Untitled (Boat Quay), 2017.

This is a short video of the installation of Untitled (Boat Quay), 2017 (3m x 1.8m). The work consists of 180 salted paper prints of Singapore’s Boat Quay. In addition, there is a video projection of a pixellated scene shining on the work, and there is a soundscape made from a pre-recorded atmospheric track mixed with a live electroacoustic signal of my computer as it plays the audio track. This was made possible by a homemade aerial placed on the keyboard.

 

The current focus of my practice is about understanding historic photographic techniques, including the notion of the guild craftsman; materiality; and documenting change in the urban landscape.

I have been trying to understand a number of elements that excite me about 19th-century photography. The first of which is the appearance of the photographic image. Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) developed the silver-chloride photographic process in 1839. The atomic size and spacing of the image forming grains gives images their sepia tone and high resolution. This differs from both commercial photographic (black and white) papers, and inkjet printed images. Commercial black and white papers use silver-bromide crystals of millions of atoms each which make a visible grain throughout the picture. Inkjet images spray ink droplets at around 300 dots per inch. The silver-chloride technique makes image forming clumps of metallic silver at a minimum of 4 atoms in size – millions of times smaller than the other processes. This results in one of the highest resolution images possible allowing for the finest of details and softest of tonal gradations.

Silver-chloride is not very sensitive to light and requires a long exposure which inhibits it from working in an enlarger. As a result, early photographs were made as contact prints in sunlight which require the negative to be the same size as the final print. This means that there is no enlargement of the image or its grain, keeping the resolution of the print higher than contemporary small format negatives (or images from digital sensors) that have been enlarged for viewing.

The process of making images in the techniques of the 1800s ties in with my love of chemistry and my desire to accomplish things by my own hand. Richard Sennett suggests that there was a belief in many 19th-century utopian communities that doing a job well extrapolated into doing good in the community.[1] Further, he writes of a human sense of satisfaction from the act of making things.

I believe that early photographic techniques produce images (as objects) that are more interesting than images viewed via a screen as they are tactile and thus real, whereas images viewed on a screen are immaterial – further, they are copies that are easily consumed and dispensed with.

The materiality of the photograph is another factor in my appreciation of it. They were first printed on the finest writing papers available at the time, unlike contemporary copy paper. The Carte de Visit (1854) and Cabinet Card (after 1870) were often packaged in exquisite albums similar to Daguerre’s silver-plated copper Daguerreotypes from 1839, which were mounted behind gilt framed glass in their own little books. These were things one could hold, and the Daguerreotypes were heavy for their size.

Unidentified Dickerson Family Member. Quarter-plate daguerreotype. Philadelphia, ca. 1855. [3]

Julia Breitbach, in her article The Photo-as-Thing: Photography and Thing Theory (2011), referrs to the idea that photographs are not just vehicles for images, that their materiality is a “major factor in their reception”.[4] I believe that this has much to do with the handling of the images and engaging the tactile senses as well as allowing the eyes to pick up on all the little defects that have marred the photograph through the years – this is lost when viewing images on a screen. These marks signal the photograph as being real, authentic, and steeped in the same history as the subject.

As Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) wrote in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (1936), something is more revered when there is only one of it.[5] He writes “the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition.”[6] This is a clue for me to further pursue the idea of tradition and its counter – mechanisation.

In 1983, Czech-born philosopher, writer and journalist Vile Flusser (1920–1991) anticipated that digital photographs would become almost value-less post-industrial objects.[7] This was prescient considering the sheer volume that are published on the internet each day. They are becoming the background noise of life.

Landscapes were a popular subject choice for the early photographers. Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) was one of a number of early urban and landscape photographers who had studios in San Francisco in the mid 1800s. Watkins made a living selling images of Yosemite, as well as taking photographs of the houses of the wealthy.

 

George R. Fardon (British, 1807 – 1886), and possibly Carleton Watkins (American, 1829 – 1916), Six-part Panorama of San Francisco from San Francisco Album: Photographs of the Most Beautiful Views and Public Buildings of San Francisco, 1855 – 1856. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. [8]

I believe Watkins’ Six-part Panorama of San Francisco, 1855–56, is the earliest panorama of an urban environment. One of the most powerful elements of this type of image, for me, is its ability to show progress. I have a deep fascination with change in the urban environment and it is expressed most strongly in early photography. I don’t think these images were produced to comment on what type of development was going on – whether it was for the greater good etc. – which is an angle I explore in my work.

