Genesis One, an evening of readings inspired by the book of Genesis, on Feb. 1 at 5 p.m. at The Castle

Vol. IV No. 20   ·   26 January 2001 


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Recalling the shots
Photographers see a new frontier in revisiting old techniques

By Eric McHenry


Robert ParkeHarrison, Wind Writing, 1998, 36"x 45", gelatin silver print with mixed media on panel


In the winter of 1853-54, the explorer, soldier, and eventual presidential candidate John C. Frémont journeyed west for the fifth and final time, hoping to find a viable passage for a transcontinental railroad. Solomon Carvalho, a member of his party, documented the expedition in daguerreotype, recording more than 300 vistas from the Mississippi River in Missouri to the San Rafael River in Utah.

Robert Shlaer spent much of the mid and late 1990s making the same journey. He painstakingly reconstructed Frémont's route in order to replicate, as precisely as possible, Carvalho's images, which were destroyed by fire in the late 19th century. He even used Carvalho's technique --daguerreotype, in which an image is formed on a silver-coated copper plate and developed in mercury vapor.

  Robert Shlaer, Upper Little Cimarron Valley, Looking South, from the Frémont-Carvalho Expedition series, July 19, 1996, 4"x 5", daguerreotype

A desire to reconnect with photography's fading early history underlies much of what's on display in The Crafted Image: Nineteenth-Century Techniques in Contemporary Photography, an exhibition that will occupy the BU Art Gallery through February 25. Assembled by outgoing curator Karen Haas, the show taps a recent revival of interest in processes that had for some time been considered obsolete. Daguerreotyping, explains gallery director John Stomberg, was developed in 1839; it and other early techniques, such as collodion, photogram, photogravure, pinhole camera, and tintype, reclaimed the attention of many artists in 1989, when museums and galleries mounted retrospective shows celebrating 150 years of photography.

"There were exhaustive shows, and there must have been five or six major tomes," Stomberg says. "So everybody who was interested in photography got a chance to see these techniques and say, 'Wow, these are really wonderful. I should be out there making daguerreotypes myself.' That almost certainly contributed to the renewed interest we've seen in the last 10 to 12 years."


Deborah Luster, Untitled, from the One Big Self, Prisoners of Louisiana series, 1999, silver emulsion on aluminum


This turning to the past, Stomberg says, may in part be a conscious turning away from ubiquitous new technologies, particularly digital photography. He likens it to the Arts and Crafts movement of a century ago, which was very much a response to the industrial revolution.

"I think a kind of nostalgia is very significant in this work," adds Stacey McCarroll (GRS'02), the gallery's newly appointed curator. "It's got to be the mourning of the disappearance, or the fear of the disappearance, of a kind of process. Photography is a medium with a history, and these artists are demonstrating their awareness of, and participation in, that history."

  Leah Demchick, Mandawa, 1999, 20"x 16", palladium gum dichromate

Although the artists it brings together have a common interest in 19th-century methods, The Crafted Image is if anything more diverse than most contemporary photo shows. Jayne Hinds Bidaut's tiny tintype portraits of insects, framed in antique keepsake cases, are just steps away from Abelardo Morell's large-scale camera obscura pictures. To make these striking images, which might best be described as cityscapes over still lifes, Morell employed a technology that's actually 400 years old: darkening all the windows in a room save for one small hole through which light can pass. This causes an extraordinarily clear, inverted replica of the outside world to appear on the wall opposite the hole. Morell's contributions to The Crafted Image include a picture from a Paris hotel room, in which a framed poster of the Eiffel Tower is overwhelmed by a projected likeness, upside-down, of the tower itself.

"What we discovered, much to our pleasure," says Stomberg, "was that people weren't just reviving the technique for the technique's sake. They were using these early processes to make remarkable images."

Curator Karen Haas will discuss The Crafted Image at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, January 31, in the BU Art Gallery. The talk is free and open to the public. The gallery's hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 353-3329.


26 January 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations