PROJECT REPORT: Block City Chroma Planes


Recording of the talk I gave at the opening reception along with the Q&A session is now available:


In much of my work I explore themes of transition, time and place. As such, photography provides the ideal starting point, the photographic process lending itself to these themes, an innate relationship between the processes and the concepts. But ultimately the photographs tend to become just one element in more complex works. Working serially, the images are intended to function as cohesive groups, and more and more I return to my first love: writing. I am intrigued by the possibilities of changing, enhancing and altering the viewing experience by using these groups of photographs as content for and combined with other media.

On one hand, the book interests me because it is a familiar format for the textual component of my work, but it also creates interesting problems to solve when it come to photographs. Combining images with text and graphics, as well as material concerns such as paper and bindings, while also offering a variety of options for how the images are organized and sequenced, all in a self-contained unit keyed to individual human consumption. Rather than viewing the book simply as a vessel to carry photographs, a convenient container that fits in a viewer's hands, I see the book itself as a pliable medium, capable of offering structure to the images that is sympathetic to them, without the rigidity of framed prints on gallery walls. 

On the other hand, and in the same spirit, at various points while working out the photographic portion of a project, I am usually thinking about how they might eventually be presented, whether individual framed prints are appropriate or if they might become part of a site-specific installation piece. How can they be presented to a viewer in a way that will reinforce their cohesion a a group, and yet have the installation itself take the message further? Can the installation add additional layers, alter or play with the message coded in images alone, even contradict them in ways that open and improve the communication of ideas? In the case of Block City Chroma Planes, I see both the book and the installation as eventual fates for the images. But first, what is the thesis, or the concept that has given rise to making the images in the first place? 

Project Beginnings

As usual, this project started as something else entirely before morphing into its current form. A friend who develops digital presets was looking for testers to shoot a handful of film stocks alongside a digital camera for comparison. I thought the easiest approach would be to make a series of color studies, images focused specifically on color and how they render in different kinds of light. To do this I found that moving in close to the subjects was the best way to work, and naturally started making formal, geometrical compositions. They quickly drifted into abstraction as these tight crops removed them from their context, creating an almost claustrophobic tension. The three images above were all from the very first rolls I shot on a slightly hazy, overcast day in late August 2015 - center and left on Kodak E100G color reversal film and the right on Fuji Velvia.

It did not take long before I became much more interested in these abstractions and how they might relate to the places where I found the colors for my study. I find it interesting that for a long time I felt my best images were made when I traveled, that seeing things with new eyes and a sense of discovery seemed to be necessary for my vision to emerge. And yet most of these new images, which I found to be just as engaging, were being made within walking distance of our home. And they are generally found in places you would not think to look: doorways and buildings on the street that we walk by everyday, warehouses and other commercial/industrial sites where most people never wander, storefronts we usually only notice in their totality as they beckon us to enter and consume.

DC, particularly Northeast Washington where we live, is undergoing a period of revitalization, and with each new structure that rises, a small piece of the past is altered, pulverized or buried, replaced or "cleansed." Rather than try to document these changes directly, creating documents of demolition and construction at work sites, it occurred to me that focusing on neighborhoods, or parts of neighborhoods, that have yet to receive a developer's sterile sheen could be a way to get a deeper, more subjective sense of how our city's transitions are experienced and possibly allow me to meditate and see what going through that transition means. Using the flattening effect of the myopic camera lens, I try to prevent the viewer from settling into space, a dreamlike slipperiness where you feel somehow trapped and falling or sliding at the same time.

I see structures, mostly architectural features, in these areas as a record that can be read in order to ruminate on the people, unknown to me, who created these neighborhoods over time not through construction, but through their use of them as living spaces. Such a record is almost impossible to find in new developments, where everything is a sanitized, forced conformity and the traces of individual choice are either indecipherable, unwanted, or too nascent to record visually. I choose to focus on commercial properties for the most part because they are by definition communal spaces, designed to accommodate the collaboration of everyday life in an urban environment. That said, I find the private parts of these properties, the back-alleys and staff entrances, to often be as telling about the people who maintain them as the storefronts designed to stand out and attract customers, and I have found several private properties that seem to speak as well.

An "Official" Artist's Statement (Draft #2)

Block City Chroma Planes is an on-going series exploring transition through a combination of color, subject matter and process. I think of these works as collaborations with an anonymous cohort as well as a kind of portrait of them. Color choices made by strangers, mostly in urban, commercial settings, form a basis to extract formal compositions and devise ways to take advantage of the particular qualities of photographic images to create abstractions about the people who made these choices.

