Photodynamic gardening

anthotype image showing yellow marigold emulsion with compost printwith
marigold with compost. 2020. 22x 30″

A project developing open-sourced, cross-pollinated, place-based, more than human photography grounded in listening, tending, working with, and following different plant emulsions. Building gardens for communities to cultivate photographic emulsions.

In the summer of 2018 I began working with my garden to make photography. I began experimenting with my garden in creating plant-based emulsions as a way to commune with images. In one experiment, I mashed rose petals and bergamot blossoms with mortar and pestle, mixing in a few drops of vodka and squeezing the liquid through cheesecloth. In my darkroom, I coated pieces of paper with the emulsion. After it dried, I placed the paper and a negative into a contact printer and left it into the sun to expose. It was a first experiment of many, a process that privileges tending and following, along with inconsistency, the one-off, and failure, as central impulses in photography.

A photodynamic garden being prepared to plant photo senstive emulsion plants to make anthotypes
The garden reconfigured. First stage of re-design. Cultivating fugitive photography, tending to emulsions for everyday use.

The process of working with plant emulsions is known as both anthotypes and phytotypes and named by Sir John Hershel, who is also attributed with coining the term photography itself. Anthotypes speak to a longer relationship between photography and humans, before much of photography as we understand it was swept up into the current toxic, perilous, exploitative, technofetishist impulse. Despite a relegation to the margins of photographic history, there have always been practitioners working with the fugitive quality of phytotypes (often imagined as ‘historical’ or ‘alternative’ practices, for example the work of Malin Fabbri and Jill Endfield).

Despite the fact that anthotypes appear to have been popular photographic practice in the 19th century, there is little material trace of them in archives. The technique was impermanent, the images required storage in ‘night albums’ to be viewed in dark areas so that the photographs would last longer. Known to be fugitive emulsions, they are unstable and on the move. They are a reminder that all photography is always in the process of becoming absent.

anthotype showing purplish yellow tulip emulsion with compost print in the center
poppy with compost

Recovering these practices is an act of image sustainablity. Photo-dynamic gardening thinks about how we are in community with plants and how communities have access to images. In part, it’s the experiment of asking, how is our collective image-making sustainable?

In my work with anti-capitalist photography (portable camera obscura, drift camera, breath camera…), I use open-source, place based, more than human photography to emphasize impermanence, the fleeting image, relationships, reciprocity, light, ghosts, the underrepresented. Cultivating photo-dynamic gardens is an extension of human relations with plants, premised on experimental encounters.

My artistic practice is grounded in a long-term consideration of —and relationship with —collective experiences of cameras, photography and archives. I work with feminist restorative and relational practices of learning about and rebuilding photography in communities with the aim to reclaim photography. Photography is a powerful relationship between images and those receiving images. Art historian Kaja Silverman persuasively argues that a relationship between camera obscuras and humans, premised on receiving images, in the early 20th century is transformed into photography as ‘taking pictures’. ‘Taking’ fits both capitalist extractivist logics and colonial logics of dispossession. With ‘taking pictures’ comes widespread dominance of toxic processes: the use of cyanide, silver, glacial acetic acid, hydroselenian gas, para-phenylene diamine and countless other hazardous chemicals. Those who work in the darkroom and those producing the chemicals and mining metals are at risk for toxic poisoning.

I have become interested in how nontoxic, everyday plant emulsions for making photographs can address injustices in photography. Anthotypes are unpopular and marginalized as “alternative” or “historical” practices. Re-framing this practice may help communities who face uncertain futures. It is a way to re-consider the technofetishistic impulses in photography and to think about what recovering nontoxic photography can do.

Where I live, discussions about gardens and land-use are organized around food security and the important work of decolonization. A decolonial praxis is one that works towards returning stolen Indigenous land (see Tuck and Yang, 2012). As a settler living on stolen Indigenous lands (I live on the territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples), I think about how to care for the land I live on while working towards the decolonization of that land. How might what I’m thinking of as photodynamic gardening practices help to prepare places for decolonial futures while helping unravel technocentric, fetishistic relations between colonial capitalism and photography?

This work is supported by a Canada Council for the Arts Professional Development Grant (2019) and a Canada Council for the Arts Research and Creation Grant (2019-2020).

Similar Posts