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LA Review of Books Reviews "Light, Paper, Process"

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by Michael Kurcfeld

Most people think of the photographer’s job as going into the world and documenting the “truth” of what they find before them. Even portrait photographers and studio-bound artists who shoot constructed tableaux fall within the relatively conventional domain of people with cameras aiming at visual phenomena “out there.” In the Getty Museum’s superb, thought-provoking exhibition Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, curator Virginia Heckert has selected seven photographers who are more concerned with exploring the fundamental nature of the medium, from the inside out.

In works that often rely on the chance effects of chemistry on paper (paper as elemental to photographic art as canvas is to the history of painting), these seven — Matthew Brandt, Marcel Breuer, John Chiara, Chris McCaw, Lisa Oppenheim, Alison Rossiter, and James Welling — extend the antecedent genealogy of pioneers such as Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and Edmund Teske (some of whose works, photograms, and the like are featured here as well). The compulsion to experiment with expired or abraded paper, retooled cameras, foreign chemical solutions, camera obscura setups, hours-long exposures, and other deviations from standard photographic practice has resulted in works that are often astonishingly beautiful, and exhilarating in their strangeness. They provide a visceral sense of the materiality of the medium that, in modernist terms, goes deeper than the frozen-in-time 2-D illusionism that most photography entails.

Most of the artists on view have a background in traditional darkroom techniques, or so-called analog photography, and their love of this “wet” approach to image-making is evident in the ways in which they seem to defiantly revel in hands-on process, tactility, and unfolding accident-driven discovery. Paper as a recording surface is reexamined and coaxed to new purpose, usually involving a keen awareness of the passage of time. Some images are course-grained, some finely etched; some black-and-white, others in saturated color; some are landscapes, either plainly pictorialist or merely suggested, others pure abstractions — compatible with the theory that abstract painting arose out of the distilled geometries of landscape. But all inhabit the horizon line between joyful science and cutting-edge, enduring art.

Source: Los Angeles Review of Books.

Artillery Magazine Reviews "Light, Paper, Process"

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Back to the Future
by Colin Westerbeck

The only quibble I might have with the Getty’s excellent show, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, would be that its title is too literal-minded. A show as exciting as this one is might have had a more adventurous title – say, Back to the Future, or maybe The Framebreakers. On the other hand, the show’s  curator, Virginia Heckert, might counter that the material in her exhibition is so full of paradoxes you don’t need to add another layer with a quippy title.

My analogy to the 19th-century Luddites in England, who were hand weavers that rebelled against the industrialization of their craft by smashing the mechanical weaving frames newly invented then, occurred to me because digital technology is causing a comparable upheaval in the history of photography today. But the reaction of the seven photographers in the Getty show to the situation now is more complicated — more witty and contrarian. For what these artists are breaking down and breaking up is not the new invention, but the old ways in which photography has been done since the 19th century.

Consider, for example, the work of John Chiara. Californians will recognize in his landscape photographs a nod to the mammoth-plate camera used by fellow San Franciscan Carleton Watkins to make some of the first photographs of Yosemite in 1861. Chiara’s “Big Camera” is gigundous; it’s a room-sized contraption he trailers to the sites he photographs and in which he can make images as big as 50 x 80 inches. He also goes back to the very earliest experiments in which photographers tried to make direct positives, before the advantage of the negative was discovered. Chiara’s are made on glossy color stock that he processes by sealing it, along with his chemistry, inside a six-foot length of PVC pipe. He sloshes the print around in the chemicals by rolling the pipe back and forth on the floor. The result is a print beguiling in its crudeness, its in-and-out-of focus beauty and irregularly cut edges patched together with Scotch tape. 

A comparably primitive homage to photography’s past is apparent in all the work in the exhibition. Photographs made now in the vacuum of cyber space and processed in the sterile nether world of the computer have driven industrial giants like Eastman Kodak out of business. It was a civilization, as lost now as that of the ancient Incas, to which Alison Rossiter pays a kind of archeological tribute by finding and processing photographic papers long expired. In the digital darkroom, nothing needs to be left to chance, whereas in her work, everything is.

Her first experiment was with a box of Kodabromide E3 that had a 1946 expiration date. She took a sheet of that paper straight to the darkroom and processed it, as she would all her finds, without having exposed it in a camera. Processed, that first sheet looked, as she put it, “like a rubbing on a gravestone.” Sometimes her surprising results are “found photograms” (i.e.,camera—less images made by putting a physical object on photographic print paper and exposing it to light). Her photograms were created by “light leaks, oxicidation, and physical damage” or were “etched into the emulsion surface by mold.” 

Alison Rossiter, American, born 1953, Kilbourn Acme Kruxo, exact expiration date unknown, about 1940s, processed 2013, Gelatin silver print

Alison Rossiter, American, born 1953, Kilbourn Acme Kruxo, exact expiration date unknown, about 1940s, processed 2013, Gelatin silver print

Gulf News Reviews "Light, Paper, Process"

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Performances in the Dark
by Gautam Raja

"A contemporary photography exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles pushes the limits of the medium so far, few of the artists use a camera at all."
Chiara_Expo.jpg

There’s no film big enough, so Chiara shoots directly on photographic paper up to 50×70 inches. Developing the print involves loading it into PVC sewage pipe section almost as tall and broad as Chiara himself, that he has capped so it’s light tight, and agitated by rolling it up and down the clearly much-abused kitchen floor. (Photographers usually agitate by turning their little film tank over every few seconds.)

