VIEW CAMERA MAGAZINE
JULY / AUGUST 1996
BEYOND THE IMAGE
BY NlKKl PAHL--Earth and sky mix delicately like watercolors in the stroke of a brush. At the edge of the sea, curious human forms disappear into a mist along the water's edge. A tall pier stands anchored in the foreground, but it's ever-so slight tilt gives an ominous clue that one day it will fade away into oblivion like the people who are gathered along the horizon line.
"Santa Monica Pier" is one of a series of photographs Roger Vail completed in 1990. It began a pivotal change in the way he makes his photographs and in the way he sees art. At that time he was exploring an idea that had come to him from Chinese brush painting. He wanted to see just how far he could pare down an image yet still have one. It was practically nothing. This notion was taken beyond the image to the form itself: elements, compounds, and fibers. He began to study alternative processes that would expand his possibilities.
Roger Vail has been a prominent view camera photographer for the last twenty five years. His work has been shown in galleries from the east coast to the west coast. It's represented in many private and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Over forty-five articles have been written about his work, and his images appear in numerous publications.
His reputation is built upon the intriguing images he has made, many of them at night, woven with visions of the passing of time and the energy of light. He uses time exposures of up to several hours and lens apertures small enough to get an infinite depth-of-field sharpness. His subjects include images of carnival rides, moonlight, the night sky, water and piers, boats in ports, oil refineries, landscapes and structures.
For years he made stunning 20x24 prints for the series on Canyon de Chelly, Carrara, the piers, and others. These photographs are so large, so packed with detail, that the viewer has to look very closely to get an understanding of the scale. But his recent images are made with alternative processes to gelatin silver. He found himself feeling tired of the mechanized look of prepackaged materials, and liked the idea of working with different choices of papers and hand-coated emulsions.
Although he's photographed all over the world, many images in his new work are of trees and water along a river bank just over a mile from his home. The scale is strikingly intimate; contact prints made from both 4x5 and 8x10 negatives. One of his latest works, "Spinning Carnival Ride 1996 #1" was made with a 5x7 reducing back he crafted in his woodworking shop.
The new pictures are characteristic of his trademark photography because they are taken at night, they transcend their ordinary reality by the distortions Vail looks for, and they play on the mysterious relationship of light and dark. Chance is a factor he uses to show the passage of time within an image. "Santa Cruz," his most published work, was created when he composed his shot and then exposed it for three hours. With an astronomer's eye, he captured the moon and stars as they spin around in space, a vision often imagined but never witnessed. He uses strong compositional elements to lure the eye into complex arrangements of details and multilayered planes within and beyond the surface. His pictures lay a calculated trap for the curious, one where the visual experiences within a small frame can be limitless.
"3-18-96" (some titles are simply dates) is a picture that could be taken anywhere, anytime. The trunk of the tree is strong and forceful, but its slight diagonal is somewhat disturbing. Lacy vines and feathery leaves envelop it tenderly, and from behind comes a radiant glow, spirit-like. Vail has taken countless portraits of trees. The vertical format that he frequently uses is figurative and suggests the human body.
Santa Cruz, 1981
For the past five years, Vail has used various photographic alternative processes including Cyanotype, Kallitype, Agyrotype, and others. The platinum process is the one that provides the quality of image he's after. There are "subtleties and sensitivities" that can't be achieved any other way. Platinum is rarer and more precious than gold, and archivally enduring. The rich black and gradient tonalities of the platinum-palladium metals that he hand coats onto paper and vellum is suited to his new and old images.
The tonal capacity of the medium has made it possible for him to print negatives he- had that were too wide in contrast to print on gelatin siIver. "Spinning Carnival Ride 1980 #1" is one of a series he worked on in the 70's but never printed because the scale of the negative was too long to print without compromising it in the gelatin silver he was then using exclusively.
On platinum (Vail refers to the family of platinum prints and explains that his formula is 50% platinum and 50% palladium), the image of the whirling ride transforms into a gelatinous shape that seems to be growing out of the innards of the earth. It looks alive, moving, mysterious.
Tower Bridge, 3-18-96
Platinum-palladium on vellum
Like other platinum printers, he experiments with different types of papers. He uses Crane's Platinotype from Bostick & Sullivan for certain images. It's surface and texture for some things, but he prints most of his new work on Wyndstone vellum. The combination of the platinum/palladium metals laid into the smooth surface of the vellum gives a feeling of light radiating from within the image. To be seen correctlyy, the vellum must be placed on a sheet of paper. Vail uses the brightest white he can find, which gives the image a deep reflective quality. The highlights glisten more than they do on the texture of paper. The surface has a dimensionality one looks deeply into, rather than upon.
What is.it about this even-more-time-consuming, potentially hazardous process that attracted Vail? Why switch to platinum printing? While Vail acknowledges being part of a growing group of people who are exploring alternative methods to printing on ciommercially available materials, the answer also lies in the foundation as an artist which began even before his interest in photography emerged.
