Brittany Nelson Upends Tradition By Misusing Dangerous Photographic Processes

Nowadays, photography is perhaps the one artistic medium with which literally everyone has some experience. And that’s what makes Brittany Nelson’s work so important. Her Creative Capital project, Alternative Process, opens November 5 at David Klein Gallery. Typical of her process, the work shows the various way in which Nelson has been able to playfully experiment with and trouble outdated photographic processes to create abstract work. Unlike other mediums, photography, in particular, has a long history of perpetuating tradition. By experimenting with processes, Nelson challenges these traditions, which, as she explains, is a white male dominated art form. We caught up with Brittany to find out more about her work.

Alex Teplitzky: Can you talk about the show at David Klein Gallery: what are the themes that tie the work together?

Brittany Nelson: My Creative Capital project has really been a series of solo exhibitions this year leading up to “Alternative Process.” It was perhaps an unusual situation because I have been showing the work as I develop it. Starting with “The Year I Make Contact” at Morgan Lehman in NYC, “Controller” at Patron in Chicago, and landing in Detroit in November at David Klein Gallery; all new work was created for every exhibition, and each show centered around its own sub-theme. “The Year I Make Contact” centered around themes of evolution. “Controller” focused on the idea of mirroring and movement with ties back to very early astronomical photography, and “Alternative Process” is being created around ideas of time (as a physical quantity).

All of these exhibitions and the body of work at large center around major themes of communication/transmissions, future artifacts, abstraction as the philosophical ideal, and of course the history of photography. Alternative Process features a collection of tintypes on brushed silver aluminum that contain various recreations and reinterpretations of science graphics. I have been flipping through a large quantity of books on astronomy and theoretical physics, specifically looking at the graphs and charts that have been created as an attempt to communicate very complex sets of knowledge as simply as possible. I have been very interested in these modes of communication by both how succinct they are, but in the ways in which they fail to cause a comprehensive understanding. This segues into the thoughts behind designing the Golden Record that went out on the Voyager spacecraft, and how you design something for a brain and logic system you can’t comprehend. I think of the tintypes this way: as an alien or future artifact. In this instance, though, the aliens I’m trying to communicate with are the gallery patrons.

Hilariously enough, we have already decided exactly what an alien artifact is supposed to look like even though they don’t currently exist. “Alien artifact” is my favorite Google image search. It is almost always thought of as being a metallic geometric object, and with a geometric glyph system or a design that has enough organization that hints at a logic, or syntax to be deciphered. The design of the tintype and corresponding imagery was organized in this manner as a response to the influx of present day tintype photography. Instead of using an antiquated process to speak about the past, I want to use it to speak about the future.

Brittany Nelson - Gelatin Silver 5, 2013 C-print, Face mounted plexi, 40 x 40" Courtesy David Klein Gallery and the artist

Brittany Nelson – Gelatin Silver 5, 2013
C-print, Face mounted plexi, 40 x 40″
Courtesy David Klein Gallery and the artist

Alex: Ok, I’m googling alien artifacts right now! Did you ever have an “a-ha” moment in your career? Or several moments?

Brittany: I had experimented with a lot of photography materials as an undergraduate student, my mentor, Christina Z. Anderson, literally wrote the book on experimental photography processes so I was exposed to a lot of these obscure materials early on. But that moment was absolutely right when I arrived at the Cranbrook Academy of Art to study with (Creative Capital artist — ta da!) Liz Cohen. In the first minute of my first meeting with Liz she said really matter of factly, “you shouldn’t take photographs anymore.” I remember the only word I said during that first meeting was “ok.” There were really no questions asked. She immediately stripped away all the excuses for using the material to this very elegant solution. I was terrified and thrilled. I could say a lot about Liz here – she took a big chance on me, and in-turn I completely trusted/trust her guidance. She pushed my work into places I don’t think anyone else could have ever thought to do. Looking back, I feel like she handed me the keys to the city in that first meeting. I’ve been working exclusively in abstraction since then.

But—of course there are many other, smaller a-ha moments working in my lab. When I figure something out concerning the chemistry—I make a pretty big scene. I’m unbearable to be around. I burst out of the darkroom usually doing some kind of touch down dance, declaring an assortment of things like “I am the smartest man alive” or “I invented photography.” I yelled that last one at my assistant once, and she will never let me forget it. It’s a one woman parade.

