Top: Poly-optic #22, 2013, Chris McCaw. Next: Spin (C-824), 2008, Marco Breuer.
As a photographer, I am grounded in the real world. My heroes are those who often put themselves in harm's way to expose social injustice, documenting the lives of the less fortunate and doing it artfully and powerfully. So it was kind of exhilarating to visit the Getty for their latest photography exhibit, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, and meet photographers who are exploring other frontiers, sometimes breaking new ground and sometimes riffing and expanding on the work of earlier pioneers like Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Pierre Cordier and Edmund Teske. There is something freeing in looking at work made with a different set of objectives in mind, work that asks questions posed by artists who are following a path of their own design, not knowing fully where it will take them.
The show at the Getty is unusual in several respects. First, photography is the only art form which the Getty collects internationally and up to the present day. So the possibility of talking with the artists represented in a show is rare. For this show, most of the artists were in the Gallery the day of the opening and some were participating in panels and demonstrations opening week. In addition, this photography show includes several photographers whose work was not made with a camera. While photography is defined as "writing with light," why must a camera be the writing instrument? Why can't the light source itself, be it the sun or the moon, be the instrument? On the morning of the show's opening, photographers James Welling, Chris McCaw, Alison Rossiter, Lisa Oppenheim, Marco Breuer, John Chiara and Matthew Brandt were present, and spoke about their process and their path. Some were seeing their work on the Getty walls for the first time.
Alison Rossiter's prints start with batches of old photo paper and are made by developing the unexposed, expired paper, or by using darkroom chemistry to fix the papers without exposing them to the enlarger's light. Often, after years of sitting in their boxes, some light has leaked inside the box, or a fingerprint has smudged the surface and these conditions will show themselves once the paper hits the developer. Like other artists in this show, EBay has provided an opportunity to search far and wide for papers that many would deem useless. "It all should have been thrown away," she said and talked about working in 2011 with a box of paper made in 1911. "I had an entire century in my hands. The images are made by time. The paper still reacts." A glass showcase houses some of the boxes and envelopes that Rossiter has found, with intricate labels and elegant design, packaging of a bygone era. For some of these artists, a visit to EBay over their morning coffee has become a daily ritual, and what they've found has made their art possible. "I buy something fantastic every day," Rossiter said.
Chris McCaw uses the light of the sun to burn its arc onto paper negatives he has also found on EBay, although he admits it is getting harder to find what he wants. He uses old military reconnaissance lenses, huge columns of glass that he has adapted for his artistic design, to harness the light of the sun or moon, or boards with broken 50mm lenses mounted geometically. Classically trained in Northern California, his journey as an artist changed when he set out to photograph the stars overnight at Yosemite and overslept. The sun had burned the emulsion on the paper. "I thought it was garbage," he said, and he put the paper at the bottom of the box. He didn't develop it for a long time. When he did, it resonated and led him down a whole new path.
Chris McCaw at the Getty, by Iris Schneider
The day after the Getty opening he had set up his lenses out on the plaza for a demonstration and was explaining his process, chatting with photography enthusiasts and eager students. Surrounded by huge lenses with bellows atttached to suitcases he has designed to make transporting them easier, his enthusiasm was infectious. He encouraged people to peek through a slit in the bellows and see how the sun was burning an arc onto the paper. He explained how his exposures vary with the time of the year, his location and the time of day and height of the sun, how he has adapted to spending hours near his camera while he makes his exposures. "I've gotten into birding," he says, along with reading and people-watching. He enjoys how the personality of a place evolves through the day. "That would be a great subject for a photo project." But obviously, not one he's going to take on anytime soon.
Marco Breuer, whose images include one in which the paper is etched with the needle from a phonograph, was trained in Germany. "I did do the proper camera thing, but in Germany there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, so you need to find a space where those rules don't apply." This idea of exploration and breaking boundaries defines the creative process.
While the idea of what a photograph is may be open to discussion, it's hard to deny that the work in this exhibit gives us beautiful and thought-provoking images to ponder while we answer the questions they pose.
"Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography" is at the Getty Center until Sept. 6.
Sierra at Edison, 2012, from "Los Angeles Project," John Chiara.