For most of his young career, Colby Caldwell has been a photography Luddite, spending countless hours in the darkroom, laboriously producing haunting black-and-white pictures that look like huge daguerreotypes printed on glowing, wrinkly tinfoil. The vision behind those images was built on the central tenets of modernist photography as handed down by greats such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank: no color, no abstraction, preserve the integrity of the image captured by the camera.
So Caldwell's newest body of work, which is being exhibited at Hemphill Fine Arts, is shocking. Most of the pictures are full of electric color. Abstract imagery abounds. Nearly all the photographs have been digitized, downloaded and done up on an Iris printer.
Hard-core traditionalists--those who believe fine-art photography begins and ends with black-and-white, representational images shot in natural light--will probably condemn this show as a betrayal. Postmodernists, who believe history is meaningless and tradition a crock, will likely welcome it with a knowing smirk.
But the show is a triumph because Caldwell has brilliantly pulled off a risky artistic feat. He has harnessed cutting-edge technology to his labor-intensive artistic process and made a daring stylistic evolution without abandoning the essence of modernism or adopting the pedantic vacuity of postmodernism.
In a very real sense, photographs such as "Wheatfield" and "Things My Grandfather Told Me" and "Artifact No. 3" are about how history--information, life stories, artistic styles, DNA sequences--evolves from one generation to the next. Each generation draws something from what came before and adds something of its own, forming a continuum.
The basis of many of the show's images was an 8mm film that Caldwell's maternal grandfather, an avid outdoorsman, took on a hunting trip in 1961.
"We'd watch it at family gatherings to the point that it was like a ritual," Caldwell says. "As a child, I also spent a lot of time with my grandfather hunting, fishing and camping. Later in life, I realized that he was passing his knowledge down to me. He was teaching me about life, about how to take care of myself and how to live outdoors. I learned through his stories and our shared experiences. In retrospect, it was a gift."
That gift became even more precious when Caldwell's father died last year. In his grief, Caldwell began thinking about how knowledge is passed between generations. That brought him back to the family film. He began examining it closely and became intrigued with the images of his grandfather and the hunt, but also with the anomalies, the odd, blurry shots that occurred when the camera was dropped or when light accidentally seeped onto the unexposed film.
Caldwell transferred the film to a video and began isolating those anomalous moments. Then he would capture them, either by photographing the video monitor or by digitizing the images and downloading them onto a computer. In essence, he was taking photographs of naturally occurring abstractions. The final images were made with an Iris printer, the most advanced form of computer-controlled printing.
The results are spectacular. The photographs glow like a video monitor in a darkened room. That internal light makes the colors--the high, blue skies and the ripe, golden wheat in the fields the hunters are scouring for pheasant--seem slightly skewed but incredibly warm and alive. It's a powerful allegory for how time can burnish memories.
By transferring the images of the hunt from film to video to computer to paper, Caldwell also created a fitting allegory of how information is passed down through successive generations. While that amounts to manipulating the image, it doesn't violate the modernist notion of preserving the integrity of the original image. Instead, it builds on it.
"I was trying to take instantaneous moments and hold them under the microscope," Caldwell says. "And that's how I began using the new technologies. I mean, I hate color photography and I was as anti-Iris printers and computers as anybody. But when I began working with my grandfather's film, I realized that these things were just tools that I could incorporate into my artistic process. The process is just as laborious as ever. It still takes me days to produce a single image, and I still print on paper. But now I use cutting-edge technology to do it."
That may sound like common sense. But for many photographers, it's still a heretical notion. Theirs will always be a black-and-white world. But photography is like everything else in this life. It doesn't stand still, no matter how much we might want it to.
Color photography isn't new, and it isn't going away. It's evolving. If it had been readily available when the first great modernists came along, they would have run with it. Imagine what someone like Paul Strand could have created with today's technology.
With this new body of work, Caldwell, at age 34, has also evolved in dramatic fashion. He's shed the skin of his previous work and moved on to something bigger, bolder, more beautiful and more provocative. His photographs build on the past, embrace the present and leave an indelible imprint that will live on in the future. That's about all one can ask of an artist.
Colby Caldwell, at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1027 33rd St. NW, through Oct. 23. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 202-342-5610.
CAPTION: Click-change artist: Colby Caldwell's "A Clear, Clear Day," part of a groundbreaking show for the photographer.