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Greg S. Flood


Art Writing

State of the Photograph: Three Artists Respond to Digital Technologies

Paul Schiek, 'Hepburn,' 2011, chromogenic print, edition of 7 (16 x 12 inches) (Image courtesy of the Stephen Wirtz Gallery)

Photography was forever changed with the introduction of cheap digital technologies that have allowed for the mass proliferation of imagery to a level never seen before. In response, various artists have either embraced or rejected these technologies in various degrees. Three current exhibitions of photography embody the various responses by artists to these technologies while creating images that are either unique and arresting or quick and slick in their presentation.

Image courtesy of the Stephen Wirtz Gallery

Paul Schiek, 'Victory,' 2011, chromogenic print, edition of 5 (26 x 20 inches) (Image courtesy of the Stephen Wirtz Gallery)

Paul Schiek employs the least use of new technologies to create his works. The inspiration for the works in Schiek’s show, ‘dead men don’t look like me,’ at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery, came from a collection of mug shots that a friend of his found in an abandoned prison in Georgia. According to the artist, he has had this collection for some time and was not sure what to do with it. “There are about 400 images of prisoners from all different races and backgrounds that date from the 1940s – the 1960s,” said Schiek as I spoke with him about the show. Sorting through them, the artist decided to “pick out the ones who fit a certain set of criteria to create this show.” Those criteria are a white male, 29 – 37 years of age, with a fob hair cut and that are aesthetically engaging. These criteria are drawn from a loose description of the artist himself, and create the source of irony Schiek has employed in titling the show.

Paul Schiek, 'Matthews,' 2011, chromogenic print, edition of 3 (40 x 30 inches) (Image courtesy of the Stephen Wirtz Gallery)

“There is so much cultural baggage attached to mug shots, I was looking for a way to get past that when I used them,” said Schiek as we discussed the technologies behind the creation of his works. The finished pieces range in size from 16 x 12 inches on the small side and 40 x 30 on the large end, with varying editions for each size. To achieve the enlargement from the original image, Schiek scanned the originals with a high definition scanner and then had them printed the using a process that exposes photographic paper to a controlled light source to ensure accurate exposure.

Paul Schiek, 'Indell,' 2011, chromogenic print, edition of 3 (40 x 30 inches) (Image courtesy of the Stephen Wirtz Gallery)

All of the marks, stains, tears, and scratches in the originals have been left untouched in the finished images. The re-photographing of the images has pushed these elements into the image another layer, making them seamlessly integrated to it. The only editing of the images was minor burning and dodging of certain areas to reveal an eye or lip better, which are traditional techniques in photography. The final touch by the artist is the subtle hand cutting of the new images along their bottom edge, which gives them that necessary unfinished element.

The combination of this subtle effort has produced works that leave no doubt to their origins, but do not present the viewer the cultural attachments of a historic artifact or with the issue of image appropriation while revealing their haunting beauty. It is rare to say of a show, but each work is as equally powerful as the next in confronting the viewer with the dark reality of each man’s life and existence when the original photograph was taken. Paul Schiek has employed the latest technologies in subtle and sophisticated ways to present to us, anew, this form of portraiture and to return our gaze to this element of our history and society.

Cassandra C. Jones, 'Dog Dog Dog,' 2012, archival inkjet print, edition of 2 (44 x 80 inches) (Image courtesy of the Eli Ridgway Gallery)

The second show I visited was PICTURES TAKEN #drawings at the Eli Ridgway Gallery. ‘PICTURES TAKEN #drawings’ is a solo exhibition of photographic drawings by Cassandra C. Jones. To create these drawings, the artist has culled through the extensive collection of images that she has taken from the internet and collaged them together in or to create her digital drawings of dogs, geometric forms, portraits, and fruits.

Cassandra C. Jones, 'Dent,' 2012, archival inkjet print, edition of 2 (17 x 22 inches) (Image courtesy of the Eli Ridgway Gallery)

Walking into the gallery, the viewer only sees framed photographic collages composed of regular 4 x 6 snap shots of lightning strikes. Upon closer viewing, one realizes the collages serve to form drawings of a running dog, or perhaps a simple geometric shape like a circle, with the lines of the lightning bolts. Moving to the second level of the gallery, the drawings change form. Instead of using snapshots to create an image, she has used an element from one image, in this case a hot air balloon, and then repeated it to form the drawings of fruit, or the outline of a head in profile.

Cassandra C. Jones, 'Pomegranate,' 2012, archival inkjet print, edition of 2 (11 x 14 inches) (Image courtesy of the Eli Ridgway Gallery)

To create these images, the Jones has used digital technologies throughout to her process to make the finished work. Using images created by someone else and sourced through the internet is the foundation of her work. Next, she digitally manipulates the photograph to create her drawing, and then she uses a digital printer to lay down an extremely fine printing of the finished piece on a smooth paper. The effect this has of one’s visual experience of the work is that it is very slick and gives one the feeling it is ephemeral, much as the lightning is itself. Each work is editioned in sets of two, which is not unusual for traditional photographs, but this gives me pause with digitally printed work because it is so cheap and easy to print another one.

