Between being exposed (yes, that’s a pun 😉) to the work of Jerry Uelsmann at an early stage in my photography, and then the work of Man Ray, I had two artists who though very different in style, both made very compelling images that incorporated the solarization process. This image “My Mother’s Hands with Stone” is my digital iteration of this old analog process.
Now while Uelsmann was my first experience of the technique, it was Man Ray who really explored how it could add something special to certain images. Funny how Man Ray was firmly associated with the Surrealist movement in his painting, while his photography and the techniques he developed were far more in the Dada tradition and varied more than Uelsmann, who much later than Man Ray was completely looked on as a photographer of surreal images only.
My “Self-portrait with Ginkgo Leaf” owes more to the influence of Man Ray than Uelsmann. It’s hard not to utilize a technique, whether in photography or any other medium, without it being so associated with another artist who exploited it. You will not get any points for originality from critics or fellow artists, but the same could be said for those who use Ansel Adams’ Zone System technique to create exquisite Black and White images. In the end, you have to choose whether a given technique (or even better, series of techniques together) enhances your work or not, so it says what you want it to say. You are of course encouraged to “noodle around” with any technique and make it your own.
While I was absorbing the Surrealists language of images from artists like Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and Uelsmann in high school, I was also experimenting with the materials of photography, processing color film in “the wrong chemistry” to see what unusual results that would create, and many, many other crazy “what ifs?” This creative “habit” of curiosity was a direct result of being exposed to artists who likewise broke the rules of their traditions and said, “It’s OK, you fellow explorer, create your own language as you go!”
Besides making the solarization process (at first viewed as a darkroom “mistake”) well known and fashionable at the time, Man Ray also made “photograms”, or as he in a fit of marketing genius called them, “Rayographs” by laying various objects down on a sheet of photographic paper in the darkroom and exposing it to light from the enlarger. The technique rendered unique effects and depths of field, depending on how the objects were placed, their qualities of (or lack of) translucency and contact with the paper surface. Endless compositional possibilities could be explored with this process.
I created this image originally as a background for an ad, but I loved it just as it was for myself. While not a photogram or “Rayograph” per se, it shares some of the qualities of that technique, along with Cubism (as that was the ad theme) once I began looking at the 4x5 large format camera as a glorified inverted enlarger. Suddenly all sorts of possibilities opened up to me, including using color film and Polaroids for unique, one-of-a-kind effects.
Placing objects inside the camera bellows, close to the film plain (the SOUND lettering) and exposing light through the camera lens was the same technique of Man Ray’s Rayographs, only on film. Combining that technique with others in a literal layering of films and re-photographing onto other film, all using a camera like a darkroom enlarger, allowed me to see differently and opened me to the possibilities.
And lest we forget another of my early influences, Minor White was indeed that. When my high school photo teacher showed me some of Minor’s work in Black and White Infrared film, I was blown away! I’d never seen the world presented in that “spectrum” before, not even with heavy NY winter ❄️ snows we would get. This was the world on a whole new level, and I plunged into the Black & White analog Infrared film world with both feet. In fact my first gallery exhibition ever was at the Center for Photography at Woodstock (CPW) right after graduating high school which consisted of Black & White infrared landscape prints. Over the years I have revisited the genre, both in film and now with digital cameras and software.
With the right subject and the nuances of the technique that the digital process allows, it’s nice to visit this way of seeing for a change. Though many photographers inhabit this world, I will always associate it with Minor White.
Minor also taught the poetics of seeing things, of seeing into things, and of appreciating that which most people overlook, such as this peeling paint.
“Torn Beautiful ~ Homage à Picasso et Braque”
I called this image (taken with an iPhone) an “Homage à Picasso et Braque” because it reminded me of some of their Cubist paintings with torn bits of papers, a stylized guitar, and sand mixed into the paint. I could have just as easily called it an “Homage to Minor White.” The fact is that my work, my images, are never set out to copy or “steal” from another artist as Picasso liked to say, but rather it’s in the process of creating my images, of letting the subject “reveal itself” that its kinship with other arts and artists is discovered. It is because of “how” these gifted artists taught, of the visual languages they created that has allowed me to absorb that language and mix the vocabularies as it were to create my own visual language, one that has “words and sentences” that show through to their sources from time to time, but is wholly unique to me. Like a musician who has the same set of keys on a keyboard as every other musician, yet creates their own music. What visual music will you create?
*PostScript: In case you think these two posts encompasses the entirety of my visual influences, don’t. While they are some of my earliest, and continue to be part of my vocabulary, many other artists both modern and ancient, from sculptors, to musicians, to poets and writers, in fact any creative field influences me and adds to my growing visual language. I encourage you to explore other disciplines, but as Zen poet Basho said, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the ancient ones, seek what they sought.” 🙏🏽