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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Meet The Artist: Douglas Collins

Douglas Collins

How did you decide on the different techniques for your work?

Unlike what I understand about many artists, I usually get my inspiration from the physical presence of what I see right before me, close-up, stark, and denuded as that may be. The photo paper lying there, its shape and texture, the undulations of the varnish that I’ve coated the paper with, little shadows in the immediate environment, and my hands nearby. I also think of the metal I want to reveal at the end of my process, with the things I can’t see – the silver, its blackness, buried in the gelatin of the photographic emulsion. All of this satisfies me enormously, even if it seems constricted to some as a point of departure. It gives me all of the freedom I need to create my images. So, the techniques I use in camera-less work arise from these meditations and there’s very little conscious decision making.

I want to be as simple as possible in what I do. When I’m deeply focused, I think I’m able to get there, and that’s very exciting for me – a source for concentrated streams of work.  But this simplicity isn’t easy to maintain, nor has it always been easy to come by. For a while, in all of my art, it was a lack of focus that I embraced and celebrated, which I think came out of my old love for certain threads of abstract expressionism that were formative for me.

What is your favorite technique to create and present your work?

I guess we’re talking about camera-less photography, right?  Because as you know I do different kinds of visual art – lithography, etching, and so on, but this rings different bells for me. In camera-less photography, which can roughly be thought of as a divide between color methods and those using only black and white (there are of course other ways of breaking it up, for example between photogram methods and chemical methods), my favorite would have to be black and white. This may seem ironic, since I have spent a considerable amount of energy creating, teaching, and promoting chemigrams, which nearly always feature color. Black and white not only packs a greater graphic punch, but it also makes the world more abstract than color, and so becomes more ambiguous, mysterious, and laden with meanings, for me at least. It also hints at danger in a nourishing sort of way. I never grow tired of it.

How would you describe glassprints?

Glassprints is a term which goes back to the 19th century and is the equivalent of the French word ‘cliché-verre’, the process of drawing on glass and then contact printing it.  It was used quite successfully by Corot, Millet, and the Barbizon school of painters in the 1870s as a convenient way to draw from nature, but photographically it was very radical because it said that we can create a reality different from what’s out in the world. The type of photography I do has spent 150 years trying to absorb this. I’ve expanded the domain of its use to include not just drawing on glass, or acetate as we do today, but any method using the darkroom, the photographic enlarger, or chemistry in the conventional way – that is, developer, stop bath, fixer, wash. So photograms, luminograms, along with a host of black and white hybrids and experiments from Coburn to Moholy-Nagy, to Sommer, to some of the contemporary work of people like Abelardo Morell, are glassprints. For me, it’s a useful way of sorting out the landscape. It’s true that both ‘glassprints’ and ‘chemigrams’ are catch-all classifications but it gets a lot crazier without them.

How has Pierre Cordier and the chemigram technique influenced you?

I can’t say enough about Pierre, his impact on me has been huge.  Before I met him and began studying his work, my chemigram technique was, let’s say, exceedingly elementary. He gave me what I lacked: a way to build structure. His key innovation was the idea of using resists as a way to block out and develop pictorial elements, and he showed me what characteristics these resists had to have to do the job. He opened my eyes to the universe of resists, unusual ones, counter-intuitive ones; we’d go into a grocery store or a hardware store in Brussels and he’d walk me down the aisles to show me the wonderful resists just sitting there waiting to be used in a chemigram. It put me in a state of euphoria.

How long did it take you to master the chemigram technique?

I began playing with glassprints around 2004, and chemigrams around 2007 or 2008, although I didn’t know the names for these at first and had no one to talk to. Later, I was indeed able to confirm that the community of interested parties is small. I thought it might be a good idea to enlarge it by offering courses.

Is it challenging trying to teach glassprints and chemigrams to students at the Manhattan Graphics Center? 

Most who come to my classes are not committed, dyed-in-the-wool printmakers but are restless people who have had a somewhat broader range of artistic experience and have not necessarily settled on a permanent mode of expression. I like that. They are open, and they are curious. These are essential qualities for a glassprinter or chemigrammist because the experimental side is so important; in our tradition the most successful are those who reinvent the discipline entirely. What happens if I do this or do that? How far can I push the rules? The ways of thinking about process are so critical that we could almost have a pre-course just in that!

How did you first get involved with the Manhattan Graphics Center as well as ICP?

I had done some printmaking when I was rather young and the memory of that excitement never left me. Then one day in 2003, years later and much older, wanting to refresh that special experience, I found MGC. Not a day has gone by since then when I haven’t thought about printmaking, so much has it consumed me in all its aspects. But camera-less photography stands somewhat apart from printmaking proper, and it soon became apparent that to reach a broader audience for that part of my art, I would have to appeal to photographers, especially those with an experimental bent. From MGC I knew Suzanne Nicholas (she and I were doing lithography at the time) and we talked. She suggested that I teach at ICP, where she was in the education department.  In 2011 I taught my first workshop there.

How long does it take you to complete a project?

I’ve developed a way of working that is sometimes terribly efficient, with a lot of rote and craft-like moves, so that once I embark on a piece, I’m done in half an hour, or forty five minutes. But as soon as I’m done I like to redo it, and redo it again, and pick out the best at the end of a 3 or 4 hour work session, or as long as I can stand the poor ventilation of the darkroom.

How do you come up with the vision for your work?

There’s no vision, really, beyond a great desire to merge myself with my materials. I think I spoke about that earlier. I wrestle with the two-dimensional space that is given to me as my world and I try to fill it with tangible things, but not too many, because the devil lives in that direction.

Etching, especially with multi colors, may be difficult and time consuming. How do you decide on what you are going to etch?

I work on etchings and camera-less pieces more or less together – four days of one, three days of the other – in little campaigns, so there is a lot of energy crossing over from one to the other. But the initial steps are the same, whether it’s a blank piece of copper, or a new piece of photo paper: the intense conjuring of where I want the picture to go. Sometimes, that initial emotional investment is so strong that I could stop right there at the start if I had a stable of assistants like in Florence or Venice to carry on and complete it. I could go out and have a beer.

We enjoy reading your blog, nonfigurativephoto.com, what would you like your readers to take away from the experience?

I’m glad someone out there is reading it. I just wish we had more feedback, more active comments and questions, because we really are interested in propagating a certain way of looking at photographic materials. We want people to be curious and try things, in addition to being as turned on as we are. Believe it or not, we have readers all over the world, in Cyprus, Kazakhstan, you name it, and they bookmark us. That’s very satisfying. It’s a big responsibility too. How do you say ‘bookmark’ in Kazakh?  And to think the blog began as just a notebook, a way of keeping track of ideas.

What can we expect next from you? 

I’ve gotten myself involved in a project with a young Brazillian artist, Ana Freitas Machado, to build the world’s largest chemigram, a 30-foot long affair about the shape of space-time. Manipulating this monster through troughs of chemicals in an industrial-size darkroom is something of an engineering feat that we’re in the middle of now. Another thing I’ve been doing is scaling up chemigrams digitally, printing on aluminum, that sort of thing, and bidding on construction contracts – so far I have little to show for it but I keep trying. The idea of a chemigram mounted on steel brackets on a highway divider in Iowa excites me. Beyond that, it’s just ‘keep on keeping on’ as Curtis Mayfield used to sing so beautifully.

Teaching, creating, and blogging… when do you find time to sleep?

Coltrane (keeping with musicians) used to fall asleep with his horn in his mouth, and his wife would find him. It’s a bit like that. I don’t find sleep, it finds me.

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