Sheesh! I can't believe it has been six months since I did a post. New Year's resolution to get caught up!
Paul Caponigro Two Pears, Cushing, ME Vintage Gelatin Silver Contact Print 1999
In late 2015 we opened a show at Cassilhaus called Actual Size: Exploring the Photographic Contact Print which I curated with help from my friend Eliot Dudik and others. A true contact print in photography is a print made when the negative is put in direct contact with the photo sensitive medium, usually photo paper, and exposed and processed in a darkroom. By definition the finished print is the same size as the negative which usually means that the camera used has to be as large as the negative i.e. an 8x10" contract print comes from a 8x10" negative which was made with an 8x10" view camera. These prints are stunningly sharp and subtle as there is no loss in quality from an enlargement process. As with all things photo, there are a ton of alternates and exceptions-analog/digital hybrids, camera-less photograms, enlarged digital negatives, etc. The use of the word “exploring” in the title of the exhibition was intentional as not all of the images in the exhibition are true contact prints and, given that virtually all photographs prior to the early 1900s were contact-printed, a comprehensive survey of the subject would be beyond the scope of this exhibition.
A little less than half of the works in the exhibition were drawn from the Cassilhaus Collection with the balance being generously loaned by artists, collectors, and galleries across the country. As with many of our exhibitions, this one started with a simple and innocent enough notion—in this case, to pull together some of the contemporary contact prints from our collection and do a small show. Never wanting to miss an opportunity to make my life vastly more complicated, however, I fell deeply down the Contact Print rabbit hole. A very short and crazy 2 1/2 months later we had a beautiful exhibition of nearly 80 works by 46 artists spanning 150 years of the history of photography and a score of different formats and negative sizes from 35mm to 30”x40.” As I look back at the gallery guide now I honestly don't know where I found the energy to go in so many directions including a survey of historical processes and a small sub-exhibition on 35mm contact sheets. The upside as always is that I learned a ton and met amazing new artists and collectors. My artist and gallery friends were unbelievably generous in loaning extraordinary and valuable prints including work by Frederick Sommer, Olivia Parker, Burk Uzzle, Harry Callahan, E.O. Goldbeck, Timothy O'Sullivan, Chris McCaw, and Alex Harris. I am particularly in the debt of Jim and Jane Finch for the loan of all of the historical works in the exhibition. Jim’s enthusiasm for photography collecting in general and historic sub-genres in particular is practically explosive and he is incredibly generous with his time and knowledge.
Frederick Sommer Venus, Jupiter, and Mars 1949
8”x10” Gelatin Silver Contact Print
Edouard Baldus Notre-Dame, Paris 1852-1853
Salted Paper Contact Print from Paper Negative
One exciting discovery in the show was learning that our print El Ensueño (The Daydream) by Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo was in fact an 8"x10" contact print and not an enlargement from a 4"x5" negative. This was confirmed by his granddaughter Aurelia when researching his work for an exhibtion.
Manuel Álvarez Bravo El Ensueño (The Daydream) 8"x10" Gelatin Silver Print 1931
I always love it when work sells from the exhibition as our main mission is to support the work of artists. We sold a number of pieces but I was most excited about placing this stunning David Scheinbaum piece with an airbnb tenant who was visiting during the exhibition!
David Scheinbaum Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado 1994
8”x10” Toned/Waxed Gelatin Silver Contact Print
As sometimes happens I get so attached to pieces in a show here that I can't let them go. We added Binh Dahn's amazing Chlorophyll Print and Frank Hunter's stunning platinum print to our collection after the exhibition came down.
Binh developed this almost unbelievable process of contact printing a negative onto a living growing leaf! He clips his negative to a large leaf on a plant growing on his deck and allows it to be exposed for over a week. Exploiting the photosynthesis process, dark areas of the negative don't allow light to pass and chlorophyll does not get to that area of the leaf and it stays brown and light areas allow the green to form and make a positive image from the negative. When he has a properly exposed "print" he clips the leaf off and submerges it in clear resin which fixes it and stops the development process. Truly remarkable. This series is emotionally challenging and features images of prisoners killed in the Cambodian genocide but Danh has found a unique way to pay homage to these lost lives.
Frank Hunter Back-lighted Beech 1996 8”x10” Platinum Palladium Contact Print
The exhibition featured a significant number of prints from two portfolios in our collection. Ralph Steiner's Portfolio III is a wonderful series of tiny contact prints made in the 1920s in NYC and James Fee's SS United States portfolio explores every corner of this historically significant cruise ship.
Ralph Steiner Clothesline 1925 Gelatin Silver Contact Print
James Fee Untitled from SS United States Portfolio 1997
8”x10” Toned Gelatin Silver Contact Print
I was extremely proud of the show. It looked great and the opening was a smash and a lot of people toured the exhibit.
14 of the Steiner prints were hung together.
This was the historical area of the exhibition. In the foreground are two contact printing devices. I found the amazing one on the right on eBay for 25$. It had a red safe light so photographers could work in the darkroom and see what they were doing without exposing the photo paper. There were many variants but they all had in common keeping perfect contact between negative and photo paper so the image would be perfectly in focus.
The two images above were from the contact sheet portion of the exhibition. I was able to borrow vintage contact sheets from Burk Uzzle and Alex Harris. On the left above Alex blew up the contact sheet to a 30x40" digital print so you could see the fun sequence of a "Christ is the Answer" billboard being painting onto a barn in Jones County NC in 1971. Burk provided a vintage contact sheet from the Woodstock festival in 1969.
Participating photographer Fredrik Marsh graciously loaned us his beautiful 14"x17" view camera which he used to make his piece in the show.
Eliot Dudik brought a carload of his students from William and Mary to the opening and took the back roads to Cassilhaus and had his students shoot with 4"x5" cameras to make contact prints later as an assignment.
“The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” – Ansel Adams