Digital Transitions: Selections from the Light Work Collection

January 23 – April 1, 2006
Robert B. Menschel Gallery
Reception: Mon, Jan 30, 2006

Related exhibition:

Digital Transitions: Selections from the Light Work Collection
January 8 – March 16, 2007
Palitz Gallery, Syracuse University Lubin House, New York, NY
Reception: Tuesday, February 13, 6-8pm

Digital Transitions: Selections from the Light Work Collection includes work by artists Anthony Aziz & Sammy Cucher, Lois Barden & Harry Littell, Matt Black, Ben Gest, Terry Gips, Myra Greene, Sunil Gupta, Deborah Jack, Mona Jimenez, Keith Johnson, Martina Lopez, James Nakagawa, Barry Perlus, John Pfahl, Keith Piper, Neal Rantoul, Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Kanako Sasaki, Matthew Swarts, Scott Townsend, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, and Kim Waale.

Digital Transitions: Selections from the Light Work Collection encourages a dialogue within the community about the influence of digital technology and changing processes on contemporary artists and image-making. The work, all created over the past fifteen years, explores the direction some artists are taking in incorporating digital technology in their photographic process. In each piece, digital technology was used somewhere in creating the images.

Primarily, the artists featured in this exhibition have participated in the Artist-in-Residence program, or are past Light Work Grant recipients. Because Light Work encourages participation by a variety of emerging and under-represented artists, the Light Work Permanent Collection is an extensive and diverse archive for the mapping of trends and developments in photography. It includes all genres of expression in contemporary photography including documentary, abstract, experimental, and conceptual work.

John Mannion, Light Work/Community Darkrooms digital lab manager, will give a gallery talk regarding this exhibition on Monday, January 30 at 5pm. Using the images featured in the exhibition as examples, he will discuss the digital process, what decisions need to be made when working digitally, and what has helped influence the work of the artists. He has worked hand-in-hand with many of Light Work’s Artists-in-Residence to produce high quality digital prints, including some in this show.

This exhibition was curated by Christopher Secor, a history of art major from Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts. He received a 2005 Robert B. Menschel Internship Award, created to provide support for undergraduate students who are working in the not-for-profit world, supplement student income, and make internships competitive with work in the for-profit sector.

Light Work/Community Darkrooms has supported artists with the production of their work for over thirty years. The list of artists who have worked at Light Work is impressive, but even more significant is how Light Work has shifted to meet the changing needs of artists. To maintain a state-of-the-art facility, it has been necessary to add digital facilities with scanners and printers to the traditional black-and-white and color darkrooms. Digital printing at Light Work has intentionally evolved through the desire to support artists in making quality images. Early digital artists could only choose between non-archival desktop printers and commercial options, such as Iris printers, while today’s artists have access to archival inkjet processes through home and professional printers. These changes have affected the scale, process, and content of the work that can be made. The work in this exhibition makes clear use of digital technology as a means of better articulating each artist’s vision.

Light Work’s participation in the making and exhibition of new artwork has kept the organization, staff, members, and artists that it works with in tune with new methods of digitally producing work. The technical possibilities that Light Work provides change with the artists’ needs. What was once a less reciprocal relationship has become a collaborative effort in many ways. Light Work is more involved in artistic decision making, which includes choices in materials and technology that are as new to the artists as they are to the medium of photography itself. Light Work has had the pleasure of working with many of the artists in this exhibition to see how digital processes can strengthen the concept behind an artist’s creative vision. Color digital processes provide many advantages over traditional color printing through more control and software options.

Ben Gest is an artist who works exclusively with digital processes and takes full advantage of what the technology allows. He merges multiple photographs to recompose one seamless image. In Jessica and her Jewelry, some areas are in sharp focus, such as Jessica, her bed, and her jewelry, while less important areas are blurred. These subtle shifts in the way the image is created produce a more visually dynamic image. Jessica falls forward from the bed but at the same time is sitting firmly upon it. The finished works become hyper-real photographs.

