Articiple: Over the past few years, I’ve watched photographer Toni Gentilli expose cyanotypes in the parking lot, make photo emulsions from plants growing in the alley, use blood sugar chemistry to create cameraless prints, and generally engage in a tireless practice of curiosity and re-invention. In Toni’s own words, she “combines anachronistic materials and techniques with contemporary sensibilities to explore the interrelationships between technology, nature, history, and identity.” Toni holds an MFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute. She currently manages the photography lab at Solano Community College and curates the Studio Artists Gallery at the Compound in Oakland. I sat down with her to hear more about her projects, and incidentally learned the words pareidolia and apophenia.
An update, October 2016:
Toni is leaving the Compound Gallery after 4 years, to become the Residency Program Manager at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico. We’ll miss her energy and vision at the Compound, but look forward to seeing what she’ll do at SFAI!
Toni: This project is something I’ve been working on for a few years. I call it my Cyanometer project, but the actual title is The Evidence of Absence. The process involves a quasi-scientific recording of light and time, where I expose a roll of 120mm film in a series of partially overlapping exposures to recreate an 18th-century device called a cyanometer, that was used to measure the blueness of the sky. The cyanometer was a circular monochromatic scale of cyan made using Prussian Blue pigment applied to white paper, invented by a Swiss professor of natural philosophy named Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. The cyanometer was simply held up to the sky as a qualitative reference to determine its hue.
The cyanometer isn’t scientific. It was later proven that light scattering causes the sky to appear blue. I’m sort of reinventing that device. My pieces are linear instead of circular, so they have a feeling of time passing, almost cinematic, but they’re also pretty abstract. They don’t really represent anything from the physical world because I’m playing with the idea that people always expect a photograph is “of” something.
Articiple: Exactly. That’s what’s so interesting to me about your work. Photographs were originally meant to be documentary, but they’re also invented images.
Toni: Right. And in a way, my cyanometers are documentary. What I do to make them is photograph the sky the day before one of six annual solar events and then I process the film and expose it on the cyanotype-coated paper for the duration of the solar event the next day. So, however much sunlight there is for that day is recorded on the paper. Let’s say its vernal equinox, which is coming up next Saturday. I’ll go out on Friday, which is the last day of winter, and I’ll take pictures of the sky, then process the film and expose the entire roll in the sun for nine hours or however long between sunrise and sunset on the first day of spring. Through the cyanometers, I compress longer durations of time into smaller arbitrary segments.
Articiple: How long is each frame exposed when you’re shooting?
Toni: There’s an accumulation of exposures per frame. The first frame contains one exposure, and then the second frame contains two exposures, and so on. The amount of light that hits the film builds up the density of it, so it ultimately lets less light through when I’m printing it, that’s where the gradation of tones comes from.
Articiple: And whatever the shutter speed is set to is the exposure time?
Toni: I use a Holga, which is a plastic camera that doesn’t even have a shutter speed. It’s not very technical or systematic at all. It’s just me clicking, one two three, so the shutter speed varies by how fast I click and so the way I advance the frames is somewhat irregular. The cyanometers are actually a series of partially overlapping exposures; a compilation of systematic irregularities combined into one project. I give myself these parameters to work within, but yet the process itself isn’t really controlled.
There was another version of the project I did at first. The frames were separate, rather than a panorama. The progression of the tones was more prominent, but the separation created an emphasis on movement, so I stopped working in that way. I’ve stuck with the version of overlapping exposures because I feel like it conveys more of the ideas I’m exploring: the relationship between photography and light, time and documentation, and the ways that a photograph is not always what we think it is.
Articiple: Right. It doesn’t translate into a replica of something observed. So is this an object in the landscape (in one of the images)?
Toni: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll choose a subject and abstract it to look vaguely like mountaintops. The inventor of the cyanometer was a mountaineer. He would use his device at different elevations on mountain peaks throughout Europe. So that’s my homage to him, just interjecting that little reference, but my pieces don’t ever really identify what, exactly, is in the frame or where I am.
Articiple: Is the choice of site for shooting the film also part of the planned process?
Toni: It’s pretty random. Ninety percent of the stuff I’ve shot for this project has been right around the Compound studios, because I do all my film processing here, I expose the prints in the parking lot, and I often walk from my house to the studio. There are some photographs in the project that were taken further afield. Two years ago on the summer solstice I was up in the redwoods near Eureka. I was developing film at my campsite, mixing chemistry on a picnic table, washing the film at the water pump, and hanging it to dry from a tree. Then I had my prints strapped to the top of my car, exposing them for the day. I think people thought I was cooking meth!
Articiple: Working with chemicals, living out of your car…people probably imagined all kinds of things!