The wet darkroom
To best understand what these artists are doing, it’s helpful to quickly review the “normal” manual black-and-white photographic process using film, or analogue, cameras. Or, as they are sometimes called these digital days, “chemical cameras”.

Film is exposed and then developed by washing it in a series of chemicals to form a negative. When prints are needed, this negative is projected in a darkroom onto a sheet of photographic paper (labs would offer the choice of ‘matte’ or ‘glossy’) for a specified amount of time, before that paper is also developed and fixed in a series of chemicals.

The chemistry of this development for film and photographic paper are the same. Both come coated with silver halide crystals, among a host of other chemicals. The silver halide reacts when exposed to light, forming a latent image made from an unstable matrix of silver ions. When the paper is “developed”, this image is set by a liquid reducing agent which converts the silver ions to silver—the darker areas have more silver and the brightest areas have none at all, showing the whiteness of the paper. A stop bath arrests this development as it will eventually work on the unexposed silver halide as well, making the image a uniform black. (This process forms the heart of artist Alison Rossiter’s work, mentioned later.)

A chemical called a fixer washes away all the silver halide, ensuring the paper will no longer react to light, and leaving behind the image, writ, as it were, in silver.

You can see how even a regular photographer has a number of choices in the “wet” darkroom, and anyone who wants to experiment with the process has a huge number of variables, whether chemical choice, dilution and temperature, development times, choice of paper and so on.

It’s photographic paper that’s really the toy at this exhibition. Imagine if your childhood self was given a box of light sensitive paper to play with. What might you try? You might expose it to the light of the moon, or to flames. You might light a fuse on it, or strike a non-safety match against it. You might submerge it in water and maybe expose it to light as water trickles off it. Or maybe you’d take photographs, but instead of dipping it into chemicals, you might stand it up and pour chemicals onto it.

Every one of those options is a technique on display at Light, Paper, Process, but don’t think of the exhbition as merely playful. As Virginia Heckert, curator of the exhibit, says of some of the works, “these photographs are documenting their own making.” And of others, “painterly compositions that happen to be on photographic paper”.

Source: GULF NEWS

Gulf News Highlights John Chiara at the J. Paul Getty Museum

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In synopsis, the video of John Chiara at work is straightforward enough. A photographer takes out his camera, drives to a viewpoint, focuses, loads film, and takes a photograph. He goes home and develops the film himself. There’s nothing unusual in this for a fine arts photographer.

What’s startling is the scale at which all this is happening. Taking out the camera involves hitching it to a truck and towing it on its custom trailer. To focus, Chiara has to tug with all his might to move the camera body out inch by inch. To check focus and load film, he actually enters the camera, or “suffocation box” as he calls it, and tapes a photographic paper to the back. After crawling out through a light-tight garbage-bag chute, he’s ready to expose the shot. There’s no shutter, he simply removes the lens cap for a while. He doesn’t use a light meter or a stopwatch, just his intuition, sometimes blocking off part of the lens with his hand to balance the exposure.

There’s no film big enough, so Chiara shoots directly on photographic paper up to 50x70 inches. Developing the print involves loading it into PVC sewage pipe section almost as tall and broad as Chiara himself, that he has capped so it’s light tight, and agitated by rolling it up and down the clearly much-abused kitchen floor. (Photographers usually agitate by turning their little film tank over every few seconds.)

Chiara, based in San Francisco, is one of seven contemporary artists featured at a new exhibition at the famed J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Called Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography it pushes the medium so far that the curator’s tour visits the galleries of four photographers before arriving at one who actually uses a camera.

Source: Gulf News

"Light, Paper, Process" featured in "The New Yorker"

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John Chiara ,  Grandview at Elysian , 2012

John Chiara, Grandview at Elysian, 2012

Experiments in Analog Photography

by Christopher Phillips

At a moment when smartphone users send more than a billion digital images cloud-ward each day, a growing number of contemporary artists are turning away from screen-based images to explore the photograph’s existence as an insistently material object. Often dispensing with the camera and lens entirely, they employ the bare essentials of paper, chemicals, and light to fashion near-abstract images that have a tantalizing physical presence. Works by seven of these new photo-materialists are currently on view in the Getty Museum’s fascinating exhibition Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography. Each artist has a distinctive and often eccentric mode of operation.  

Read this article in its entirety over at The New Yorker.

"Light, Paper, Process" featured in Cultural Weekly

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Excerpted from Allon Schoene's article, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, from Cultural Weekly:.

This exhibition is the first time that The Getty photography galleries have been devoted exclusively to the work of living photographers. The exhibition’s subtitle, “Reinventing Photography,” is an extremely bold statement. However, there is no question that the exhibition fulfills its claim. Since photography’s invention in the first half of the 19th century, photographers have focused on depicting realistic images of the world and our lives. This has hardly been a narrow path. The variations have been infinite; however, one might say that the depiction of either natural or man made objects and phenomena were their primary focus even though there were transformations of images either by the camera or in the darkroom.

–Allon Schoene, 4/30/2015

Sierra at Edison, 2012, Chromogenic Photograph on Kodak Professional Endura Metallic paper, Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Sierra at Edison, 2012, Chromogenic Photograph on Kodak Professional Endura Metallic paper, Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

You can read this article in its entirety over at Cultural Weekly.