Rematerializing Photography

Farrah Karapetian: Lifesaver, 2015, chromogenic photogram, 56¼ by 40 inches. Courtesy Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles.


As digital imaging flourishes, some artists find themselves drawn in a very different direction––toward physicality and unorthodox processes.

HERE WE ARE, at the highest peak yet in photography’s technological climb toward ease and efficiency. It takes barely the tap of a finger to make a picture, and only a few more to spread that image worldwide. Progress, according to photographic history’s dominant narrative, means improvements in descriptive clarity, speed, affordability, accessibility, reproducibility, and dissemination. Thanks to digital technology, we’ve reached a new, undeniably exhilarating climax in that story––not, however, the medium’s only story.

Change the lens, so to speak, and change the evolutionary tale. Read the history of photography in terms of its use as an instrument of social change, for instance, and we find ourselves at both acme and nadir: photography’s circulatory reach gives every single image more potential power than ever, while the ubiquity and transience of the billions of images created suggests that each one (with extremely rare exception) matters hardly at all.

Another storyline has lately assumed greater relevance and a reinvigorated plot since the widespread adoption of digital processes: the history of photography regarded as neither mirror nor window but object. This tale, as old as the medium itself, reads as something of an adventure narrative, peopled with pioneers and renegades––think of Henry Holmes Smith, Robert Heinecken, and many more. Now that digitization has rendered film extraneous, replaced chemistry with code, and paper with pixels on screens, what constitutes a photograph has been radically redefined and physical form is no longer a given. But reacting––whether implicitly or explicitly––to the medium’s new normal, a growing number of contemporary artists have devised rogue new definitions and processes of their own. They are rematerializing photography.

Driving the five artists discussed here––Christopher Colville, Klea McKenna, Matthew Brandt, Farrah Karapetian, and Chris McCaw––are impulses shared by at least a dozen others at present. 1 Their values run against the efficiency sought by the photographic mainstream. They favor the messy, cumbersome, and slow. Many came upon their processes by accident, and all negotiate a balance between chance and control. Their methods are idiosyncratic and call attention to themselves, to physicality, duration, texture. Their results are one-of-a-kind, and often imperfect by conventional standards. All have foundations in analog processes (“photography the hard way” 2 ) and revere the alchemy of the darkroom, the sense of wonder that remains a primary association with the medium.

Resourceful and improvisational, these artists draw upon the past, adapting techniques from the medium’s earliest decades, but they are avowed impurists rather than apostles of anachronism. They belong very much to the present, to the post–medium, new-genres moment of blurred categorical boundaries. Their work is less a matter of image capture, which prevails in both traditional and digital photography, than of performative enactment and quasi-sculptural experimentation. 

[pq]These artists reconfigure the irreducible ingredients of photography—light, time, and a photo-sensitive surface. [/pq]These five are part of an efflorescence in the field that has prompted numerous museum and gallery exhibitions in the past few years. 3 The last time objecthood in photography experienced such a surge was in the late ’60s and ’70s, in tandem with the rise of process-driven art in general. Artists hybridized their practices, merging photography with printmaking, book arts, textiles, and needlework. In 1970, the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged the pivotal exhibition “Photography into Sculpture,” featuring works by two dozen artists, including Heinecken (“the photograph . . . is not a picture of something, but is an object about something” 4 ), an innovator whose legacy endures.

Those rematerializing photography now are not adding on to the medium as we’ve known it, but instead building new variants of it from the ground up. They reconfigure the irreducible ingredients of photography––light, time, a photo-sensitive surface––to conceive their singular approaches, born equally of reverence and irreverence. However far their practices deviate from camera-based convention, their work remains inescapably photographic. It embodies, though, a different sort of authority than that traditionally assigned to the medium, and bears a different relationship to the real. Truth, in their work, comes in the form of palpable presence, a truth to materials. That other storyline, with photographers cast as honest, reliable narrators and their images as accurate transcriptions of the visible world, was never very convincing anyway, least of all now.


Christopher Colville

“The photograph is essentially a transformation orchestrated by an artist,” says Christopher Colville (b. 1974). 5 Since his time in the MFA program at the University of New Mexico, he has harnessed a wide variety of physical and chemical changes. Inspired by a line from the poet Anne Carson (“a wound gives off its own light”), he placed a dead squid atop photographic sheet film, exposing it by the glow of the carcass’s own decomposition. The bioluminescence of the food consumed by a squid gets released as its host decays. The resulting prints, called “Dark Emanations” (2002–04), invoke the mysterious divide of soul and body, life and matter.

