May 13: The fibre-based print retains its allure.
The 57th International Biennale di Venezia opens its doors to the public today and we’ll be looking out for exhibitions of photography and photo-based art. The art deco Belgian Pavilion was designed in 1907 by architect Léon Snyers when Belgium was still head of European nations, houses a show by photographer Dirk Braeckman (*1958, Eeklo and lives and works in Ghent, Belgium).
The curator is Eva Wittocx, from museum M in Leuven, is an art historian, curator and writer on contemporary art who is a long-time friend of the artist. She perserves and exploits the beautiful natural overhead light of this pavilion, in which everything is pure white, to illuminate (with the assistance of just a few subtle spotlights) the delicate greys of Braeckman’s prints.
The show, commissioned by the Flemish Government which represents Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Brussels and Flanders – one of the three linguistic communities in Belgium, will run until 26.11.2017.
Braeckman’s work selected for the Biennale is mostly traditional film photography printed at a large-scale, 1.8 x 0.9 m, on baryta paper, though some digital imaging is included.
The term baryta identifies fibre based paper that we have come to associate with fine prints and is still made by a number of manufacturers. A common barium sulphate-containing mineral, barite, usually not pure barium sulphate but a mixture of barium and strontium sulphates, is coated on to the paper base prior to the application of the emulsion layers. The BaSO4 is applied in a gelatine solution to the paper roll before it is run through between steel rollers.
The layer prevents infiltration of impurities embedded in the paper from migrating into the gelatin layer where they can affect light sensitivity and cause mottling. They also prevent the converse; silver emulsion discolouring the paper fibres. The barite, being a very fine precipitate that is white with the very faintest tint of yellow, reflects light back through the emulsion layer, brightening the image. Baryta can be recognized in highlights where it completely hides the paper fibre.
Baryta-coated paper was first described as early as 1826, before photographic applications were envisaged, a refinement of the use of kaolin still used to make a smooth drawing or printing surface. Baryta paper was once also known as ‘porcelain’ paper for its smooth whiteness.
It was introduced for photography in 1866 by Spaniard José Martinez-Sanchez and Frenchman Jean Laurent in 1866 who perfected ‘Leptographic’ paper (‘Leptofotografia’), a ready-to-use collodio-silver chloride printing paper in whch the silver chloride was bound in cellulose nitrate and separated from the paper by a layer of barium sulphate (later known as baryta) which was whiter and smoother than any previous albumen papers. This paper released the photographer from all having to sensitize the paper before use, as they had to with albumen, with the bonus of being three times the sensitivity of conventional albumen.
However it did not achieve commercial success, which had to wait until the introduction of silver gelatin paper, patented in Paris in 1881 by Hutinet and Lamy. Manufacture of baryta-coated paper did not become widespread until the mid 1880’s with the advent of machine coating and commercial production followed in the late 1890s, first in Germany, in 1894, though it was not taken up by Kodak until 1900.
Baryta was not hand applied by amateurs, so its presence indicates that the paper was commercially manufactured. Barium can be identified non-destructively by x-ray fluorescence analysis and differences can help identify forgeries such as the infamous Man Ray fakes or the case of the surfeit of Lewis Hine prints (for the full story, see Paul Messier’s ‘Notes on Dating Photographic Paper’ in Topics in Photographic Preservation, Volume 11. Pages: 123-130).
The application of a baryta layer in a silver-gelatin emulsion brings benefits in greater detail and definition, extended tonal range and excellent archival properties.
However, as a student in the mid-seventies, I remember the excitement when the first RC (polythene-coated) papers arrived when they brought faster development times, rapid machine processing, reduced need for lengthy washing, self-flattening prints, improved wet strength, dimensional stability, and handling durability – and all at reduced cost!
The excitement was short-lived. The prints had a tendency to crack when exposed to light, when framed for display for example, after someone had purchased your prints for their wall! Reddish spots showed up and the highlights yellowed, and sometimes a peculiar metallic mirror sheen would appear.
By 1979, Kodak had admitted the cracking problem and had patented a stabilizer added to the paper core where it diffised to counteract the effects of oxidants, and Ilford patented a process in which amine stabilizer was incorporated in the resin layer. However disadvantages remained, including a self-masking effect of the emulsion that was intended to produce deep blacks, but which many practitioners felt made them unsubtle, too solid.
All of which is to point to the reason fibre-based baryta paper is so favoured by photographers and collectors, despite its disadvantages of long processing times and tricky handling (it is prone to ugly buckles and creases in handling, for example). To make mural prints like those that Braeckman is displaying in Venice is no easy task.
His preference is to use the mid-tones, and to eschew chiaroscuro effects, and it is in the rendering of subtle grey tones that he excels, an interest he shares with Gerhard Richter amongst few others in an art world addicted to glaring colour and surprise.
