A project developing open-sourced, place-based, more than human photography grounded in experiments with using different plant emulsions and building gardens for communities to cultivate photographic emulsions. 2018-
Last summer I began working with my garden to make photography. I began experimenting with plant-based emulsions for making photographs. In one experiment, I mashed rose petals and bergamot blossoms with mortal and pestle, mixing it with 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 inconsistency, the one-off, and failure, as central impulses in photography.
I was trained as an artist at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, in the late 1990s, in Vancouver. In art school I focused on photography. In my work, I was always interested in photography and challenging its relationship to truth, and to visibility. But when I turned 30, just after starting grad school, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and became very sick. And this has changed my perception of the world and my practice of photography.
I became interested in photography’s relationship to breakdown and impermanence. How are photographs (and archives) – often correlated with truth, order and stability – also and actually about experiences of impermanence, disorder, failure and precarity?
The process of using plant emulsions what is known as both anthotypes and phytotypes, was 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 phytotypes (often imagined as ‘historical’ or ‘alternative’ practices, for example the work of Malin Fabbri http://www.alternativephotography.com/ 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 always in the process of becoming absent.
Recovering these practices is an act of image security. When one thinks of image security, they may think about crime and surveillance. Photo-dynamic gardening thinks about how communities have access to images. In part, it’s the experiment of asking, what of our collective image-making when the power goes out? 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 have become unpopular, and have largely gone underground and been marginalized as “alternative” or “historical” practices. I’m working to help re-frame this practice as one to 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 to address injustices connected to photography.
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 repatriation 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?