The subject matter: walls, doors and windows combine with the emotional content of the colors and this abstracted remove in order to open spaces within these found sites for meditation on the meaning and implications of transition. These works are documents, but only in the most obviously subjective sense, my own experience of a place and interpretation of that experience is kept at the forefront, unavoidable evidence of mediation. I believe this frees the viewer from the myth of photographic truth so that instead they can pursue their own personal truth.

And finally, a key component to the work is exploring color as process through a series of interpretations for each image from physical to chemical to digital and back to physical: commercial paint applied to a surface, lit by different kinds of light, reflected through a camera lens, captured in a film emulsion, processed chemically, digitized through a scanner, manipulated in computer software, and finally manifest in a pigment inkjet print on paper.

A Question That Compels

One of the reasons that books probably appeal top me as a medium is that I often write about my own photographs, and in books I can combined the words with the images in ways that are accessible yet provide the space for innovation. I have only just begun to start writing about the images in this series, but this is a short piece that I think speaks to the core of the project:

Who made this choice? The consistency, the thoroughness, the assaulting physicality and complete inundation one experiences when standing before it, all tell you that this was not an accident. Intention is etched into every thoroughly-enrobed crack and crevice, every jutting corner swimming in a cosmetic hue. Someone said, "I want this color," Someone said, "Paint it top to bottom." Someone said, "All four walls." But who are these ghostly someones? Wraith-like they slip through our fingers, not present but their presence screams of their here-ness. And that is the only logical explanation. They painted these walls, all of them, this shade, in order to say something, to call out to the universe and all humanity, a foghorn blast of visual catastrophe intoning their existence. For only an existential dilemma could justify the choices that led to the bright, pink Chinese restaurant on the corner of a busy, city intersection...right?

The Viewing Experience

And finally, we get to the results, or at least what I envision today. It is very likely that as the project proceeds, there will be changes along the way. I am, after all, only 9 months into a process I see taking at least 3 years to complete, possibly longer. Let me begin with the installation as that is the clearer in my mind at this point. 

The installation I imagine would be formalist, as much focused on process as content. It is really that last section of the artist's statement that guides the installation design. I imagine an immersive space consisting of a series of rooms that grow in scale along with the images as one moves through it. As they change format and scale, some images will repeat from room to room, and others will disappear: a gradual winnowing that simulates both the steps in the image making process and the editing process, which for me operate concurrently. I have no idea whether this piece will ever come to fruition, having neither the space, budget nor technical know-how to put it together right now, but I think it would be very interesting to play with this idea of scale and how it affects the viewing experience as well as using the bringing the viewer into the photographic editing process.

The first two rooms would be small, maybe 6' x 6' with a low ceiling, and darkened. In the first, each wall would contain a light box on which are mounted the developed 2 1/4" film positives, slides which when backlit show the original images, unedited individually but already reduced from their original number to somewhere between 300-400 and arranged into both harmonious and discordant compositions. magnifying loupes would be provided, attached to the walls on chains, for closer inspection of the slides. The second room would contain a series of 12 touchscreen LED devices, as close to 8" x 10" dimensions as possible, each with a distinct series of images (100 total) that can be scrolled through, selected, cropped, and perhaps some basic editing of color, brightness and contrast. In the third room, roughly 12' x 12' with a standard home ceiling height, the viewer would encounter twenty four 12" x 12" and 11" x 14" prints, in mats (possibly frames) but on the floor, leaning against the walls so that they can be picked up and rearranged, turned around, and combined in various sequences. A fourth room, 24' x 24' with high ceilings, would have prints in a variety sizes from 16" x 16" to 30" x 40" hung on the walls in various configurations. And finally the fifth room would be very large with only four images, each screen printed to the entire size of the wall, dwarfing the viewer and creating an life-size experience akin to standing before these subjects, a return to the beginning of my process and acknowledgement of passing my experience of the work of unknown actors to unknown recipients.

Regardless of whether I can accomplish this admittedly ambitious installation design, I believe I can use the book format to translate this body of work into an object that can be experienced in its own way but with the same themes. This end of things is less clear, but I know for the sequence, presenting juxtapositions that use the relationship between colors to create a narrative driven by emotional shifts will be important. Finding a structure that allows the same image to appear in relation to several others is also a goal. And the use of color in other elements of the design are possibilities to be explored: perhaps colored borders or colored papers inserted along with the pages containing photographs; maybe graphic elements or another type of photograph (signposts, directional images, etc.); or even organizing the content around the idea of color wheels and charts and finding a binding structure that works along those lines. Books tend to be an iterative process for me, a gradual revision, rather than holistically conceived at the outset.

It has been long-winded, but I hope this sheds some light on my project and what I am trying to do with it and that you will continue to follow along to see how it progresses (and whether I can actually meet any of these goals!) Thanks for looking!