Toni: There are some photographs in the project that were taken in different locales, but most of them are from close to home. I’m trying to work out a way to present the cyanometers that offers some of the background information I record, like the time of sunrise and sunset, the angle of sun, the locations I shoot the film, and the dates I expose the prints. I’m working out a design to integrate the prints into a large mural reminiscent of a 17th or 18th century astrological map.
It’s rewarding to have a project that allows me to enjoy and reflect on the process. I spend a lot of time outside with the prints observing the sun and taking pictures of the sky as I’m exposing the prints. And it’s interesting because the chemistry really stands on its own as part of the work. You can see the color shifts that occur as a result of different exposure to sunlight and moisture, the density of the film, etc. There are all these things that affect the tonality and the color of the chemistry itself.
As part of my graduate thesis exhibition, I began experimenting with chlorophyll printing, a process invented by Binh Danh who transposes images directly onto leaves using photographic negatives. But I chose to use hand-drawn negatives made with India ink on mylar sheets instead.
Now, I’m also integrating the use of plant-made emulsions into my practice. I’ll collect different leaves and flowers, like nasturtium, and grind them up with my mortar and pestle and a little distilled water to make emulsion from them. There’s no other chemistry involved. I’ll coat paper or cloth with the emulsions and put negatives on top and expose them to the sun.
I seem to be going down the rabbit hole of researching about nasturtium in particular. It’s a plant that is all around me, in my yard, at the studio; it’s pretty much everywhere in the East Bay. I didn’t know of it before moving here. I never saw it in Arizona or Wisconsin, where I lived previously. Initially I found that it had good leaves to make chlorophyll prints on because of their broad flat surfaces, but after researching the plant, I learned all these great things about it. The whole plant is edible. It has medicinal properties. Because of the mustard oils in it, it’s an antiseptic and an antifungal. Bioengineers are interested in the waxy surface of the leaves because they repel water. And there’s also its colonial history. Nasturtium originates from Peru. It was taken over to Europe, and then it came to North America. It was named by the botanist Carl Linnaeus.
This is an image of his daughter, Elisabeth von Linné. It’s from a hand rendered negative I made in India ink on mylar of an historic painting of her. She thought that the nasturtium plant emitted sparks at dusk. This was around the time that electromagnetism was being investigated. But what she was actually seeing was a contrast of green and orange in low light. This phenomenon was later proven to be an optical effect; there’s no actual electricity being emitted by the plant, of course, but it was recorded as a legitimate phenomenon by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at the time. So I made anthotype portraits of her using pigments crafted from orange nasturtium flowers, and green leaves.
Articiple: So the pigment itself is photosensitive?
Toni: Ultimately it’s a process of fading. I put the pigment-coated paper and hand-drawn negative in a contact print frame and place it out in the sun. In the case of the plant emulsions, whatever’s behind the black of the negative will retain its original tone and everything around it will fade and lighten.
It’s really not a photographic process per se in that there isn’t a chemical reaction, but there is a light reaction. This process of making prints, called anthotype, was invented by Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who also invented the cyanotype process. Herschel provides a common thread through many of my projects.
Articiple: You’re retracing the early history of photography.
Toni: Yeah, I think what really what started me on this path is that so many early photographers were tinkerers and chemists and astronomers. They were trying to invent photography for practical purposes of reproducing images more easily than hand-rendering and etching plates. So there’s this trajectory, a relationship from drawing to printmaking and then photography.
One of the famous stories about William Henry Fox Talbot—who invented the positive/negative process—he got into photography because he was a poor draftsman! Ironically, I’m going the opposite direction, doing everything manually.
Articiple: Returning drawing to the process.
Toni: Right. I could very easily render these images digitally and print digital negatives, but there’s something I really enjoy about the idiosyncrasies and process of making them by hand. Everything I make tends to be really labor-intensive, but the process itself allows me to mediate on the things that I’m investigating and what I’m learning about them.
Articiple: Is the anthotype process very durable? Will these prints maintain their color?
Toni: They’re completely ephemeral. They’ll fade away over time. That’s something that also really engages me, is their impermanence. The capacity for the image to fade back into the source (light) from which it came is something that’s intriguing to me.
Articiple: The reflection of time in the artifact itself.
Toni: Exactly. Working with anthotypes and Herschel’s other processes, I can observe and participate in some of the rich, multi-layered connections between science and technology and the history of photography. I’m really getting into those themes and dissecting them and reassembling them into something I can make sense of.
In addition to experimenting with chlorophyll printing and emulsions made from nasturtium and other plants, I’ve made black and white photographs in my darkroom by putting the plants directly in my enlarger or plant emulsions and other natural materials on microscope slides or in petri dishes in lieu of negatives. It’s my variation on another early photographic technique called cliché verre, which involved sooting a plate of glass over a candle so that it was totally blackened, then sgraffito drawing on it and using it to make a contact print on paper. That’s the best way I can describe this technique of putting objects in my enlarger instead of negatives. There isn’t really a name for that.
