The Photographic Thread

Exploring the connections between techniques and concepts from traditional photographic processes through the post-digital age with the artists featured in CENTER + CURRENTS: Shifting Perspectives.

by C Alex Clark

For our latest collaboration, Currents 826 has teamed up with CENTER to exhibit the work of five photographers as a part of their annual Santa Fe Photo Review. While none of the photographers fall under the category of what we might commonly consider ‘new media’, like most contemporary photographers they do all currently use digital processes to realize their work. I was curious about their processes, how they combine the techniques and concepts of digital and pre-digital ‘traditional’ photography, and what they felt were the implications of creating in a post-digital age. My initial question and the responses from each artist follow.

C: What traditional, non-digital photographic processes do you feel inspire the aesthetic and concept of your work? Can you describe some of the technical or conceptual ways you have incorporated the look and feel of these processes into your work? How do you think exploring traditional photography can affect the aesthetic of the digital world?

Andrés de Varona: Visually, I feel that traditional practices such as calotypes, ambrotypes, and daguerreotypes were a good point of departure for me and influenced the kind of atmosphere I wanted these images to manifest. Conceptually I always felt more engaged by ritualistic practices found in religion. At the moment however I find myself particularly interested in Santeria because of my Cuban heritage, and Catholicism because of my upbringing and the different kind of sacramental stages I had to go through growing up

The ceremonies I create with my family members work in the same way that religious rituals do with the main task of calling upon something greater than ourselves, and deepening spiritual insight through a set of actions. As I’ve grown older, I’ve detached myself from Catholicism, yet I continue to use this idea of rituals to help shape my emotions, re-discover myself again, and embrace death as something beautiful. 

The pictures you see here start in total darkness with my family members beside me, and all of us in total silence. Whether my siblings are physically in the photo or not, they are almost always present off scene. I add ‘light to a dark place’ both technically and conceptually in the sense that my lighting is artificial and specific, illuminating something you couldn’t otherwise capture no matter how long your shutter is going for. Yet the ritual itself is what transcends the light as we interact with it. It becomes a subject in the photo – it’s someone else in the photo. This is us reaching for that contact with death and building a deeper connection to our own lives, as well as the mystery that comes afterward.

I think traditional photography teaches us how to slow down when making an image, which I think is one of the most important lessons in a world where everything has become so immediate. When you’ve handled a large format camera, or printed in the darkroom, you become exposed to a whole new set of sensibilities that I don’t think initially exist in digital photography. If you truly spend time working with analog processes, I believe your relationship to photography becomes much more enriched because of all the complexities, formulas, and time you need to take into consideration when working in the darkroom. I think having that initial knowledge aids in enabling you to push the boundaries of what digital photography can be.

Manuela Thames: I have always been heavily inspired by traditional darkroom black-and-white photography, especially older photos or those taken with limited technical expertise or equipment.  I feel drawn to surprise, unpredictability and imperfections in a photograph and the depth and layers of mood, meaning, and emotion that it adds. So even though I use a digital camera, I often aspire to a similar aesthetic of older, less sophisticated equipment.  I have at times experimented with film cameras, even toy cameras, to discover what can be expressed with them.  

The analogue medium also brings a certain tactile quality that I have lately been experimenting with.  In my most recent project “Trauma”, the initial self-portraits were shot digitally, often using long exposure, and then printed. I then manipulated the prints by adding tape or string, dust from my bookshelf, and by tearing them apart and putting them back together in a different way. I would then take a photograph of the altered prints to produce the final image.

As I said, there are possibilities for expression that depend upon what are, in other contexts, considered imperfections –  lack of focus, over- or under-exposure, and so on. When we fixate on mastering our technical expertise of the modern digital camera, we can easily overlook those possibilities and thereby limit ourselves.  In older photographs, those “imperfections” were often unavoidable due to limitations of equipment or technique, yet the images they produced were remarkable. Going back to such images produced by traditional photography, and allowing myself to be taken in by the extraordinary depths that are contained in them, has been a window into the beauty that can emerge when we embrace the imperfect.

Jonathan Lipkin: The most important pre-digital work for me was the music of Philip Glass, most particularly in the film Koyaanisqatsi. I hadn’t really understood his influence until after I had started the work, but his music ran through my younger years, and echoes in my head today. I would watch Koyaanisqatsi repeatedly, letting it draw me into a state of near transcendence. I was drawn to Glass’ music – its subtle changes to repeating cords – along with Godfrey Reggio’s filming which distorted time. Glass’ other works like Music in Changing Parts, Glassworks, and others continue to delight.

Later, while working on the Translucence of Time, I recognized the resonance that this work had – Glass’ ability to find beauty in the layering of rhythms, and Reggio’s manipulation of our perception of time through film. This was a part of how my work understands the ocean, as a series of interrelated and interconnected eddies and currents, and that by manipulating the viewer’s perception of time, I could bring it into line with my own.

I don’t [think traditional photography should affect the digital world]. We should understand new media for what it is, and its transformative effect on human creativity. The digital realm is a domain of limitless territory. Electronic digital technologies give us newfound freedom to form and shape the creative acts that produce culture. Old media clings to new media, until new media can find its own vocabulary.

Melanie Walker: The alchemy involved in the medium is what has always driven my curiosity. I am fascinated by not only the materiality inherent in the photographic process but also it’s prehistory.

The chemistry of analog photography made ether real…ethereal realities…the record of silver particles dancing.

The fact that Daguerre created dioramas before the daguerreotype has created a connection the proscenium in the theater. The picture frame is the stage and what goes on off the stage remains an unknown.

As a visually impaired person I experience uncertainty on a constant basis with my double vision. Through the use of layering and transparency (which are both inherent in the photographic medium) I attempt to serve as a bridge between the sighted and visually challenged communities to create an immersive tactile experience where ‘reality’ can be questioned

Ryan Schude: The process of light being recorded on a digital sensor shares more similarities with its analog sibling than differences. What they both accomplish is an ability to sit with a brief moment that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to dwell on in everyday life. Even if you witness the same instant with your eyes,  the image is changed once it is bound within a frame and offered the context of the photographer’s choice to say, “look at this”. The decisions surrounding that context inspire the aesthetic and concept of any photographer’s work, the technical aspects of recording what they see is only a function within that process.

More information about the artists and their work can be found on the exhibition page CENTER + CURRENTS: Shifting Perspectives.

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