The Sanded Photographic Prints

During the Christmas break of 2015, I returned to the physical photograph.  I was examining some of the photos in this collection when I noticed one image in particular.  This small print represents two women standing on a train platform, however, a lens flare, obscures one of the figure’s faces.  I was struck by the way this visual erasure of the image resembled a “sanding away” of the image.  It was at this moment that I questioned to myself, “what if I was to physically sand away the emulsion?”  Taking a piece of 1500 grit Emery paper I began sanding other photographs from this collection.  Immediately I was engaged – engaged in the sanding gesture but also excited at how the image was being transformed.  By interacting with the information contained in the photograph I realized that I was rewriting the narrative of the image, a narrative that had been held in suspension for many years.  

Unknown Passenger, Sanded Photographic Print, 2015

Photo with lens flare

By intervening with the analogue photograph, I can alter images - from my family archive that have been held in stasis for over fifty years - disrupting both my interpretation of linear time and my personal history.

Abduction, Sanded Photograph, 2015

Beyond the physical satisfaction of sanding these prints, what does the action of altering original analogue photographs imply?  Many who visit my studio express their shock that I would physically abrade the ‘original’ photograph.  For me it is necessary, for it is this very piece of paper that has the original light-energy stored within.  There is a certain reverence placed on a photograph, an assumption that the image is an immutable truth.  It is important then, that I remove the original silver nitrate that was activated by light many years ago. While I agree that the photo can act as a trigger for memory, it is not memory in physical form.  Pierre Nora states, “Modern memory is first of all archival.  It relies entirely on the specificity of the trace, the materiality of the vestige, the concreteness of the recording, the visibility of the image.”  Just as that light, reflecting off of someone’s face, burning an image into a negative has vanished, so too has the original moment.  What remains is a systematic trace of oxidized metal on paper that we can read as an image.  My sanding disrupts the coherence of the coding; a photograph that was formerly rooted in the past has become new in the present.  As I sand away the emulsion, I breathe in my family’s past.

Cloud, Sanded Photo, 2015

Sled Race, Sanded Photo, 2015
Silver Fog, Sanded Photo, 2016

I began gilding the sanded photographs last year.  I feel this is intriguing and appropriate as it is the silver in the photographic emulsion that allows the image vestige to emerge.  Unlike the stability of gold, silver oxidizes and becomes a marker of time.  By replacing the degraded silver in the emulsion with freshly applied silver leaf I invoke a shift in the perceived duration of time that also adds an uneasy perception of value, floating over seemingly worthless snapshots.  The grafting of this shiny skin is both gestural and intentional.  Gestural, given the sanding motion that started this work yet intentional given the choices made by past family members to conceal their native identity.