The Lynchburg Art Club is having a “first” in its First Fridays series this March with an exhibit focused on photography using alternative processes.
The featured works are a throwback to the early days of photography and photo printing through the use of alternative methods, practices from before the standard darkroom print techniques and the digital age of photography. From silkscreen photographs using a print method first identified in China’s Song Dynasty in 960-1279 AD, to several 1800s methods, to holga prints that came on the scene in 1982, the exhibit is called “Photography: An Alternative Vision.”
This exhibit is the first of its kind in the First Fridays tradition, said Kathy Cudlin, a local long-time photographer, artist and curator of the “Alternative Vision” exhibit. Typically, featured art mediums for First Fridays are paint, oils, and other methods often considered more “traditional,” but photography work is an art form in itself — especially alternative processes.
Though not the first exhibit to feature photography, it is the first to showcase alternative processes.
“Our ‘Photography: An Alternative Vision’ show is indeed unique!” Cudlin, who has silkscreen work in the exhibit, said in an email. “These are very much specialty niches.”
Featured alternative methods of photography and printing include the practices of cyanotype, Van Dyke, tin type, platinum/palladium and gold processes, silkscreen, holga prints.
Work from 13 artists across the region make up the exhibit.
The old-fashioned methods of photography and printing appearing in the exhibit represent intensive, hands-on, partly scientific processes.
“Instead of just taking photographs, we switch to making photographs,” said Siobhan Byrns, an artist, photographer, and chair of the arts department at the University of Lynchburg. “It almost feels like magic.”
Byrns is featuring several different alternative processes in the exhibit: tin type, cyanotype, salt type, platinum, and gilded platinum prints. She said she was ultimately drawn to alternative processes following the surge of digital photography.
“We are an image consuming and distributing culture,” Byrns said. “Ten years ago, you would not have seen this many digital photographs, but now that we have the convenience of these high-end cameras being in our cell phones, we have images of everything. There’s almost a loss of intimacy in the medium, and so I think that’s where I really kind of about-faced and started looking at the images, and the creation of images in our past. It felt like we were crafting them more.”
Byrns emphasized she is active in digital photography as well and enjoys modern methods, noting there are great advantages and beauty to them as well. Sometimes, she combines new methods with the old.
“Some of my prints start out as digital. I am a big fan of digital negatives,” Byrns said. “I will take images with my DSLR, but then I will print an 18-by-10 or a 13-by-19 negative, and I will create the positive in a historic process. It’s kind of a combination of both worlds, which I think is a great dance. I think there has to be give and take, and there has to be a relationship, and you have to have one foot in the present and in the past if you’re going to play with this genre of mediums.”
Tin type, especially when used for portraiture, is one of Byrns’s favorite alternative processes.
Tin type can best be described as a Polaroid from the 1850s, Byrns explained. It offers a one-and-done process and product: one shot for capturing, developing, and printing an image. This method is an American photographic invention, debuting in Ohio in approximately 1853. Tin type photography was revolutionary, Byrns said, breaking down socio-economic barriers and making photo opportunities accessible to virtually anyone.
“If you were in Europe and you got your picture taken, you were an earl. You were someone of means. You were upper class,” Byrns said. “Here we are, in middle America in the 1850s, and anyone who went to a fair could get a tin type.”
Tin type photography was also used to document the Civil War, providing images from war camps, battlefields, and hospitals as well as images of President Abraham Lincoln and other prominent historical figures of the era, among other photojournalistic material preserved today.
Roanoke-based artist and photographer Gina Louthian-Stanley is featuring cyanotype works in the exhibit.
The cyanotype process, discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842, used the chemicals ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide to produce cyan-blue colored prints. This method became the go-to print for engineering drawings and what are today called “blueprints.”
Louthian-Stanley is primarily a print maker and encaustic artist, with a passion for photography. Since starting the cyanotype process a few years ago, she has made prints not only on papers, but fabric and pottery.
“I like to combine my mediums to see how I can push them,” Louthian-Stanley said. “I’m more of an experimental type artist, so to speak.”
Isolation from the novel coronavirus pandemic was a catalyst for some of Louthian-Stanley’s recent art, a sort of solace and silver lining she found while missing a more social lifestyle.
“I would take the time that I missed from doing other things and come up to the studio, and I would be able to work pretty much uninterrupted, so I could really process some ideas that I had had that I’d had for quite a while,” Louthian-Stanley said. “The rest of the time, I’m usually just kind of painting in the crack of my life. In a way, it was the silver lining in the pandemic, was to be able to develop some things that were in my head.”
For Lynchburg photographer and artist John Shuptrine, delving into the Van Dyke brown style process was an easy transition for someone who grew up in a photography world of darkrooms and film, working with chemicals and trays and learning how to get ideal exposures.
“The chemicals are different, and the way that you generate the image is a little bit different, but you’re still working with trays and liquids in the darkroom,” Shuptrine said. “It was easy to want to explore this other way of making images.”
Shuptrine got into the Van Dyke process after taking a class on the method at the Academy Center for the Arts and has five works showcasing this process in the upcoming exhibit.
Kits for Van Dyke brown are fairly simple and easy to find, Shuptrine said, consisting of one or two chemicals to mix. The method requires experimentation with chemical mixtures and exposure times to obtain ideal photo prints, he explained.
“You tweak and play around with the ratios of them to get the colors you want,” Shuptrine said.
While Van Dyke style photos are not colored, the monochrome shades can vary based on chemical mixture and exposure times, similar to the cyanotype process.
“These old techniques that this show is about allows to sort of be amateur chemists, too, because there’s a lot of tweaking of the process to make it work for you,” Shuptrine said. “Small differences in the chemical compositions and the temperatures make big differences in tones and color qualities of the final images. It’s fun.”
Most historical, alternative processes involve the use of chemicals, requiring some knowledge of chemistry. Although many of the chemicals have been made less toxic over time — such as replacing cyanide with iron in cyanotype mixtures and using cadmium-free collodion — the artists said working with chemicals requires great respect and caution. Proper ventilation is one of the paramount requirements.
“You definitely need to be disciplined, and you need to be very aware of what you’re playing with. It is not for the careless or the sloppy,” Byrns said.
Once photographs and paper have been treated with the respective chemicals, UV lighting is used to expose the chemicals and obtain the resulting prints, the artists explained. Some artists create UV boxes that allow printing to be done at any time, even on sunless days. Others prefer to use the sun directly. Exposure times are dependent on the intensity and amount of UV light, the type of process being used, and can take seconds to hours for results depending on the variables.
“The process becomes as much as part of the experience as the final product,” Shuptrine said.
The exhibit opens Friday, March 5, at 1011 Rivermont Avenue in Lynchburg from 5-8 p.m. Afterward, the gallery will be open for limited hours Thursdays through Sundays, and the exhibit can also be viewed by appointment through March 28.