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Reborn Victorians: today, a generation of contemporary artists is returning to photography's historic roots but with a modern twist that straddles 19th- and 21st-century processes.

As the art of photography marches relentlessly down the digital path, a surprisingly opposite trend has also emerged. These days, contemporary artists throughout the United States are experimenting with antique photographic processes, pioneering a resurrection of photographic techniques that faded from use more than a century ago. Although this new, handmade work is anchored in the technology of the past, it is infused with contemporary aesthetic ideas and reinvention. These born-again Victorian photographers use antique tools and methods to record and manipulate contemporary subject matter in fresh, new and individualistic ways.

"This work is about opening up the discourse," said Carolyn McCusker, curator at San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA). "In the 19th century, the camera was in the hands of privilege, a certain class and usually a certain gender--white males. Now Jayne Hinds Bidaut is photographing nude men, Deborah Luster is making images of black men, and Jerry Burchfield makes photograms of roadkill, showing us the outline of a dead coyote's corpse."

Gaining Momentum

MoPA is one of several museums and public galleries that have exhibited Victorian style photographs in the past few years. In March, MoPA presented the works of 13 cutting-edge artists in "Secret Victorians: Contemporary Photographers Working in 19th Century Processes" as a companion show to the museum's homage to pioneer photographer William Henry Fox Talbot, whose works from the early 1800s are seldom exhibited. In December, MoPA will exhibit tintypes by Los Angeles artist Stephen Berkman, including commissioned portraits of actors Nicole Kidman and Jude Law made by Berkman for the upcoming Civil War movie, "Cold Mountain" which is slated for a Christmas Day release.

Also, the Cleveland Museum of Art presented a solo show of Bidaut's tintypes last spring. In 2001, the Fisher Gallery at the University of Southern California showcased "Lost and Found: Rediscovering Early Photographic Processes," an exhibition of 19th century American daguerreotype, tintype and ambrotype portraits that were contrasted with works by contemporary artists who have revived these techniques. (The exhibition is still online at Fisher Gallery's virtual exhibit imsc.usc.edu/ haptics/LostandFound/welcome.html.)

Several recent books focus on contemporary artists who are reviving historic photographic processes, including Arena Editions' "McDermott & McGough." The book, with text by Mark Alice Durant, documents photographers David McDermott and Peter McGough's explorations of a number of historical photographic processes, including gum bichromate, cyanotype, platinum palladium and salt printing.

Bidaut also has a new book, "Animalerie," scheduled for publication early next year, while Twin Palms Publishers has slated its new collection of Luster's tintypes for a November release.

There is a groundswell of interest in commercial art galleries as well. Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York exhibits Jerry Spagnoli's daguerreotypes. In Dallas, Sun to Moon Gallery now represents Jill Skulpin Burkholde, who works with bromoilprints. The White Room Gallery, in West Hollywood, Calif., has presented several group shows of these works. Ricco-Maresca Gallery in New York exhibits works by Bidaut--whose next show is scheduled for February 2004--and Mark Kessler, who makes contemporary daguerreotypes Howard Greenberg Gallery, also in New York, is planning upcoming shows for France Scully Osterman, who works in the wet plate collodion process, and her husband, Mark Osterman, who has been experimenting lately with many early photographic processes.

Sarah Morthland Gallery in New York started the ball rolling in 1997 with its seminal exhibit, "Inventors and Alchemists." "The show was really meant to seduce people to see what this photography was about and its tremendous beauty," recalled Morthland. "Even bad results have a tendency to look charming.

Today's point and crick technology has made the art of making images increasingly simple. Yet, said San Francisco art dealer Deborah Heimerdinger, "There is something very soul-satisfying to go through a long and involved process with a lot of limitations to make a single art piece."

Sarah Hasted Mann, director of photography at Ricco-Maresca Gallery, agrees. "Hand-applied emulsion on anodized aluminum (the process employed by Bidaut) is very hard," she said. "You can ruin 20 plates to get one."

Labor of Love

Today, as in the 19th century, the processes required to create calotypes, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, cyanotypes and tintypes are time-consuming, messy, cumbersome, erratic and sometimes downright dangerous since they often require use of such toxic chemicals as ammonium chloride, arsenic and cyanide. But to some photographers, the unpredictability of the processes is part of the attraction.

"When I shoot collodion, I embrace the accidents, the serendipity of the process," photographer Sally Mann told arts writer Lyle Rexer in his book "Photography's Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes."

Similarly, France Scully Osterman noted, "As an artist, I lean toward the hand-crafted. I make my own film from scratch. I make my own prints from scratch. It is almost like alchemy. You are constantly touching the plate. You know an image is done by visual inspection. Needless to say, there is a lot of serendipity."

The resulting photographs are as varied as the artists who make them. In their hands, many of the antique-process images have a peculiar, off-center charm.

Bidaut makes tintypes depicting bugs, moths and skeletons. Mann created a series of collodion glass negatives titled "Graven Images," which document the decaying bones of her greyhound. Dan Puntel does wet plate collodion ambrotype and salt print still life assemblages created from vegetation found in his yard--an apple cut in half, dried poppy pods or a pile of potatoes.

Stephen Berkman fabricates tableaus and character portraits in ambrotypes and tintypes. "I use history as a co-conspirator to create an illusion, a constructed reality that appears to be authentic," he said. "I reinsert my vision of the past and possibly change the future."

