I felt there were millions of artists who were making there marks, and i sort of felt the abstract expressionist said it all with abstract art in a way… I wanted to see what would happen if i was the artist who did not make my mark. I let something [the material] tell me something I did not know… It was a matter of giving up control.
– Helène Aylon, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
So I think works of art engage, possibly, an internal memory bank that isn’t linear and it can make you see the outside reality in that way also… You can just go through the history of art that way and immediately you conjure up something that you yourself could not express, and fulfilled in each of us something we lack.
– Richard Serra, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
In 2007 Alison Rossiter purchased a battered box of silver gelatin print paper, stamped with an expiration date of May 1, 1946. Intending to make photograms she headed into the darkroom to make a test print. What emerged on the paper as she moved it through the developer, stop, and fix, she describes as a beautiful Vija Celmins-like graphite drawing. With passion she talks about “finding” the drawing in the tired coating of the paper, “The silver halides could not maintain their light sensitive capacity. I knew then that there was something to go and find in the midst of the deterioration and failure of the paper.” And go and find she did. The shelves of her studio are lined with thousands of packages of expired paper purchased on eBay. Exquisitely beautiful found objects in themselves, the packages display one hundred plus years of design history.
Cameraless photographic processes in art are not new. Avant-garde masters Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray were two of the first artists to make photograms in the early 20th century. Placing objects directly onto photographic paper, they created formal compositions of cast shadows, shapes, and silhouettes. This type of experimentation in the darkroom continues to resurface and to be reinvented by contemporary artists who create abstractions that rely on chance and who celebrate process. These images are often aesthetically and conceptually contrary to the exacting science of photography.
“There’s a renewed interest in hands-on types of work,” Sande-Friedman says, citing Klea McKenna’s photogram series Rain Studies, the chemigram-based work of Amanda Means, and the traveling camera obscura of John Chiara. “When we increasingly use the computer to mediate between ourselves and the natural world, there’s more desire to engage with it directly. These artists are interested in really getting inside nature—both in organic imagery and working with nature as an idea.”
Brandt’s work on Lakes and Reservoirs extended in part from experiments with salted-paper printing, but he says chemistry was more a road to an idea than the idea itself. He was also inspired by a popular story that the British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner had himself strapped to the mast of a boat in order to experience the full force of a gale before painting it. “It’s having a fuller understanding of nature when working with it,” Brandt says. Watching the way that lake water degraded print emulsions gave him a broader sense of the process of natural erosion.
THE STUDIO MANUAL
By Tom Sachs. Directed by Van Neistat. 2010