The alchemy of photography, sans camera

In a show in Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center, Rachel Wolf works transformations using paper and film, light and chemicals

Our lives are saturated with photographic images — pictures taken by tens of millions of people daily on phone cameras, photos that are then Facebooked, Instagrammed, and Tweeted into the world, where our eyeballs are bombarded with this digital hail. Those who shoot pictures with a camera that uses film, I have to believe, have become a tiny minority.

In that small company of analog photographic artists, Rachel Wolf stands virtually alone.

“Flight” by Rachel Wolf (chromogenic chemigram - archival digital print)
“Flight” by Rachel Wolf (chromogenic chemigram – archival digital print)

Wolf takes pictures — or perhaps I should say she makes pictures — with lots of film, but no camera. The results of her work (and it’s clearly a lot of work) landed at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg last week in a show titled Unconditional that runs through Aug. 3. Wolf has shown her work in New York, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Seattle, and Portland, where she lives, so once again we have an instance of Chehalem’s curators bringing an urban art experience to rural Yamhill County.

The product of camera-less photography is called a photogram, chemigram, or luminogram, depending on what combination of object, light, and chemicals is used to make it. Photograms use an object on paper to create the image, Wolf said, while the images in chemigrams come from chemical reactions, and in luminograms the images are from light. The images in Unconditional are chemigrams.

There’s no precise date for the invention of photography itself, as precursors go all the way back to ancient times, but the first photo engraving dates to 1822, and about 20 years later a book illustrated with photograms was published. In the 20th century, the number of artists known for this kind of camera-less photography is pretty small; they include: Man Ray, Adam Fuss, Susan Derges, and Christian Marclay.

“River” by Rachel Wolf (chromogenic chemigram - archival digital print)
“River” by Rachel Wolf (chromogenic chemigram – archival digital print)

Looking at Wolf’s dazzling mix of splashes, drizzles, and speckles of color, it’s easy to assume the images (printed on archival paper) were made on a computer screen. But no. They were “painted” in Wolf’s darkroom. You can watch her do it here.

She likens it to alchemy, describing it this way in her artistic statement:

“The art of alchemy is the transmutation of matter, a process wherein something is changed from one state to another in order to achieve a higher or more valuable form,” she writes. “My photographic work takes from the alchemists this idea of transmutative elevation, which in my projects is achieved through light and chemical action.”

“Jeweled Nature” by Rachel Wolf (chromogenic chemigram - archival digital print)
“Jeweled Nature” by Rachel Wolf (chromogenic chemigram – archival digital print)

I love stories like Wolf’s, because they illustrate the importance of art education in schools. She was introduced to photography in a junior high school darkroom class and the process so enchanted her that she built her own darkroom when she was in high school. She considered a career in photojournalism, but ultimately decided to fold art history into her photography studies. She discovered camera-less photography during a “technical difficulties” moment while teaching photography in an Alaskan village. “I started making these life-sized photographs of myself or my friends in my bathroom,” she said. “That was the beginning of the shift” in her … well, focus. “I really dived deep into this idea of what a photograph is, and how we can play with the elasticity of the edges of photography.”

Technically speaking, there’s a bit of meta going on here. Unconditional is, in a way, about the birth of photography — photography that is about the way that it was created. “This exhibition is a photographic dialogue between digital and analogue, film and paper,” Wolf writes in the notes for the show. “On the one hand it is a celebration of impermanence, while on the other it endeavors to capture the magic of passing moments. This attempt to photographically suspend magic is achieved by removing the camera and directly exposing paper and film with light and chemicals — making these primary photographic elements the tools, subjects and chemical process that create the final image.” Wolf estimates that she has control over about 80 percent of the finished product; the rest is alchemical.

Wolf moved to Portland from New York, and she describes the artistic life and culture in the two cities as different as night and day. She kept busy with all types of photography work, including some teaching, but there’s a different spirit at work in New York. “There was no camaraderie, there was no support,” she said. “It was all, ‘What can you do for me?’ It was just this competition, and really, it was heartbreaking, because all I wanted was another person to talk to.”

“Wanderer” by Rachel Wolf (chromogenic chemigram - archival digital print)
“Wanderer” by Rachel Wolf (chromogenic chemigram – archival digital print)

In Portland, Wolf has an ongoing collaboration with several women she met while attending the Pacific Northwest College of Art. After completing their studies there, the four wanted to maintain the youthful hustle that powers one forward in graduate school, so they formed a group: The FO(u)RT Collective; the core group comprises Wolf, Sarah Abbott, Lauren Seiffert, and Jessie Spiess. Collectively, their work includes (but is not limited to) photography, sculpture, installation, printmaking, collage, writing, and video.

Oregon, Wolf said, “is such a different experience. It’s not a competition, it’s like, ‘Oh, what are you thinking about?’ So many exciting things come when we collaborate. That’s one of the things I really love here. People want to talk and collaborate and be inspired by each other. I feel like so much of that is at the heart of why we do what we do.”

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and the Oregon Community Foundation.

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