Thursday, March 31, 2011

in the name of art

Okay, I’m an artist, and I am dedicated to my craft, but quite honestly I have grown tired of breaking and entering.

In a perfect world, someone out there somewhere would somehow hear about my project, call me up and say with a smile in their voice “hey, you’re that photographer who’s documenting abandoned buildings aren’t you!? Come on over and photograph my old farm house!” This though, has never happened to me, and I’m beginning to think it never will. Despite my efforts to track down, write, call and ask permission of the owners (if I can figure out who they are) only once in all of the years that I have been working on this project has someone actually let me photograph a building on their property. Even then it took a lot of prodding, and in the end he didn’t even consider letting me go inside. Nope. No way. Not a chance. Even with a liability release I had to photograph from the outside, and if you know my work, you know that’s not of much use to me. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that far more often then not, I find myself jumping fences, being chased by home owners and climbing through windows to get the shots I need.

Yeah, that’s right, I’m sort of a criminal.

The images below were taken last Sunday inside an old schoolhouse on a hill overlooking the Russian River.

Perhaps I should tell you a story.

When the two weeks of storms that thoroughly soaked northern California and kept me from going out to photograph had finally passed last Sunday, I drove out to an unimaginably tiny town near the coast where about I had heard rumor of an old falling down one room schoolhouse and a house supposedly grown over by a mysterious sounding garden. Uh, jackpot! I had to go. When I showed up in the one street town I went into the coffee shop to ask the barista if she had any clues for me, well, and to get a latté of course. She wasn’t sure about the buildings, but the man standing behind me pointed to a home across the street, where apparently the man who owns the whole town resided.

So, I go. I ask a neighbor who is standing in his front yard pushing his son on a swing about the owner and he points to a house three doors down. I walk up the steps of the old house. As I walk, cautiously, I hear a whimpering of what sounds like a puppy. Just as I step my right foot on the deck it happens. A huge bulldog lunges with full force, mouth open complete with rage directly towards me. Snap! The chain catches the huge furious dog in mid lunge about six feet from my face. Oh-my-gosh was my heart thumping. With the dogs hair straight up on its back and the barking incessant, I realize that the dog is very securely chained up. Though my heart is pounding, I try to talk to it nicely, hoping it might calm down, and I might still get a chance at my shoot. That dog did not calm down. Short story long, I never did get a hold of the owner of that property and with such a scary dog on the porch any thoughts of trespassing onto that property were gone from my mind. I told myself I would try again another day. But next time, I would call up from the bottom of that particular porch.

Feeling incredibly defeated, but not completely helpless, and pretty jacked on caffeine from my latté, I continued driving west towards another small town located right where the Russian River and the pacific ocean combine. A friend of mine had told me she had discovered a schoolhouse there that was in pretty good shape and I thought I would go seek it out. I parked by the river and walked up a small winding street carrying three cameras: my Hasselblad, a wide angle pinhole with a 4x5 back and a Polaroid 250. I was determined to get something.

The schoolhouse was pretty amazing and in far better shape then I had imagined. I stopped on the street below it (right in front of the expected ‘no trespassing’ sign) and sat down my pinhole to make a few exposures. Examining the building and taking into account the waterfall that was rushing underneath it from the weeks of rain, I decided it could pretty much collapse at any given moment. Nevertheless, I asked a nice neighbor if there was another access point from which I could get a different angle on the building. Coyly, she told me that even though there was a ‘no trespassing' sign people went up there all the time, and that it would probably be alright if I wanted to explore a little just so long as I was careful.  Well this was a nice change to the way things usually go! So, despite the apparent danger of collapse I thanked her kindly and turned to walk up the saturated hill towards the crooked building. As I tern, she adds with an odd lightness in her voice “ Oh, just be careful because there is a mountain lion who lives up there on that hill. I haven’t seen it this spring but I saw it a few times last year.”  What!? “Uh… thanks”, I reply while mulling over my day’s poor luck with animals in my head. Up the hill I go though, and boy am I glad I did.

No mountain lions that I found, only beautiful green moss and ivy growing all over springs luxurious wetness. The windows were wired up, I'm sure to keep people like me out (and maybe mountain lions too.) The bathrooms (I'm assuming ladies and gentleman's separate rooms) were right behind the old school house.

