Artistry and chemistry: A new way to look at the old practices of photography

David Emmitt Adams, “Eagle Tail.” In his series, “Conversations with History,” Adams affixes images to objects discarded in the Arizona desert near his home. Some of the garbage is decades old.

Just outside of Asheville, N.C., the photo+craft festival is a community arts extravaganza being held this spring that has one impressive photography exhibition in its midst. The show is called “This is a Photograph,” exhibited at the Penland School of Crafts and curated by Dan Estabrook. An artist in his own right, Estabrook also teaches a popular workshop called “Photography in Reverse” in which he begins with digital photography and teaches older techniques back to the daguerreotype created in the 19th century.

At first impression, the exhibit appears to be paintings or mixed media. On closer inspection, however, they are photographs, rendered with chemicals or smeared with cooking oil or buried under paint.

“These works are almost sculptural,” said Estabrook, who is fascinated by the use of photo chemistry in contemporary art. This fascination alone is testament to how pervasive digital technology has become in the world of photography, where everyone has the ability to take a picture now on their camera phones.

Most of the early-19th-century photographers were scientists, in fact, who found the right combination of chemicals to affix an image to a piece of paper. Once those chemicals were identified and accessible, then the next generation of photographers pushed the practice into the realm of art with their creativity. Now that digital is the modern option for citizens and journalists alike, chemical processes have re-emerged in the art world. Daguerreotypes, wet collodion and photograms appear in the work of famous artists such as Chuck Close, Sally Mann and Adam Fuss.

“Just as some people say that photography freed up the painters to be impressionistic,” Estabrook said, “so has digital allowed photographers to be free to experiment.”

Jerry Spagnoli specializes in the daguerreotype process created in 1839 to affix images to copper plates.

Holly Roberts paints on her photographs to create unique images.

To create this photograph above, artist Chris McCaw first had to build a large-format camera that would hold the gelatin silver paper he had selected. He exposed the paper to the sun for so long that it created a path on the surface as it crossed the sky and sometimes burned holes in the paper as well. “You can’t do this digitally,” Estabrook said. “These elements collide in a unique way.”

Sally Mann has been experimenting with wet collodion, the same processing that Matthew Brady employed during the Civil War inside a covered wagon to create the first images of war in this country.