Sandra Davis: On Collecting

I am a collector. I collect many different things: objects with texture, objects with history, images, and memories. I photograph what I collect and collect what I photograph.

As photographers, we generally begin with the whole world in front of us and our personal vision emerges as we edit that which lies before us. When the decision is made, the shutter is tripped and a little piece of the world, that moment, is recorded on film or sensor. Once it is collected, it can be visited again and again by its owner.

Ascending Malham, Yorkshire, gum bichomate print, 15 x 13 in., 2003

Usually photographers start with the capture and decide later how to present the image to others. It can be a straight print, manipulated image, black and white, color, or other. Upon viewing the collected images, the artist will let the image speak to how it wants to be seen.

For me, this body of work happened in quite the opposite manner. I find it fascinating that the process can inspire the image prior to its capture. I can “see” in gum bichromate. When I look through the lens, I imagine how that little piece of the world will appear as a gum bichromate print.

The images presented here are gum bichromate prints from my Mythical Garden Series. This series began in Italy when I decided to take a toy camera to Parco dei Mostri, a garden filled with 16th century grotesque sculptures, also known as Villa Barmarzo.

Dragon at Parco dei Mostri, gum bichomate print, 13 x 15 in., 2003

Let me back up a bit. When I took my second photography class in 1980, I was fortunate to go to New York City to see a show of Eugene Atget’s Gardens on exhibit at ICP (International Center for Photography). I fell in love with his images, and to this day they still inspire me. I spent most of my photography life photographing historic architecture, first with 35mm infrared film and then with a swing lens panoramic camera. Fifteen years ago, when I revisited a process that I had learned in 1980, gum bichromate printing, I realized that the process and the sharp lines of the architecture did not create a good fit.

After Atget, St.-Cloud, France, gum bichomate print, 13 x 15 in., 2009

The gum bichromate process is a 19th-century process that was a favorite of the Pictorialist group of photographers who worked between 1885 and 1915. Watercolor pigment is mixed with gum arabic and then photosensitized with dichromate (chromium salts). This emulsion is hand-coated onto the surface of paper under incandescent light. A negative is placed on top of the dried coating and exposed to ultraviolet light. After the exposure, the print is immersed in cool water. The areas of the image that are struck by light bond to the paper, while those that were blocked from light wash away, preserving the highlights. Several layers of translucent color are required to create a fully tonal image. Therefore the process of coating, drying, exposing, and washing is repeated up to five times.

Secret Garden, St.-Cloud, France, gum bichomate print, 13 x 15 in., 2005

If I haven’t lost you yet, registration of a negative containing sharp lines is difficult, since the repeated washings change the paper size. After struggling with this for several years, I discovered the Holga toy camera. The Holga image is sharp in the center and soft at the edges. To me, the camera is perfect for the gum bichromate process. Armed with several Holgas, I journeyed to the gardens Atget had photographed and to the lush Renaissance villas of Italy.

La Cerchiata Grande, Boboli Gardens, Florence, gum bichomate print, 15 x 13 in., 2009

I discovered when shooting with the Holga, I am drawn to shapes and figures that appear to emerge from the darkness. The wonderful vignetting created by the plastic lens enhances this quality within my images. This enables me to capture soft, dreamy images reminiscent of historic photographic methods, evoking the misty quality of memories.

Grotto God, Viscaya, FL, gum bichomate print, 13 x 13 in., 2003

Thus history and process inspire my image making process. I continue to collect things and images. And I am now beginning to photograph my collection of old and textured objects to revisit them in a new form of re-collected images.

Sandra C. Davis was born in 1960s near Philadelphia. In the 1980s she discovered photography as a way to express her vision. She teaches alternative processes at several universities in the Philadelphia area. Her award-winning images are exhibited nationwide and are in public, corporate and private collections.


Bill Travis: Caserta

I love photographing places that don’t exist.

The places I’ve taken my camera are real enough, but the idea of simply reproducing a view doesn’t appeal to me. The original already exists in nature. What I want to do is make an alternate original.

Where I set up my camera is more a jumping off point than a point of arrival. I may walk through a landscape and take a thousand shots, but the real work begins when I’m back in the studio and can spend time with my favorite captures, transforming them into personal statements. The picture depicts a place that exists and does not exist, because it’s become an image of an image, or a fantasy, or a dream.

For the past few years I’ve been interested in historic parks and gardens and have carried my camera through some magnificent landscapes. In 2011 I visited Caserta, a small town known for its royal palace and splendid park, both modeled on Versailles by an eighteenth-century King of Naples and distant relative of Louis XIV.

The lower park has many points in common with Versailles, but unlike the original, where even the ghosts retain a sense of grandeur, much of Caserta is run down, with graffiti on the palace walls and plastic bottles on the lawns. Vegetation overruns areas in the lower garden that were once more formal, conveying an abandonment that speaks to the passage of time.

The upper reaches consist of the English Garden, with meandering paths, rolling hills, and sentimental ruins, but unlike most of its northern prototypes, the vegetation here is extremely lush and the simulated ruins very grand and evocative. Probably the most impressive part of the complex is the cascade, which plummets down from a low mountaintop to the palace parterre through a series of richly sculptured fountains, close in style to the Trevi Fountain, but so ambitious as to make the Roman example seem miniature in comparison. I believe there were plans to build twenty such fountains, but even kings run out of money and only six were completed. (I’ll return to the fountains in a later post.)

How to depict such a remarkable place? I took hundreds and hundreds of pictures… of sculptures and water and trees and expanses of lawn and palace views, of trash, graffiti, crates, tour buses, dogs, and tourists and local residents. There were long perspectives and tight views, scenes of intense light and murky shadows, colorful places and monochromes, bird’s eye and frog’s eye views. Here was enough material to reconstruct a world. A photographer might turn this trove into a document of a specific time and place, or a social commentary, or an essay on decay and survival, or any number of interpretations.

My approach was to attenuate the here-and-now, to take things away, allowing the image to become simpler, more focused, more atmospheric. People, when present, are not large enough to tell stories or take us down the road of anecdote; they tend to be small, showing the immensity of nature. Trash gets removed, the specific falls away, and what is left is a sense of the universal. My Caserta is of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. All of us can find a place in it, I hope, not as accidental tourists but as people who enter into a frame of mind.