These are the prints created for my first darkroom project, which I have decided to title “These are mine, they are yours.”
The assignment was to create abstract photographs which don’t represent anything other than abstract form. We were instructed to only use the enlarging paper and the light from the enlarger, and any decisions from therein about how to affect the paper in the developing process, manipulation of the paper as an object, and installation for critique were up to us. But the baseline was, no images, nothing placed on top of the paper to make an outline.
As much as I’ve generally shied away from completely non-representational abstraction and kept my work largely based in imagery, this sort of thing is strangely up my alley. In high school especially I loved to manipulate things before the camera in order to make abstraction, affecting light in a physical manner to be photographed by the camera. This is very much a similar process, except I was playing basically with the chemistry of darkroom paper in order to make the abstraction.
In some ways, this is essentially abstract expressionist photography. Jackson Pollock explored the formal extents of painting, that is, what is painting capable of that no other mediums are, or are hard pressed to emulate? He answered this with size, viscosity, extreme gesture and paint material based abstraction. Similar experiments are happening in this project: I created these images in a brief and basic inquiry into “what can I get enlarging paper to do that no other medium will be able to really do?”
But, ultimately, these were just images. Abstract, yes, but they were images in the sense that they existed on an 8×10 sheet of enlarging paper and were meant to be looked at as such. We were charged by our professor the think about how to “get prints off the wall”, to push past basic forms of photography as looking at prints on the wall and being done with them after looking away.
I could not, for the life of me, figure out a good way of “getting them off the wall”. I liked looking at them. Any kind of idea I had for sculptural presentation felt weird and foreign and “tacked on”. When one idea fell through, I reverted to my “safe thinking mode” which is basically just staring very intently at the problem and maybe writing a bit. Since it was during a class work period, my instructor asked me to get in the darkroom and actually work. I had no direction and I was a little frustrated because I like to spread out and work alone in the darkroom, but I grumbled and got into it.
I kept doing what I was doing, lacking a better direction. I made more images and looked at them and made some more and looked at them. It occurred to me that the natural place for these prints was in someone’s hands. Furthermore, since all of these were all very unique experimentations (I never really set out with any print trying to duplicate previous results, but always add something new and try to find some interesting new effect) I felt that all of them were strong and were worth looking at individually. Finally, looking and thinking about everything I had made, I thought “I probably have enough for everyone in the class to keep one.”
That was sort of the “aha” moment that informed every finer point from there on. My instructor later described what I thought was a similar phenomenon: in art, oftentimes you have to start generally, work a lot, and slowly and intuitively narrow it down to one “thing”, be it a concept, image, emotion, some decisive thing which is the core of the whole project, and from there expand it back outwards so that all the details are pinned down. But you can’t really pin down details without the big picture.
I came up with a body of 17 prints that I was happy with (there were a lot of duds discarded along the way) and laid them out on a table. At the beginning of my critique I said “There are enough prints here for everyone, so pick them up and look at them and pass them around and when we’re done you can keep the print you have.” The effect was essentially how I intended: everyone picked up a print, studied them, poured over the details, compared them to others’, talked about how they were made, but there was a personal relationship with each print.
This was a very satisfying project in that it feels the closer to how I want my work to be shared than any other project I’ve done, than any way I’ve yet made and shared photos. Each print is an incredibly unique thing: even if I used the same chemicals, same motions, same times, I would see very different results on each one because of the unpredictable nature of how these liquids run together and dilute and affect the paper. I put care, time, creative energy into each one, and curated each photo so that I was quite happy with the whole set. But instead of just presenting these and then filing them away in a folder for the sake of reminiscing, in this project was the act of release, the act of sharing and giving a piece of myself to my classmates and instructor. The hope is that they would have a similar sort of interested and invested relationship with the unique object that I’d had, but the beautiful thing is that my control and involvement stops with the act of giving it away.
I’m very skeptical of this strange sort of “loneliness in a city full of people” mentality of art, of life in general actually. Without anything to compare it to, really, I’m hesitant to say that culture has “drifted” in this direction, but it seems to me that especially because of the internet we are disposed to breadth over depth, to simplification and streamline and reduction. Physically giving my classmates these prints felt better than any picture I’ve ever put online for the sake of faceless users to look at and have, at most, feedback of incrementing a value. Oooh, I’ve got xxxx likes, xxxxx reblogs, xxxxx whatever. The quantification implies a sort of reduction of the infinite complexity of social interaction into a algorithm. It feels inane to me. I’d rather have one incredible friend than a vast number of a people I sort of know, I’d rather have one person hold a print of mine and say “thank you for giving this to me, I love it.” than one hundred million points of data that say someone responded favorably to this image.