All and all, it was a pretty fun day to be a photographer. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

my morning:

I jump out of bed early to take a few morning photographs with my pinhole before 10am (because that's the latest I can take film in to be developed on Tuesdays.) I skip coffee, because I'm running behind. I drive 30 minutes out into the country. I pull off the road for the shot. I sink immediately into the mud. I'm stuck completely. I have to wait an hour for AAA (they can't find me because I'm totally in the country!) I can't get the shot anyhow because my getting stuck drew too much attention. Jumping a 6ft fence with three no trespassing signs somehow just didn't feel like such a bright idea with my car stuck in the mud and a big yellow tow truck on the way. Not exactly low profile. 

The up side: I got to sit in the spring sunshine listening to the birds for an hour while I waited for the tow. 

Here are a few old digital photos of the house where I got stuck today. I had intended to go back there and shoot with my Hasselblad and pinhole today. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

gum bichromate printing

Moving onward on my journey with historical processes, I am currently exploring (with disappointing success) the beautiful – and difficult - world of Gum Bichromate printing. In general, this 19th century process delivers painterly images from a photographic negative and was used to achieve desired affects during the pictorialist era when photographers were competing with painters. Some modern day photographers, however, have mastered the technique to such a high level of expertise that it becomes difficult to tell the difference between a digitally printed image and an image made using the Gum Bichromate process. 

The famous photographer Edward Steichen photographed the Flatiron Building, 1904 and here it is printed in gum bichromate with blue-green pigment, over platinum

Here is a beautiful 9 layered Gum print by Tony Gonzalez, arguably the most expert Gum printer in the world.

The printing process for Gum Bichromate is tedious and detailed. Each layer of pigment is individually coated, registered, exposed and washed, then repeated sometimes up to nine times. Separation negatives of cyan, magenta, and yellow or red, green, and blue are used for a full-color image. Each layer can take longer then an hour to develop and when you add in the coating, soaking registering and exposing, you’re looking at a two-hour process for each layer. Oh my! 18 hours for one image! Now that is patience and determination.

Unfortunately, I was basing my desire to experiment with Gum printing on those images I had seen from the modern day masters and failed to understand the undeniably complex and complicated nature of Gum printing. It terns out, the process is hardly even a science and renders different results most days than it does on others. I have learned that those people who have mastered the process are usually thought to be extremely precise and patient people who make lots of tests and go about those tests in a very organized manner Well, that is not me folks! After these long two weeks of trying to render an image even at all worth saving, and barely accomplishing that, and I have come the realization that Gum Bichromate just isn’t ever going to be my specialty. 

Here are my attempts 

 ...and one more. 

After hours upon hours of  mostly disappointing time spent in the dark room working with gum I decided to give myself a little break and print a few cyanotypes to lift my spirit.

...and the creative journey continues...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The cyanotype process was first introduced by the English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel in the year 1842, and has remained virtually unchanged to this day.

The process, how I have come to know it, involves mixing equal parts of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate. This mixture becomes mildly light sensitive and can be applied to most surfaces using a brush or another kind of applicator. The surface then is exposed with a negative of equivalent size to the surface of the chosen medium, using a UV light source for exposure. After exposure the image is simply developed in water. The result - a high contrast exquisitely brilliant blue toned positive.

Admittedly, before these recent experimentations, I knew very - very, little about the cyanotype process or any other historical printing process for that matter.  Pleasantly though, I have found the cyanotype process extremely rewarding, educational and humbling. I plan on continuing my creative process through the photographic experimentation of creating cyanotypes. The beautiful tonalities and subtle detail is intriguing to me as a photographer and I feel the result plays an important roll in helping to create a supportive narrative for my imagery. In addition, the simplicity of the painterly process is a wonderful addition to my naturally fast-paced working style.

Here are a few of my first cyanotypes. 


A few examples of different toning options to create colors variant from the classic cyan.

Toning tests: all from one image

...and a finished print, toned in Tanic Acid & Sodium Carbinate, then finished in peroxide for that greenish yellow hue.

....and many more to come.