A Creative Exercise.

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OCTOBER 9, 2009

From time to time, photographers need to recharge their batteries — not just the ones in their cameras, but their creative batteries as well. That could just be by taking a vacation — seeing new places, new things — or it could be by experimenting with a new style or a new medium to get the juices flowing.

 

In July I attended an artists’ forum one evening in Portland called Pecha Kucha. This group brings together speakers from different artistic disciplines — painting, sculpture, graphic design, photography, music, theater, architectural design, etc. — to talk about their work. Each presenter is allowed 6 min, 40 sec to show 20 slides. They can talk about what informs or inspires their work; they can show a long-term project they’ve been working on; or they can show something new they’re experimenting with. That evening I was most intrigued by David Weinberg’s collection of images. An illustrator who is used to drawing things out by hand, David had started using the camera in his cell phone to replace his sketchpad. He showed a selection of square images that were interesting individually, but then he combined them in four-panel sequences (an influence from his days of drawing cartoon strips). The interplay of the images with each other then created a new visual experience. I just loved them.

 

I now wanted to play with something new — well actually, something old. Instead of using the latest technology to create pictures, I decided to go back to a very early image-making process — photograms. These are images made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of photo-sensitized paper and then exposing it to light. You can do this with regular photo paper, but since I no longer have a chemical darkroom set up, I chose to make the photograms as cyanotypes. A process developed in the mid-1800s, cyanotypes are made by coating paper with a solution of ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferricyanide. When the paper is exposed to an ultraviolet light source like the sun, the UV light reduces the iron. When it reacts with the ferricyanide, it creates an insoluble blue dye known as Prussian blue. You develop the picture by flushing the paper with water. I used pre-treated paper, which you can buy in kits, so that I didn’t have to mix chemicals in my kitchen.

 

This was a purely aesthetic exercise for me. I didn’t have someone’s great facial expression to rely on, like in portraiture; I wasn’t looking for a “moment,” like in photojournalism; I wasn’t having to make a corporate client’s business or product look its best. I was just concentrated on using shapes and space to create an interesting visual experience. Off and on over a period of about 10 weeks, I worked on the pictures, finding out how much time was needed to expose the paper properly and what types of objects worked well in the photograms. Once my images were made on paper, I scanned them into the computer. Seeing all the pictures in Prussian blue, though, was fatiguing to my eyes, so I began to make changes to them in Photoshop. I began with small changes, like slightly de-saturating the blue. Afterwards, I toyed with replacing some of the blue tones with other colors and playing off the color changes in the positive and negative areas of the images. In one sequence I stripped out all remnants of the original Prussian blue in the images. I replaced colors and also used color inversion on the pictures. When I started this project, my thought was to stick strictly with the old-time photo process, but I got more enjoyment out of it in the end by incorporating digital technology into the final images.

 

Last night I was selected to be among the 10 presenters at Pecha Kucha. I started by showing some of my portraits and photojournalism so the audience could see the divergence in style and technique that this project represented. The six minutes flew by in a whirlwind. There was so much other wonderful work to look at as well — from Thomas Hillman’s simple but elegant graphic designs, to Greg Daly’s complex and intricate dioramas depicting World War II scenes that had the audience cheering. I’d like to thank Lynnelle Wilson, of Bold Vision Consulting, for encouraging me to submit my work to the review panel and David Weinberg, the cellphone sketchpad artist, for being an inspiration to me.

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