Brittany Nelson - Monolith 1, 2016 Tintype photograph, powder coated formed aluminum; 24x20 inches Courtesy David Klein Gallery and the artist

Brittany Nelson – Monolith 1, 2016
Tintype photograph, powder coated formed aluminum; 24×20 inches
Courtesy David Klein Gallery and the artist

But to be fair—I am alone all day in the dark. These moments are always proceeded by extreme frustration and low morale. Photography by nature is full of extreme lows, and extreme highs. You take a hundred images to get one. In my case, you make one hundred things to get one. An artist that works in a different medium once said to me that photographers must have zero ego because they throw out a vast majority of what they create. I do not agree with that of course, but I find that mentality towards the photographic process really interesting. In that vein, keeping morale up in the studio is a very big priority in order to get to that one thing you are going to keep. When something gets solved, I celebrate like a maniac.

Alex: In your retreat presentation you point out that with these old photography methods like tintype and mordançage, not much development has occurred in its use as an artistic process. Why do you think people engaged in these technologies often resist creative developments?

Brittany: I think there are a few reasons for this. Fundamentally photographic theory hinges on the idea of the “this has been.” A photograph being a record of the past, which then slides easily and readily into nostalgia. And nostalgia is a very heavy emotional thing. People can be very emotional about photographs, and particularly their own photographs. This creates a culture of preservation. Decisions then are made to preserve the tradition of the photograph, or to stay true to it’s history rather than to advance or challenge it. In addition to this, photography is the every man’s medium –  a huge percentage of the population is participating in photography on a daily basis. So what we start to see in photography in general, is a lot of conservatism. And that is because, for better or worse, we are just seeing a more general cross-section of the population.

Alex: And to follow up on that, can you speak to this idea of disrupting the perpetuation of tradition by “mis”-using these photographic processes that have been performed since the 1850s? In your recent retreat presentation, for instance, you mention that, as a “queer woman who owns a ferret,” you don’t like that it’s been used exclusively and conservatively for old Western portraiture. That is, your work is more than just experimenting with the technology, it’s about upending other traditions.

Brittany: In order to make this work, I did not read any instructions on how to make a tintype. I was already familiar with the chemical reactions, and the basic steps involved. But it was important that I not read anything very in depth about the process. The point being that the purpose of these manuals is to get you from point A to point B without issue. However, the assumption is that point B—or the end goal—is a portrait or representational image. All of the mistakes you are instructed not to encounter are disruptions on the surface of the plate that would detract from looking past the surface into an image area. My goal starting this work was to pull the rug out from that premise. By pretty painstakingly faltering my way through this process unaided, all of the “mistakes” were actually visually manifested in front of me instead of glossed over. This also allowed me to make detailed notes so I could potentially go back and chemically reproduce this effect, and begin to exhibit control over it. Because my end game was keeping the viewer at the surface of the plate, I was able to create this massive playground for myself that has been sitting unused since the 1850s.

This particular area of photography is overwhelmingly white male dominated. To follow up this question with what the response has been now that the work is out in the world: Since making the tintype work, I have received these really interesting emails from self-declared wet plate experts, who are clearly angered by what I do. I am very interested, if not delighted, that abstraction still holds the power of politic which I revere it for. The writers, all men, start and finish the correspondence with the assumption that all decisions that are made with the work are simply not decisions at all—clearly accidents manifested from my ignorance, and they attempt to explain to me what went wrong and how I must correct it. Not a single email has contained a question of any sort—about who I am, or what I do. They are very long statements and strongly worded. This is just a reflection or reverberation of general conservative politics. My actions are a queering of the material.

One particular attempt to rectify my bad behavior started with “clearly you have not purchased my wet plate collodion manual.” That one is my favorite. Someone also sent me a coupon for 50% for their wet plate workshop in Santa Fe. I asked them if my girlfriend and ferret could come with.

Brittany Nelson’s exhibition Alternative Process is on view at David Klein Gallery in Detroit from Nov 5 to Dec 17, 2016. Click here for more info.