JOHN OPERA

RESEARCH STATEMENT

I have always had a fascination with addressing the camera’s relationship to the
empirical world and the transcendental realm. This does not exclusively refer to
the experience of the observer behind the camera or even in the gallery viewing
a photograph, but also to photography itself, a medium that notoriously has
the ability to occupy any number of conflicting identities simultaneously, while
uncannily mimicking our own biological mechanisms for seeing. Jeff Wall suggests
in his short essay “Photography and Liquid Intelligence” that certain aspects
of photography’s emergence as a technology possess qualities not unlike the
unpredictable but mysteriously ordered flow of water dynamics. Influenced by
Wall’s observations, I see photography as a free-flowing field of signs and processes,
simultaneously foreign and related to our understanding of the world around us.
The earliest makers debated whether photographs should be utilized for artistic
or scientific pursuits. Although that conflict has faded somewhat, we still struggle
with where to locate photographs relative to truth and experience. The fluidity that
exists within the medium’s ontological and historical identities is where my work
conceptually resides.
My earlier photographs (2004-2011) of landscapes and natural phenomena are
non-ironic investigations of the relationship between the iconic familiarity of nature
photography and the deeper possibilities of symbolic mystification in relation to
the observer. My intent with this work was not to convey the grandeur of nature, as
in the tradition of German Romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich, or even
an unabashed embracement of the “Kodak Moment” and its prominence in photo
history. Rather, my motivation was more grounded in the American Transcendental
tradition of Thoreau and Emerson, and painters such as Charles Burchfield, who
all explored the power of the quotidian to invoke notions of personal interiority
and the importance of deep subjectivity as a spiritual basis for one’s own personal
philosophical relationship to the world. Most of the photographs made during this
period were captured in areas around Buffalo, New York, where I was born and
grew up. They are images deeply connected to my own source—and in fact to my
father, who was a geologist and educator in Buffalo, and who helped direct much
of my research during this time. Many of the places depicted in these photographs
have connections to my own family history and to the development of my own
understanding of the world through scientific/philosophical inquiry and reverie.
It was also during this period that I started to think about and incorporate the
language of abstraction as counterpoint to the observed landscape images. The
landscape work, often exhibited with the abstractions, drew me toward a broader
questioning of not just photographic observation, but also the nature of photographic surface and its potential as a threshold, suggesting deeper, hidden meanings
and subjects.

Since 2011, my research as a photo-based artist can be characterized by a shift
away from the reliance on the photograph purely as image to an even more
focused examination of the threshold between image and surface and its metaphorical equivalence to the relationship between observation and imagining. I
have moved away from straight inkjet printing towards a more holistic and varied
approach to the broader history of photographic image-making materials and
processes. The very notion of printing has become more elemental (in a scientific
sense) and more primal (in both a logical and figurative sense). My goal throughout this experiment has been to question what constitutes photographic observed
space/surface in order to extend my investigation into how photography both
records and incorporates natural processes and phenomena.
The anthotype prints I have been making since 2011 harken back to the seminal
moments of photography’s early history, and even prehistory. During the mid1800s, it was discovered that pigmented solutions derived from various flower and
fruit extracts are light sensitive enough to be used as rudimentary print emulsions.
In the nineteenth century, as today, this process takes up to three weeks of
exposure in direct sunlight to render an image. Its inventor, Sir John Herschel,
perhaps best known for inventing cyanotype and fix for silver-based images,
turned to the garden as a site of experimentation for studying the properties
of light and photosynthesis. It seems he hoped that this research would reveal
answers about rendering color in a photograph and its corresponding chemical
reactions. I find this to be a profound allegory regarding the alchemical qualities
of photographic image formation and its complex relationship to the physical
experience of how humans see the world.
The subjects of my anthotypes are portraits (2015-present) of individuals that
I ask to sit for me, including many of my close friends and students, and liquid
abstractions (2010-2012) that were made as photograms (or contact prints) of
ink-on-water drawings that I created as fleeting compositions in a glass tray. In
both cases, film was shot and digitally scanned and enlarged for use during the
very lengthy process of making the prints. Over time I have also discovered an
interesting condition of anthotypes: even under normal display conditions some
of the prints can completely fade in a matter of a few years, leaving only the piece
of paper encased in an archival frame. This instability and slow erasure complicate
not only their value as art objects but also their function as documents of a subject
that existed in time and space.
Similar to the anthotypes, the more recent cyanotype works arrive at images
through liquid chemical processes that were discontinued early on in photography’s history, except to be repurposed in the 20th century for architectural
blueprints and the language of schematics. The results are works that are certainly
photographic, but possess an unusual visual quality that directly connects to their
inherent chemical properties. Many of the final images are rendered in the deep
blue that is immediately recognizable in blueprints. Others are chemically toned or
combined with acrylic paint in order to expand their color and value range. They
are also produced on linen-stretched canvases, further separating them from the
traditional experience of a photograph.

A balance of photographic allegory and autobiography, the subjects of the cyanotypes are generic in their selection yet targeted in their specificity. The references
are broad and varied—melted venetian blinds, telescopic pinhole views of the
sun, ropes, hands, fossils, and more recently, elongated marks created by placing
a fluorescent tube light in direct contact with the surface of the linen. The lack of
strict categories within the collection of subjects reflects the ontological state of
the pieces themselves: they are not exactly photographs and not exactly paintings,
although their appearance and physical presence owe much to both photographic
space and the less stringent qualities of painting space.
Collectively, the images contain references to seeing, time, memory, and representation: the fossils reference the unfathomable registers of geologic time and the
entirely fathomable assurance of death; the bottles and hands are direct references
to observational drawing exercises usually given to beginning art students; the
ropes and chains are just as much about connection and linkage as they are references to restraint and limitation—their forms seem impossible to untangle, and yet
also suggestive of detachment and liberation. The collection of subjects functions
as a set of broad signifiers for the generic human experience, while also remaining
mysteriously personal in its conceptual associations.
Throughout my evolution as an artist I have consistently attempted to define
and qualify ways in which the photographic image functions in terms of its
physical and illusory forms—its window-like qualities as well as its objecthood.
In his treatise Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilém Flusser writes that
photographers working in experimental modes are ultimately “attempting to create
unpredictable information, i.e., to release themselves from the camera, and to
place within the image something that is not in its program.” Flusser also skeptically believed that such attempts towards photographic freedoms ultimately leave
its practitioners operating within a program of predetermined outcomes—a trap of
endless repetitions, where “one redundant photograph replaces another redundant
photograph.”
For me this is not a message of futility but of opportunity. As we move further into
the age of hyper-automation where Lightroom and Instagram presets produce
“looks” that are mistaken for style, or worse, content, the collective primary goal
should not be to indulge in photography’s predictable outcomes, but to question
the medium in as many ways as possible—including where our experiential
and physical definitions of a photograph begin and end. I see all of my works as
characteristically photographic, in that they contain mechanically made images
captured with light sensitive materials, but it is important to me that they also
declare the conditions of their own making, and in turn expand beyond the
traditional definition of photographs. As Flusser would say, my images reveal
their “theoretical origin.” For me this is at once a way to push against the program
of photography, and, more importantly, to investigate its infinitely mysterious
qualities as a chemical, physical, and even biological expression that points to as
well as distorts our perceived experiences in the world.

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