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Explore the art of photography

By John Schacht
4. Weakness
UNC Charlotte -
Dan Estabrook’s “Weakness” -- salt print with watercolor and ink, 14" x 11"

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  • If you go

    WHAT: “Mad Hatters to Pixel Pushers” features the photography by a dozen artists.

    WHEN: On display 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily through Nov. 14.

    WHERE: The Projective Eye Gallery at UNC Charlotte Center City, at 320 E. Ninth St.

    INFO: 704-687-0833; 704-687-0877.



In photography’s 19th-century infancy, early practitioners often earned the moniker “mad hatters” – endlessly tinkering with their daguerreotypes and adorned in the stove-top hats of the era, their hands turned black and shook with tremors from the mercury fumes that would eventually drive many insane.

The chemical processes got at least a little less toxic in the subsequent century. But photographers’ urge to experiment with the fundamentals of the art form, and their fond admiration for the early processes (minus the mercury, largely), hasn’t changed even in the digital era.

That was the general inspiration behind the exhibit “Mad Hatters to Pixel Pushers: Exploring the Continuum of Photography through Process and the Constructed Image,” which runs through Nov. 14 at the Projective Eye Art Gallery on UNC Charlotte’s downtown campus.

“The whole thought behind ‘Mad Hatters’ was to reference the idea of the old processes and bring it into the new – there are a lot of people today who use the old processes with the new processes and cross over,” says Crista Cammarato, director of galleries at the College of Arts + Architecture and the exhibit’s curator.

Looking back to the original processes isn’t new. Cammarato points out that Steiglitz and other titans of the art form turned back to platinum and palladium prints to add atmosphere to their work. “Today they still do the same thing, sometimes in the same way, even with the digital image, because you want to get this kind of visceral quality to it,” she says.

And visceral would certainly be an accurate description for much of the work on display. The show features a wide range of photographers mostly, though not exclusively, from the Southeast, and runs the gamut from the recently graduated to the famous.

And while process – everything from gelatine silver and gum Arabic to color transparencies and digital – plays a big role here, just as important are what Cammarato calls the “constructed realities” in front of the lenses.

The photographers first create a tableau (Linda Foard Roberts’ subjects covered in clay, for instance) or manipulate a collage (Phil Moody’s botanical photograms at the entrance to the building). In this way, as the exhibit statement suggests, the photographers “act as subliminal directors, staging for viewers the entire event – or object – from a place inside their minds. What is not in their images is just as significant as what is.”

The exhibit’s most compelling pieces are by Jeff Murphy, UNCC associate professor for digital media/digital photography. Beginning with original landscape photos, Murphy digitally layers other photos – decaying bird carcasses and his son’s toys are recurring images – and charcoal drawings atop them in a collage.

Those images are then printed on large sheets of sateen cotton cloth, some of which are coated, almost batik-like, in thick layers of archival art wax. The results are monochromatic mementos mori that recall the sand-blasted scenery from the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic “The Road.”

But the sepia tones and imagery create an atmosphere that also suggests, as Murphy says in his online artist statement, our efforts to “calibrate our place in both a personal and historical trajectory by excavating clues to our past.” In this respect, the fossilizing birds and artifacts swallowed by the sea form a record of the marks we leave behind as much as they remind us of our mortality.

For Murphy and the rest of these artists, the image is merely a door to other worlds – some in the past, some in the present, some in other dimensions.

“People are really going back and forth through the whole continuum with all these processes – and it’s fun when they do, it makes it more interesting,” Cammarato says. “When photography’s just a flat image on the wall all the time, it can kind of flatten out – for the viewer, too.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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