As I enter the Catherine Edelman Gallery to view the work of scott b. davis, I am transported into an arid ecosystem. As I stroll the perimeter of the space, serene images of the desert provide moments of quiet reflection. The walls are modestly peppered with black and white platinum palladium prints and paper negatives. The overwhelming minimalism sharpens my eyes to notice even the most subtle details within each frame. After digesting the show, I talked with davis about his photographic depictions of the southwest.
Ally Fouts: Could you tell me about the process behind these prints?
scott b. davis: “All of the prints are platinum palladium prints, which is a 19th-century printing process. They’re all made with large format cameras. All of the prints represent the size of the camera that was used to make them. That process is traditionally a contact printing process where you use a large negative, or a negative the size of the print you wish to have, and you contact print it. That was traditionally done in the sun because the process predates electricity.”
“For me, the making of this work is twofold: One part of it is the making of paper negatives in the field out in the landscape. The other part is shooting film, and then printing those traditionally. Every work in the exhibition contains at least one paper negative. Many other works contain a paper negative plus a print or multiple prints made from film negatives.”
AF: Some of the imagery depicted in these works look like mirror images and replicated images. The piece, copper mountains, depicts a continuation of a larger landscape split into five different frames. How was this achieved?
sbd: “It’s a panorama of a mountain range. There’s five images in it, four of those are shot on film, and one of them is a paper negative.”
“They get kind of complicated because the paper negatives are reversed left to right. Just like how the image in our eyes is upside down and backward, but our brains are what tells us that the top of your head is the top of your head and your feet are on the ground; cameras do that also. If you’re shooting film, you get the negative and you orient it right side up. You’re not really thinking that it was actually captured upside down. I mentioned that because in the piece copper mountains there is one paper negative, and that is part of that contiguous landscape. But, that’s not true to what it actually would look like with your eyes. Because that piece is flipped, I have to stitch together in my mind and artistically something that’s going to create that illusion that it’s a contiguous landscape.”
“That’s why I say they’re works of fiction. And then other times, they’re complete works of fiction. For example, in the piece double negative, I have a photograph made in Mexico and one made in the United States.”
AF: double negative looks like an archway, as if you took a photograph of each half of it and placed them side by side. But if you’re saying that the white image is a reverse image, that would have to be fiction. Can you elaborate on how this was accomplished?
sbd: “That piece is two double exposed sheets of light sensitive material in the camera and those two elements of that one piece of art are identical, they’re a mirror image to one another.”
“But the combination of the two of them forms an archway. In reality, it’s not an arch at all; Catherine Edelman asked me that herself. Specifically, “is this a physical arch that we’re looking at in the landscape?” And I said, no, it’s not. It’s the side of two different mountain ranges that have a similar structure to them. When combined, and when double-exposed, and then when paired like that, forms the illusion of the arch. That photograph was made about two miles or so from the Mexico-United States Border on the United States side.”
AF: The imagery produced is so delicate, completely void of the details of the landscape outside of the harsh horizon lines. In a few pieces, some subtle moments of clarity emerge in the forms of shrubbery and shadows. What is the typical exposure time?
sbd: “Typically around an hour. The platinum-palladium printing process is a contact printing process. You take a large negative, you put it in contact with the light-sensitive paper, and traditionally, you would take it out in the sun and just let it sit in pure sunlight for several minutes, then bring into the darkroom and finish all the work there. Because it’s not a very light-sensitive material, when you put that in a camera and then have an aperture which is cutting out even more light, it makes the exposures long.”
“There’s so much work that has to happen before I even drive into the landscape. Those who know what a platinum palladium print is can see I’ve up-ended this process in a lot of ways and done things with it that are very unorthodox. Even people who are educated about photography are confused by these works. People assume that I’m printing from these paper negatives, which I’m not.”
AF: I look at the images of you with this monstrous camera and listen to you describe the laborious process. In my mind, it becomes this grander dance with heavy apparatus as your partner. Conversely, the images that result from this dance are so delicate. They are quiet moments that probably more accurately capture that serene feeling you have when taking the image. Do you feel the relationship between the production and the resulting image is pertinent to your concept?
sbd: “Absolutely. That touches on something that’s really important to the work and my process as well, which is the places that I go to photograph. The places are really remote and peaceful. I photograph a lot along the US-Mexico border. Since it’s a place that doesn’t have a lot of people, it is an unspoiled natural landscape. The people you run into out there on the US side are Border Patrol agents. They are typically very white-knuckled men and women who are like, “this is a war zone. It’s dangerous out here. You shouldn’t be here.” I mean, you’re allowed to be there, but it is their job to find people breaking the law. There’s this sort of funny perception that it’s a dangerous or scary place. A lot of the animals out there are poisonous. A lot of the plants will make you bleed if you touch them. It’s the desert; it’s a curious place. And then on the Mexico side, the Mexican people have a very “live and let live” attitude. They have a different relationship with nature than we do. I find these spaces to be peaceful. They’re places that I love to mentally and spiritually decompress, and where I can make work that is a reflection of that.”
