Today we are pleased to share the work of Michael Koerner.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I was born on an air base in Okinawa, Japan. When I was four years old, our family moved to an Army post (communications command) in southern Arizona. My father was a civil servant for the US Department of Defense for over thirty years and my mother was a homemaker.
I studied fundamental sciences (Chemistry, Physics, and Math) in college and then earned my doctorate degree in synthetic Organic Chemistry. Over the years, I became a husband, father, scientist, entrepreneur, care-giver, traveler/explorer, photo experimentalist, teacher and cat-whisperer.
I’m married, and we currently live in Urbana, Illinois with our two cats, Bialy Beth (BiBi) and Kira-belle. I teach Chemistry at the University of Illlinois-Urbana/Champaign and use my understanding of the sciences and photo history to create abstract art using the chemigram process on wet plate collodion surfaces.
Where did you get your photographic training?
My photographic training is still on-going and will probably never end. In 2000, I started making prints at night in a community darkroom. After several years, my print-making efforts took a partial detour into (and then out of) digital photography, but I’ve been working in the darkroom continuously for the past almost twenty years. Most of those years have been spent making alternative process (kalitypes, cyanotypes, tintypes, platinum and palladium, ambrotypes, wet plate collodion negatives, and other) prints/plates. I’ve been concentrating on cameraless processes since 2011. I’m currently on a self-guided expedition to create and use unique chemical developers on wet plate collodion surfaces.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
I have a great appreciation for the first images in photo history. Hippolyte Bayard’s “Self Portrait of a Drowned Man” (1840) stands-out in my memory because it represents the angst that came from not getting proper recognition for his place in photo history for inventing his direct positive paper (the Bayard) process. However, an even more important image to me and one that has stayed with me over time was his “Essais de Photosensibilisation” (“Tests of Photosensitivities”) from 1839. Those experiments show me that Bayard understood the ability to use light to activate a light-sensitive surface and then apply a chemical developer (and maybe even a fixer) to change those materials. The pioneering work of Hippolyte Bayard, Hércules Florence, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, Edmund Kesting, Maurice Tabard and others is of utmost interest to me.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
After I had perfected my ability to create the fractal effect on tintypes in late 2015, one of my first plates that I produced was, “Maelstrom.”
That plate has everything a traditional tintypist hates. It is a wondrous nightmare; a tempest on the wet plate collodion surface.
When most people start out in this process, they love the magic of seeing their image appear in the fixer and marvel at the high resolution detail. However, I only liked all the artifacts, textures and anomalies caused by the mistakes; that’s where the character resides. I didn’t want the bread – I wanted the crust.
I could see the spidery, dendritic, fractal silver growth on the edges of old tintypes from the late 1800s. I wanted THAT! I wanted to control and exaggerate that pattern. I scoured the internet and asked everyone how to produce those fractals. Nobody gave me a definitive answer. I collected old tintypes with these artifacts, but couldn’t produce them. It was most aggravating. I experimented for six years – giving up a handful of times.
Eventually, I turned to reading the old literature from the late 1800s. There, in print, several authors taught how to avoid getting those fractals and also how to remove the wispy, feathery, silvery veiling and how to eliminate the blue color found on edges of the plate. Re-engineering the chemistry allowed me to produce those long-sought artifacts and abnormalities. It is quite rewarding having my OWN photographic method founded in science and photographic history.
Why do you create?
Creating a tangible product is the way I have learned to express myself.
First, I’m trained as an , . My science background has revolved around literally creating new matter at the chemical level. For example, for a short while at G.D. Searle (Pharmaceutical) Company I worked on new chemical processes in drug discovery, then as a scientist at The Clorox Company, I devised new chemical formulations to be used as home cleaning products.
However, more importantly, there is real meaning hidden inside my photo abstractions. There are things I’m trying to say that my words alone cannot express. Speaking my message and having an audience are important, but if nobody were listening, I would still create my artwork. So, I do have goals that my art can be both personally fulfilling and possibly enrich society and enhance the way we think about science and policy.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
My creative process is quite complex and involved. However, I always draw inspiration from the past creations of others.
