Moonless nights in the Arizona desert may seem an unlikely subject for landscape photography—it’s about as inky black out there as you can imagine—but, it’s a terrific place to set off explosions. When artist Christopher Colville walks into darkness carrying nothing but gunpowder, matches, and silver gelatin photo paper, his undertaking is part-science experiment, part-visionquest, and part-intimate pyromania. And his eccentric approach yields mysterious, romantic landscape photographs with the paranormal look and feel of old-timey ghost-hunting.
Over the years, Colville has explored and refined his trademark technique for making photographs using neither camera nor film, in about the most analog way possible. Beginning with regular old photo-reactive paper, he skips the parts about aiming the camera and printing from negatives and gets straight to the heart of the matter. By setting off controlled explosions of loose gunpowder and small rocks directly onto the paper itself as it’s half-buried in the ground, Colville generates pictures that capture nothing but the shape of the light of the flashes and sparks.
What’s remarkable and more than a little spooky about all this is that despite the unpredictability of results achieved in this way, the pictures always look like the places they were made—as clearly and legibly as straight photographs would. Horizons illuminated either by thin strips or billowing auroras; the outlines of homes and trees in the middle distance; the shadows of what might be figures; the detailed texture of sandy, rocky earth; the hazel clouds of an afternoon dust storm; a wildfire still smoldering at sunrise. But none of this is really there.
You are seeing the residue of pure energy—as the ghosts in Colville’s machine call everything into question, from the confines and definitions of photography, to the reliability of your own eyes, the power of allegory and symbolism, and the paradoxical nature of creative destruction.
Christopher Colville: The Dark Hours is on through November 6 at Duncan Miller Gallery in Santa Monica.