During the initial phase of a project about the situation of Berlin at the dawn of the 21st century, I had in mind to create images that would form a body of work with a unique visual language, one that could communicate the emotions that overwhelmed me during an exploratory first visit – a feeling of melancholy, a sense of displacement and estrangement, caused by the frenetic new constructions of the reunified metropolis and the blurring of its troubled history.
My initial attempts to translate my vision into images with traditional cameras and lenses were largely unsuccessful. With frustration mounting and discouragement starting to set in, I decided to switch gears by building my own capture device by jury-rigging a loupe to a clunky 6×6 SLR from the Soviet era. While the photographs were relatively sharp in the center, their outer edges were wildly out of focus and subject to uncontrollable and unpredictable aberrations.
A finished work is often a stranger to what the photographer felt or wished to express when he/she began. As the work started to take shape, I realized that the images looked different from what I expected, and that caused discomfort and questioning. But I doggedly forged ahead with my Rube Goldberg contraption. After the battle was over and the damage faced up to, the results were, however, surprisingly interesting. I came in with an idée fixe and, in the course of the project negotiated a satisfying compromise.
After Berlin, I used this camera for two more projects: a series about the trees and seashore of Big Sur, in California, where I was living at the time, and a journey to Andalucia in the search of the sites celebrated in Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems. And then I retired it as, literally, a paperweight in my studio. The images shown in this post are excerpts from these three bodies of work.
The camera consisted of a 6×6 medium format SLR body made in Ukraine during the Soviet era. I first used two Kiev6 bodies, but they quickly failed. I then switched to a more recent model, the ARAX, which turned out to be very reliable. The ARAX has a Pentacon Six breech-lock mount to which I attached an antique bellows of unknown origin. I then jury-rigged the front element of a 3x Rodenstock loupe to the bellows with felt tape, duct tape and a lot of glue. I also glued a Cokin P filter holder to the front of the bellows.
The loupe/bellows combo turned out to have an f/2 aperture and a focal length just short of 80mm. I used the camera handheld, all 4kg of it. Focus was achieved by moving the bellows back and forth. For the Berlin and California projects I used B&W film, primarily Berggen 200 and sometimes Kodak Tri-X 320. In Andalucia I used the Agfa RSX200 color reversal film. Exposure was determined by TTL metering, using the rudimentary light meter of the ARAX after having it calibrated with a Gossen Lunasix. In bright daylight, because of the fixed f/2 aperture, I had to use either a 8x (3 stops) neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light passing through the loupe or a #25 deep red filter that also reduced the amount of light (3 stops), while increasing contrast.
Handmade photographic imagemaking
Imagine a world of photography unconstrained by the limits imposed by the camera and the traditional printing process, expanded by the introduction of new materials, and made possible by new technologies. “Making” images as opposed to “taking” them. Removing boundaries between media in the pursuit of creating something unique. Embracing quaint words, such as beauty, magic, mystery, craft, to describe the creative driving forces behind the practice. Manipulating an extended range of materials unusual to photography, such as handmade papers, plastic, glass, metal, wood, fabric, as well as innovative technologies in digital printing, 3D printing, xerography. Let’s add to the list of misdeeds…:)
New digital transfer techniques were spearheaded by Bonny Pierce Lhotka, Dorothy Simpson Krause and Karin Schminke (the co-founders of the digital artist collaborative, Digital Atelier) who researched and developed new techniques to leverage and enrich photographic imagery, both traditional and digital. The processes use release films and gels, to allow the transfer of inks to the substrates. The image is printed on a transfer film, which has an inkjet coating on it that not only receives the inks, but also releases them when in contact with transfer media. The transfer gel is first applied as a primer to the receiving substrate and then reactivated with an activator solution. The activator contains alcohol to dissolve and encapsulate the inks as they move from the transfer film to the substrate. The workflow to transfer an image to a metal plate is illustrated below:
There is an unpredictable nature to the media; the transfer visibly alters the imagery, style, form and meaning, creating nuances between one piece and another. No two results are ever exactly alike, assuring the production of unique works of art, in editions of one.
The techniques and reagents are described in great detail in Bonny Lhotka’s three books (“Digital Alchemy”, Hacking the Digital Print” and “The Last Layer”) and on her website (https://bonnylhotka.com/).
Of Angels and Demons
The original Berlin prints were silver gelatin prints on Bergger Prestige paper. When the digital transfer processes became available, I reedited the series; the images were transferred onto acrylic plates, the backs of which were covered with iridescent pearl oil paint, conferring a sense of depth and a shimmering luminosity to the pieces.
I wrote a short essay to accompany the publication of this work. For those interested, it’s in the link below.
El Pais Grande del Sur
Big Sur, in California, is a land of raw beauty shoehorned between the Santa Lucia Range and the Pacific Ocean, one of the world’s most magnificent stretch of coastline. The Pacific crashes against ragged rocks, waves shimmering from deep blue to slate to jade; the Santa Lucias’ knotted peaks and deep canyons are harboring exuberant groves of redwoods, live oaks, Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines. The spirit of Miller, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti is pervading the air. Pure magic.
The California prints were created by transferring the images onto Dibond aluminum plates covered with iridescent gold oil paint. For some tree images, I used duotone paints, with iridescent gold for the background and iridescent moonstone oil paint for the details of the trunks.
In Search of Federico Garcia Lorca
Andalucia. The scent of orange blossom; the swirl of the dress of a Roma dancer; the lament of a flamenco guitar; the glimpse of a white village perched atop a crag; the encounter with the elusive duende, this mysterious dark power that one senses in response to art, but that no philosopher can explain.
The prints were made by transferring the images onto Dibond aluminum plates covered with various substrates: Iridescent pearl oil paint, interference gold paint, gold leaf, mixed gold and bronze leaf distressed with a metal brush.
Digital Atelier Artists:
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