Since 2011, the Phoenix-based artist has been generating images through small, staged explosions, igniting gunpowder dusted over arrangements of metal, stone, and wood on photosensitive paper. Birthed by heat, light, and the force of the blasts, the works chronicle metamorphosis through their charred and pocked surfaces, and their palette of rust, ash, graphite, umber, and smoke. The images––made in the darkness of moonless nights and exposed (like the squid) by the materials’ own spent energy––evoke earthen textures and atmospheric phenomena. Their cratered skins conjure the landscape of the Sonoran Desert without illustrating it, without using the camera’s capacity to describe. Colville does, however, also work in a traditional manner, shooting film of enigmatic human interventions in the landscape. “I kind of want it all,” he says of his desire to use photography to its full capacity. “I don’t want there to be rules, but I want to break the rules.” 6

If the gunpowder drawings of Cai Guo-Qiang have been a touchstone for Colville, the latter’s recent “Dark Hours Horizon” series (2015–16), palm-size works and larger, call to mind the distilled, darkroom-derived landscapes of Alison Rossiter and Chuck Kelton. In each of Colville’s fictive views, tonal divisions alone distinguish solid land from creamy, brooding, or burning skies. For another series, he has lately been collecting paper targets and debris used for practice shooting in an area just outside Phoenix. He subjects the blasted bull’s-eyes and outlined human torsos to a further round of gunpowder, layering one sort of violence upon another. The round targets engender tortured moons and radiant coronas. The silhouetted “Citizens” (2015–) with their spattering of wounds, are no less gorgeous, after Colville’s controlled explosion has burned through the bullet holes, scarring and scabbing the underlying print surface.

Through this tough, elegiac work, Colville is reckoning, he says, with the casualness of gun culture and the current climate of hate and fear. For the newest pieces in this vein, he detonates gunpowder-filled mannequin and doll heads found at the makeshift target range. Images in this haunting gallery of emblematic victims recall Victorian silhouettes and the work of Kara Walker, as well as photographic death portraits. Their surfaces bear the injuries of their creation.


Klea McKenna 

Ten years ago, Klea McKenna (b. 1980) stopped making straight pictures of the landscape. No longer satisfied with producing faithfully transcribed views, she began staging little interventions in her process, aiming to relinquish control and court the unpredictable, to “put an obstacle in the path toward accuracy.” 7 In the manner of John Cage preparing the piano, she modified her camera, filling it with small stones or water to alter its behavior. Since then, she has continued to develop ways of using photographic materials and processes experientially, wedding close observation of nature and physical engagement with it, aspiring not to record the appearance of a place but to make an “emotional imprint” of it. 

Based in San Francisco, McKenna retains a deep connection to the landscape of her off-the-grid childhood home in Hawaii, on the slope of an active volcano adjacent to a forest preserve. In 2011 she started making photograms there, at night, of rain falling directly onto black-and-white photo paper. Working blind, she exposed by flashlight or camera flash, varying the angles at which rain met paper and light illuminated rain. In the resulting images, raindrops read as little white flames, perfect dots, or cells seeded with life, discrete entities that accrete into dense fields of rhythmic motion. 

The images of rain led to an ongoing series of photograms of spider webs after rainfall, also made at night, by flashlight, the beaded chains of droplets luminous against graphite-hued fogs, as in Vija Celmins‘s etchings and drawings of webs. The transitory networks testify to both diligent labor and exquisite design.

Those qualities also come into play in McKenna’s most physically performative work to date. She makes rubbings, blind-embossings of tree stumps using black-and-white photographic paper, which she then exposes in the darkroom by oblique light. After developing, the raised lines and their shadows read like concentric ripples of water, resonating echoes, or landforms on a topographic map. Photography’s capacity as an indexical trace feels both stretched and honored. Work of the hand and the work of nature are equally active and collaborative forces. In this “Automatic Earth” series (2016–), McKenna reveals a subtle affinity with such performer-sculptor-naturalists as Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and Hamish Fulton.

The immediacy and self-evidentiary quality of photograms vitalize the tree ring images, which also tap into the power of the earliest rubbings, of ancient sacred texts carved in stone and wood. McKenna engages with the fundamental photographic element of time, but she does so through touch, rather than through sight. “The process is part of the content of the work,” she says, “not just how it’s made.”


Matthew Brandt

“Photographers were the ultimate tinkerers,” 8 Matthew Brandt says, historicizing his use of cake frosting, crushed bees, toothpaste, and more in the making of his prints. Before photographic materials and processes were standardized, he notes, practitioners experimented with whatever was at hand, whatever might work. Brandt (b. 1982) does the same, with self-reflexive wit and improvisatory abandon. 

