Photographic Conceits: The Photogram | Jennifer Pritchard

 

If I trace the origin of my sensory sentiments, I think it goes back to a Saturday evening

dinner party my parents threw to celebrate close international friends: Tony and Alicia.

He was a colleague of my Dad’s, and through the years the friendship they developed

extended to their wives.

 

At dinner that night, the glasses were lifted and gazes were focused. As rims tapped,

he provocatively asked if anyone at the table knew why this clinking was such a

tradition. Curious, the room fell quiet as he, in his seductive Cuban accent, explained

that hearing was the only sense not experienced when drinking a fine wine. One saw

the beautiful claret color or the sparkling white; one inhaled the fine bouquet in

preparation for that first taste, feeling the liquid as it passed over the lips and into the

mouth, down the throat and into your soul. But, he added, it was never heard.

At least, that is how I remember it from my childhood perch, just outside my bedroom,

at the top of the stairs.

 

I thought of this story when, years later, after my photographic life had begun, my

lessons brought me to printing. The conversation between myself and my teacher went

similarly to that night at the dining room table so many years before. And until Peter, my

teacher had said it, I had not connected the two. At that juncture in my education, I

had a catalog comprised of digital images. I had not made a print. I had not smelled it

as it came off the printer. I had not witnessed the depth and richness of the inks as they

seeped into the paper. I had not touched it. Nothing haptic. Nothing tactile. That first

print and the experience resounds deeply still and affected how I consider

photography. Photography had been an abstraction–this was something concrete.

My curiosity peaked and I wanted to experience more.

 

More knowing. Always digesting. Considerately consuming. Cultivating curiosity.

These have been the routines of my photographic life. Peter is a champion who helps

me develop and learn new skills while improving the craft of photography in both vision

and execution. I became an explorer, traveling a continuum from concrete knowledge

to abstract understanding as he shared anything I wanted to examine. Photography is

a democratic pursuit that is humbling when you step across a threshold as a dedicated

student to discover that there are very few great photographers despite the number of

those who try.

 

As my knowledge grew, so did my appetite for digesting inspiration from those that

have lived a photographic life before me. I avidly consume books from the masters,

listen intently to podcasts, and each week read articles on the art of photography. It

was in this spirit I came across the book and work of Dan Winters–most recently his book

Road to Seeing where I discovered Photograms, an early process for photographic

images.

Reading Dan’s book was synchronous with Ann and my arrival at the idea of this

project. Long reasoning conversations, an enchanting road trip (our first), similar

sensibilities, and a deep kinship resulted in our project celebrating polarities and

paradoxes–the backdrop of which were the writing combined with the musings of

Winters.

 

As an explorer, I am ardently interested in learning more. And so, my sensory sentiments

regret the absence of a darkroom experience within my photographic development–

that high school art class moment shared by so many is completely missing in my history.

The smells. The touch of film. The quiet. The darkness. I am emotionally attracted to the

making, the doing, the tactile feel and time extension of investing in the photograph.

The presence of the moment. The mindfulness.

 

A photogram, also known as sun prints or cyanotypes, is the act of placing objects on

sensitized paper and exposing the paper to the sun. Research led me down the path of

creating my own sensitized paper (not hard to do, just a bit messy) or buying pre-made

kits. And I learned through Mr. Winter’s insightful book that photograms were useful in

capturing the delicacy of botanical samples. And that is the instant it was decided to

add this to our project. After all, what better place to use the sun for developing a

photogram than the desert.

 

Pre-dawn, one important cup of coffee consumed, Ann and I would set forth to find the

images of the day. Cameras strapped across our chests, we carried small bags for

collecting beautiful botanical specimens from our walkabouts, carefully tucking them

inside our field bags. We relished the rich textures of our samples–the spiny nature of

some, the catlike fur of others. We inhaled deeply the smells of desert sage as we

added it to our case study. At times Ann would beckon me to walk over to see what

she had discovered, as would I, and we would pause in awe appreciating the beautiful

desolation of the arid landscape.

 

Once satisfied with the day’s exploration, our bodies weary from walking, bending,

climbing, and in need of something more substantial than our pre-walkabout coffee,

we would begin our drive back to basecamp– whatever that was. The drive was

generally reflective of the morning, what we had seen, what we had experienced,

rumination on that one shot where everything aligned before the sun had changed the

landscape, and the shots that got away–good ideas to be realized another time.

It was our cadence. Our rhythm.

 

Once at basecamp we would survey our treasures: canisters of film, data cards of

images, and a bag of specimens. We would set about working our different piles,

sharing moments of seeing as reflected in the images on our screens–all while the sun

rose high in the desert sky.

 

A change of clothes, a hat, the hat, the one that defined these first road trips as we

found ourselves standing in the shade arranging botanicals on paper. Carefully, we

would press them beneath the glass and walk into the sun gently placing them in open

space–space where the sun shone unobstructed, bright, and hot. We would push the

timer and begin the anxious pacing while the paper, the glass, and the sun did their

work.

 

And then the magic.

 

The moment when the image was slid into the waiting water for development–the color

would change instantaneously to cyan blue as the botanicals captured came to life on

paper. It was the closest thing to the missing darkroom moment of my early years. I was

hooked.

 

Later I would press the botanicals between the pages of a book, which, from time to

time, I open to smell the fragrance of the desert and transport myself back to those

road trips with my friend.

 

Later I would photograph the deep blue of the cyanotype in black and white, and lock

the moment and the time in my fortress, my catalog.

 

I linger over my photograms, studying them, considering them–interested in mastering

this magical process. Each one is imbued with memories that fill my senses and

transport me to the day I made them. They are tangible symbols of time spent well in

the pursuit of chasing light, building a lifelong friendship, exploring, learning. Each one

holds within it the curious moment that sparked the idea that led to new learning to the

abstraction that is the finished piece. This magical process has given life to the photo,

and to all the experiences it contains within.

 

I have heard the desert sage as the breeze blows across the landscape in the early

morning. I have crushed it between my fingers to release its fragrance. I have seen the

changing light as the sun illuminated the valley. My senses are full and they reside in my

photogram.

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