Artists like Kanako Sasaki and Alessandra Sanguinetti use the digital process to accurately track and control color. Sasaki, like so many recent Artists-in-Residence, came to Light Work planning to make traditional color photographs. Upon seeing the possibilities of Light Work’s facilities, she decided to scan her negatives and print archival inkjet prints. Working closely with the artist, we were able to track the colors in the photographs to reflect the sense of imagination that is so very important to the work—the greens of grasses match more perfectly and saturations of color are equivalent from one print to the next. Alessandra Sanguinetti’s project utilizes the qualities of watercolor paper to communicate a rich, playful, and evocative color palette. The photographs communicate the sense of play and the dreams that her subjects, Guille and Belinda, act out. The quality of ink on paper reflects upon the idea of illustration, like that in a children’s picture book.

Grayscale prints have been one of the largest challenges in digital printing. This is in part because inkjet printers use colored pigments, which can create shifts in tonality when making black-and-white prints. The newest versions of pigments have added gray inks to make prints appear more continuously neutral. Neal Rantoul, who participated in the Artist-in-Residence program in 2001, challenged Light Work by making large scale black-and-white prints that began to rival silver gelatin fiber prints in quality. His process involved scanning 8×10″ negatives and meticulously cleaning the digital file at the pixel level to make very large prints of expansive landscapes. His work was some of the first neutral grayscale work that Light Work was able to produce.

Matt Black, Pulitzer Prize runner-up in 2002, completed his residency at Light Work much later than Rantoul. His work benefited from a newer generation of printers and an increased level of experience printing black-and-white images digitally. Because of this, Black’s images appear more continuously neutral than Rantoul’s. The project he focused on during his residency documents the last remaining black Okies, who were forced to migrate to California in the 1930s. His use of digital technology stemmed out of need—when working in the San Joaquin Valley in California he did not have access to any wet processes, so he decided to print digitally.

Works that really challenge our understanding of the photograph, like Zoë Sheehan Saldaña and Matthew Swarts, push the ways people think of the image. Sheehan Saldaña works with appropriated digital images and produces them with a digital sewing machine. A cross-stitched image of a missing child seems to be sewn by hand, but it was actually produced by feeding the image file through a digital sewing machine. Her work questions the relationship between handmade objects and mass-produced consumer goods. Like Sheehan Saldaña, Matthew Swarts’ also turns to the internet to appropriate images. Simple internet searches for keywords such as “sex,” “love,” and “death” bring forth a visual language that Swarts reconstitutes into his work. In the process, he manipulates and prints his images onto media ranging from towels to paper bags using cheap desktop printers. High quality scans are made of the finished low-tech inkjet printouts, and then printed with the best printer and paper possible. This work questions ownership of the images and focuses on the process of printing digitally, embracing the imperfections in the low-tech prints by painstakingly reproducing them in the large exhibition prints.

Much of the early work in this exhibition is fragile in terms of the media and printers that produced it. Terry Gips’ work, produced on an Amiga computer in 1992, is made of many prints that were pasted together. Gips’ images represent artists’ early experiences with producing digital work. The obvious pixilation in the image communicates that it is an early digital file. Today an equivalent image quality could be produced from a cell phone or similar low quality camera.

Keith Piper creates work based on his ethnic identity through the layering and merging of effects to digitally collage multiple images together. Martina Lopez uses similar methods to place vintage black-and-white family photographs into colorful landscapes. Osamu James Nakagawa similarly works with family images, which he layers with filmstrips that read as a rain or confetti, to mediate the memory of his family and culture. These pieces all use digital montage and collage techniques to re-contextualize memory, family, history, and personal identity. What was once the purvey of Jerry Uelsmann, a master of traditional enlarger-based merging of images, has become a common language through digital photography.

