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The Image Wrought: Historical Photographic Approaches in the Digital Age
January 22, 2009 - April 5, 2009
Halford Gallery
Bernard and Barbo Osher Gallery
Left: "Fern and Jasmine," 1839 by William Henry Fox Talbot, photogenic drawing. Right: "Still Life #56 (Clover)," 2001 by Rebecca Foley, color photogram, Type C print, copyright Rebecca Foley. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

The Image Wrought: Historical Photographic Approaches in the Digital Age examines the seeming paradox of contemporary photographers embracing archaic photographic practices in today's digital age. Since its beginnings 180 years ago, photography has seen an enormous variety of approaches. In the earliest days, photographs were captured on metal or glass plates. They were unique objects; negatives did not even exist to make copies. As the technology developed, so did a whole new vocabulary for photographs, some named after their inventors (daguerreotype, talbotype), some after their physical attributes (cyanotype, tintype), and so on.

With the debut of the first digital camera more than twenty years ago, photography has undergone a dramatic revolution. Photojournalists send images to editors across the world with a click of the mouse, and the public views them seconds later. New parents share baby pictures with far-flung family members by posting digital images to websites or through email. Art photographers embrace this new technology, as printers have improved and results rival traditional darkroom prints. So widespread has the use of digital imaging become in both the public and private sectors that Kodak, the photographic industry's pioneer, has drastically scaled back production of films, papers, and chemistry. For almost all popular and professional purposes, the computer has supplanted the darkroom in the twenty-first century.

In sharp contrast to the almost universal embrace of digital technology is the preference of a growing contingent of photographers who are revisiting nineteenth-century photographic approaches. Beginning as an underground movement in the 1970s, practitioners of alternative processes pored over nineteenth-century formulas and painstakingly translated them to contemporary use. While alternative at that point meant non-gelatin silver, now it is the digital revolution that is the mainstream context for the rise in alternative processes. Photographers whose aesthetic goals cannot be met through the seamless resolution of the pixel are returning with increasing frequency to archaic processes such as the daguerreotype, which was virtually extinct by 1860. This approach has become a means of reasserting the hand of the artist in photography. Despite the difficulty and even at times the danger inherent in these processes, they have grown in popularity among photographers desiring an object that reflects elements of craft. Wrought as they are from silver, gold, platinum, mercury, and iron, the resulting images have a strong physicality and presence.

The Image Wrought explores not only nineteenth-century processes but also camera technology, photographs on alternative supports, and photographs with surface treatments. A documentary section provides an overview of the alternative process movement from the 1970s to the present.

From the collection of and organized by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the exhibition is a departure from other exhibitions of alternative process photography. Contemporary images are paired alongside vintage examples of their nineteenth-century predecessors. These pairings provide a window to examine how contemporary photographers view the past: some resonate with an almost reverential continuity, others contrast with radically fresh imagery. Past and present come together to provide a unique perspective on this important moment in the history of photography.

Left: "Portrait of a Young Woman," ca. 1860s, tintype. Right: "L.C.I.W. from the series 'One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, 1/25, 7/12/2000'," 2000 by Deborah Luster, tintype, copyright Deborah Luster. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
Left: "Yosemite Valley from Mariposa Trail" from the portfolio "American Scenery," c. 1866 by Carleton Watkins, albumen print from mammoth format camera., Right: "Keller Ferry, Lake Roosevelt Reservoir, Colombia River," 2000 by Richard Lewis, contact silver print from mammoth format camera, copyright Richard Lewis. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.