“The Life and Times of Chemigram” or “The Tale of Mr. Painting-Physics and Mrs. Photo-Chemistry’s illicit Love” to Hippolyte Bayard from inventor of the chemigram, Pierre Cordier

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What is a photograph? Is it an accurate representation of what things were like at a certain time and place? While that may have once been the case, it is no longer. What can we rely on as truth in an age where the look of something on the surface is more important than its actual content?

In an effort to call attention to the death of the photographer as arbiter of truth, I’ve created what I believe to be a new process of “light painting” that photography is often the medium for. By making use of traditionally essential elements of photography, light and chemistry, I automate non-objective imagery without the use of a camera, in a painterly mode of mark making.

The results of this intuitive light painting are what is referred to as a chemigram, a process coined in 1956 by Belgian artist Pierre Cordier. However, chemigram-like images have been created and experimented with by photographers and scientists as far back as the 18th century. They are usually created using standard gelatin-silver paper and resists that are applied to the paper to selectively mask development. The paper is then placed in developer and fixer, back and forth, in either order, until the paper’s chemistry is exhausted and a final composition is fixed.

After the analog chemigram is created, I digitize it by scanning it  and opening it in a widely used contemporary photographer’s tool, Photoshop. I then select what can only be described by photography theorist Roland Barthes as the “punctum,” those poignant details of a photograph that stand out, stick in your mind, and force you to continually recall said photograph. The punctum of these curious marks left by my painterly performance often comes from compositions that allow the viewers’ eyes to continually move around the canvas, just as a traditional photograph might do. While the punctum may jump out from each photograph towards me, each viewer may bring their own personal associations to these non-objective images.

Once I’ve chosen the parts of the chemigram that I want to keep, I then delete the rest with commonly utilized photo-editing tools such as the magic wand and lasso. I allow Photoshop to reinterpret the negative space using Content-Aware Fill. The space is filled in by the application, wondrously appearing as if by magic. I repeat this filling process until the compositions reach a point of balance; this happens either between the organic forms left from the original chemigram and the re-interpreted generation of data by the computer or the relationship of more minimal versus maximal elements.

After a point of balance is achieved, I apply some final polishing actions to the canvas such as sharpening, spot-healing, dodging, and burning. I make no action to the canvas that I wouldn’t make to a traditionally captured photograph from a camera.

(from left to right) 8a, 8b, 2a, 5a installation view from five. BFA exhibition

The final results are compositions that allow the viewer’s eye to explore the contrast of computer-generated pattern/approximate-pattern and the automated marks left by my hand, chemistry, and light. Is this still photography, or is it more like a painting? Is it something more honest than the current state of photographic representation, or is it sending photography even deeper into a state of dishonesty?

Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph by Geoffrey Batchen