Imprint, Lost/Found and Recategorized: Thoughts on Tamsen Wojtanowski’s show
Sometimes there is a happy coincidence that happens on the second floor of the Rollins Building when First Friday rolls around. It is a treat when the exhibitions, all planned individually, come together into a kind of dialogue. This month, Tiger Strikes Asteroid and NAPOLEON both are exhibiting photography shows. Or are they?
Tamsen Wojtanowski’s show Imprint, Lost/Found -or- “To make a long story short, I love you.” is a combination of cyanotypes and silver gelatin prints. In the small, skinny gallery, one wall has square, evenly spaced black and whites neatly hung in a row and the opposing wall has a lot of little cyanotypes displayed in an orderly, almost grid-like pattern with gaps and holes of white wall. In the middle of the cyanotype wall is a bigger neon pink panel and the odd shapes in the cyanotypes are cut out and fashioned together into a Guernica-like abstract scene.
Given that I know the artist’s background, and had anticipated at photography exhibition, I was immediately struck by how printerly the whole show was. The cyanoptypes were photographically created because the process demanded light exposing the image, but they were not created using a lens and a shutter–all the negatives were made using hand-made films in a “camera-less” process. If one did not know how a cyanotype worked, one might just assume they were drawings made with a pretty blue ink.
While the cyanotypes had no mechanical intervention in the making of their imagery, the silver gelatin prints did. At first glance, they satisfied my anticipation–THERE were the photographs, PHEW, all is right in the world. But the silver gelatin prints, while glossy and black and white with all the tonal variations you’d expect, they too exposed the artist’s hand. Composites of imagery she found, cut up, and collaged into a whole work, Wojtanowski’s silver gelatins spoke to me more as PRINTS than as PHOTOGRAPHS.
As a printmaker and a follower of printmaking trends and discourse, I have for a while wondered why there seemed to be this gap between photograph and print. Why are they separate schools? Why do the artists who tend toward printmaker have a different vibe than those whole go for photography? As a print instructor, I do know students who dabble in both, some who even double major, but the divide, nonetheless, remains. Photography is its own domain.
Here, I think Wojtanowski aptly shows the bridge between the two camps. Silver gelatin, cyanotype, digital, silk-screen, lithography, photo-gravure–they are all processes for making an image and they are all opportunities to reengage with the imagery. In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he points to photography as a liberator of the artist–no longer was the artist limited by what she could do with her hands. Mechanical reproduction frees the artist from toiling with the brush or the pencil in order to render an idea that can be understood by the audience and thus, ALL art, mechanically reproduced or not, is free to really conquer the concept behind the subject, materials, moods, and colors. With photography, there comes a sense of freedom no matter what the subject.
In the late 1970s and the 1980s when photography was really in its heyday, it was because of the direct connection between the artform and advertising media–photography, unlike so many other materials, was able to directly reference mass culture and entertainment in a way that painting and other fine art mediums could not. But this photography, while still manipulations in themselves, was not using camera-less methods. The artform generally had an image only a lens and a camera could create. What was radical were the situations photographed and the installations of these photos.
Today, printmaking is going through a renaissance of sorts. People are seeing printmaking as less a collection of the main studios (lithography, silk-screen, relief, and intgalio) and more about multiples and matrices. Printmaking is abandoning editioning and moving into a more sculptural or installation-based arena. In fact, artists are seeing the print as less an ends in itself and more of a means to an end. With this opening up of printmaking, I imagine the contemporary print world would welcome an association with photography and endulge this blurring further.
What I wonder, though, especially since I am an outsider to photography is whether or not photography would welcome more exchange and interplay between the two mediums. This is what makes Tamsen Wojtanowski’s show so interesting to me. It seems to me that she is jumping feet into the river that separates print and photography.
Wojtanowski writes me in an email:
Where the camera made images, the camera acts as a conduit for the image made, it stands between (in a way) the image and the artist; in camera-less photographic images, especially those made with cliche-verre (handmade negatives), the artist is conduit for the image. Artist’s eyes – artist’s hands – image. Which is what is so suspect and interesting to me about this kind of photography. We give photography the idea of truth, that it is telling the truth, pretty easily. Photography captures the world around us. Photography = truth. Obviously there is some gray area here, these cyanotypes being an example of the distance that exists between the question and the answer of, what is “truth”?
In many ways, Wojtanowski’s viewpoint is very much that of a photographer. She speaks about “truth” in a way that I feel only a photographer would think about as deeply. But she is almost adding a caveat to Benjamin’s Mechanical Reproduction thesis. Yes, the camera has liberated art, but it seems Wojtanowski still feels oppressed by something (or at the very least she is suspicious). Is she saying that now we need to be liberated from the camera? I believe, with this show, Wojtanowski is saying yes.