Cassandra C. Jones, 'Nels and Yuka,' 2012, archival inkjet print, edition of 2 (24 x 36 inches) (Image courtesy of the Eli Ridgway Gallery)

Overall, this work interested me the least for the simple reason that it seems too facile in its creation. Perhaps it is because of the jewel like colors that are rendered on the paper, the crisp and fragile feeling that they convey against the stark whiteness of the paper, or it may be because there is almost no risk in creating the work other than the loss of time by the artist. I am not sure yet what it is, but it does not stay on the wall for me. Either way, the images are enjoyable because they are visual puzzles until the drawing reveals itself in the images.

Lastly, John Chiara’s show ‘Crestmont at Coral’ at the Haines Gallery represents another track in photography, one that I have talked about before in the photographs of Chris McCaw. Chiara’s photographs are all large scale images of the streets of San Francisco and they embody an element of constant experimentation to capture the image.

John Chiara, 'Vermont End (West),' 2012, dye destruction process, unique photograph (34 x 28 inches) (Image courtesy of the Haines Gallery)

To produce his images, Chiara has built his own large scale camera that he wheels around the city until he finds something he wants to capture an image of. He then cuts and tapes a large piece of irregularly cut, positive photographic paper into the camera and exposes it for anywhere from five to fifteen minutes at a time, using his had as his sole tool to begin, limit, and end the exposure. From there Chiara then inserts the exposed paper into a large PVC tube and develops it. This method of hand exposure and development harkens back the origins of photography, bringing in elements of chance, spontaneity, and disorder to the finished piece.

John Chiara, 'La Grande at Avalon,' 2012, dye destruction process, unique photograph (34 x 29 inches) (Image courtesy of the Haines Gallery)

While we only see Chiara’s successes in the gallery, there must have been many trials and errors in the beginning of his exploring this process, and still a few mishaps even today. What the viewer does get to view are images of San Francisco, which have a feeling of being from another time, but also keep their ties to the present. Each betrays marks that, to most photographers, would be considered errors, including chemical stains, shadow lines from the clear tape he uses to mount the images, and the glaring of the camera lens.

John Chiara, 'Valmar at Peru,' 2012, dye destruction process, unique photograph (34 x 28 inches) (Image courtesy of the Haines Gallery)

These marks, however, could not be removed from the images without them loosing that important element that makes the works what they are – the visible element of chance. If these marks were not there then there would be no visual hint beyond the relatively unusual combination of tonal qualities in the image. With these marks we are assured that the images put before us are created using the traditional methods of photography, though in this case a variation on what would be considered the norm by most.

John Chiara, 'Starr King at Coral,' 2012, dye destruction process, unique photograph (35 x 29 inches) (Image courtesy of the Haines Gallery)

One other thing that John Chiara has done differently than most photographers today is that there is, and can only ever be, one original image that is the finished work and everything else is just a copy of that original. In other words, these photographs cannot be editioned in any way, using traditional photographic techniques, to create a multiple with seamless accuracy. In this sense, Chiara, like Chris McCaw, has treated his photographs as if they were paintings.

Indeed, considering the lushness of the colors, moodiness of the de-saturated tones, and slight shimmer in the light captured, it is almost as if he is painting these images when he takes them. This is an affront to one of the foundational tenants of photography, which is the ability to reproduce an image as many times as one would like. We can infer then that Chiara is telling us that his photographs are of greater value because there is only one of each and the original cannot be reproduced with a simple click of a button.

Photography will never be what it was before the introduction of digital technologies. Every photographer must come to the decision as to how to best to negotiate their presence. As we have seen above, some artists have let the new technologies completely dominate the process for creating their work. Others have accepted the digital word as a tool to be used in creating the image, but whose presence does not make itself overtly known in the finished piece. Lastly, there are those photographers who wholly reject the new technologies and rely on more traditional techniques to create unique works that cannot be easily duplicated. For me, the most effective use of the new technologies is when they cannot be seen or are not there in the first place.

‘dead men don’t look like me,’ the current show of works by Paul Schiek is on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery until June 2, 2012. Reception: Saturday, May 5, 4:00pm – 6:00pm. 49 Geary Street (Third Floor) San Francisco, CA 94108. (415) 433-6879. Gallery Hours: Tues. – Fri. 9:30am – 5:30 pm, Sat. 10:30am – 5:30pm. More of Paul Schiek’s work can be seen here.

‘PICTURES TAKEN #drawings,’ the current show of Cassandra C. Jones’s work at Eli Ridgway Gallery is on view until May 19, 2012. The gallery is located at 172 Minna Street, San Francisco, 94105; (415) 777-1366; Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 6pm. More information about Cassandra C. Jones can be found here.

John Chiara’s show ‘Crestmont at Coral,’ is on view at the Haines Gallery until May 26, 2012. 49 Geary Street (Fifth Floor), San Francisco, CA 94108. (415) 397-8114. Gallery Hours: Tues. – Fri. 10am – 5:30 pm, Sat. 10am – 5pm. More of John Chiara’s work can be seen here.

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