made up of photographic renditions of the museum or gallery space, be presented as such. This decision to use the lightbox and plinth format also allowed my work to transcend the dominant usage of the photographic image in a two-dimensional format. The work now becomes a sculptural installation that is able to be engaged with physically; the viewer can walk around, peer in and touch the slides; angling themselves for a more intimate relationship with the spaces that are pictured. The variable heights of the plinths allow the works to move into becoming a kind of city scape or architecture, all depicting distinctive interior architectures of the gallery space.

Conclusion

An Archive of Light is the product of an ongoing investigation into photography itself. At once supremely disciplined and technical, but also extremely personal and intuitive, it is a technical investigation into light itself, that indirectly addresses a deeper, more personal impulses to archive. The work itself is part of what I see as a larger, ongoing process of continual archiving, an instinct to keep collecting, a soothing methodology and workflow. By creating strict rules and conventions that I need to follow – fuji provia film, white on white spaces, photographing only shadows and forms devoid of representation I am creating an archive of nothingness.

I am also fragmenting the Museum space. By cutting out these segments of shadow and light, and rebuilding the tiny slide details as a strictly gridded archive of images built into a symbolically powerful plinth object, I am encouraging a somewhat ironic dialogue between the plinth as support for the artwork, but also as a tiny architectural miniature of the Museum or gallery itself. The nine plinths of various heights become a metaphor for the small installed ‘city’ of Museums that the viewer moves through and around, creating a participatory affect in the installation of the work. As the viewer navigates through the installed plinth city, they undertake the same mission as I did, searching for and digesting an archive of light.

Bibliography

 

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[1] Carol Squiers, ed Geoffrey Batchen, et al. What is a Photograph, London: Prestel, 2014, 47

[2] Lyle Rexer,  Photography’s Antiquarian Avante-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes, Abrams Publishing: New York, USA, 2002, 11

[3] Geoffrey Batchen, Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph. Munich: DelMonico. Books; New Plymouth, NZ: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2016

 pg 6

[4] Geoffrey Batchen, Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph, Munich, Germany: Prestel, 2016, 13

[5] Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, New York:Aperture, Distributed Art Publishers, 2009

[6] Roland Barthes, extract from La Chambre Claire, Paris, Gallimard, 1980; trans. Rochard Howard, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, 80

[7] Ibid 81

[8] Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, “Photography” in Photography: Essays and Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980, 88

[9] William Henry Fox Talbot, “Photogenic Drawings Exhibition in 1839”, in Henry Fox Talbot: Selected Texts and Bibliography, ed. Mike Weaver. Oxford: Clio, 1992, 75

[10] Melissa Miles, The Language of Light and Dark, 18

[11] Miles, 19

[12] Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, translated by Thomas J. Harper & Edward G. Seidensticker, New Haven, Conn. :Leete’s Island Books, 1977, 28

[13] Ibid. 29

[14] Fraenkel Gallery website – https://fraenkelgallery.com/exhibitions/colors-of-shadow accessed 6th December, 2016

[15] Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, translated by Thomas J. Harper & Edward G. Seidensticker, New Havem, Conn. :Leete’s Island Books, 1977, 30

[16] Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, New York:Aperture, Distributed Art Publishers, 2009, 12

[17] Uta Barth in an interview with Marilyn Knode, artliesno. 7, 1995, p.30

[18] Ibid

[19]  Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, translated by Thomas J. Harper & Edward G. Seidensticker, New Havem, Conn. :Leete’s Island Books, 1977

[20] Miles 19

[21] Effects of lights of different color temperature on the nocturnal changes in core temperature and melatonin in humans. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8979406

[22] “Photography, an Art of the Real” in What is a Photograph, Carol Squiers, ed, Geoffrey Batchen, George Baker, Hito Steyerl, London: Prestel, 2014, 47

[23] Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, New York:Aperture, Distributed Art Publishers, 2009, 191

[24] Ibid

[25] Carol Squiers, ed, Geoffrey Batchen, George Baker, Hito Steyerl,

What is a Photograph, London: Prestel, 2014, 26

[26] Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, New York:Aperture, Distributed Art Publishers, 2009, 180

[27] Artist website: http://meghannriepenhoff.com/project/eluvium/ (“Eluvium | Meghann Riepenhoff” 2017 accessed 16/03/2017

[28] Antiquarian Avante-Garde, pg. 9

[29] Walead Beshty: Natural Histories, 2nd edition (Zurich, Switzerland: JRPRingier) p 190

[30] In The Studio: Daisuke Yokota, In Photograph magazine, November/December 2015 issue. Pg. 98.

[31] Ibid

[32] A Matter of Memory: Photography as Object in the Digital Age . Exhibition Catalogue text, accessed from https://eastman.org/matter-memory-photography-object-digital-age on the 10th of Feb 2017.

[33] On Photography footnote needed

[34] On Photography FOOTNOTE needed

[35] http://www.tilted-arc.com/2015/01/27/artists-on-rhythm-uta-barth/nggallery/thumbnails

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