Sunil Gupta’s work uses digital processes to combine two images on one page. This seems a simple step, but for Gupta it gives the diptych a literal and metaphorical connection. The two images become one seamless image rather than two photographs butted against one another. This uncomplicated act is certainly one that digitalization makes easier. And, in making the comparisons between two homes, the image becomes more connected both metaphorically and physically.

The photographs in this exhibition are examples of the ways the digital image has changed photographic production and visual language. As Light Work/Community Darkrooms continues to support new types of image production, it is the organization’s challenge to adapt in ways that will best serve the artists and continue to be a state-of-the-art facility.

John Mannion
Digital Lab Manager, Light Work

Photography, unlike any other creative visual medium, has always had a close tie with science and technology, from which it was developed in the 1830s. Because of this, its technical processes and materials have changed at regular intervals, with new methods replacing others as they become obsolete. However, in the last two decades a quiet revolution has taken place in the field of photography. For many artists and photographers, the very essence of image making has changed from an analog process to a digital one—from mechanical and chemical, light sensitive film and paper to alpha-numeric code and use of the computer-monitor-printer. The wet darkroom has at least partially been replaced by the computer lab as artists continue to work with the magic of light but now in different forms and with new tools. A radical transition is taking place.

As the Information Age and twenty-first century mature, these changes are bound to be profound in photography and what we call digital imaging or new media. Dramatic changes in the modes of representation and our perception of photographic imagery are imminent. The resultant effects on visual aesthetics will be far reaching and are hard to fully appreciate or envision at this point in time. All film and chemical processes, or even the actual physical and tangible image, may be completely replaced with imagery within the digital and virtual realms. We may someday nostalgically view all traditional photographic prints on paper the way we do the historic daguerreotype and tintype today—as an “alternative process.” The camera may be replaced by an eventual combination of cell phone, iPod, and notebook computer into one multimedia device that captures, stores, and displays imagery. These are but a few possibilities when looking forward and considering our intensely and highly visual culture.

Contemporary photography is in a transitional period filled with unprecedented challenges and adaptations, while artists and technicians come to terms with rapidly changing technology and learn to use these new tools in creative ways. At first glance, improvements in appearance, quality, and size are among the most readily apparent changes in some images from those produced just a few years earlier. Advancements in the rendering of continuous tone within the digital realm have perhaps been some of the most important objectives along with increased resolution and processing power of computers and monitors. Some digital prints are virtually indistinguishable from traditional processes, which may be the objective of photographers who wish to continue to produce an image without showing signs of its actual digital processing and production. Changes in printing materials such as inks and papers have produced prints that share just as much with artistic printmaking processes as photographic ones. With varying degrees of subtlety, the digital process has and will continue to have an effect on aesthetics. While much of photography has been considered a reflection of the reality in front of the lens, that reality is being modified as never before possible, and a new synthetic, digitally generated interpretation has been created. Image protection and appropriation, storage, and presentation will also be among the issues and future considerations faced by photographers.

This diverse selection of work from the Light Work Collection reflects some important and dramatic changes in photography. It explores the new directions artists have taken in the pivotal period between 1990 and 2005. Many of these artists experimented with digital techniques for the first time while participating in the Artist-in-Residence program at Light Work, taking advantage of a well-equipped digital lab and technical support. These images are hybrids of traditional and digital processes. Some artists have gone from analog to digital processes and back to produce a familiar photographic print. Others have embraced digital technology and rather than seeing digital artifacts such as pixilation or micro-banding as objectionable flaws, have used them in new and unexpected ways. Lines between the categories of analog or digital have been blurred and will continue to be. These boundaries will continue to dissolve and have less meaning. The classification of photograph, digital image, and new media will evolve and their definitions will change as new terminology emerges. This exhibition is a significant milestone—it is Light Work’s first retrospective look at work in the Light Work Collection that uses digital tools creatively in a variety of ways. The exhibition provides an enticing glimpse at digital photography’s young history as we look at these works and consider the digital transition taking place, with new technologies redefining what photography may become in the near and distant future.

Christopher Secor
Student Curator