It’s appropriate that my first encounter with Alice Blanch was not with the artist herself, but with some of her old darkroom supplies I picked up at a photo fair. They were sold to me by a friend of hers who also handed me a leaflet for some wet-plate workshops that Alice was running. Since then she’s continued to exhibit work widely and run more workshops.
I was lucky enough to have Alice come talk with one of my photo classes recently, and aside from the energy and commitment already evident from her many projects, she brings with her a lot of generosity. She spoke freely and enthusiastically about her technique, her work, and its progression towards what characterises much of it now: cloudy arboreal landscapes shot on film with Box Brownies. She’s called one series the ‘Box Brownie Equivalents’ making her references to Alfred Stieglitz’s work clear. One thing she has done with colour and black-and-white film in the box brownies is to wind the film on unevenly so that the frames overlap while at the same time moving the camera horizontally across the landscape she is photographing. This creates dreamlike panoramas of the same horizon, but one that is layered across itself multiple times like a giant curtain.
[Alice Blanch, ‘Box Brownie Colour Panorama #10’ Edition of 5]
The grain in the film is palpable, and made more so by the size and quality of the final inkjet prints. The photographs don’t push for high-resolution transcription of the world; the opposite in fact. The final images retain traces of their silver-halide origins. Alice Blanch’s love of darkroom work is evident in some other approaches too: she makes images on large-format film with pinholes, tintypes, she prints the uneven edges of the film, she makes contact prints.
One of the qualities of Alice’s photographs is the openness they have to accident and chance. This is probably one of the defining characteristics of a certain thread of post-digital darkroom photography. In the way that painting was freed of the need to be realist with the emergence of photography itself, now film photography is free to accept and celebrate the imperfections when they happen. I’m not making an argument for the technical veracity of digital over film one way or the other, just observing a particular and prevalent approach.
The webby sky in this picture isn’t some new species of cloud; it’s the result of forgetting to tap the developing tank in between agitations to stop air bubbles from sticking to the film. A mistake, but an evocative and surreal one.
[Alice Blanch, ‘You and Me #4’ 50x70cm, Ed of 3]
The subject matter of Alice Blanch’s photographs – the sky, clouds, mountains – indicate that she’s listening to the landscape. Their style indicates that she’s also listening to the film. Together they remind us that it’s not just what we look at: how we look at something can be evocative and beautiful.
Alice Blanch has just opened an exhibition of some of her work at the Queensland Centre for Photography.