"The photographs that excite me," wrote Harry Callahan in 1946, "are photographs that say something in a new manner; not for the sake of being different, but ones that are different because the individual is different." Throughout his life, Callahan wanted to "see it fresh." His work shows that he did.
Samuel Fein and Alice Hargrave are two contemporary photographers who "see it fresh" in exactly the way Callahan meant. Fein has pushed the limits of the medium to create beautiful images of imaginary worlds. Hargrave uses medical imaging technology and digital techniques to show us invisible nature. Both artists have work in "Seven Midwest Photographers," an exhibition that this writer organized for the Chicago Athenaeum at Schaumburg in Schaumburg, Ill. The show is up until Sept. 2.
A born photographer
Fein has taken photographs since childhood. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1975, he showed his work in local galleries but sold little.
In those days, he was influenced by Aaron Siskind, who took flat pictures of weathered wood, peeling paint, concrete walls, torn posters and the like. "I went around like Siskind," Fein says, "looking for things to photograph. There was a sense of discovery in my work."
With his art income almost zero, Fein decided to become an architectural photographer. For 15 years, he devoted himself to business and achieved financial security. As he developed and printed his photographs, he acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of darkroom technique.
"Eventually I became restless," he says, "and wanted to do personal work again. But this time I was determined to invent instead of record. What's the difference, I thought, between shooting a kitchen and photographing something I stumble upon?"
Nowadays, Fein operates like a painter or sculptor, getting a visual idea and "fumbling around" until he makes it work. He has designed and built his own photo studio, contact printer and enlarger from scratch. "I could not make the prints I do without custom equipment," he says. "There's no other way in the analog world to create such refined images."
"Print is the reality"
Fein's flat images recall topography, but resemble nothing in real life and it's hard to say whether we see them down from the sky or through a microscope. Some light comes from within the image and some seems to float on top.
"I have no specific expectation of what people will see when they look at one of my photographs," says Fein. "I can't say what the scale of most images is because they only partially exist in reality. The print is the reality. It's the new object and the image only exists there."
Acknowledging that his rich colors are "not quite real," Fein states that he "did a lot of experimenting" with filters to get his green and orange right. He says that these colors "were inspired by" fresh-squeezed vegetable juice that he makes in his kitchen.
How he does it
Using an 8 by 10 inch view camera with a color filter, Fein photographs a hand-shaped piece of aluminum house-screen in silhouette. Next, he closes the lens, prepares a strobe with a color filter, opens the lens, flashes this strobe, and closes the lens. Depending on the image he is making, Fein may prepare up to four more strobes with color filters, open the lens for each, flash each strobe, and close the lens afterwards.
"This layering process breaks new ground," he says. "I never know exactly what I'll get when I shoot, but I have an idea of it." This perfectionist made more than 100 images for his current series -- and discarded all but 19 of them.
Once he has produced an 8 by 10 inch transparency, Fein may make a contact print. His hand-built contact printer has 30 small bulbs, provided with individual switches, which give him total control of the light. He sequentially places red, blue and green filters beneath the transparency and film, each for a predetermined length of time.
Fein uses his enlarger, which has 42 individually controlled bulbs, to make 20 by 24 inch Cibachrome prints. "I built everything except the bellows, which was custom-made for me," he says. "I conceive of my work at 20 by 24 inch scale. I'd love to print bigger, but the cost is prohibitive."
Samuel Fein creates installations, photographs them using a complex layering process, and elaborately manipulates the resulting images in the darkroom. He can be compared to contemporary photographers who stage scenes and record them. But Fein's work is lyrical, entirely visual and free of rhetoric. He has entered new aesthetic territory.
Always makes us think
"I try to find different ways of looking at things," says Alice Hargrave. "How can I look at nature? Can I see it a different way? Can I know it better?"
This is Hargrave's artistic credo. She has a restless, inquiring mind and the temperament of an experimental scientist. She views the camera and digital technology as analytical and creative tools. She always makes us think -- and see.
The artist identifies with William Henry Fox Talbot, the 19th-century British photographer and polymath who made images of architecture, insect wings and botanical specimens -- and took microphotographs of polarized light and plant stems. Other influences include Barbara Crane, Emmet Gowin, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Eva Hesse and Agnes Martin.
Hargrave's subject is nature "not the pastoral world of the green and the beautiful," she states, but "inside the body, underneath the grass, or in places we cannot see with our eyes alone." Fascinated with the capabilities of today's technology, she has used diagnostic x-rays, Mammography, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to see through flesh and even into the emotions.
Cats and flowers
On occasion, Hargrave has deliberately chosen hackneyed subject matter -- found objects, cats, and flowers -- and made it new. She photographed found stones and gallstones, framed the images and installed them on the floor to suggest a streambed. Her blurry Found Stone/Gall Stone shows a part of the body we never see. She calls this photograph "ethereal." It is hard to forget.
Hargrave has also x-rayed cats to reveal their skeletons, lungs and hearts, printed these images in startling colors, and given them sardonic titles. Pinkylove is a tiny x-ray of a curled-up cat placed at the center of a bright pink field. Belindalove/Fertility Feline is an expectant cat x-rayed and printed blue-green.
As people experience emotions, different areas of their brains respond. Hargrave obtained PET scans of the emotions, and then computer manipulated and printed them in colors of her own choosing. She decided to make love dark blue, fear pink, and hope yellow. "I used to let the color come through the process -- as the film is scanned," she says. "Now I've become freer and more experimental."
Not all of Hargrave's work is quite so entertaining. She made Equivalents from a detail of a mammogram film, exaggerating the scale because mammograms -- and what they might reveal -- so terrify women.
More recently, she made six iris prints from research slides prepared by a scientist who is investigating tumors in Lake Michigan zooplankton. Epischula lacustris and Polyphemus pediculus show the diseased organisms. The microscope images are chastely printed on 23-inch-long vertical sheets, recalling Japanese scroll paintings. The artist is distressed that these microorganisms have tumors, but her work is not didactic.
Hargrave became a photographer by accident. She studied architecture, art, and drawing in college during the early 1980s, began to take pictures of her work, and discovered that she liked photography better than drawing.
For years, she combined art with commercial film and photography. She took many portraits on assignment for Time, Newsweek, People and other popular magazines. One of her subjects was a man who had invented a new type of fingernail clipper. She took his picture with his wife and family. Everyone was clipping their nails.
Hargrave has exhibited widely in the Midwest. Nowadays she does her art, a little teaching, and a little commercial work. This leaves her plenty of time for her husband and two small children.