Photographer David Emitt Adams' show, Conversations With History on view at the Northlight Gallery at ASU through April 21, takes tools and materials appropriated from photography's past and re-purposes them in surprising new ways.
Specifically, Adams makes tintypes using the exact same photographic processes used in the 1850's but prints the images on discarded everyday metal objects like old 35 mm film canisters and rusty cans. The results are both beautifully evocative and intelligent -- conveying something about both the past and the present.
In one room is a series of seated tintype portraits called 36 Exposures. This project began when Adams, an MFA student at ASU, set up a recycling bin in the beginning photography class that he was teaching. Students would throw away their used 35 mm film canisters here. Adams was looking around for cheap metal to use to produce tintypes, and was struck by the idea of using the old film canisters -- first flattening them.
He started taking portraits of his photography students, printing them directly onto the flattened film canisters. The portraits, according to Adams, required a 12 second exposure so he built a headrest (not visible in the photographs) to help maintain the posture and position of the subjects.
There is something truly democratizing in the portraits. The subjects both look like they belong to this time and not. There is a story between the photographic process (tintype) and the materials used (35 mm film canister) that is an exciting mash up. This series was previously exhibited at a show last fall at Art Intersection.
From this experiment Adams began wondering, "What else can I make photographs on that would speak to the image itself?"
Tintype by David Emitt Adams
He found his answer while camping in the desert. He began collecting old, rusty cans that have been discarded for who knows how long. They were in various states; flattened, bent, or twisted up. They were interesting objects in and of themselves.
Adams came up with a process of sandblasting the rust off in one spot so that he could print the photographic image directly onto the can. He chose images from the desert landscape - a lone cactus, a flat-topped mesa. Later, he was drawn to images that showed an element of human involvement in the landscape such as a factory silo, or an airplane in the sky.
The relationship between the images and the cans is gorgeous. There is texture, the rust creates a beautiful patina, and you can almost feel the desert heat. Plus, many of the cans seem to have a story behind them -- bullet holes or evidence of having been opened with a church key.
The work in the two rooms -- portraits and cans -- is a nice juxtaposition and demonstrates the artist's evolution working with tintypes, and the meta-conversation he is having about photography's past and present. It looks as though it has been an interesting adventure for David Emitt Adams.
Even the invitation for the show is a telltale sign. It looks like the decorative and fanciful cover of an old book from the 1800's. In fact it is the exact cover from photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot's influential book The Pencil of Nature published in 1844. Talbot's title has been cleared, and Adams' title placed in the center. Meant as homage to the beginning of photography, it's a clever appropriation that signals what's ahead.
Conversations With History is David Emitt Adams' MFA Thesis Exhibition. The photographer says he plans to stay in the area after the completion of his degree program because the work he is doing now feels as if it is in response to the desert, this place, and he looks forward to working outside of the realm of school.