We know what photography is: You point a camera at something and take its picture. But what if you don’t use a camera? And what if there is nothing to make a picture of?
Certainly, many have used their cameras to make abstract or quasi abstract images. Sometimes you just have to get close enough to avoid any context, or take it from some extreme angle.
Many decades ago, when I was teaching photography — so long ago that the photo lab was filled with noxious chemicals and darkness visible — I played around with making abstract photographs. Most of my photographs were landscapes and portraits, but in the darkroom between classes, I had time on my hands and tried a number of things out.
But let’s take this a step at a time. First, some straight photographs.
Many years before I began teaching, I knew an artist in Greensboro, NC, named Aime Groulx (he signed his name with a dot over the “X” as if it were an “I”). He was primarily a sculptor, but he also made photographs. One he made was of a doorknob in his house that looked like nothing else but a newly discovered planet. He called it “Doorknob to the Door of Perception.” He was an indifferent printer, but I used his negative to make a good silver print, which I still have.
The image was both totally realistic — it was a doorknob — and yet, as Minor White used to say, it is “what it is, and what else it is.”
Over the years, I took this lesson to heart and made many an image that seemed to be something more than what it is. An orange can be a planet, too.
Or a sand dune can be a spiral.
Finding interesting and beautiful shapes divorced from their quotidian meaning can make us see them more sharply, make us understand something about the colors, shapes, textures, that being able simply to name the subject of a photo prevents us from acknowledging. When we recognize too easily what our photo is of, the image ceases being visual and becomes instead a word. “That’s a picture of a house;” “That’s a picture of a dog,” and by naming it, we find we have done our job and neglect to actually look and to see.
Making something abstract forces us to see those colors, shapes, textures — allows us to find new emotional meanings in the familiar, and new designs.
So, then, let’s take the camera out of the process. Once digital photography nudged out the silver, dried out the Dektol and replaced the Beseler 23C with Photoshop, there were other ways of making image files.
I began experimenting with a flatbed scanner, making extremely high-definition images of flowers. With the scanner cover left open, the background of these images became a very deep black or blue-black and only the parts of the flowers held flat on the glass platen were fully focused. The images were stunning and essentially shadowless.
I tried other things, too.
But there was still a lens involved in the scanner. So, let us return to earlier days, when chemicals still stained a photographer’s hands. I tried scratching the end-bits of developed rolls of film and printing them as if they were negatives.
Still, however, there was the lens of the enlarger focusing the negative down onto the silver paper.
I wanted to get into the image directly, with no mechanical mediation. I wanted to get my hands into the process the way a potter gets his hands into the clay.
So, I dipped my hand into the tray of sodium hyposulfite and pressed it wet onto a sheet of light-sensitive paper, then washed the hypo off the paper and doused it in the developer, which turned the image black except for where the hypo had left its imprint. It made for rather spooky gorilla hands.
I tried it in the reverse way, too, dipping my hand into the developer and then, after the blacked image appeared, finished the process in stop bath and hypo. That gave me a black hand on a white sheet.
Certainly, this gave me an image of the familiar that was decontextualized and made strange. I saw my hand very differently.
There is, however, only so much you can do with a hand. After the first hundred or so versions of my hand, I tried some other things. Like scattering salt on the paper and spraying the developer like Windex down onto the sheet, leaving a scattering of stars on the paper.
I also tried dusting the paper with dry developer granules and spraying it with water, making the black specks on the lighter background. The spray made the salt or the developer wash weakly over the paper, making mid-tones that I enjoyed.
You could make an image that vaguely resembled a portrait.
These experiments continued over the six years I taught, but when I left that job, I became a writer instead of a photographer. My camera was used primarily to illustrate stories I was writing.
I look back at some of the images I made so long ago and feel there might have been something in them. Whether there is or not, the process was worth the time; it gave me great pleasure.
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