“But the opposite side of that is that it’s all large format photography, and so much large format photography is about all the things that you were talking about, right? These big cameras, these big symphonic works that have all this detail, they’re so real and precise. The nature of large format cameras, because they are expensive, there is this preciousness. There’s an orthodontist approach to using them. You can’t waste a square inch, you can’t have any mistakes, you can’t have any flaws. And when I started to make night photographs, 20 years ago, it was partially an effort to just let go of all that control. I thought, I’m just going to do an exposure for an hour at night and let things happen. This has become an extension of that element of letting go of all the control that’s so familiar to large format photography, and letting chance and imperfections be embraced.”
AF: That definitely comes through. In traditional forms of photography, especially with landscape photography, there are purists that have all these rules that result in images resembling “reality.” In your work, there are moments where details come through and it feels surprising. Because you allow that chance and interrogate these rules, a new reality through. We can’t access these spaces physically, we don’t see black mountains or white mountains. But, this is actually closer to how we view the world, in these fragmented moments of sometimes clarity, sometimes blurs. I’m wondering about your choice of including the black images and the white images together?
sbd: “I spent 15 plus years making night photographs. Those were made both in the desert and then largely in Los Angeles and some other Western cities. They were really about the perceptual experience of how our eyes see darkness, which is to say that we always see some kind of detail, we always see something in shadows. The work was an exploration of wanting to have a sense of discovery in these places. I’m talking about the turn of the millennium, the 1990s, early 2000s. Things like Google are starting to be part of our daily lives. There was so much information out there that I became interested in discovering new experiences in familiar landscapes. Night photography became a vehicle for that. Pretty much everybody in the Western world can close their eyes and listen to the word “Los Angeles” and have an image of it. I didn’t want to repeat these images that at the time were starting to flood the internet. This idea of how can we see the world differently? How can I as an artist hold back information in such a way that it’s presenting a new experience? I developed a language around minimalism and restraining information from viewers that ideally engages the imagination more than a photograph that just shows you everything in great detail and explains it all for your eyes.”
“About 10 years ago, I started to think about what else I could do with the platinum-palladium process. And that’s when I got the idea of putting paper into a film holder and exposing it inside of a camera to see what would happen. What results from that is a white on white impression that’s the antithesis of everything that I worked for many, many years to define as a language. That language was really interesting to me also, because it was yet again, encouraging us to see a space that might be familiar in an abstract way.”
AF: Looking at tinajas altas mountain sand (ii), there is a reference to the conversation of the macro versus the micro. I could be looking at a petri dish or the galaxy. Compared to the surrounding mountain ranges filling the show, these show a different perception of the landscape. Do you feel like these pieces are part of the landscape language that you created?
sbd: “That’s a really good question. After quarantine happened, what I started doing was bringing home parts of the desert and making photographs with them. It’s part of this series that I’m calling the desert plays itself. It’s a series of photographs of plants, rocks, and other things that comprise the desert. Those look like pictures of outer space, and that was what was so magical to me. I mean, you articulated it really well. That it’s hard to know if you’re looking into deep space or if you’re looking into shallow cosmic time. It’s no surprise that things on a microscopic scale look like things that are as big as a galaxy. That those forms in the natural world are resonant with one another. Those works to me are picking up on a new idea of what these elements of the desert look like when they’re presented in an atypical fashion.”
“In the small triptych called brittlebush seeds, I use large format cameras, so I have film holders that range in size from 4”x5” to 16”x20”. I find that, because I have so many cameras in use at any one time, that I’ve been putting these film holders down just sort of wherever. At one point this year, I looked and there was debris from the plant all over the film holder. The old large format photographer in me made my blood go cold. I thought, there’s dirt all over this, this is every photographer’s nightmare. Then I thought, what if I just opened the dark slide right now and exposed all the dirt that fell onto this piece of paper. I started making photographs in the field, and then I started to bring rocks, leaves, or twigs home from the desert and making photographs in the studio as well.”