[pq]Artists like Brandt and Karapetian are at odds with today’s see-shoot-send sensibility. [/pq]Raised in LA and steeped in his father’s commercial photography business, Brandt made conventional prints––albeit with a conceptual bent––as an undergraduate at Cooper Union in New York. While earning his master’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, he started to explore the medium’s early processes, “shaving photography down to its core, all the extraneous chemicals stripped away.” 9 Making portraits of friends and family, he sourced the salt for salted paper prints from the subjects themselves by collecting their tears, sweat, sperm, mucus, breastmilk, or blood. Incorporating their bodily fluids into the image-making process closes the gap a bit between subject and medium, and literalizes photography’s relationship to the real. 

Over the past decade, Brandt has made images of buildings being razed, using dust gathered on-site. He has produced pictures of eBay-listed homes through a process that incorporates chewing gum (a wink at the housing bubble) and printed photographs of trees on paper made from their own wood. With representation comes responsibility, he feels. When subjects’ own substances are involved, they are, in part, representing themselves. They share the responsibility. The wry, self-referential strategies of Vik Muniz hover over Brandt’s work as inspiration and permission. 

For his series “Lakes and Reservoirs” (2008–14), Brandt made large color views in the grand tradition of photographers of the American West, then immersed those prints in water gathered from the pictured sites for days, weeks, or even months. As the emulsion degraded, it bubbled, streaked, and broke apart into brilliant, kaleidoscopic shards and vibrant veils. Here, his subjects didn’t contribute to the making of their own image, but to its unmaking. 

In two new bodies of work, Brandt again uses water as both subject and active participant in the generation and meaning of an image. This time he refers more overtly to the effects of pollution by using samples collected in Flint, Michigan, recently beset by a lead-contamination catastrophe. While in the city, Brandt shot a series of pictures of its bridges, and processed them in tap water, printing them small and further toning them selectively with red wine, bleach, and vitamin C. His methods compromise their clarity and seem to push them back in time. Faded and stained little relics, they look like the result of a darkroom failure.

For “Stepping Stone Falls” (2016) Brandt shot a dam and its man-made waterfall, color-separated the images and printed the cyan, yellow, and magenta layers individually on Duraclear plastic. After running Flint River water over them for weeks until the emulsion began to peel away, he recombined the layers in light boxes, the stained-glass windows of commerce. The scenes oscillate between natural and unnatural, with trees ranging from auburn to lurid violet and concrete pillars gleaming toxic green. Colors and cohesion are corrupted, precisely the same adjective that applies to the municipal water supply system and its managers.


Farrah Karapetian

The physicality of photography, as a process and experience, has been central to Farrah Karapetian’s work since her undergraduate years at Yale, when she began to push back against the notion of the photograph as a “very clean” window on the world. 10 Later, working with James Welling and Charles Ray at UCLA, where she earned her MFA, she started to engage with the real on a one-to-one scale, creating photograms that leave a trail of their own making, trading on the innate authority of the photograph but also challenging it. “First you learn the variables and grammar of the medium,” Karapetian (b. 1978) says. “Then you can go all Gertrude Stein on it.”

[pq]The rematerializers’ methods restore value to slowness, tactility, and irregularity, qualities once native to photography.[/pq]Her work typically originates in a personal narrative or news event, something to do with conflict, vulnerability, authority. She draws, casts, and assembles small sculptures, “generally poking at the narrative until it has elicited a set of terms that I can play with productively in the dark.” 11 She places these “sculptural negatives,” on or in front of photographic paper, projecting colored light onto them using an enlarger. What registers in the final photograms is part direct silhouette, part shadow, a chronicle she positions somewhere between fiction and creative nonfiction, a record that operates in the realm of metaphor. 

One early work was inspired by imaging technology used to detect the smuggling of illegal goods across the border from Mexico, and resembles full-size X-rays of a truck. In 2011, she re-enacted a demonstration that took place in Kyrgyzstan, basing the scene on a photograph from the New York Times. Recent images take their impetus from accounts of refugees crossing bodies of water to flee the lethal threat of political turmoil. Nonetheless, the work, she says, is never about its subject “as much as it is about my encounter with the medium through that subject.” 12  

Working in the dark, Karapetian moves around the constructed negatives and whatever actors might be engaged with them, exposing stills of the unscripted performance. Among the precedents for her process: Lotte Jacobi’s abstract, rhythmic “Photogenics” of the 1950s, cameraless captures of materials moving above photographic paper.

