Salt and water: an amalgamation of fundamental, life-sustaining compounds that evokes the sea, sweaty human excretions, and the makings of primordial soup. Independently innocuous, it is the combination of salt and water that produces something transformative—a substance potentially electric and corrosive. It is the coming together of salt and water that sparked the concept for Salt/Water, an exhibition of contemporary photography on view at the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle. Featuring four photographers spanning generations and continents, the exhibition engages salt and water as media to expand the technical and conceptual potential of contemporary photo-based works.
Meghann Riepenhoff and Daniel Hawkins are based in Seattle, a city synonymous with maritime vistas and a perpetually sodden atmosphere. Any Pacific Northwesterner can describe (with gratuitous fervor) their deep appreciation for soggy climbs in the Cascades and chilling paddles in the Sound. Culturally, this profound relationship with the natural world is what defines the Pacific Northwest. Riepenhoff, though new to the region, has fully embraced this prevailing zeitgeist, creating a series of works that have immersed her, both literally and conceptually, in the unpredictable wildness of the Puget Sound.
Littoral Drift is composed of cyanotype prints made without the camera. Part performance and part artifact, Littoral Drift #270 (Ft. Ward Beach, Bainbridge Island, WA 6.16.15, Tidal Draw, Five Minutes Preceding Low Tide) (2015) is a cartographic impression of the continental shelf created by submerging light-sensitive photo paper in the sea. Riepenhoff employs saltwater, sand, and marine flotsam as agents to manipulate cyanotype emulsion, producing monumental tableaus that capture the unruly power of tidal flows. Littoral Drift #270 is a landscape unto itself, an otherworldly topography at once chaotic and controlled. Much like the bioluminescent blooms that are revealed under a full moon, Riepenhoff’s artworks are ephemeral—deliberately unfixed. The pieces continue to transform and evolve through time, harkening to the geologic phenomena they depict.
Rather than serving as ominous reminders of climate change or tectonic collapse, Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes are revelatory expressions—vehicles to view the natural world anew. In contrast, the work of Daniel Hawkins creates vibrant visual compositions to strike a poignant political key. Duwamish #8 (2012), and Union Bay #5 (2013) are eight-by-ten-inch color film prints shot and developed at shorefront industrial sites. Water collected from the industrial runoff is used in the photographic process. Pollution and varied water temperatures affect the visual outcome of the images, spinning spectacular multihued sunsets where there were actually overcast skies. At once familiar and strange, Hawkins’ images invoke a more meaningful consideration of the toxicity produced by our industrial structures.
A compelling dialogue between a photograph’s performance as a document and as an object plays out through the materiality of Hawkins’ works. Similarly, Salt Lake-based photographer Kimberly Anderson engages the physicality of her chosen subject, the Great Salt Lake, by integrating the landscape into her salted paper prints. Brine Canal, Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah (2015) is a diptych of a bleak, sepia-toned landscape that appears wholly inhospitable to any form of living thing. The starkness is unnerving, evoking markedly cinematic post-apocalyptic and inter-planetary tropes.
In addition to the photographs themselves, Anderson collects personal narratives linked to the Lake Bonneville region. These quirky accounts are occasionally printed alongside her artworks, illuminating the imagery in editioned folios and online. Her ongoing weblog Utah Bigfoot, “a photographic essay of Utah Bigfoot habitat,” does not hide the artist’s fondness for the paranormal and absurd. She embraces the potential for storytelling, evoking meaning from even the most desolate of scenes.
Salt/Water transitions from the macro to micro with a selection of works from English photographer Susan Derges, who, like Riepenhoff, uses a technique of producing camera-less prints. Star Field Cypress (2003) was created by submerging light-sensitive photo paper in a body of water at night. A constellation of stars punctuates the visual plane of the print—the night sky, providing just enough illumination to register and record what is in the water above. There is poetry in Derges’s way of looking at landscape. Her images reflect on the minutia of ripples and shadows, subtle expressions of harmony, and a sense that all is at peace in the world.
In Seattle, there is something amiss—indeed, decidedly antagonistic—about a city composed of 41% water that builds so insistently upward. Developers continue to raze hills, drill transportation tunnels below seabeds, and build high-rise condominiums—containing and manipulating the landscape, as opposed to working within its material flows. The photography in Salt/Water emphasizes a generative and more meaningful communion with the landscape—an elemental correspondence between nature and human experience—where the photograph emerges as an intermediary trace.
Salt/Water is on view at the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle through April 3, 2016.