Articiple: And printing from the slides of the plant material?
Toni: Yeah. The way I work with photography is usually experimental, so I do some documentation of my process because it is so important to me, but the documentation is all rather rough, mostly captured on my iPhone, so I’ve never integrated it into a project. I guess I also worry about being overly explanatory—I don’t want to just say, “This is how I do this.” and give away all of the mystery.
Articiple: But there’s so much back story in your work that’s important to know! It’s all part of the project. Like the Transmutation series, where there’s a connection between alchemy and body fluids and your own history and the history of photographic processes, and so on.
Toni: That’s something I struggle with, how to convey that information, what information, how much, and in what format. I think it will be an ongoing issue for me because my brain is full of ideas and information, and I don’t necessarily know where I’m going with it all! In my mind, it’s all inter-related, but how to convey that to others is a challenge.
There are two interrelated psychosomatic phenomena that interest me. One of them is called pareidolia, where you see faces in random patterns. That’s part of where my ink blot-inspired works in the Mimesis project come from. Most of my work is abstract, and I like to play the line of offering information to viewers but in such a way that they can come up with their own conclusions. I feel like abstract work allows for that more so than representational work, but even with representational work, everything is left up to subjective interpretation, regardless of the artist’s intentions. Art is a dialog between people really. My use of abstraction and patterning is partly a commentary on the nature of art, but it’s also about cultural and physiological influences on perception. That is the basis of my Mimesis series.
I make the images in my darkroom using liquid silver gelatin emulsion, which I pour, drip, and draw onto paper, fold in half, expose under the light of my enlarger, and then develop like a photograph. I continue to manipulate the emulsion as it is drying. So, the process again entails equal measures of randomness interjected by the materials I use and how I use them, and control resulting from my deliberate interventions with the materials.
The related phenomenon called apophenia is where people perceive patterns in data and experiences when none exist. There are neurological, cultural and social factors that all contribute to these phenomena. Pareidolia and apophenia are actively being studied by anthropologists and neurologists who are debating over what aspects of perception are physiological and what’s cultural or social. I think it’s fascinating!
At some point I’m hoping all the ideas, techniques, and materials I’ve been playing with gel into an anthology of inter-related projects. I envision putting my work together literally as a book, but also as a website that draws connections between all of my research and artistic experimentation. Whether the connections actually exist or I’m making them up, I want to map out the tethers that I’m following from one thing to another. I am a self-proclaimed apopheniac!
Articiple: I’m interested in the archaeology aspect in your work. What you just described is archaeological— you want to put this body of work together that tells this history.
Toni: Yeah, that proclivity stems from my former career as an archaeologist, and I just can’t give it up. I’m constantly researching, reading books, learning about different natural, cultural, and social phenomena. I’m never bored, that’s for sure!
Articiple: Since we’re on the history of photography—did it emerge only in Europe, or were there other parallel developments somewhere?
Toni: Funny you should ask. Simultaneous invention is something else I’m really interested in, because it’s so prevalent in the Victorian era and the history of photography specifically. But there wasn’t anything related to the development of photography in America or Asia that I’m aware of. There was knowledge of optics and light, and how images project through a pinhole, as early as circa 500 BC in China and Greece, then later in what’s now Iran and Italy. But creating a device itself that could capture an image and transfer it onto a substrate that would make it permanent was a French and English innovation.
Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a Frenchman, and William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman are usually credited for inventing photography, but there was another Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who made the first fixed image that we know of in the late 1820’s. He created a photochemical process using a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea. It’s similar to the asphaltum used in lithography and etching (Niépce was a lithographer). He put the plate into a simple box camera and made a several-hour exposure out his window. Then he processed the plate with lavender oil. The bitumen not hardened by the sun washed away. It created a positive image on the metal plate.
The plate was lost for a long time, but it was rediscovered in the 1950s and technicians at Kodak made black and white prints from it. This is the version of Niépce’s photograph you will likely see on the internet, but there are various permutations of the original image. That kind of iterative copying is something that I’m interested in too. I used asphaltum and gum Arabic to create a drawing of a digital image of Kodak’s silver gelatin print of Niépce’s metal plate on a lithograph stone which I printed.
Anyway, the origin of photography is definitely rooted in Europe. Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who invented cyanotype, lived in England. Herschel also discovered fix, the chemical component that allowed Fox Talbot’s photographs to be made permanent. This was the primary quest of early photography. There were several people involved in this quest before and around the same time as Herschel and Talbot, like Thomas Wedgewood, who documented his creation of photographic images using silver salts, but he was never able to fix the images he created.
Articiple: They figured out something was light-sensitive, but they couldn’t preserve the image?
