Carmel Visual Arts, a studio/gallery at the Barnyard in Carmel, is staging a photography show titled Wild Things by two artists. One of them, co-owner Carol Henry, doesn’t use a camera.
The prints she produces with this camera-less method are called photograms, but Henry calls them flora – chromes or shadowgraphs. And the process, one used by Man Ray but now fading into obscurity because of digital technology, is as interesting as the results are beautiful.
Her subjects are botanicals, plants and flowers; the subtext, like Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, is their sensual nature: “The purpose of plant life is to be seductive, colorful, fragrant,” Henry says.
She finds them on walks, when she also discovers natural objects that become her subjects, like a bird. Or, a dead bird, to be more precise.
“You don’t get to see them that close when they’re alive,” she says.
She takes the plants into her darkroom (“cave,” she calls it) and lays them on photosensitive Swiss-made Cibachrome paper in the dark. Not even the red light of traditional darkrooms is allowed in. She says the expensive paper comprises 17 layers of light-sensitive dye; it’s the highest quality light sensitive material ever made. Then she projects light from a color enlarger through the blindly arranged objects, and the images are seared onto the paper.
“I create them by touch, by feel,” she says. “It’s like a dance.”
The exposure can last 10 seconds or 2 minutes. She puts the exposed paper with the latent image into a 48-inch roller transport processor (there are six or seven of them left in the world, Henry estimates) to be developed, and that’s when she sees the image for the first time.
“It’s an experiment,” she continues. “My process is about transmitted light, not reflected light, about getting inside a flower, details you would never see in a traditional reflective photograph.”
There are no negatives, no digital files, so every piece is unique. The work in this weekend’s coming art show mixes this cameraless method with collage. She’s showing her work along with Chicago photographer Les Allen, who also uses a collage method, but takes photos with a traditional large format film camera and prints on silver gelatin paper. The material for that craft is getting scarce, too.
Henry is shooting video at the opening, to capture and document her art process before it disappears.