The photographs in the Belgian pavilion are drawn from work done after 2011, though since he often leaves film undeveloped for years, it is more correct to say prints made after 2011.
When I use older negatives, the work is only done when they’re printed. When I put a date on the photographs, it’s the date it was printed and not the date of shooting.
The indefinite time frame demonstrates a consistency of vision that runs through all of his images of the last 30 years. They are quiet observations which lack any clear narrative, or any drama. The first impression they give is of something quite banal and ordinary, like the views into or out from the window of an office or an apartment.
Above, in 5 E.N.-C.K.-12 (the titles give away no clues) we watch the sinking sun over the sea reflected in a rather grimy window. An unkempt curtain pulled roughly to one side reveals, rather than conceals, the view by providing a dark background for the reflection which is interrupted, muted, by the intrusion of the lighter tone of the back of a pinboard or screen. The screen stops short of the right hand side of the image where the tall mast of an aloe rises as the reflection resumes. The sun is haloed in smudges and motes and a dried trickle of condensation on the glass somehow degrades and detracts from the sun’s rippling reflection in the sea, effecting a pervasive melancholy that you will find in much of Braeckman’s imagery.
All these ingredients might make for a photograph to fall flat, but somehow the emotional impact is stronger for all the greyness, in which nothing seems to reach a pure black and even the bald disc of the reflected sun fails to reach the blazing intensity of a direct view.
Often another image will find itself in a Breackman picture; here, a painted still-life of the kind one might find exhibited on a café wall or at a craft show; not great – the painter has had difficulty with the handle of the jug – but not bad either, to give credit to the amount of attention the flowery fronds have received. Again a reflection, this time some kind of chandelier, is laid over the surface. It acts like the cropped edge of the painting’s frame does at the bottom of the image; to indicate more space, and other dimensions. So tightly is the painting framed that we might assume this photograph is a straight copy were it not for those two points of reference. Distantly, faintly, another artwork appears, another reflected lightbulb, so that it is possible to imagine this space even if it cannot be seen directly. Amidst the grey tones other shapes emerge; or are they figments, artefacts of imagination created by peering so intently into this ill-lit, reflected room?
The woman draped in the sequinned coat; why is she so awkwardly posed, not dead, not asleep, turning? At her feet…is that an animal? The space is odd, box-like and cramped, made of roughly stapled ply. Is that how his bed or divan is constructed with that knotted moulding at the front edge, or is that again the edge of a frame and are we again looking at a picture of a picture? Here it is the flash on Braeckman’s camera, that amateurish device, that lights the scene, flattens it, underexposing so that the woman’s hair blends with the dyed sheepskin spread, pancaking the shadows so that the pose becomes that of an Egyptian bas-relief. Braeckman provides no answers, but says of his work:
My goal is to make the viewer guess and wonder. I want the image to stand by itself – a story is not necessary. It could be taken anywhere. I don’t want to show a certain reality, rather a sensation. My pictures are very tactile, they become objects, like a painting – many viewers actually want to touch them.
The use of on-camera flash is frequent amongst these images, and it supoorts his desire for tactility. ” 27.1: 21.7 : 045″ above is another instance where he reproduces an existing image, probably from an interiors magazine. Using the pop-up flash to rephotograph this image directly in front of the camera has resulted in harsh flare, not altogether blown out, but preserving the texture of ink on paper and picking up the buckled surface. If we read the picture literally as a having been made by Braeckman in the room it depicts, then the reflection appears to hover over the space like a marsh-light or ignis fatuus. The dark shadow under the table reinforces this impression. But the improbability forces us away a step, to see that we are indeed looking at a picture in a picture, one whose surface we would be tempted to reach out and touch, to test its bubbled, buckled substance and granular, ink-loaded texture.
The series 27.1 : 21.7 : 010 – 014 demonstrates the unique nature of Braeckman’s prints. That is true of all fibre-based prints in which there is always a subtle difference between versions made from the same negative; they are one-off, unable ever to be repeated exactly, which is a frustration for collectors and the even the most professional printer, who must be satisfied with copies with differences undetectable to the untrained eye. For Braeckman to converse is true as the manipulability of the medium is a quality that exploits and exaggerates to marvellous effect. For him the negative, the content of which may be from a picture shoot he may have long forgotten, provides the plastic, malleable armature for a series of inventions and variations.
There is a growing nostalgia and mystery around film photography and the darkroom which has reached almost a cult status, but not for those who have practiced it continuously, for whom it is a means to an end. The mystery in Braeckman’s work is not in the paper he uses or the brushes and sponges he often uses to apply his developer; it is in the way his imagery, pared back to this diaphanous grisaille, invites you.