Jennah Ward's Cyanotypes at George Lawson Gallery
Jennah Ward, 'Pico 01', 2013; Cyanotype on watercolor paper on panel, (22 x 15 inches) (Image courtesy of George Lawson Gallery)
On a serendipitous trip to George Lawson Gallery, I encountered the photographs of Jennah Ward for the first time. In a show entitled ‘pico’, Ward has taken an old photographic technology – the cyanotype – and given it new life.
Most people are familiar with the cyanotype process, though they may not know it. Used for making blue (cyan) prints of architectural drawings and also used in children’s crafts, the cyanotype is one of the oldest known photographic technologies. Its use has been largely industrial however, because the exposure process is not able to capture detailed images the way black and white and color photographs have been able to.
Jennah Ward, 'Pico 04', 2013; Cyanotype on watercolor paper on panel, (22 x 15 inches) (Image courtesy of George Lawson Gallery)
The typical cyanotype most people have experienced is when they placed leaves onto ready-made cyanotype paper and then left it out in the sun. When they peel away the leaves, the paper remained white where the leaves were placed. All around the leaves, however, the paper turned a deep blue color. The resulting image is called a cyanotype.
Since cyanotypes always produce silhouetted images, they have been largely ignored by most 19th and 20th century photographers and/or have been regarded as a relic from the origins of photographic history. Jennah Ward has revived the technology and given it new life.
To create the images, Ward paints the sensitized cyan emulsion onto sheets of large watercolor paper. She then exposes them in her Los Angeles studio to the light coming through a window. Different areas of contrast are created by the shadows from the window mullions and from Ward manipulating the paper while it is being exposed. After the exposure is complete, the photographs are then fixed, washed/dried, and mounted onto wooden panels.
Jennah Ward, 'Pico 07', 2013; Cyanotype on watercolor paper on panel, (22 x 15 inches) (Image courtesy of George Lawson Gallery)
The resulting images have ties closer to the lineage of abstract painting than they do to photographic history. While some images are slightly more literal than others in describing the form of her studio window, others move beyond such literal interpretations to create soft edged inky depths that draw us in and leave us floating through them. A mixture of influences from the best of the New York school of abstract expressionism permeates each of the compositions, but they resist any direct attribution of influence.
Jennah Ward, 'Pico 20', 2013; Cyanotype on watercolor paper on panel, (36 x 24 inches) (Image courtesy of George Lawson Gallery)
These photographs also reveal the hand of the artist in their creation. Looking closely at the deeper tones of blue, we can detect the some of the brush strokes made by Ward when preparing the paper with the cyan emulsion. Such marks of the hand have largely been considered defects and something to avoid by almost all photographers since the creation of the technology, with some notable exceptions. The visibility of the artist’s hand in a photograph is more than refreshing in a world where photoshopped perfectionism reigns supreme and often drains all of the life from an image. Ward’s brush strokes not only draw us in to look closer, but also add additional visual depth, giving us something to cling to and depart from as we swim through the expansive voids of color. These marks also tell us these photographs are made by hand, as opposed to the rapid fire, mechanistic processing of digital photographs.
Jennah Ward, 'Pico 21', 2013; Cyanotype on watercolor paper on panel, (36 x 24 inches) (Image courtesy of George Lawson Gallery)
As a whole, this body of photographs engaged me in a way that most photography does not. These are slow photographs. They are slow in that they take a long time to make and also in how they hold us, make us linger, and let us wander around inside of them. In the subtle details I found the human process behind the creation of each image, which reminds us both that there is a human behind its creation and that these so called ‘imperfections’ add depth to the images. Lastly, they explore a level of abstraction that I cannot recall in any other photographic image. I encourage Ms. Ward to keep exploring this direction and look forward to seeing the results.
Jennah Ward, 'Pico 22', 2013; Cyanotype on watercolor paper on panel, (36 x 24 inches) (Image courtesy of George Lawson Gallery)
Jennah Ward’s exhibition ‘pico’ will be on view until Nov. 9, 2013. George Lawson Gallery, 315 Potrero Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94103; (415) 703 – 4400; Hours: Tues. – Sat. 11-5:30. For more information about Jennah Ward, CLICK HERE.