For a number of years now, the rise of digital photography has been simultaneously met with cries of the death of chemically-based photography. Since its invention, the medium has been based, more or less, on exposing sensitized material to light to create a latent image, which was then processing. For nearly a century, gelatin silver and the darkroom held steady as the standard for high art photography, family snapshots, and everything in between. But in just a few short years, film has been almost entirely replaced by pixels in both the commercial and consumer markets. As an artist, I have by no means been immune to the advantages of the digital. For over a decade, I have used a flatbed scanner to “photograph” almost all of my subject matter, from figurative montage to still-life.
A few years ago, winged creatures, recently expired, began to find me. Or perhaps, I started to notice them in my path… a moth attracted to a porch lamp and fallen in the sunlight of the morning, a hummingbird prostrate on cement steps after hitting an exterior window, a bat who flew accidentally into a friend’s car on a long night drive home. These creatures are to me, first and foremost, visually interesting. They embody the idea of the still life, the nature morte, in that they are beautiful and worthy of artistic evaluation. It is the gift of photography that their beauty can be immortalized, and essentially transformed by the artist’s gaze. These are not biological studies of specimens, and these photographs are very definitely made, not taken.
Process and subject are intimately intertwined in this body of work. The subjects are explored through a combination of 19th and 21st century photographic processes. The ambrotypes are created by coating black glass with collodion and silver nitrate, and then exposing the wet plate with 19th century lenses, giving the subject a softness of focus and an ambiguity. In contrast, the same subject is photographed directly with a flatbed scanner. This method renders the subject with clarity and excruciating detail: a moth’s body is furry, its wings scaly, its antennae, like the fronds of a new fern. Comparing these processes, and their ability to transform the same subject, reveals to me the power that I have as an artist over my subject, and ultimately how I choose to reveal my subject to the viewer. I believe that in the end, photography is as much subjective editing as it is a truth document.
There is an alchemy that occurs between the subject and the process for me. The ingredients are poetic: ether, grain alcohol, collodion, silver, and lavender in the ambrotypes, pigment and paper in the prints, sometimes layered with the beeswax and resin of encaustic. I hope that there is a sensory experience for the viewer beyond the visual. The smell of lavender and honey are as beautiful to the nose as a moth or dragonfly in flight is to the eyes. Works on paper, pinned to the wall like a specimen in a Riker mount, are not unlike the delicacy and texture of a moth wing, fragile and exposed, easily damaged by touch.
Ultimately, these are small visual memorials to the fallen. After they have given me their visual gifts, I often place them in the woods where they can return to the earth from whence they came. The irony in this work is that it is simultaneously about life and death, about flight and stillness, about photographic truth and the constructed image, about the alchemy of process and its ability to manipulate the subject. But above all, this work is about the ability of a photograph to hold a subject and a moment in time perfectly still, long after that subject has left the earth and time marches forward beyond that moment. In the end, memory is most valuable gift that photography gives us.