Photogram History

2009

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My entry into photography was via photograms. I fell in love with light phenomena and because I didn’t understand it, I found a physicist who tutored me each week After studying light phenomenon with a physicist at UCLA for a semester I had the impression that light is a substance which I could use much as I use paint. I began sculpting photo paper in the darkroom and then exposing the paper to a one point light source. After developing it, the paper became a two dimensional representation of itself as a three dimensional object and I began thinking of these works as time-space paradoxes. I called them “Light Works.” I especially liked the immediacy of being able to make an image using only light and photographic paper.

As I continued to work, I became more intuitive in my approach to making these light works. My experience was that a deeper intelligence was coming through my hands which would manifest itself in the new forms I would find each time I went into the darkroom. In the beginning I was making very structural, geometric images. However, as I kept working I found marvelous forms, some of which I call “Light Flowers”. I experimented with larger and better quality paper, finally using a German paper called Luminos because of its weight and the quality of the silver emulsion. Finally, I began sculpting 4’ x 8’ sheets of this paper. All of these works had the uncanny appearance of being dimensional objects. I found that when they were exhibited, often people would look at them from the side to see if they were truly flat. I did these works intermittently from 1973 – 1977. The experience was an odyssey of discovery of new imaging possibilities inherent in the paper in relationship to my intuitive self. Each time I went into the darkroom to make them I felt like an adventurer on an unknown odyssey of my intuitive self, as manifested through the new forms I discovered during that session.

“Manifestation of a Cube” was a body of work I did concurrent with “Light Works.” I found a very small glass dish that was so appealing to me for some unexplainable reason that one day I took it into the darkroom to see what kind of images it would generate when contacted to photo paper. During that first session I made 20-30 images. The next day, upon reviewing the images from the day before, I found several images that I wanted to make again. However, I could not make the same images a second time. I did find new images that I had no idea the dish was capable of. So, intermittently over several years I went into the darkroom, again as an adventurer, much as I had been an adventurer when making the folded paper work, to discover new imaging possibilities of the dish. I was in love the idea that I was revealing the infinite potential for form in nature, in this case a simple glass dish.

I discovered that integral to this way of working was my discovery of my own process of mind. I was a slightly different person each time I experimented with the cube and I was also building a deeper knowledge of its possibilities each time I worked. Ultimately, I came away from the experience with the belief that if I allow my mind to explore the next thing that occurs to it, a new landscape of possibilities will become visible, images I had never imagined. There was something authentic in this recognition of the importance of tapping into a deeper process of mind. Ultimately, it did lead to an important philosophical recognition that I will discuss later.

Ultimately I filled an 8’ x 20’ wall with dozens of 5” x 7” black and white photograms arranged like visual music. I also made photograms of the glass dish using cyanotype emulsion, an emulsion that I painted onto watercolor paper. Upon exposure and development this emulsion turns blue. In this case, the blue color resulted in an otherworldly quality of the glass dish and so I made only four images reflecting the x/y/z aspects of the glass dish.

I then added color to some of the black and white images via color Xerox technology, using the color scanning system of the machine to add color to the black and white photograms. In the mid-1970s the color copy machine scanned three times, recording for red, yellow and blue. I slightly moved the black and white images with each pass and t he result was the addition of vibrant color to the black and white images.

I then scanned and digitized several of the black and white images at the USC Image Processing Laboratory in the School of Engineering and the permutated color through the gray levels on a computer. This was in 1976, long before the advent of personal computers, when a single computer took up the space of an entire large room. I then shot slides off the computer screen of the colors permutating through the grey levels and made prints from these slides. I also shot a 16-millimeter film of the colors permutating through the image that I ultimately entitled “Intuition” because the morphizing of colors of the image on the screen reminded me of my own intuitive process of mind.

And finally, I X-rayed the glass dish at the Xerox Medical Research Center in Pasadena, California, adding the dimension of X-ray refraction to the larger investigation. I loved the addition of making visible an aspect of the glass dish that was revealed via part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot see.

I was asked to exhibit this work at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery Barnsdall Park in 1978. The curator also asked me to write a statement about the work. It seemed that each technology had allowed me to reveal a different aspect of the glass dish that was best organized according to the inherent nature of that technology. Thus, I covered an 8’ x 20’ wall with black and white photograms organized like visual music. The four cyanotypes were placed in a row. The color Xeroxes of the black and white images were placed next to one another. The digitized color permutations from the computer were placed in a matrix of 16 images to show the range of permutation possibilities via the computer. And two blue X-ray refractions were placed side by side to show two aspects of the glass dish. In addition, I projected my film.

