If you thought you knew the medium of photography, the exhibition currently at the Maine Museum of Photographic Arts (MMPA), “The Morphing Medium: Photographic Books, Installations, Alternative Process and Ephemera” (through December 3), will probably – and luckily – exploding this view.
As the title suggests, the show has a lot going for it. Too much, in fact. Work from around 20 artists fills the walls, which means calmer contemplative works like Dawn Surratt and Sarah Szwajkos’ ethereal “Ephemerality” installation “Liminal III, IV and XI” don’t have the space they need. need to really fall into it. this is necessary to fully appreciate their lyricism and aura of the sublime. And a plexiglass case filled with handmade books and other objects makes these works a bit inaccessible (and also cluttered).
But several variations on the photographic medium will surprise our prevailing notions of what photography is. Take, for example, the assumption that a camera is necessary to produce a photographic work. While it was at one point for Deb Whitney’s “Rose Colored Goggles” series, the actual making of these pieces required no such thing. Whitney appropriates photographs of WWII-era women and transfers them to cut-out pieces of pink reception blankets.
These women are soldiers, pilots, riveters and others whose efforts in the name of war have kept America functioning and the various military fronts supplied with ammunition. All of them wear glasses with Whitney embroidering the lenses with pink stitching. She also embroiders halos, force fields, and other designs around their faces.
Yes, someone originally had to take the photos she embeds. But the names and identities of photographer and subject are mostly lost to history. What Whitney has created—essentially feminist works that glorify the resilience of these women as well as so-called “women’s work” (embroidery, mothering)—is several steps removed from the photographic process. It is a powerful and interesting installation that relates only indirectly to the medium.
DW Witman offers us circular works that give the impression that we are looking at sections of the cosmos through a telescope. But deep space, stars, nebulae and comet trails here are nothing like that. For this series, she went out late at night to hunt slugs, then placed them on gelatin silver photographic paper. What we read as planetary activity are actually the tracks they made over time intervals as they crossed, weaved through and back on the paper.
Photograms, which are essentially what they are, date back to the beginnings of photography and were particularly popularized in the 1920s by Man Ray. But these are of a different order in that they actually record action (albeit very slow action) rather than static objects placed on the paper and exposed to light.
“With Supercluster Arion and Other Phenomena,” Witman writes of the work, “I continue to explore my obsessive themes – the ephemeral, biology, synergy, and finding a way to render the intangible tangible.” These works are both science and art, which the earlier photograms are not. And don’t worry about slug lovers; no slugs were harmed during the work.
Sarah Szwajkos’ practice involves climbing to a high vantage point and photographing the open sky. She then mounts these large format prints on Plexiglas. It’s a fairly conventional use of the medium. Still, there’s no indication of the source material here, which is intentional. We are simply faced with what look like color studies. The Plexi allows light to seep into the area behind the prints themselves, making them liquid and shiny.
The combined effect of this technique and practice allows Szwajkos to evoke an entirely different state of mind and space, something that exists, in the words of her statement (actually a poem she wrote) “between – everything and nothing”. Rather than simply capturing a specific moment in time with its particular conditions (primary objective of photography), it transports us to a non-existent mystical state.
Barbara Goodbody uses a process called etching for both of her images. It was a process – based on a 19th century technique but perfected in the 1960s – that she learned from Jean-Pierre Sudre during a stay in Paris. This involves immersing a fully developed print in wet baths (acidic copper(II) chloride, hydrogen peroxide bleach, acetic acid). This lifts the black emulsions from the surface, altering the image. The time spent by the print in these baths produces varying degrees of weathering.
And that’s the point. Again, it starts with the photograph, but the end result differs significantly from what we see. So a sunflower, for example, looks so burnt and bleached by the light that it enhances our feeling of sunshine and warmth in the final composition. It is a manipulation controlled by the artist to accentuate this or that effect.
The fine-tuning of the medium employed by W. Eric Brown – at least in my favorite of his books, “Quality Enlargements 1/1” – is found in the Rives RBK paper he uses. Images are inkjet prints of beach scenes: palm trees, ocean, a pool, a cove, various architectural details, etc. But when the ink hits the paper, something wonderful happens. The 100% cotton material has a woven backing that amplifies ink absorption. This, together with the creamy color of the paper, results in images that look like old postcards from the 1940s, but on a large scale. The sense of memory they evoke is comforting, but also poignant, palpable.
Carol Eisenberg’s images are digital manipulations. The original material of the elements she superimposes and mixes are photographs that she takes and loads into a computer. Then she begins to isolate elements and superimpose them in such a way as to create particularly painterly images. They are only “photographic” in their original state, but then extrapolated into textures, colors and applications that a painter might create using pigments and brush strokes.
Obviously, there’s a lot more here – too much to delve into. In order to appreciate what many of these artists do, it really helps to know the techniques they use. Director Denise Froehlich needs little prompting to launch into illuminating explanations. This makes visiting this postage stamp-sized gallery-museum a particularly interesting and educational experience.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]