The Stuff of Photography
Mondays 1 - 29 July, 18:30 - 20:30
What are the materials of photography and how do they physically change the world?
Together, we will consider photographs not simply as images, but as chemical and physical objects, products of industrial processes, and as lively things that sense and react to their environments. Drawing on archival objects, short texts and images, we will share ideas around the sensual, social and ecological impact of photographic materiality.
The course will also explore the changing material infrastructures that underpin photographic production, from mines, abattoirs and gelatin processing plants, to pollutants and byproducts. What is it like to work with light-sensitive materials, which also react to human skin and changes in temperature and humidity?
These workshops are ideal for anyone fascinated by the material, industrial and alchemical aspects of photography. Participants are invited to bring in their own research and artwork for discussion and inspiration. Short readings or viewings will be made available in advance in preparation for sessions.
A collaboration with University of West London, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The Stuff of Photography builds on Michelle’s current research in the various archives of Ilford Limited, and develops Rowan’s recent project Planetary Processing.
Week 1 - From Collodion to Celluloid
We examine two closely related materials, collodion and celluloid, both of which are central to the history of photography and derive from highly explosive gun cotton (also known as nitrocellulose or pyroxylin).
Week 2 - Crystal and Colour
We study crystals, whose size and shape determines the grain of the image and the speed of photographic emulsions, and the dye industries, which were central to the look and feel of modernity, and shaped the ability of photographic emulsion to react to different wavelengths of light.
Week 3 - Minerals and Mining
We think about the metallic and mineral components of photography, considering: precious metals such as platinum and silver; the antibacterial properties of silver; the relationship to global mineral extraction; and industrial illnesses and pollutants.
Week 4 - Gelatin
We discuss gelatin – derived from animal bones – and its facilitation of dry emulsions, which speaks of the interdependence of photographic and animal industries, of the relationship between food and photography, and of photography as a fundamentally organic technology.
Week 5 - Material Futures
We close the workshop series with a discussion and presentation of our findings and work inspired by the previous weeks. In particular, we will consider: how does thinking closely about the material and industrial processes of photography change our perception and understanding of the photographic? In the transition from one dominant form of photography (wet-analogue) to another (dry-digital) what has changed in the infrastructure and ecology of photography? How might such material-oriented thinking change our practices in the future?
Michelle Henning is Professor of Photography and Cultural History at the University of West London. She has been writing about and making art using analogue and digital photography since the mid-1990s, and is on the advisory editorial board of the journal Photographies. Her recent book Photography: The Unfettered Image (2018) is concerned with both the fleeting and material character of photographic images.
Rowan Lear is a photographic artist who recently initiated Planetary Processing, a peer forum for artists working with photography’s material and corporeal entanglements. Rowan is currently a doctoral researcher at University of West London, examining gesture, sensation and automation in the photographing body.
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