For one part of her “Stagecraft” series of 2014–15, Karapetian, based in LA, built a drum kit with materials that light could pass through. She conceived of the set as a line drawing, left the drum armatures without sides or skins, and cast cymbals in clear, ruby, and grape glass (the glass negative being her photo in-joke). Her gem-hued photograms of the instruments and their mimed performance marry schematic outline and soft translucency, lush shadow and aqueous refraction. They evoke both sound and silence, the presence of the body and its ghostly absence. In a move at once clarifying and complicating, Karapetian exhibited the sculptural negative along with the images it generated. She wanted to show that her pictures, faith-inducing indexes of the real, derive from a fabrication, an exercise in artifice. 


Chris McCaw 

Chris McCaw (b. 1971) was initially self-taught in photography, then received a traditional education at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco by adherents to the crisp f.64 aesthetic. He became enamored of large-format cameras and hand-coated papers before digital was available. “They’re all valid, just different,” he says of the medium’s disparate methodologies. “My personal preference is to work with my hands, to negotiate with the medium and accept its imperfections and impermanence sometimes.” 13

Based in Pacifica, just south of San Francisco, McCaw has taken the defining principle of photography––writing with light––to a new level, verging on the sculptural, touching on the primal. The origin story of his process, like several others discussed here, centers around a fortuitous accident––in his case, falling asleep during a long night-exposure on a 2003 camping trip, and finding that the intensity of the sun as it rose the next morning burned a path through his film. McCaw spent the next few years investigating the possibilities opened by this discovery, developing a working method that partnered the deliberate with the unknowable.

Using a variety of cameras in a range of sizes, many of which he built himself, McCaw places a sheet of old, expired photo paper in the holder designed for a negative. Typically working in the desert or along the coast, he shoots long exposures facing directly into the sun. The lens concentrates the sun’s rays enough to function as a branding iron or blade, searing or slicing through the paper’s surface. In spite of the prolonged exposures, the sun’s trajectory is so forcefully inscribed that it can sometimes read as a plummeting line or whipping rise. When McCaw has selectively opened and closed the shutter during an exposure, the sun appears to stutter its way across the sky, and even perforate it. 

In these elegantly distilled landscapes, the sun’s course is reduced to dot and line, but what McCaw ultimately chronicles is not the sun’s motion but our own, the earth’s rotation, the shifting view from our shifting station. The work speaks to our physical reality with graphic potency and a deep sense of awe. Charred, flaky edges where the sun has bitten through register in the body, as do the elemental tones of oxidized metal, ash, and smoke. Like both Colville and Brandt, McCaw harnesses destruction as a tool of creation. Smoke wafts from his cameras as he works, and the burning emulsion emits a toasty smell. 

In his most recent work, McCaw makes double exposures in different locales at different times, using the sun more playfully as a gestural drawing instrument. Heat-etched lines crisscross or meet at right angles. The specificity of place and season so key to his single exposures is thwarted in the new work, which wryly “messes with the photograph as truth.”


THE REMATERIALIZERS of photography are makers, advocates of a kind of rugged discovery at odds with today’s see-shoot-send sensibility. Their work originates in the unknown, and often the unseen; it traces action through time, motion, change. While they aren’t waging an open campaign against the digital, they are addressing certain aspects of contemporary culture that screen-based image-making epitomizes: instantaneity, ephemerality, standardization. Their methods restore value to slowness, tactility, and irregularity, qualities native to photography that have been suppressed in the race toward convenience.

The genericism of technical perfection, the bloodlessness of it, can feel dehumanizing. Intimacy with tangible materials and spirited engagement with making feels just the opposite. It restores the soul. Still, digital isn’t the enemy. “The enemy of photography,” said László Moholy-Nagy, “is convention. The salvation of photography comes from the experimenter who dares to call photography all the results which can be achieved with camera or without.” 14


Works by Chris McCaw in the group show “Phenomenon,” at the Bolinas Museum, Bolinas, Calif., through June 11.

Works by Farrah Karapetian in the group shows “Light Play: Experiments in Photography, 1970 to the Present,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, through June 19, and “Synthesize: Art + Music,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Fla., June 3–Sept. 3.

Matthew Brandt’s solo show “1864,” at Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta, through July 1.

Works by Christopher Colville in the group show “Tremolo,” at Rick Wester Fine Art, New York, through June 30, and a solo show, “Christopher Colville: Recent Works,” at KMR Arts, Washington Depot, Conn., Aug. 12–Sept. 23.   

Klea McKenna’s forthcoming solo show at Euqinom Projects, San Francisco, November.

LEAH OLLMAN is A.i.A.’s corresponding editor for Los Angeles and San Diego.