Luster's small-scale portrait images are reminiscent of Civil War tintypes (she prints the 5- by 4-inch photographs in silver gelatin on aluminum), but her subjects are prisoners in three Louisiana jails, men and women who would never have been the subject of such portraits 150 years ago.

Artist Jerry Spagnoli is often credited with reinventing the daguerreotype process. His images explore cityscapes and contemporary events, transforming them into a collision of the historic and the new. Fellow daguerrean Mark Kessell focuses on the small details, such as the fragment of a lace or a hand.

Jill Skulpin Burkholder uses the 19th century bromoil process to create romanticized, painterly pictorial images. Scully Osterman's "Sleep" series reinvents Julia Margaret Cameron's mid-19th century works, but with a modern viewpoint and modern lighting.

An Eye for the Eccentric

As the photographic process historian for the Advanced Residency Conservation Program at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., Mark Osterman often makes images of eccentric and offbeat 19th-century photographic and scientific equipment. He has also done a series of self-portraits based on a traveling medicine show in which he once performed. He refers to his work as "the drive of a curious mind."

These artists are often considered, well, quirky. John Coffer, one of the new pioneers of the old art of wet plate collodion, lives in a 19th-century-style, two-room cabin he built himself on an upstate New York farm. He doesn't drive (though he hitches his horse, Brownie, to a buggy), has no phone or electricity and cooks on a wood-burning stove.

As an artist, Coffer wanted to get back to the roots of photography. He uses 19th-century cameras to produce tintype plates with images of ordinary farm objects such as haystacks and homegrown vegetables. He has also photographed Coney Island and is working on building a large camera to accommodate 20- by 24-inch tintypes.

"His life is a reenactment" said New York art dealer Carolyn Kerrigan, co-owner of Kerrigan Campbell Art Plus Projects. Kerrigan Campbell will showcase Coffer's work in February, 2004. "Coffer revived the medium of wet plate collodion and tintype," Kerrigan said. "He has really influenced a whole generation of photographers."

McDermott and McGough are artists who fancy the 19th century. They dress and live as 19th century dandies. As a part of this artistic lifestyle, McDermott and McGough use old-fashioned cameras and processes to produce their pictures, which range from photogravures to a variety of photographic forms, including gum bichromate prints and cyanotypes.

While photographer Stephen Berkman lives in the here and now, his Pasadena, Calif., studio contains two Victorian-era gowns, mother and daughter-sized. But the dresses, placed on mannequins, are really camera obscuras, mechanisms that capture images.

The "antique" camera mounted on Berkman's wall is also a camera obscura, this one a surveillance device. Berkman often photographs people dressed in Victorian-era garb, surrounded by period accessories and furnishings he collects at flea markets and Hollywood prop houses.

Bidaut started collecting bugs and capturing them as tintypes in 1996. She has since progressed to small animals, alive and dead. Not long ago, she began photographing the Peabody Museum's taxidermy collection. Indeed, said Sarah Hasted Mann, "Jayne has a very old soul--she has a Victorian sensibility. Her darkroom and studio is just a treasure-trove."

When Bidaut first brought her work into the Ricco-Maresca Gallery, recalled Mann, "I asked, 'Who does tintypes anymore? I've never sold a contemporary tintype.' But the first person I showed them to bought 13 on the spot. In December, 1998, her first show sold out. Everybody I showed them to had to have one. She's collected in museums, and she had a solo show at the Cleveland Museum of Art earlier this year. If only all my artists had such a quick trajectory."

Interest in old processes and the artists who use them has been growing since the 1970s, said Mark Osterman. "At first, photographers began looking at the final print. We started seeing people making platinum, palladium, gum and cyanotype prints, and that movement came to be called 'alternative processes.' In the 1980s, the idea of not the print, but rather what is being made in the camera began to take hold."

At first, many of the new-old photographers were more interested in the historic reenactment of the process than than the art form itself. Some began to take their gear to Civil War battle reenactments and offer portrait services to history buffs who were dressed in 19th-century fashion. Some of these new "vintage" portraits have begun to show up at antique shops and auction houses, where they have been incorrectly presented as authentic Civil War era images.

Mark Osterman said the subjects of 19th- century-style photographs must have an intrinsic quality to them. They can't just be pretty reenactments.

"If the art isn't interesting, what is the point?" he said. "If the only reason an image is interesting to a viewer is that it is on glass, then it is artistically a failure."

Sally Mann said the wet plate collodion process allows her to be totally involved in the act of making an image. "For me, 19th-century photography is simply unsurpassed," she told Rexer." Its artists conducted a comprehensive investigation of what the camera could elicit. They wanted to know what the camera had to do with reality. It is not that they wanted to see what the world looked like. They wanted to see what it looked like photographed. And that is still the point."

SOURCES

* Fong/Heiderdinger Gallery, (415) 566-1910

* Ricco-Maresca Gallery, (212) 627-4819

* Sarah Morthland Gallery, (212) 242-7767

* Kerrigan Campbell Art Plus Project, (212) 505-7196

* Edwynn Houk Gallery, (212) 750-7070

* Howard Greenberg Gallery, (212) 334-0010

* Sun to Moon Gallery, (972) 418-1199

* Fisher Gallery at the University of Southern California, imsc.usc.edu/haptics/LostandFound/ welcome.html
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Title Annotation:Antique photo processes
Author:Meyers, Laura
Publication:Art Business News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:1904
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