Vail received his education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Originally, he majored in painting and drawing. His interest in photography began unexpectedly. There was a requirement to take a printmaking class to graduate, and photography was the only section available. He signed up for it reluctantly. "I didn't like photography initially, but within a year and a half, I knew that's what I did best." He continued on and received his Master's Degree there.
His education at the Art Institute exposed him to classical art as well as some of the most contemporary movements in the country. He had daily access to the Institute's renowned art collection which includes over 300,000 works of art. Seeing real art provides students at the Art Institute with an experience some universities can't provide. Vail describes the significance of the essay "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" by Walter Benjamin. "Benjamin believed every great work of art has an aura around it, a presence. This isn't something that can be reproduced. Steglitz and Steichen wanted to make something that could hang on the wall and have a presence beyond the meaning of the image, to make a portrait that has more meaning than the record of what that person looked like." Trying to reach this level of authenticity is a reason why Vail and others are concerned with the medium as well as thc content of photography.
Many photographers in Chicago were influenced by the Bauhaus. One of its founders, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, founded the Chicago Institute of Design, where some of the Art Institute professors received their training. In photography, the Bauhaus emphasis on form translated into pushing the black and white medium to new limits. The purity of the black and white image was the ideal. Vail's earliest photographs of storefronts were taken at night, where the high contrast of light and dark was the perfect format for exploring the concept.
While Vail started out using a 35mm camera, it wasn't long before he moved into larger formats. Seeing Walker Evans' photograph of a watermelon stand made Vail realize the detail that could be rendered using large format. "You could count the individual rocks in the gravel." That detail helps provide a sense of immediacy that pulls the viewer closer into the image, a quality Vail's work is known for. In "Carrara #8," a human figure punctuates an opening in a giant cave carved into the earth to follow veins of white marble quarried since ancient Roman days. On close inspection, evidence of the monumental excavation that goes on there can be seen. The detail provided by the large format is amazing.
In 1972, Vail bought an 8x10 Deardorff that he modestly describes as "a lovely camera." All of his exhibit work for the last twenty-five years has been produced with it. He still uses a 35mm to do what he calls "quick sketches" to develop new ideas, but he never shows this work. He did purchase an 11x14 field camera, but it lies longingly on the bottom shelf of the workbench, awaiting modifications. His trusty old standby has known no rivals.
Vail is grateful to two individuals for being his mentors. One was curator Hugh Edwards and the other was photographer Harold Allen. Edwards was a visionary curator who promoted photography at a time when museums did not recognize it equally with other art forms. "During the 50's, it was heresy to hang photographs on the gallery walls," Vail remembers. Edwards' efforts helped bring photography into the mainstream. He championed the work of rnany photographers including Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Danny Lyon.
Harold Allen is an architectural photographer who's now in his eighties. Vail recalls his approach to photography as pure and direct. "He was extremely dedicated to his craft, principled, exceptionally honest. He was open with his knowledge and shared his thought processes, how he went about doing what he did."
As a professor at California State University, Sacramento, where he has taught for over twenty years, Vail tries to emulate Allen's sharing of knowledge. Learning the craft is the easy part, Vail emphasizes, because it can be learned, but finding a personal vision is the real test. A teacher's duty is to impart knowledge and steer a student toward a unique understanding.
A tour of Vail's studio leads outside to an upstairs attic. The room is filled with yards of wet sinks, humidifiers, dehydrators, humidity chambers, dials, vials, timers, blacklight printers, an 8x10 enlarger: virtually a ton of equipment. He raises an eyebrow and emphatically describes the platinum process he uses in few words. "It's simple!" What he means to say is that it can be learned and mastered, that it's not alchemy. Beware however: it's plenty of hard work.
He uses the ammonium process published by Pradip Malde and Mike Ware. (View Camera Magazine, Sept./ Oct. 1994) He's found it to be virtually (caption below image) Above: Spinning Carnival Ride 1980 W1. foolproof as long as you follow the formulas. "I'll be teaching this later on in the semester, and we'll do it in one day, " he says assuringly.
Controlling humidity is the secret to Vail's process, but it's easily determined and consistent. For instance, each vellum sheet he uses requires ten minutes in the humidity chamber. His last three exhibits have been made with this process, and printing has not been problematic. Since the image prints out completely during exposure, the printing frame back can be opened and checked until it's complete.
All his negatives are developed in pyro, which give them a tonal range and high enough density to work well with the process.
For purposes of reproduction, some of the images for this article are printed on Centennial printing-out paper from Chicago Albumen Works. It's a silver process and gives effective results. Vail doesn't see it as a replacement to platinum printing, but he enjoys working with a variety of mediums. "There's a new Cyanotype process I'd like to use, but I haven't come up with anything blue yet."
As to what he plans to do next, Vail keeps his ideas private. "It's bad luck to talk about things you haven't done yet." He knows he'll "revisit" some of his old territory. He wants to see how the changes he's made and the methods he's using now will effect the images he can make. Describing himself as a "maker," he stresses the importance of the "thing," referring to platinum prints. "It's not just the image, but how it comes off, how it looks and feels, that's important."
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