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Matthew Brandt's ‘Dust’ photos record the past and present

Matthew Brandt's ‘Dust’ photos record the past and present

January 8, 2017 // by MOCA Staff

This is the text is from the audio guides Paul Karabinis wrote and recorded for Retro-spective: Analog Photography in a Digital World. Listen to the recordings here and here.

Matthew Brandt Croton reservoir in 1900 Patrons Preview
Matthew Brandt's gum bichromate print 465501u1 (Croton reservoir in 1900, in process of demolition), from the series Dust appears in Retro-spective. Image courtesy of Brandi Hill.

3984846u1, Tenement row; demolition site, 1936, from the series Dust, 2014

Matthew Brandt's photographs are made by merging image capture with physical material collected from the site or location represented in his photographs. As both image and object, each print he makes extends the fundamental relationship between subject and camera image.

Earlier bodies of work include landscape photographs on analog photographic papers soaked in the water of the lakes and reservoirs depicted in the photographs. The soaking process gradually breaks down the images into colorful abstractions. In another series, he photographs swarms of bees and then incorporates the bodies of dead bees into the prints. After photographing fossil displays at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, he uses tar collected from the site to create images based upon the heliography process invented by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, a method based upon the hardening effect sunlight has on tar.

More than an homage to the past, Brandt's pictures remind us of a belief some had about the nature of pictures produced by a camera in the nineteenth century. Camera pictures were not only literal representations, but a “spectral layer” taken from the subject and transferred to the photographic plate. It's a preposterous notion but one believed by the author Honoré de Balzac and evident in early references about camera pictures as “the pencil of nature,” “a mirror with a memory,” and nature's own image.”

00075328-2, L.A. Churches, First Christian Church, 1961, from the series Dust, 2013

In his Dust series, Matthew Brandt reproduces historical photographs of no longer extant structures he found in libraries and archives. After making large film negatives of these photographs, he visits the locations depicted in the photographs and gathers dust in and around the current structure to use as pigment in his large gum bichromate prints.

Invented in the late nineteenth century, the gum bichromate process consists of an emulsion made of gum arabic, light sensitive ammonium dichromate, and watercolor pigment. The emulsion is applied to watercolor paper, allowed to dry, then sandwiched with a negative, and exposed to sunlight. During exposure, the gum hardens and the pigment becomes more distinct in proportion to the amount of light received. Washing removes areas not hardened by light, leaving a positive image.

In Brandt's prints, dust is the pigment, which produces a print of diminished tonal range and contrast. Prints have a faded look suggesting deterioration and the passage of time. More than an homage to the past, Brandt's prints are physical symbols of the past made with dust of the present.




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