AF: When you start challenging the rules of the medium and you allow yourself to play, you get really interesting results. Were you surprised by any resulting images, or the visual direction these processes led to?
sbd: “I love these faint works that start to almost look like pencil drawings, like black mesa. There are some that are not in the exhibition where I’ve pushed it so far that with the human eye seeing a print, it’s hard to see physical traces on the paper because it’s that subtle. It’s been a really exciting experience to keep pushing this media farther and farther to the point where I’m asking very fundamental questions that have been asked by many, many, many photographers before me, which is, at what point is a photograph, a photograph? A photograph is a drawing with light or writing with light. How much light constitutes it as a photograph? If you took a piece of light-sensitive paper and put it straight into the fixer and just wash everything away, technically, it’s still a photograph. Some of these works that are really light, like black mesa, are pushing things in that direction, where there’s almost nothing on the paper. It’s an actual photograph; it’s an actual recording of a thing. But it’s on that threshold of at what point does it go from being a piece of paper to a photograph?”
“I’m very influenced by the history of photography. None of these ideas are new. Look at Harry Callahan or Ray Metzker; I feel that the ideas that interest me are the same ideas that interested them, which is how can the medium move from being so rigid and structured to being more playful to being more experimental? To embrace failure? That’s been something that’s just really, really driven my creative work in the last 10 years.”
AF: The history of these questions prove that maybe there is no answer, but there’s always room to interrogate and try to reach a conclusion. The possibilities that come from trying to answer that question are vast. For example, your work doesn’t look like Harry Callahan’s. You’re dealing with the same concepts, but the results look completely different. In pinnacle, the photographic elements are so subtle, I could be convinced it’s a drawing or watercolor. Are these conscious decisions you are making, or accidental?
sbd: “I’m a process driven artist. There’s a lot of people who have utilized the full full frame of a negative for aesthetic purposes. Richard Avedon would include that irregular large format picture frame with the notch and the numbers on the side included as part of the finished work. I love that because it’s an actual artifact from the physical creation of the work. In the piece ‘pinnacle,’ that’s the full 4”x5” sheet of paper, it’s the full negative. There’s the irregular border that’s visible at the top edges of each of those frames. That shows that this is an artifact made from a camera. I want that to be a very subtle nod to the fact that this is indeed photographic. The fact that you asked about it, because it felt like a watercolor, I love the fact that that intersection happened for you with that piece. It’s exactly why those process based artifacts of the film holder are visible. I want that reminder that this is indeed photographic.”
AF: I am interested in your thoughts on the cyclical nature of photography. The process you are using was at one point novel, at one point dated, and then at some point became interesting again. This is true for each iteration of the camera. Film cameras were replaced with digital cameras until film was interesting again. Is this concept relevant to you and your choice to work with this old photographic process?
sbd: “The platinum print process was invented in the 1870s, and its heyday was probably the 1890s to 1910s. Because it was and is a very expensive process, photographers would keep it for their masterworks. When I got into this process in the 1990s, it was because of an advertisement in a photo magazine. It had a Rembrandt drawing and said, “old master quality is not for everyone.” I would see this ad every month in the magazine. At that time, I was a straight up run of the mill landscape photographer. I was really interested in the process of printing in the darkroom and making fine, exquisite prints. I would keep seeing this ad and I was like, what is that? So I looked into it and it was from a company that sells platinum supplies. I got hooked on it because it’s such an involved printmaking process. If I work harder at something, it’s more enjoyable for me, which I think is a virtue.”
“As I learned more about it, I learned that the people who were making platinum prints, and this is still true today, tend to make very traditionally beautiful images. I was interested in how nobody’s pushing this process more. At that time, I started making night photographs and getting into this minimalist aesthetic. I want to push the envelope, and I think we all feel that in art. We’re interested in people who are pushing new ideas and exploring new territory because that’s what’s exciting and teaches us and inspires us.”
AF: You were creating more traditional landscape photographs, and then an advertisement caught your eye and your reaction was essentially, why is this here? It is extremely fitting that your introduction to working in this way was from a strong reaction. That carries through your work from roughly that point on, working with ponderings of, why are these the rules of photography? Why do I have to work this way?
sbd: “I’ve told that story a lot of times and it’s funny because I’ve never thought about it like that. I was reacting to this pencil drawing. Now, I’m reacting by making photographs that look like pencil drawings.”
AF: Though the images within these works are not hyper-realistic, they do feel more true to the landscape than a highly detailed photograph. What is an aspect of the desert that you feel is captured well in this show?
sbd: “The black and white prints speak to a certain sense of the polarities of the desert. Deserts in general are landscapes of extremes. They are physically extreme looking, they are extreme in the heat and cold that they endure or undergo, they are extreme in the immense darkness because deserts tend to not have population centers in them. They’re very dark places at night, which is what those photographs are capturing one view of, and they’re also places where the light is completely enveloping and blinding. That’s a layer to the work as well: investigating these polarities in the desert in a sense of something perceptual.”