Developing tales

Digital cameras make it easier than ever to get that perfect shot, but some photographers have discovered that there’s more potential for experimentation with old-style, film based techniques. Fiona Sibley takes a look at the work of four artists who put analogue mechanics at the heart of their art

September 1840, William Henry Fox Talbot struck upon the combination of light, paper and the chemicals to turn the flickering ‘fairy images’ reflected in his camera obscura into the birth of the modern photograph. Nearly 170 years later, this process is so taken for granted that the real alchemy of photography is dismissed as secondary to the power of the photographic subject.

As doors close on photographic darkrooms, many photographers have consigned photosensitive experimentation to a past made obsolete by the digital image. Many, but not all. For some fine art photographers the demise of mainstream film photography has been a catalyst to rediscover the nascent craft of image-making. In particular, artists are drawing upon alternative, analogue techniques which can create metaphors for human existence, time and memory more poetically than the conventional photographic process.

These four artists experiment with fleeting, impermanent states of photography. What unites them is a tendency to play with the mechanics of the process to convey the ephemeral nature of the subjects their photographs record.

Time and transience are key factors in Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s work because their photographic medium – living grass – is incapable of holding a permanent image. Beginning 18 years ago, the pair were drawn to the potential of grass, whose green pigment chlorophyll is light sensitive, to ‘grow’ living photographs. ‘Often our work is about setting up a situation and letting natural processes take over,’ explains Harvey.

Co-opting a natural process chimes with the subject matter/ their portraits do not feign any Dorian Gray-like immortality, but fade with their mortal subjects. Destroyed by exposure to light, these living, breathing images have a limited lifespan. ‘With the first portrait we grew – of an elderly lady in Italy – it was very haunting to see her face in the blades of grass,’ says Ackroyd. ‘As it faded, it didn’t lose potency. In fact, it became stronger as you found yourself searching for the image. The connection between the resonance of the portrait and the material we were using – this living, organic material – became very binding.’

Installations are created by turning each site into a darkroom and projecting a negative on to the living ‘canvas’. ‘The picture develops on a molecular level by inhabiting the blades of grass. The grass is thicker and healthier where it has received the light and poorer elsewhere, so there’s an almost three-dimensional quality,’ says Harvey.

While the works are deliberately ephemeral, Ackroyd and Harvey couldn’t resist finding a way to fix some images permanently. A project with biochemists at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Wales revealed a stay-green grass that allows works to be grown, dried and preserved. Now their practice oscillates between the two modes. ‘We were susceptible to the desire to hold on to something you know is transient,’ says Ackroyd.

The memorial and the missing are ideas Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz explores in his work. Like the flickering images of pioneering Victorian photographers, Muñoz creates deliberately transient photographic and video works that emphasise how human life hangs by a thread. His images appear and disappear by the act of looking, or breathing even – as in the case of Aliento. This work, installed at his recent solo exhibition at Iniva, consists of a series of polished metal discs – breathe on them and a ghostly facial image appears, printed in an oily substrate that requires moisture to be visible. As the breath evaporates, the image vanishes.

Disappearance is a device commonly deployed in Muñoz’s work yet always with a persuasive effect: faces painted on pavements vanish in seconds; a self-portrait suspended in charcoal dust on the surface of a hand-cupped pool of water disappears through his fingertips. ‘My work insists in documenting an immemorial scenario: the “logic of everyday thinking” that stems from the impossibility of retaining and fixing images permanently,’ says Muñoz.

Muñoz’s subjects are casualties and victims of war: names and faces picked from obituaries and photographs in Colombian newspapers. As a means of protesting against how easily human history can be rubbed out and forgotten, these photographic tricks assume a grand importance. This ‘arises from my interest in understanding how a society comes to accept war’, says Muñoz.

Contrary to our innate attempt to use photography to make sense, steady our gaze and try to overcome our transient place in the world, these non-permanent images do the opposite. They remind us that life is impermanent, valuable and easily lost. Like a photograph, Muñoz’s shimmering reflection in the water, as told in the mythical tale of Narcissus, is not really there.

Family portraits, and their profound sense of identity, memory and selfhood hold a particular resonance for Cuban-American artist Anthony Goicolea, whose parents emigrated to the US before he was born. As a means of reconnecting with his homeland, Goicolea recently staged a project to create imaginative reinterpretations of family portraits – ‘people I’ve grown up with, or people I don’t know but have grown up with, their image hanging in the hall in frames’. With ‘Related’, he devised an overlapping process of old and digital actions to trace a timeline from his relatives’ era to his own.

To begin, inspired by daguerrotypes – early photographs that had the quality of physical objects – Goicolea drew several new portraits from old photographs on to translucent Mylar paper, then covered them with Plexiglass and etched into that, to create what resembled an old-fashioned glass negative. These were scanned, printed as photographic positives and taken to Cuba. Then – as if searching for his lost ancestors – he pinned them on lamp posts like missing persons signs, and photographed them again. ‘It’s a multi-generational process that removes it further from the original photographic source,’ he says.

Goicolea made his name as a fine artist in the 1990s, creating elaborate photographic tableaux of self-portraits depicting teenage or pre-teen boys in typical boyhood scenes. Later, he developed his compositing technique using Photoshop to continue this play with the conventions of photography. ‘I play with all media in a way that counteracts their inherent qualities. Often it’s the overall feeling of an environment, and not what you can squeeze into a frame. I’ll composit elements together to give the viewer a concentrated feeling, not an accurate representation of the place. It reveals that there’s an artist behind it, which I like. It plays with the idea of fiction and reality.’ •

Related goes on show at the Haunch of Venison, London W1, on 4 September

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