Leaping Darkness: From shadows to light

Portland artists Anna Daedalus & Kerry Davis discuss their photogram-based works on view through April 2–29 at Portland State's Littman Gallery


Editor’s note: ArtsWatch asked Portland artists Daedalus and Davis to explain how they developed the striking three dimensional photograms now on display at Portland State University’s Littman Gallery. All photos by Kerry Davis. Video by Leo Daedalus.

Leaping Darkness arose out of two earlier photogram-based projects over a three-year period, Shadows and Columbia River Water Shadows. We began working together in 2011 as part of 13 Hats, a collective of artists and writers in Portland. In 2012 our friend and colleague from 13 Hats, David Abel, organized a Hiroshima Day Commemoration at Director Park and invited writers and artists to participate. For many years, August 6th commemorations all over the world have involved tracing chalk outlines to echo the shadows left in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by victims of the atomic bombs, and to remind us of the horrors of nuclear war.


In 2012, we wanted to find a way to present and even make art that was an interactive experience with the public attending the Director Park event. In thinking about those chalk outlines and the terrible atomic flash of heat that etched the walls and pavement, we had the idea of inviting the public to create life-size photograms — rudimentary photographic images made without a camera, or a lens, by placing objects between a light source and the surface of a light- sensitive material, such as photographic paper —  that would evoke those shadows.

Shadows in process from Anna Daedalus on Vimeo.

To create the images, we designed and built a custom photo booth where participants were invited to lend their shadows in commemoration. The experiential aspects of the booth and the resulting photograms were central to the project, and intended to encourage embodied reflection and inquiry. Participants were led by the hand into the dark booth where they were carefully placed against photographic paper and then flashed with light. That disorienting bright flash was always momentarily blinding and evoked, in what we hoped was the kindest of ways, the pikadon (Japanese for flash of brilliant light and atomic boom). Tactile and free of the habitual self-consciousness of the photographic experience, the immediacy of the camera-less process translated into unique, hand-made prints which seem to hold palpable traces of presence.

Shadows from Anna Daedalus on Vimeo.

In 2013, with the help of a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant, we produced a large group of these life-size photograms in another public event at the University of Oregon’s White Box Gallery for an exhibition entitled Shadows at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center.

In 2014 we used the same photogram process to create a new project and exhibit, the Columbia River Water Shadows. In a continuation of the nuclear theme, we turned our attention to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Site where the plutonium was secretly developed for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Starting at the Hanford Reach, we visited ten locations along the river out to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean. Working at night, we submerged large sheets of photographic paper directly in the water and flashed it with light. After developing the photograms, we began experimenting with making the large water shadow images sculptural, eventually installing some of the pieces in the gallery in a wave pattern that evoked the undulating rhythms of the river.


Columbia River Shadows.

Columbia River Shadows.


Leaping Darkness

The raw photogram materials for Leaping Darkness were initially made in 2013 while we were working on Shadows. A portion of those photograms had irregular exposure and visual artifacts that made them, in our minds, inappropriate for the Shadows project, but that we found beautiful and intriguing in their own way. Due to various forms of darkroom experimentation, like bleaching and other treatments, each piece was distinctive, and yet clearly still connected to the others. So we started thinking about how to respond to and work with each of them individually.

We wanted to take the work out of the conventional 2-D photographic presentation and make them sculptural – and to leap out of the darkness, both metaphorically and literally. One of the most difficult parts of the process was to start cutting, folding and altering these huge, one-of- a-kind pieces. Between that and the fact that the images were life-size human figures, the pieces felt sacrosanct. However, once we overcame that initial barrier, it freed us up creatively.

The inherent rawness and elemental quality of the photograms reminded us of cave paintings, which were painted on the irregular surface of the cave walls and came alive, from out of the darkness, in flickering firelight. From cave paintings our train of thought led to the proto-cinema of Eadweard Muybridge and then on to moving film, all of which turn on the magic of light.

In an instant we were able to capture a glowing image. In our subsequent re-compositions we played with chiaroscuro, negative and positive spaces, depth and surface and shape and figure.
We were also interested in expanding the scale and situating each piece in an environment of its own. We expanded the ground by putting the constructions on 4’x8’ panels painted black and then we exploded the figures by cutting and rearranging. This also gave the pieces a sense of movement within each frame as well as introduced kinetic energy flowing from piece to piece, giving a cinematic cohesion through persistence of vision. By framing each piece to evoke a film frame, and by spacing the works evenly on the gallery walls, we hoped to create a cinematic effect.

JohnSideWe employed additional materials like wood, other photographs, tape, cardboard, paint, text and various construction materials to not only lift the images and give them movement, but also to control the persnickety fiber- based photo paper. As a PSU printmaker who saw the show aptly noted, paper comes off a tree and it wants to return to being round, like a tree. She’s absolutely right! Many of the techniques we developed to wrangle the paper ended up informing the aesthetic, and vice versa.

We had continuing dialogue about the concepts and the process, but we divided the work in half, each shepherding our pieces along while consulting one another throughout. We often helped each other problem-solve, brainstorm and push the materials around and we challenged each other to continually question what we were doing, why and if it was working. And as we finished up the project, we reserved one piece to create completely together.

Leaping Darkness was an interesting project because we had to reach back in time to repurpose some existing materials and develop a large body of work that took the photograms to another level, all in a year’s time. We’re grateful to curator Cass Ray for the opportunity and for the challenge!

Leaping Darkness continues at Littman Gallery in Portland State University’s Smith Memorial Student Union, 2nd Floor, 1825 SW Broadway Avenue, Portland. Gallery hours: M-F, Noon-4 pm. The gallery will extend its hours on the closing day, Wednesday, April 29, until 7 pm and both artists will be there from 4-7 pm.

Anna Daedalus and Kerry Davis are multi-disciplinary artists working primarily in photography who utilize alternative, analog and digital technologies to explore such themes as the atomic era, embodiment and perception.

Shadows studio installation from Anna Daedalus on Vimeo.

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One Response.

  1. Harriet Sanderson says:

    A compelling and thoughtful show. The large scale photo-constructions should NOT be missed.

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