I love observing change in the urban landscape. I get excited by historical images of places, particularly places I know and can compare. I started photographing urban landscapes in the 1980s with a vision to return when I turned 80 and re-shoot. I would then have some great before and after images. There have been some problems with my approach that I have discovered over the years, including the resolution of the film format originally used (35mm) being quite low, and changes to the scene that block the view.

Darling Harbour 1984.
Darling Harbour 2016.

 

For the making of the two photographs Darling Harbour 1984 – 2016, I returned to the area where I took the first photograph in 1984. I was unable to get the same framing as there were buildings and a tunnel blocking my view.

I find concrete forms pleasing aesthetically, and I enjoy the way that roads trace out graphic lines as they curve gracefully through the landscape. Lane markings and traffic signs add colour and typography. The boldness of concrete pillars is exciting, exuding power and presence like a Roman ruin or the statues on Easter Island. Edmund Burke (1729–97) in 1757 published his treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He explained the sublime as something that excites pain, danger, or terror – that it is “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”[9] Before reading his treatise I thought the sublime was a description of the most awe inspiring beauty, but it wasn’t until I came across Edward Burtynsky’s (b. 1955) large format photographs of industrial, or man altered, landscapes that the idea that the sublime can also be attributed to the ugliness of man’s complete disregard for the environment. I now see that the sublime can be a part of my work – that the sublime is not just about the power of nature, but is about the awe inspiring power of any scene.

I am now looking for a deeper level of engagement in an image – what questions it asks me. I feel this has come about due to my years of working in advertising where every detail was an opportunity to further explain an idea and convince a viewer to consume. A question asked allows for contemplation and research, discussion and debate, a longer duration of rewarding engagement.

I am bringing back the craft of perfectionist pursuit from where the immediacy and disposability of consumerism has cast it. By returning to the slow handmade processes of the 1800s I strive to improve my technique and invest in my art with love and care. Through this process I develop my skills and am thus able to realise a greater level of mastery of my print, and along the way I learn to see, not just technical nuances, but the image itself, for the act of photographing captures a scene of immense detail that is too much to take in at one glance. Only by pouring over it repeatedly can I discover the details and the relationships within.

I am moving away from the traditional approach used to display photographs (framed on a wall) to one where the image uses its materiality to become an object (more sculptural), and light and sound to make it more volumetric and current. The silver– and gold–chloride prints are slowly changing colour; the paper expands and shrinks with changing humidity. These things make the print live, breath, and age.

I have lit this work with a video projection of a pixellated scene. The light impression is subtle and references the way data has filled our world. I have created a soundscape made from a recording, near to the depicted scene, and mixed it with a live electromagnetic signal coming from my computer as it played the audio track. The electromagnetic sounds of data travelling throughout my computer were picked up by a simple wire coil lying on the keyboard. The mixed soundtrack contains the jack-hammering of a construction site, and the data pulses have a similar resonance – our world is constantly being built and changed, and information is an inseparable driver of this.

The scale of this work is an attempt to signal power and impact – the sublime – as well as to counteract the disposability of multitudinous images on the internet.

By using silver-chloride for image making, and hand printing in sunlight, I am exploring the notion of the guild craftsman and the human propensity to pursue perfection through practice – and to develop a very personal connection with my art.

 

Benjamin Broad.

 

 

[1] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[2] Paul Strand, “Photography and the New God,” Broom: An International Magazine Of The Arts Volume 3, Number 4 November 1922, 257.

[3] Catching a Shadow: Daguerreotypes in Philadelphia, 1839–1860. http://www.librarycompany.org/catchingashadow/section1/index.htm
Accessed 13 June 2017.

[4] Julia Breitbach, “The Photo-as-Thing: Photography and Thing Theory,” European Journal of English Studies 15, no. 1 (2011): 31.

[5] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Second Version), trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1936), 22.

[6] ibid.

[7] Andrew E Hershberger, ed., Photographic Theory: An Historical Anthology (Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2014), 290.

[8] The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. http://www.getty.edu/museum/media/images/web/larger/31110101.jpg
Accessed 13 June 2017

[9] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: With an Introductory Discourse Concerning Taste; and Several Other Additions (Cambridge; Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1757), 58.

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