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October 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 28, 2005

Beyond digital Beyond digital (October 28, 2005)

For many modern photographers, the lure of historic techniques endures

by Rebecca Wallace

The brush in Jennifer Henderson's hand glides across the paper, as though skimming a lake. Her wrist flicks gracefully as she moves it up and down, side to side.

There's a timeless calm in the motion, and that's why Henderson likes it. Rather firing off a hail of photos with a digital camera, she's applying chemicals to make a Van Dyke print.

This photographic method hailing back to the 1800s creates deep browns that Henderson treasures for her photos of seedpods, teasels and pine cones. The languorous process, too, can be as enjoyable as the results.

"It has a meditative nature. You can think about life and 'why am I doing this?' You get time to think about what it (the work) means," she says.

In a small room in her Mountain View condo that serves as a studio, Henderson demonstrates the Van Dyke process. After creating an enlarged negative of her subject, she applies emulsion to paper with a foam brush, then dries it with a hair dryer. She exposes the paper and the negative to a UV light source, then hand-processes the results to develop, fix and wash the image. The print is left to dry in darkness overnight and then pressed flat.

Brush strokes often show up in the finished picture, and Henderson likes it that way.

"That's part of the beauty; it's not machine-precise," she says.

Even as technology gives us ever smaller and sleeker digital cameras, many photographers are choosing another path. Many pick slower, more contemplative processes of old to feel closer to their art. Some find digital images sterile and seek a warmer or more painterly quality.

And many, like Henderson, enjoy feeling a connection to the history of photography.

"It's kind of like resurrecting something that people threw away in their race for progress," she said of the Van Dyke technique.

Henderson refers to her photography methods, which also include image transfers from Polaroid film, as "alternative" processes. It's a word that makes one think of an esoteric niche.

Still, the methods draw a loyal following. The Web site www.newdags.com, for example, is devoted to contemporary photographers working with the 1800s daguerreotype, in which polished, silver-coated plates are exposed to iodine vapors and light.

In addition, one photographer from The Daguerrian Society (www.daguerre.org) asserts online, "The daguerreotype process is far from being dead. There are currently more modern daguerreotypists now working the process than at any time since the daguerreotype's demise in the late 1850s."

Closer to home, several photographers who work in early methods are currently taking part in a group exhibit at the Palo Alto Art Center called "Romancing the Shadows."

The show includes small pinhole cameras created by Nissa Kubly, John O'Reilly's collaged images made with outdated Polaroid film, daguerreotypes by Adam Fuss (including a smirking skull), and tintypes of sepia-colored insects on a luminous background by Jayne Hinds Bidaut.

Patented in 1854, tintypes are made by coating an iron plate with a light-sensitive collodion silver mixture, exhibit curator Signe Mayfield said.

Gazing at Bidaut's tintypes of a leaf mantid and an Oriental Goliath beetle, she said, "They look like they belong in a cabinet of wonder."

Elsewhere in the exhibit, Deborah Luster has created a very different mood with tintypes. She spent time photographing prisoners in Louisiana as part of a portrait series called "One Big Self." Some of the men and women stare balefully ahead, while others have softer expressions. One man has his back turned and a moth perched on his shoulder. On the backs of the tintypes are written the inmates' birthdays, sentences, crimes and dreams.

"Luster's choice of the tintype refers to photography's role in the documentation of sensational crime and the tintype's history in the nineteenth century," Mayfield wrote in the exhibit brochure. "The tintype was an affordable means of portraiture and a purely American phenomenon, as is the American prison system."

Besides making a statement, the old procedures have a deep aesthetic appeal, Mayfield said. She enjoys the "richness and depth" not found in digital works, and added that some of the exhibit photographs are "an homage to lost processes, or a lament."

Nostalgia, though, is turned on its head in the Van Dyke prints by San Francisco photographer Kimberly Austin, also part of the Palo Alto show.

The prints tell the story of her grandparents, Adam and Edna. Austin rephotographed and edited elegant period snapshots and old photo-booth strips and coupled them with selections from letters between the two.

From a distance, the prints look sentimental, possessing the glamour of the past. But the words in the letters reveal the turbulence of the couple's romance, which broke down under the strains of marriage and parenthood. "God forgive you for what you are," one line reads.

"The story is about the realities and shortcomings of taking on roles that do not fit the individual," Austin said.

Just as Austin has a close connection to her subjects, she has chosen Van Dyke prints because of the method's hands-on nature, as well as the richness of the images.

"It is so satisfying to make everything from start to finish, making my own emulsions from scratch, selecting my papers and size formats, creating large-scale negatives," she said. "Nothing is standard or mass-produced."

Austin added that she's seeing a growing interest in what she calls "vintage processes," observing that more schools are offering classes in the methods.

Despite their charms, older methods can create issues out in the field that a pocket-sized digital camera wouldn't.

Marin County photographer Linda Connor, whose work is also part of the Palo Alto show, carts around a tripod and a dark cloth to go with her large camera, which uses 8-by-10-inch negatives. This makes it particularly challenging to blend into the background in the locations she photographs, which include churches and other sacred sites.

Connor makes contact prints, using a technique that was mainstream at the turn of the century. She puts her large negatives on special paper and lays them outside to let the sun create the prints. Then, she tones them with gold chloride.

In the exhibit image "Sacred Text, Ethiopian Church, Jerusalem," which Connor took 10 years ago, she worked in dim light to photograph a church guard reading a prayer book. Her technique gives a marble-like glow to his hands and a sense of mystery to the tome.

"There was something very peaceful, and I loved the hand-written text," she said.

Connor enjoys making contact prints because of the warmth and range of tones it allows, but she's by no means making a statement by using an older method.

"This is just something that has become my working method," she said matter-of-factly. "The imagery is what I really spend a lot more time thinking about than the way I make my prints."


What: "Romancing the Shadows," an exhibit of alternative photography progresses including tintypes, daguerreotypes and Van Dyke prints. The exhibit includes an afternoon of family photo activities from 2 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 6, and several studio workshops for adults.


Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road.


When: Through Dec. 23. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 to 9 p.m. Thursdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.


Cost: The exhibit is free, as are the family activities. There are fees for the adult workshops.


Info: Call (650) 329-2367 or go to www.cityofpaloalto.org and click on "Art Center" under "Featured Sites." For more information about Jennifer Henderson's work, go to www.alternativeprocessphoto.com.


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