This work continued intermittently for three years out of my own fascination without any understanding of where the work would finally lead, I only knew that I was galvanized by the idea of the possibility of the simplest object having infinite form in nature. When trying to write a statement for the exhibition “Manifestation of a Cube” I realized that not only had I learned something more about the infinite possibility for form of this glass dish in nature, but also that this work became a metaphor for the democratization of art at any historic moment. The construct goes like this: If I take the concept of cubeness, the meta concept of the cube, plus the specific technology I am using plus whatever mind is using the technology, in this case my mind, then I end up with the show I mounted configured as I described above. If I change the language and substitute artness for cubeness, the concept of art at any historic moment, plus mind, meaning cultural mind (artwork done by black, Asian, Hispanic and white artists), and the technology they use to make their art, then we have a more accurate and non-hierarchical reflection of the concept of creativity at any historic moment which includes work by the diverse peoples producing work at that moment. This model is very different than the pyramidal model we currently have when organizing the history of art. I was amazed by this recognition and fascinated that it would have emerged out of this intuitive process of making visible aspects of the glass dish.

I decided to test this hypothesis. I had done research for the California State Legislature, as well as the savings and loan and real estate industry and two toy companies and so I was familiar with research methodology. It never occurred to me that I would be able to use my former skills in behalf of manifesting an art project. However, I constructed a research project in the form of a cross-cultural exhibition of photography that I proposed to the Los Angeles Bicentennial Committee in 1979. Mine was one of two proposals accepted. I proposed to invite three curators from the black, Asian, Latino and white communities, or twelve curators total, to go into their own communities and invite photographers to submit work. Then all twelve curators would select the work to be included in the exhibition. In this way I tried to decentralize the curatorial function to include a broad spectrum of values. Ultimately, the show was called “Multicultural Focus” and included the work of 32 photographers. It was held at Los Angeles Municipal Gallery Barnsdall Park, the same venue where I had exhibited “Manifestations of a Cube.”

This exhibition was the first cross-cultural exhibition of photography in Los Angeles. Prior to embarking on this show people had commented that there was no need to mount such an exhibition. However, it had been my experience that the work of non-white artists was rarely exhibited, either in museums or galleries. In Los Angeles at that time there were only three very small galleries that exhibited the work of black artists, The Gallery run by Samella Lewis, William Grant Still Center run by Cecil Ferguson and Watts Towers Art Gallery run by John Outerbridge. Lewis also founded the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles in 1976. To my knowledge, at that time, there were no galleries that with regularity exhibited the work of Asian or Latino artists. Thus, I felt that a vehicle was needed to acknowledge the work being done by the broad spectrum of people in the Los Angeles area.

Many unexpected recognitions occurred when looking at the work in the exhibition. The gallery director decided to place works in the medium of black and white in one section of the space and works in color in another section of the space. This resulted in the work by Asian and white artists placed in one section of the gallery and the work by black and Latino artists placed in another section of the gallery. When talking with some of the black artists I found that while they knew how to make works using color technologies, they had chosen to work in the medium of black and white because it was most appropriate to their content.

When looking at the content of the work, I found that most of the themes being address by Asian artists had to do with identity issues of being both Asian and American. For instance, Wayne Kawada included photographs of himself as John Wayne. I asked him why he represented himself this way and he explained that his parents had been born in Japan and were interned in Manzinar, a Japanese internment camp in central California. When they were released from the camp they were determined to become as American as possible. So they named Wayne after John Wayne and their other son, Gary, after Gary Cooper. Mihoko Yamagata photographed herself dressed in a kimono with an American fashion magazine over her face to address the conflict she felt about being both Asian and American and thus not being able to fully identify with either. Bruce Yanamoto showed a series of pairs of identical prints. He had noticed the plethora of architectural and garden motifs present in homes and gardens in the Los Angeles area. In the second print of each pair he painted out Japanese motifs with white paint to remind the viewer of the extent to which the presence of Japanese people in Southern California had contributed to the architecture and landscape.

Most of the white artists used the medium of color to make highly decorative color abstractions. Some of the works by white artists reflected changing gender relationships. For instance, Elizabeth Bryant made very tender images of naked men holding infants in a natural setting. Stephen Axelrad included imaginative images of himself constructing his own identity using photos from his personal history. 

Many of the black artists made works embodying universal human themes. For instance, Carol Parrot Blue exhibited a series of images of a black mother during the birthing of her child. She explained that this was a universal event that everyone had experienced. Carrie Mae Weems included images of both Native American and black women in their homes. In one image a woman is standing in front of her home on the driveway holding a loaf of bread. I asked her why she included that image and she explained that all people bake bread and so this image symbolized our connectedness with one another.

For most of the participating artists this was the first major exhibition of their work and many have become world famous. It never occurred to me that when I first took the glass dish into the darkroom to make photograms that I would finally manifest that work via this exhibition. The total experience was exhilarating. I have never worked so hard in my life as I did to mount this show. I felt as if I was on the leading edge of history propelled by an inexplicable imperative greater than fame or fortune or my own career. In fact, the entire experience was its own reward.

Subsequently, I have employed the approach of direct exposure in numerous bodies of work. For ten years I made photograms using X-ray technology at the Xerox Medical Research Facility in Pasadena, which reveal the marvelous internal structure of the natural world. The images area blue because doctors preferred to look at this color. And, I made large murals from black and white photograms entitled “Time Frames,” which I produced on a special laser scanning Xerox machine that had a computer memory. At this time, in the mid to late 1980s I was concerned about the growth of the military industrial complex in the United States. These works reflected my feeling of fragility about the natural world.

  

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