Reborn Victorians: Today, a Generation of Contemporary Artists Is Returning to Photography's Historic Roots but with a Modern Twist That Straddles 19th- and 21st-Century Processes

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As the art of photography marches relentlessly down the digital path, a surprisingly opposite trend has also emerged. These days, contemporary artists throughout the United States are experimenting with antique photographic processes, pioneering a resurrection of photographic techniques that faded from use more than a century ago. Although this new, handmade work is anchored in the technology of the past, it is infused with contemporary aesthetic ideas and reinvention. These born-again Victorian photographers use antique tools and methods to record and manipulate contemporary subject matter in fresh, new and individualistic ways.

"This work is about opening up the discourse," said Carolyn McCusker, curator at San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA). "In the 19th century, the camera was in the hands of privilege, a certain class and usually a certain gender--white males. Now Jayne Hinds Bidaut is photographing nude men, Deborah Luster is making images of black men, and Jerry Burchfield makes photograms of roadkill, showing us the outline of a dead coyote's corpse."

Gaining Momentum

MoPA is one of several museums and public galleries that have exhibited Victorian style photographs in the past few years. In March, MoPA presented the works of 13 cutting-edge artists in "Secret Victorians: Contemporary Photographers Working in 19th Century Processes" as a companion show to the museum's homage to pioneer photographer William Henry Fox Talbot, whose works from the early 1800s are seldom exhibited. In December, MoPA will exhibit tintypes by Los Angeles artist Stephen Berkman, including commissioned portraits of actors Nicole Kidman and Jude Law made by Berkman for the upcoming Civil War movie, "Cold Mountain" which is slated for a Christmas Day release.

Also, the Cleveland Museum of Art presented a solo show of Bidaut's tintypes last spring. In 2001, the Fisher Gallery at the University of Southern California showcased "Lost and Found: Rediscovering Early Photographic Processes," an exhibition of 19th century American daguerreotype, tintype and ambrotype portraits that were contrasted with works by contemporary artists who have revived these techniques. (The exhibition is still online at Fisher Gallery's virtual exhibit haptics/LostandFound/welcome.html.)

Several recent books focus on contemporary artists who are reviving historic photographic processes, including Arena Editions' "McDermott & McGough." The book, with text by Mark Alice Durant, documents photographers David McDermott and Peter McGough's explorations of a number of historical photographic processes, including gum bichromate, cyanotype, platinum palladium and salt printing.

Bidaut also has a new book, "Animalerie," scheduled for publication early next year, while Twin Palms Publishers has slated its new collection of Luster's tintypes for a November release.

There is a groundswell of interest in commercial art galleries as well. Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York exhibits Jerry Spagnoli's daguerreotypes. In Dallas, Sun to Moon Gallery now represents Jill Skulpin Burkholde, who works with bromoilprints. The White Room Gallery, in West Hollywood, Calif., has presented several group shows of these works. Ricco-Maresca Gallery in New York exhibits works by Bidaut--whose next show is scheduled for February 2004--and Mark Kessler, who makes contemporary daguerreotypes Howard Greenberg Gallery, also in New York, is planning upcoming shows for France Scully Osterman, who works in the wet plate collodion process, and her husband, Mark Osterman, who has been experimenting lately with many early photographic processes.

Sarah Morthland Gallery in New York started the ball rolling in 1997 with its seminal exhibit, "Inventors and Alchemists." "The show was really meant to seduce people to see what this photography was about and its tremendous beauty," recalled Morthland. "Even bad results have a tendency to look charming. …