When was the last time you printed a photograph and put it in a photo album for safekeeping? The accessibility and sheer fun of digital photography has changed the way we document our lives. Instead of creating a photo album of our trip to San Francisco, my family and I took photos and posted them on Facebook and Instagram. While I’ll appreciate it when Facebook reminds me of this trip this time next year, will it do the same 30 or 40 years from now? Our memories are fleeting, and if we stop printing photographs to assemble in a photo album, how will we remember the details of our past?
When I was working at the Gibbes Museum in 2013, we had a traveling exhibition called Photography and the American Civil War from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that included over 200 photographs, ranging from large-format, framed prints to ambrotypes and tintypes housed in handheld cases. Each photograph told a story. Peering into the glass cases, I’ll never forget the individual faces of the young men headed to war staring back at me.
Today we can use apps like Facebook’s Moments, Instagram, Storehouse, or Shutterfly, but I wonder if those apps trigger the same emotional response I felt standing in front of the Civil War photographs.
Photographer Christine Eadie has similar concerns about the future of photography. “What about the next generation? What are we going to pass on to our children?” she says.
Determined to help prevent a full-scale digital takeover, Eadie approached photographer Diana Bloomfield with the idea of creating an exhibition featuring photographers who use complex, alternative processes in their works. Fortunately, she’s not the only one who wants to preserve the old ways. Eadie says, “I see a lot of photographers returning to more traditional processes to create tangible, one of a kind images.”
Featuring artwork from Eadie, Bloomfield, and eight other artists, Altered Narratives at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park is the culmination of the duo’s efforts to highlight these traditional methods. Eadie, who lives in Charleston, did the “heavy lifting,” while Bloomfield, who has curated shows before and lives in North Carolina, selected the other artists. “They are all accomplished, serious artists who do such beautiful, heartfelt, honest work. In all the myriad ways these artists choose to work, they are vested in and connected to their imagery, and the meaning behind their imagery,” says Bloomfield.
The artists come from as near as Charleston (Karen Vournakis) to as far as Oregon (Maureen Delaney, Heidi Kirkpatrick). The other artists include David N. Hyman, Diana Bloomfield, Doug Ethridge, Heidi Kirkpatrick, Matt Larson, Rebecca Sexton Larson, Sandy King, Bill Vaccaro, and Kenneth Jackson.
Documenting, processing, and interpreting memory is a common thread among many of the artists’ work. Vournakis says the passage of time between capturing the image on film, processing the film, and hand coloring all play a role in her photographs. “Memory and my imagination are the connections for me that allow me to give what I hope is a rich interpretation of the original scene that I am striving for in the photograph,” she says. “I believe memory is an important part of the creative process for any artist.”
For North Carolina artist Kenneth Jackson, a photograph is the essence of a memory. “A photograph itself, and I think it can be almost any photograph, is a kind of talisman that reminds us of an experience, but obviously is not that experience itself. For me, it’s about way more than just the image itself,” Jackson says. “It’s completely possible to use digital tools to mimic the look of a gum print, a cyanotype, a platinum/palladium print — which begs the question, why bother? But such prints, even though visually interesting, pleasing, and beautiful in their own way, can never have the presence of a physical print, made by hand. This helps to render the image more memorable and mysterious in its alchemy.”
The approach to achieving these artful, one-of-a-kind images is complex and varied. Working from her Charleston studio, Vournakis uses the 19th century tradition of hand-tinted photography to create a rich interpretation of an original scene. She first explores the world using black-and-white film, then develops the film in her darkroom. By layering transparent pigments using photo oils, colored pencils, and a special crayon pigment directly onto the gelatin silver photographs, she transforms a black-and-white image into a full color one. The result is a collection of architectural images that are a blend of photography and painting.
As for Chicago-based artist Bill Vaccaro, he became interested in historic processes after seeing the work that artist Sally Mann was doing with wet-plate collodion. “With the onset of digital photography, I became drawn to the idea of being able to make photographs by simply brushing a light-sensitive solution onto a piece of paper, exposing it, and coming away with a unique piece of art,” says Vaccaro, whose work focuses on faith, architecture, landscapes, and fireworks.
Vaccaro adds, “I’m not knocking digital. It certainly has its place in photography and I use it myself. As a friend says, this is probably the best time in the world to be a photographer as you have 19, 20, and 21st century processes.”