Toni: Yes, most of the first photographic images were fugitive. They would over-develop or fade away with time. It was Herschel and his discovery of sodium thiosulfate, or fix, which allowed photographs to be made permanent. There was preexisting knowledge of light and optics that came before photography, and there were a number of people other than Herschel attempting to produce permanent photographic images, and oftentimes these individuals were in conversation with each other or working together. In our contemporary minds, however, we usually simplify history and attribute inventions like photography to one person on a specific date, but its way more complicated than that.
Articiple: What did that chemistry come out of? How did the discoveries come about?
Toni: Herschel’s chemistry is predominantly iron-based, the discovery of which happened partly by accident through several different stages. About 100 years before him, during the 1700s, the first synthetic blue pigment, called Prussian Blue, was made serendipitously using potash containing iron from animal blood. This is a huge deal because the color blue rarely occurs in nature. Today we’re finding out that most plants or animals that appear blue look that way because of structural color, or reflected light; the things themselves aren’t actually blue. Over time, through experimentation, different people using Prussian Blue for various applications realized that it had light-sensitive properties, but it was Herschel who ultimately transformed the chemical constituents of the pigment into a photographic process.
Articiple: I know you also have a couple of residencies coming up.
Toni: Yes. I have one residency in June at the Lucid Art Foundation, outside Inverness in Point Reyes. It’s a beautiful place with a long history. Gordon Onslow Ford, a surrealist painter established his studio up there. He and another painter, Fariba Bogzaran (she teaches at JFK University) shared ideas about art and consciousness and eventually they established the Lucid Art Foundation to support other artists investigating those ideas. So, I’ll go up there and stay in the woods for three weeks and have Gordon Onslow Ford’s amazing studio to work out of. But what really drew me there is that they have a pigment garden!
My plans for that residency are fairly open, just me continuing to experiment with some of the techniques that I described earlier. The Lucid Art Foundation supports people who make non-objective work, with some level of automatism involved in what they’re doing. So, I’m primarily going to engage in the process of experimentation more so than a content-driven project and see where it takes me. I’m hoping my focus on natural materials and process will help to further develop some of the ideas and methods that I’ve been dabbling with over the last couple years and maybe provide a springboard for something new.
In late July and early August, I have another residency at a place called Chalk Hill. It’s a fairly new program, but again, it’s on an old property that has a lot of great history. It’s on Warnecke Ranch, which includes a working winery with about 500 acres on a bend of the Russian River up in Sonoma County. I’m really excited about possibly using some of their grapes to make pigments, but the project that I proposed for that residency is more specific and conceptually based. It utilizes multi-media, which is a new way of working for me, realizing within one project permutations of an idea in different media. It’s going to be an investigation of the landscape that references old technology and blends it with contemporary technology. I’m using the idea of reflection and the Claude Glass (a small tinted mirror used in the 18th and 19th centuries for viewing landscapes, named for the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.); I want to look at the iPhone as the contemporary Claude Glass.
Articiple: Right! The way we’re always mediating what we’re looking at through that screen.
Toni: Exactly. My project is about the mediated experience of the landscape, and uses reflection as a metaphor. Those are the concepts that I’ll be playing with. What I intend to do is to take the iPhone and make an enclosure for it that’s like a traditional Claude Glass with a velvet lining in a wood case.
I have a vintage wooden tripod and I’ll mount the phone onto there so that it doesn’t have to be hand- held. Then I can photograph it embedded in the landscape, and take close-ups of the landscape reflected into it. I’ll use a separate digital camera to photograph the reflections in the iPhone. Then I’ll translate some of those photographs into drawings on mylar for use as negatives and I’ll print them with Van Dyke chemistry in the sun out in the landscape itself. I’m also going to process the Van Dyke prints in the river, so I’ll integrate elements of the landscape itself into the work. I chose to use Van Dyke brown because of its tonal relationship to the history of 18th Century landscape paintings, which is what the Claude Glass was made to replicate. And also because it is a process invented by Herschel! So again, I’ll be creating a compression of time and history into one project.
Articiple: Also, the way that people in more urban parts of the Bay Area (and tourists from everywhere, I guess) see Sonoma County and “wine country” as a pastoral retreat–that goes along with the history of the Claude Glass as a way to view landscape as a curated aesthetic experience.
Toni: Right. I’m also planning to capture short videos and still images on iPhones, and then display the devices with the imagery on them. This will further incorporate current digital technology with the analog photographs I make from my drawings which reference an historical genre of painting. It’s going to be a multi-faceted commentary not only on landscape, but on how a subject or place is experienced through technology like the iPhone, and how contemporary photographs are transmuted across the internet into a million different versions of themselves, and nobody ever knows what reality is.
Articiple: There’s no original.
Toni: Just simulacra! So that’s the project. The residencies will be really great because they’ll provide concentrated time away from work, and laundry, and walking the dog, or whatever else, and not be distracted. I almost look at them as spiritual retreats. I feel especially lucky and I’m very excited for what’s on the horizon.