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Orchestrating the unpredictable

SANTA FE, N.M. — Christopher Colville is a photographer, but he’s long been interested in ways of creating images without a camera.

The Phoenix-based artist is inspired by the idea of making work that is the “direct result of an action.”

“I’ve been interested in this idea of things being able to create their own image or to create an image through energy rather than capturing images in a camera,” he said.

For several years, he’s been making abstract prints by igniting gunpowder onto light-sensitive photographic paper. Several pieces made using this method will be in a solo exhibition at photo-eye gallery starting this week.

Some of his works were also recently displayed in the New Mexico Museum of Art’s “Shots in the Dark” show, which ran from December 2018 to mid-March.

The gunpowder creates visuals in two ways. One is that the light from controlled explosions activates silver gelatin, used in a type of old-school, pre-digital technology photographic paper. The paper is also burned or eroded in different ways by different explosions.

Colville works outdoors, both in his backyard and while he’s out camping. Because the paper is light-sensitive, his process has to take place at night.

“So there’s only a couple of weeks out of the month that I can (work) where the moon isn’t too bright,” he explained. “So I have to work in a cycle, which is nice because I think that sort of feeds into the work, as well, that sort of cyclical way of making images.”

He makes small shelters in which he can keep the photo chemicals together, and he also collects natural items to aid the gunpowder, like sand, metal scraps, rocks, or anything he can experiment with. He’ll put the paper on the ground or propped up on something like a piece or wood. For certain works, he’ll bury the paper in the earth to get the right level of exposure. The gunpowder goes on top and then he lights a fuse to set it off.

“There’s no loud pop or bang, it’s a whoosh of the gunpowder igniting, and pushing air and fire around,” he said, adding that he can control the impact with factors including the amount of powder, how he directs the blast, or the way he puts other objects on top of the paper to prevent major impact in certain areas.

He started working in this style in 2011, but Colville has experimented with unconventional materials since his days as a grad student at the University of New Mexico. There, he made images using squid, which he noted can become luminous during decomposition. The idea for gunpowder came from a project in which he was commissioned to make a piece inspired by a poem which referred to exploding seed pods, which certain plant species use to disperse seeds. Colville wanted to make an image that created a similar action.

“That led me to play with the gunpowder and work out of my backyard,” he said, which brought him back to his upbringing in Tucson.

“When I was a child, I used to collect gunpowder from my father’s shotgun shells and create small fireworks,” he went on to say. “Though those didn’t do a whole lot, that idea remained with me, the sort of marks that those initial blasts did on the ground. I think a lot of the times, the way I work is very organic, one thing leads to another.”

In an artist statement, he also talks about his pieces reflecting his interest in the “dual nature of creation and destruction.”

“I’m really interested in that balance, I don’t want to say non-zero sum, but this idea through all creation there is consumption and it is a continuous cycle,” Colville added. “And I’m interested in that not only through our lives and mortality, but the creation of artwork.”

In the photo-eye show, he is showing about 20 images from three different series. One, the “Dark Hours,” has images that were all made to resemble landscapes. The latest works are ones that Colville is calling “Flux” variants, and are all made with long and narrow paper.

The earliest group, “Meditations of the Northern Hemisphere,” all have a large, circular orb in the middle made using a metal disc placed in the middle of the paper during the explosion. Within the orb, there is a little map of sorts with references to different constellations.

“I was interested in the connection to time with those,” he said. “I was having a conversation with a friend about remembering where we’d been camping by the constellations that were present or the time of year, by understanding our connection to the sky and the rotation of the Earth.”

Colville said that in each of the series, he’s utilized the practice of repetition. He makes hundreds of iterations, or variants, of the works over and over to get a better handle on the process and until he gets what he wants.

“I love the unpredictability of it, but at the same time I want to get an understanding of the materials and the work, so I can feel like I’m orchestrating at the same time,” he explained. “I’m kind of orchestrating an action that creates something that I have an understanding of where it’s going to go. But there’s always a little bit of surprise.”

Colville said this kind of work still falls under the definition of photography. It’s the process of recording through light. And, he noted, the first photographs back in the 1700s were not made with cameras.

“They were made as photograms, or sort of chemical processes,” said Colville. He added that he’s noticed a “resurgence” of artists today looking back to early techniques as a way to work physically with their materials.

“I don’t want to say that it is a reaction to digital, because I don’t necessarily feel that it is, but I think there is this desire to work with the physicality of the materials in a photographic process. Sometimes, that’s lost in photography. We more often look at individual flat prints. I think there’s a lot of people who want that physicality out of an object.”

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