Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pierre Cordier sends his New Year's greetings

Cordier, Chemigram 1/9/11 II "Squares in Love"

Douglas Collins, inventor of this nonfigurative blog, has offered me the opportunity to wish his readers a Happy New Year.  Happily I accept: this blog is heaven-sent for all of us who practice or appreciate alternative or extraphotographic experimentation.  The texts are clear, carefully documented, the illustrations well chosen.  To my knowledge, in the world of such things, it stands alone.

For my participation in this first post of 2012, I've gone into my recent chemigrams and picked out three pairs of squares, each measuring just a centimeter on a side.  They have had intimate relations, a rare event among squares.  Presenting geometric forms with humor is the specialty of a French artist I much admire, François Morellet.

These "Squares in Love" are not as sharp and clean as the ones I used to make.  Let me explain.  On my website some of you may have seen the Chemigram 12/1/82 "Zigzagram".  It's a completely controlled work, except for three tiny imperfections cause by spots of dust in the 'magical varnish' I employ as a resist.  Some people tease me by saying, "But those are my favorite shapes!"

Cordier, Chemigram 12/1/82 "Zigzagram", detail

The other chemigram I'd take to a desert island (but what good would they do me there?) is the Photo-Chemigram 4/4/79 "Hexagram".  The fine lines you see in it are disturbed by numerous bubbles, dust and defects in the varnish, like a stream crashing among rocks.  Without these imperfections this image could have been made on a computer, which would have had no interest for me.  So I welcome the random effects of matter and materials, but one has to know whether to accept or reject them.

Cordier, Photo-Chemigram 4/4/79 "Hexagram", detail

At the same time, I now accept that certain shapes be blurrier or more hazy than in my previous work.  That suggests depth.

And if even squares can fall in love, why not imitate them during the new year?  So I make a further wish: that all of you create new images with every alternative technique, both possible and imaginable.

Cordierly yours,


Monday, December 12, 2011

Joys of the darkroom: Martha Casanave

(We asked the California photographer and consummate artist Martha Casanave for a few words on her practice.  Here is what she sent us. - DC)

Casanave, silver photogram, 2007
I'll never forget that magic moment the first time I visited a darkroom - I must have been 14 or 15 - and I saw an image appear on a blank piece of paper in the developer tray.  From that moment on I was hooked.  I had to have a darkroom wherever I was living - first in the family bathroom, later in the bedrooms of a succession of rental apartments.  For the rest of my life, I've had recurrent dreams about frustrated efforts to lightproof a room, or moving to a new home and wondering where the darkroom would be.

For me, working in the darkroom makes photographic activity whole, it rounds out the experience.  The camera work is like the shining part of the moon; developing and printing is the dark side.  There you have it - the whole moon. 

One pleasure of the darkroom is that I can shut out the world, and enter another one.  I can slam that door, check it with my hip, and be entirely alone.  No telephone allowed!  I develop roll film in plexiglass tanks, and sheet film in trays, in total darkness.  All I can see are the glowing hands of the timer and a few glow-in-the-dark stars placed here and there on countertops and walls.

When printing, I enjoy the glow of the yellow safelights, the sound of running water, the music.  The magic of an image appearing on paper has never gone away.  I enjoy the moving around, from paper box to enlarger, enlarger to trays, down the tray line.  Depending on my musical choices, I might even dance (James Brown's "Payback") or sing along at the top of my voice (Otis Redding's "I Been Lovin' You Too Long").  I even enjoy the physical tiredness after a day's work, when the damp prints are finally laid out on the screens.

Casanave, self portrait with Ansel Adams,1981

The pleasure of the darkroom has been such an important part of my process that it makes me wonder about the alacrity with which my colleagues have sold off their darkrooms on eBay and switched to the more cerebral and sedentary digital imaging medium.  Did they never enjoy the darkroom activity in the first place?  Did the magic fade for them?  When I remember what Diane Arbus said, in an interview with Studs Terkel - "Art seems to me something you do because it makes you feel good to do it" - it's as if she were standing with me at my trays, feeding off the same thrill. 

Casanave, Balkan breakfast from Kitchen Kama Sutra,1998

Martha's site is

Friday, December 2, 2011

Nolan Preece talks about his work - part I

(We invited the Nevada-based photographer to discuss his artistic odyssey.  This is the first of several parts.  His website is - DC)

Preece, Nolangram #017 (choir), 2001
Let's start off by talking about the cliché-verre pieces from the late 1970s.  It seems I've always had two sides to my art.  I was trained in the Ansel Adams tradition of the fine print and the zone system at Utah State University.  I took a hard core, boot camp zone system class from my favorite photo professor, A.J. Meek.  Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernard, Al Weber, Imogen Cunningham, Jerry Uelsmann and other west coast photographers would frequent our campus giving workshops, lectures, exhibitions and critiques (late 1960s to early 1980s).  I didn't realize what a wonderful experience this was at the time.

Winters were so cold in Cache Valley, where Utah State is situated, with subzero temps for weeks at a time, that my camera gear wouldn't even function outdoors where I wanted to work.  I began to play with chemistry in the darkroom during those cold winter months.  When I went to work on my MFA, I broke with tradition and decided to do my thesis on the "Sabattier Effect."  My second emphasis was printmaking so I have a variety of solvents around the house.  I had researched what Henry Holmes Smith, Frederick Sommer, Francis Bruguiere, Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy had done.  I became interested in the effects of soot on glass simply because it could be put in an enlarger and printed as a negative.  I accidentally dribbled some of the kerosene from the lamp I was using to soot the glass and WOW the most beautiful aray of patterns and 3D-looking landscapes unfold before my eyes.  I immediately started trying every solvent I had, finally settling on mineral spirits as the best and cleanest to the image.  I solarized some of the best "glassprints" and published them in my thesis in 1980.  There are two drawbacks to these clichés-verre: 1) When the solvent is applied, it breaks off bits and pieces of soot, sometimes leaving a matrix that has spots that are difficult to remove from the print.  These days, the matrix can be scanned and cleaned up with the healing brush and clone stamp tools in Photoshop.  2) Many attempts need to be made before coming up with a stunner - you generate a lot of rejects.

I've had a few arguments with photographers about the merits of such work along the lines of: is it really photography without a camera involved?  Douglas Kent Hall, the well known New Mexico photographer (who hailed from my hometown of Vernal, Utah), told me to "become the maestro, name it, teach it and present it to the world."  So I jokingly started calling them "Nolangrams."  We traded prints in 2000, not long before he passed away.

Working in isolation has, in some ways, been a benefit.  Not that I haven't been influenced by others but you get so you draw on something deep inside that starts to surface as your own self expression when you're just working by yourself.

So here I give you a sampling of Nolangrams - or clichés-verre if you prefer, or glassprints.  All are selenium-toned gelatin silver prints from a cliché-verre matrix of sooted glass, printed on Forte Warm Tone paper.

Next time we'll talk about my chemigrams, which have had a different history.

Preece, Nolangram #000(legs), 1979

Preece, Nolangram #026(rolling), 2001