March 15, 2010

Antiquated and Contemporary

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Every day, photographer France Scully Osterman deals with a Schrödinger’s cat of sorts: Her art combines contemporary ideas and images with the old-fashioned photographic techniques of the 19th century. This balance-of-opposites is the basis of her newest exhibit, The Image Wrought: Historical Photographic Approaches in the Digital Age, which will be on display at the Johnson Museum of Art until March 28. The exhibit displays contemporary and 19th century images, both having been taken and treated in the manner of photograph that was available 150 years ago.      Osterman is unique among contemporaries for her use of collodion, a process developed in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. Archer initially developed the collodion process for use that Osterman’s father employed: as a tool to create art, rather than an art form in itself. Osterman’s father was a painter, who dabbled in photography on the side in order to capture and preserve an ephemeral image — like a portrait or a national landscape — so that he could finish his painting later, once the individual had left his studio or once he left the landscape.      Like her father, Osterman strives to capture beautiful, fleeting moments in her art. She especially enjoys portraiture — capturing an impossibly small part of an individual’s life and then immortalizing it. Osterman modestly considers herself  an artist who uses photography as her medium, rather than definitively as  a photographer. She explained the virtue of the medium lies in “the balance between vision and technique — between the art itself and how it is manipulated.”      Her Sleep Series is a series of photographs, in which she was able to capture those moments of vulnerability, contentment and peace that can only be witnessed in sleep. In order to get subjects for the series, Osterman invited individuals to sleep in her studio while she photographed them. She told of how one couple specifically, Laszio and Carole, “showed up at her doorstep in their pajamas, completely ready to go to bed.”      Growing up with an artistic father was a great influence on her photography. Two of her father’s photos, one taken of her mother lounging in bed and another of a sleeping baby, served as inspiration for her Sleep Series. Osterman admitted that her first image of a sleeping individual was a forgotten photograph of her sister, taken when Osterman was only in the seventh grade. Osterman set up the scene and photographed it herself; her sister appears to be asleep in the garden outside their childhood home.      The Ostermans as a couple, as a team and as mentors, are well-known for their teaching of the collodion methods. They use the same setting, studio set-up, methods and primary techniques of 19th century photographers to ensure that their methods are historically accurate. Osterman tends to “not play up the artifacts” of the collodion method. What she calls “artifacts” of the process are actually mistakes made during the collodion method that become evident in the final products. However, she contends that sometimes the imperfections just kind of work in a photograph.      Sometimes, it’s okay to play up what makes every photograph different and unique. One problem of the collodion process is fog, which is caused by a chemical imbalance or an over-exposure. Osterman jokingly remarked, “When most photographs realize their problem, their first thought is, ‘Oh my god, I got fog!’” Nevertheless, one photographer, Sally Mann, used fog as a layering technique to give her photographers more depth and an air of mystery. Furthermore, some photographers choose to “burn” in the sky, meaning they over-expose the image to make the sky appear darker in color and thus more ominous or intriguing. Osterman reveals that anything, absolutely anything, can be important; it is how that ordinary, or even un-extraordinary, object is perceived that gives it importance.      Another unique facet of Osterman’s photography is her studio. Like her 8×10 camera, her studio is set up in the true fashion of the 19th century. Light is ushered into the room by way of a northern skylight. The subjects of her Sleep Series were all asleep during the day so that Osterman could capture just the right amount of light through the skylight.      Osterman noted that “early photography was so colorful,” and explained this as a result of the collodion process. Her husband, Mark, is a process historian, so every aspect of the collodion process is done completely as it was done more than a century and a half ago. The Ostermans cut their own glass with diamonds to create their own negatives and make each chemical bath and varnish from scratch.      What distinguishes collodion from other methods of developing photos is that an un-fixed photograph, one that has not yet gone through the fixer bath, can be brought into the light. Collodion also gives great color sensitivity. “Every step of the collodion process is extremely visual,” Osterman pointed out, because light has no affect on the un-fixed photograph, the photograph is able to see everything under normal light rather than the red-tinted light of a dark room.      France Scully Osterman is just as well known for her photographs as her teaching of the traditional collodion method. Her Sleep Series was powerful and evocative. Her newest series takes the individuals out of the bed, displaying the bed as a landscape. The viewer of any of her new photographs witnesses what the sleeper sees: rumpled sheets and indentations in the pillows, which are the only evidence of the bed’s previous occupation. Osterman reveals what it is like to be in the bed; what the sleeper sees and experiences. Her photographs are relaxing, abstract, sexual, and intimate.

Original Author: Heather McAdams