Digital Photography+Phantom Practices: Colby Caldwell on photo+craft

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(By Ali McGhee, reprinted from AshevilleGrit)

Colby Caldwell has been thinking about the place of the digital in photography for a long time. His most recent show, “How to Survive Your Own Death,” is currently up at Washington, D.C.’s Hemphill Gallery, and much of it revolves around one corrupt PICT file that Caldwell has been exploring for years. This file, according to Bronwen Latimer of the Washington Post, showed him that digital photography could be as prone to mistakes–and to serendipitous surprises–as analog photography. His explorations of this one file have yielded countless images over the last fifteen years, and as software advanced he was able to investigate the file in new ways, looking at “large parts of the image and the tiniest of pixels, cavernous and colorful.” With each investigation, notes Latimer, “he saw a new language emerging within photography.”

Caldwell is still thinking about the questions raised by this file. As an organizer of photo+craft and the founder of REVOLVE in Asheville’s River Arts District, he engages the community through shows, workshops, and presentations by local and visiting artists that explore issues like this one in order to generate conversation. The events he has organized for photo+craft–a film screening and panel discussion at the Altamont Theatre on Saturday, 4/2, and a show hosted at REVOLVE, fit this greater goal.

“For me,” says Caldwell, “thinking about the relationship between photography and craft was more thinking about where and how to find craft in the digital realm. How is that process different–and does the difference matter–when we look at that relationship in the analog realm? The festival brings up really pertinent questions swirling around the medium right now. How has the materiality of photography changed since the advent of digital practices? And if it has changed, is there any relationship to the analog version? Do the analog and digital versions of photography recombine to become what photography is now, in the 21st century?”

Caldwell brings his own experiences with teaching photography to photo+craft. A professor at St. Mary’s College for 12 years, he trained students in the transformational period when the digital darkroom first arose. It was at this point that he first wondered about the importance of the wet darkroom in a period when digital practices were becoming more central to the lives of the students he was teaching. The wet darkroom “still held a tremendous amount of magic” for students “contrary to what I expected,” says Caldwell. “It offered them something that was experientially very different from their other activities at college.” Far from obsolete, then, the wet darkroom was in many ways reinvigorated by digital practices.

The events organized by Caldwell at photo+craft pick up the threads of this ongoing discussion. First will be a screening of Harvey Wang’s “From Darkroom to Daylight,” a documentary that investigates the relationships that traditional, analog photographers have–or don’t–with digital technologies. The documentary includes interviews with Sally Mann, Stephen Shore, and other formative practitioners of both analog and digital photography. The director, also a photographer, will be in attendance to introduce the film, which will be screened at the Altamont Theatre from 1-2:30.

Directly following the screening is a panel, “Ghosts in the Machine: Finding Craft in the Digital,” that will continue the exploration of the relationship between analog and digital. Presenters James Huckenpahler (George Washington University), Vesna Pavlovic (Vanderbilt), and Elijah Gowin (University of Missouri–Kansas City) and moderator Bernard Welt (Corcoran School of the Arts and Design) will investigate how working practitioners find “visual form within the digital medium,” and will consider ideas surrounding “the materiality of photography and what craft means when working with 1s and 0s.”

For Caldwell, these are vital and generative issues. “We as a creative society have synthesized all forms of information–whether it’s the written, the aural, the visual, or moving images–down to 1s and 0s. They all become the same kind of experience via the computer screen, whether you’re reading something, watching something, or looking at something. How has that experiential shift affected your understanding of each medium, and at this point, do the usual silos of mediums, disciplines, and practices hold any weight now that we’re looking at them through the exact same portal, which is usually a screen of some sort?”

The show at REVOLVE, “Phantom Practices,” includes examples of the panel members’ works. The idea, says Caldwell, “is to show this fascinating documentary where you’re getting an in-depth look at people who have been working in the medium for over fifty years, and then have an opportunity to unpack what you see and hear with some contemporary practitioners who are investigating the medium in very provocative and different ways via this panel discussion.” Moderator Welt is also REVOLVE’s consulting scholar. A poet and a renowned dream expert, his role on the panel will be to “pull out of these practitioners’ works and ideas something outside of the normal realm of critical thinking within the medium of photography,” says Caldwell.

Caldwell is excited about everything on the photo+craft schedule, which also includes exhibits like “Authentic Constructions,” an exploration of things built specifically to photograph (at the Henco Gallery), a keynote speech from Fred Ritchin, a workshop at the Asheville Darkroom, and a panel on photo books (see the full schedule here).

Caldwell and the other organizers have put together an amazing weekend-long event that is a celebration of photography and craft in theory and in practice. Lead organizer Eric Baden and the whole organizing team “have worked really hard to bring remarkable out-of-the-area participants and presenters,” says Caldwell. “This is a real opportunity for Asheville to experience and open up to a lot of the ideas and things happening outside of region.” The festival ultimately explores “the liminality between photography and craft, both in a traditional sense–how craft is situated in the making and thinking about objects–but also in finding ways to connect photography and craft in the more Asheville-centric way by connecting with galleries and organizations like the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design, the Black Mountain College Museum, other more traditional Craft communities that will find the ideas and dialog provocative and stimulating.”

photo+craft, sponsored by Warren Wilson College, happens from March 31 to April 3. Most events, including the screening, panel, and show, are free and open to the public.

Photo: Colby Caldwell’s  “How to Survive Your Own Death (225), 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Hemphill Fine Arts.

 

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