I started work for this exhibition six years ago. Between all the jigs and reels, it is only now that its coming to fruition. I was first encouraged by Louise Gunn to experiment more with my polaroids. Louise asked her daughter Fiona to show me her tricks in terms of polaroid-lifting techniques.
After seeing the possibilities of what Fiona could do with the polaroid-lift, I decided that I would love to make a black and white print of them. So I started experimenting, and found that putting the lifts onto glass allowed me to put them into an enlarger. As the polaroid on the glass slide was a positive, I had to make a paper negative from that, and then produce a positive black and white print.
At the time I started working on the exhibition I was doing a lot of commercial work and wanted to get back into a more creative mode. This project, ‘Liquidity – On the Chair Exposures’, became my creative outlet.
I have always loved old chairs. The one that I used for this exhibition was an old nursing chair with a high back and low arms. With its frayed appearance created over time and possibly because it was an old nursing chair, it had its own unique personality. I wanted to see how people would respond and interact with this old chair, shaping their bodies to fit. The chair was a great leveler and provided a constant and a context for the series of portraits.
Sitting in a chair, you put yourself at ease as you are connecting with something solid. This allowed me to create an intimate image of each of the subjects as each sitter had a different reaction to the process. None of the subjects were scheduled to be part of any planned shoots – each was taken at various opportunities which presented themselves over a period of twelve months. The other constant was that they were all photographed outside using natural light against the same garden wall.
Depending on the age of the polaroid, the reaction when lifted would vary greatly. Some would lift very easily, others required a huge amount of time and cajoling. Some created very beautiful and abstract images. Each image presented its own challenges placing them on glass in how they would form in their final arrangement. This created an unpredictability and uniqueness in each image. The project taught me to “let go” of the normal photographic controls.
At every stage, from photographing to the final image, there were so many variables which would normally be controlled as part of the photographic process: subject; weather; lighting; the polaroid itself; and how it lifted and placed on the glass. Allowing this deliberate lapse of control, provided an opportunity to fully explore my artistic creativity.
Since starting the project, due to the increasing popularity of digital photography, the type of polaroid used to create these images no longer exists commercially. The Agfa paper used to create the paper negatives have also disappeared. This also presented different challenges, and an additional pressure in terms of getting the images right. Half the images had been in storage and were only lifted in recent weeks, adding yet another twist to the variables. For the newly-lifted polaroids, the fact that Agfa paper was no longer available, led me back to Louise Gunn to find an alternative paper to complete the prints. This project could not have started without all the Gunn’s encouragement and support, and in the final stages John, Louise and the Gunn family are sponsoring the exhibition by providing the papers required to complete the prints.
The timing of the exhibition coincides with my residency at Block T, Smithfield. The decline in popularity of traditional photographic printing has meant that most of the facilities available in Dublin have closed down. In an effort to reintroduce and support the art and skills of darkroom photographic printing, Block T has invested in creating a modern darkroom housing numerous enlargers which I used to create the final prints for ‘Liquidity – On the Chair Exposures’. Block T are also introducing a number of courses in black and white printing in addition to more specialist printing techniques including silver gelatin and alternative processing (liquid light etc). The course cover a range of skill levels from beginner, intermediate through to advanced. For more information click here.
By Mella Travers.
Liquidity – On the Chair Exposures, by Mella Travers
Sponsored by John Gunn Camera Shop
‘Fluid, like life’ – this unpredictable process introduces a new dimension to the traditional portrait. Starting with a square-format polaroid, the emulsion bends, twists, distorts and re-forms in a unique way as it lifts from the constraints of the original Polaroid film. Thus creating the first positive slide to create a negative print and then back to a positive print ‘allows it to peel its own layers back’, explains Travers. The unexpected magic is that you can peer through the glass-mounted slides set against a light-box and on another wall the prints are hanging unframed as though drying in the original darkroom. Each image is inimitable creating its own atmosphere and story. The only constant is the battered old chair against a garden wall. The subjects, the lighting, the different elements of the process, lend to create an unpredictable but beautifully compelling series of works.
The exhibition includes portraits of Jean Butler, Colin Dunne, Pat Laffan, Tom Hickey, Joanna Banks, and Cedric the Entertainer, among others.
Opening Reception: 6pm Tuesday, July 5th
Dates: 31st June – 12th July
Opening hours: 12 noon – 7pm daily
Mella Travers’ exhibition is part of the Photo Ireland Festival.