When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I would visit the Museum of Modern Art (SF-MoMA), the M. H. de Young Museum of Art, and visit commercial galleries at 49 Geary Street. I still remember being inspired by Dora Maar’s surreal photo, “Père Ubu,” Emmanuel Radnitzky’s (Man Ray’s) “Rayographs” (photograms), Susan Derges’ work from her “Alder Brook” series (I have a signed copy of her book, “Elemental”), and the Bauhaus works of László Moholy-Nagy. I was introduced to all of this work from past visits to the SF MoMA. I was introduced to the work of Adam Fuss, Chris McCaw (at the Haines Gallery) and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Lightning Fields” exposition (at the Fraenkel Gallery) on Geary Street.
I used to work on the campus of the University of Arizona and had many happy visits to the Center for Creative photography (CCP). I remember arranging a private viewing of any work that I wished to see held in their collection. My friend Tony would gather all the prints from the archives and we would share our collective knowledge about the photographer, printing techniques, etc. I would schedule such visits every other week. After a couple years, funding constraints caused that program to end. I was graciously allowed to sit-in on all of the classroom requisites for an MFA in Photography – much thanks to Professor Kate Albers. Additionally, my university faculty credentials allowed me to examine every tintype in the archives. Sadly, CCP’s budget restrictions forced them to end those viewing opportunities, too.
Now, I live in Urbana, Illinois, which is only a little over a two-hour train ride from downtown Chicago. Each year, I make about 8-10 day-trips to Chicago, which always includes visits to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art. After only a short walk from Union Station down Adams Street, I’m able to view the photo collection in the Art Institute’s basement or pass the impressionistic masterpieces upstairs and come face-to-face with Paul Klee’s “In the Magic Mirror” or Juan Miro’s “The Kerosene Lamp” or Marc Chagall’s stained-glass “American Windows.” Riding the (El)evated Train a few stops on the Brown Line gets me into the River North district, where I can visit several fabulous art galleries. The best of those is the Catherine Edelman Gallery. I’m not only singling out that gallery because they represent my personal work (sorry for the shameless plug), but the gallery exhibits extraordinary work from thirty world-class artists.
Luckily, I work at a major public university, which provides me access to published works. Digitized versions of articles from the late 1800s get delivered to me online or via Interlibrary Loan – a mutual sharing program with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College or one of many other institutes.
I am very grateful for having the opportunities to see all of these works in-person. Through this exposure to art, my creativity gets stretched/morphed beyond what I once thought was impossible.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
My creativity peaks when I suspend my quantitative and scientific tendencies and rely more on my intuitions. I’m happiest when my choices are allowed to flow without cares, pressures and deadlines. So, a good day in the darkroom would have the perfect music playlist and a new chemical that I can explore without any expectations for positive results. I especially like when the darkroom lights come on and I can see that the developer pattern that I had laid down on the collodion surface has blossomed into a bouquet of silver metal fractals. Or, when the developer, fixer, bleach or solarizing chemical flows across the plate in the exact arc that I intended or produces a unique, unexpected color, the effects are gifts for my eyes. Those are good days.
Is there a photographer that you would like to spend time with ?
I would have loved to spend time with William Henry Fox Talbot, especially during his debates with Sir John Herschel over the best choice of fixer that would make a photographic image permanent. It would be fascinating to absorb and participate in that thought process. I would want to listen and learn how they use their understanding of the photographic sciences from the early 1800s.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
Technically speaking, the light from my darkroom enlarger is the most essential part of my process. Without that light, there is no activated silver salt on the collodion surface and no effect would form. However, I understand what you’re really asking me, so I would have to say that my chemical formulations are absolutely necessary and the essential missing piece.
I “know” my chemicals. Some chemical mixes are angry and aggressive and will quickly plate-out elemental silver metal, while others are calm and patient and take their time building texture or color. There are many dozens of chemical mixes neatly labeled in their bottles and grouped into categories like: acidic, basic, oxidizers, reducers, bleaches, toners, etc. The bottles line the inside of my eight-foot long darkroom sink like soldiers at-the-ready to enter the fray.
Whats on the horizon?
With regards to my creative direction: The DNA series is an on-going story. The fractals in a double-helix pattern that represent my DNA mutations are part of a larger narrative that I feel is still part of my future work. I’ll probably work on that series for years, and I plan to publish them in a book someday.
The diptych, “Richard’s Heart” will be included in the exhibit at The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL: “Out of the Box: Camera-less Photography” Through June 18, 2019.