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Modern Photos, Taken the Old-Fashioned Way(s)

PRC exhibition: contemporary photographers using historic processes

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Digital technology has revolutionized the art of photography in the 21st century. With the arrival of iPhones and photo-sharing apps like Instagram, shutterbugs can now snap a picture with their phone, choose a filter, and voilà: a modern masterpiece is produced. Time was—and not that long ag0—the process of taking and printing photographs was far more exacting.

The current exhibition at the Photographic Resource Center at BU, on view through March 23, returns us to the nearly lost art of historical photographic processes, including tintype, daguerreotype, and platinum printing. The Doors of Perception: Vision and Innovation in Alternative Processes features the work of seven contemporary photographers—all using one or more historic, or as the show refers to them, alternative processes. But the work here isn’t a paean to the past: these images illustrate how artists are resurrecting the past to reinvent photography in often beautiful and haunting ways.

Curated by Francine Weiss (GRS’12), the exhibition displays works that in some instances combine several historical processes and in some even synthesize digital technology.

Among the most arresting images are Scott McMahon’s tintypes. Once the most widely used format for portrait photography, the process involves placing an underexposed negative image on a thin iron plate that is blackened by painting or enameling to produce an image. Tintype hasn’t been popular since the antebellum period, but McMahon uses it to create often-jarring portraiture. The photographer himself is present in each work, either lurking in the background or concealed in some way, adding to the eerie, intangible essence of the photos.

Daguerreotypes—a painstaking process that uses a sheet of silver-plated copper to create a positive image—was introduced in the late 1830s and popularized by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. New York City photographer Jerry Spagnoli has revived the process, and four of his contemporary daguerreotypes of New York are featured in the exhibition. Spagnoli’s breathtaking cityscapes impart a ghostly quality to the metropolis. Pedestrians are either absent altogether or become wispy strokes of white and gray passing through the streets—the result of extended exposure. Looking at the four images, it’s almost impossible to believe they were taken recently. Instead, the viewer feels transported back to 19th-century Manhattan.

Regardless of which historic process they’re championing, the seven artists in the show—McMahon, Spagnoli, Ron Cowie, Jesseca Ferguson, Gretjen Helene, and Mark and France Scully Osterman—have this in common: each has looked to photography’s rich history in an effort to revitalize the art form. “Everything old is new again” could easily be the show’s motto. Their work reminds viewers that there is much more to the art of photography than choosing between Instagram’s “Valencia” and “Nashville” filters.

Case in point: the large-format landscapes in Cowie’s Leaving Babylon series. These platinum and palladium prints draw the viewer into a world of stark isolation. Each bears the striking monochrome, tonal look typical of this type of photograph. Cowie’s images are notable too for having no trace of human life. One can feel the movement of the dark waves in Where There Is No Boat, I Will Put a Boat and the texture of the verdant ivy in Live Through This. In Ulysses, one of his most arresting images, a tiny house under a massive sky is glimpsed from behind tall stalks of grass and weeds, as if some unseen presence is lurking. The platinum printing process infuses the series with an air of mystery.

Doors of Perception is more than just a showcase for modern photographers expertly reviving antiquarian processes. It’s a reminder that in the hands of the right artist, the past can be used to create startlingly fresh and novel images.

The Doors of Perception: Vision and Innovation in Alternative Processes is on view at the Photographic Resource Center, 832 Commonwealth Ave., until Saturday, March 23. The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. and is closed on Sunday and Monday. Admission is free for BU students and a $3 donation is suggested for adults.

Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu.

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