PHOTOGRAPHY

Gummed up grotesques

A new photographic process produces fresh possibilities for detail and color

David Livingstone September 28 1981
PHOTOGRAPHY

Gummed up grotesques

A new photographic process produces fresh possibilities for detail and color

David Livingstone September 28 1981

Gummed up grotesques

PHOTOGRAPHY

A new photographic process produces fresh possibilities for detail and color

David Livingstone

The 15 color images by Canadian photographer Stephen Livick on display at Toronto’s Jane Corkin Gallery until Oct. 1 (and at the McIntosh Gallery in London, Ont., for a month starting Nov. 18) are not like anything one has ever seen before. They are technically unprecedented in photographic history, the results of a costly, exacting method of print-making in which the latest in laser technology has been wedded to thegum-bichromate process, a process popular in the 19th century. But for Livick, an intense and disciplined artist who likes to be in control of things, it’s nothing new to fuss over technical qualities, and the even more dazzling breakthrough represented by this exhibition is in his choice of sub-

ject. For the first time, he has surrendered himself to the chancy business of taking pictures of people.

Ironically, the gum-bichromate process is associated with early pictorialists who thought it nobler for photography to imitate paintings, not life. According to the gum process, a solution of bichromatized gum arabic and water color pigment is applied to paper as a thin wash. Thus sensitized, the paper is exposed to light under a negative. Be-

sides the opportunity to work with color, the process provided early practitioners with a means of washing away unwanted detail and manipulating mood. However, taking advantage of laser technology, which can yield large, refined negatives with full color separation, Livick is able to render detail completely faithful to external reality as well as to create shadings of color that are just as he wants them to be.

While much could be said about the

painstaking procedures, the over-all impression created by the finished work is not anguished and belabored but calm and spontaneous. The pictures are big (69 cm X 69 cm) and reflect Livick’s characteristic habit of shooting front and centre, but the encounters recorded are more considerate than confrontational. Apparently still shy of aiming his camera at human beings (four of his subjects are wearing face paint; three, sunglasses; one, a mask), Livick leaves their mystery intact. Going about one form of garish leisure or other, these people would have been easy fodder for a diatribe against the crassness of North American living. But Livick neither invades their privacy nor decries their taste. Just as infrared film served to soften the political commentary inherent in Livick’s 1976 series of American landscapes, the bright but gentle colors made possible by the gum process keep sarcasm in check. A tourist, with Bermuda shorts and a camera, may look foolish standing in front of a big tropical plant, with flowers coming out of his head and a green leaf dangling between his legs; nevertheless, his bare paunch would have seemed repulsive if the pigments, softly absorbed into the finest French paper, were not so kind.

Of outside influences, Livick has said that one of the few photographers whose work ever “grabbed” him was

Diane Arbus. Like her, he blurs distinctions between the ordinary and the grotesque. A robust clown has the eyes of a zombie. A gaunt, androgynous figure is made up to appear ghoulish but looks tender, not frightening. In one picture, a mother poses gleefully with her child; no image in the show is more depressing than this midway madonna, flashing an inexplicably blissful smile and trying to pinch the same out of her unco-operative, unhappy and more knowing progeny.

The discomfort of children figures in

five other pictures, emerging obtrusively as a theme. Twins, in matching stars-and-stripes T-shirts, look like someone has spoiled their fun. A barretted little blonde appears vaguely out of sorts, clutching an unfinished container of a pink glop, much of which is smeared all over her face. By contrast, the two most memorable prints in the show and those that proclaim most jubilantly new heights of achievement are relaxed and insouciant. The first features a grey-haired man, in his sock feet and a visibly worn chair, reposing with the dignity of kings. In the other, a carrot-topped woman takes aim with her holiday camera, brandishing it along with two arms full of bracelets, a lit cigarette, the longest, reddest fingernails you have ever seen and a smile that could beguile the most bashful and serious-minded into saying, “Cheese.”