Beyond the Darkroom: Courtney Johnson transforms film negatives with thought-provoking subjects

Sep 2 • Art, ARTSY SMARTSY, FEATURE SIDEBARNo Comments on Beyond the Darkroom: Courtney Johnson transforms film negatives with thought-provoking subjects

Before the advent of the camera, cliché-verre was known as a main form of capturing images on transparency. Artists would take surfaces like smoked glass and etch, paint, or draw on them a bounty of subject matter. Though the camera has taken over as the modern technique to instantly capture our surroundings, few artists still dabble in the obscure 19th-century frame of work. Locally, UNCW professor of photography, Courtney Johnson, thrives off the alternative processes of photography, including historical and non-silver photographic processes, such as cyanotype and platinum palladium. She also enjoys cliché-verre (“glass-negative” in French) and is in the process of creating a nine-part series focused on cities. Part one, “Cycle of Cities: Collapse,” is now on display at S.A.L.T. off 4th Street.

In Water II

IN WATER II: Courtney Johnson’s cliché-verre style showcases New Orleans 2005, with water dropped onto the film negative wherein she’s etched the Louisiana cityscape. Courtesy photo

“I came up with the idea through a combination of my interest in cities as a modern phenomenon, both visually and socially, and my fascination with mythology,” Johnson tells. 

She first debuted the cliché-verre “Glass Cities” in 2010 at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in NYC. It focused on nighttime city scapes and skylines, and highlighted the modern conviences and phenomenon of electricity as compared with traditional landscape. She received a great deal of recognition; yet, Johnson wanted to push the style even further. 

In “Cycle of Cities: Collapse” she  aims to bridge the gap between traditional and new methods again—analog and digital, painting and photography, included. The city represented in each negative dictates how she treats the image. For instance, if she’s mapping a city that’s been burned, she’ll light fire to the negative. Or if she’s working on a city that’s been flooded, she’ll drop water on the film.

“I subject my negatives to similar environmental hazards that befell the cities they represent, like breaking negatives of cities that were bombed [as seen in ‘Infijar III,’ Baghdad, 1991-present, which represents the ongoing wars waged on the Middle East],” according to Johnson.

Having traveled extensively throughout North and South America, Europe and Asia, Johnson lived in Malaysia for three years of her childhood. The impact of residing in the Far East left an indelible imprint. 

“I am particularly interested in patterns and the tension between two-dimensional and three-dimensional planes, as well as the impressive skylines I saw being built,” she says. 

Folks will see 2D influence in “Collapse” and even references of the ancient Indonesian batik style, which uses wax and dye to create imagery, traditionally on cloth. “In terms of pattern recognition, there’s a universal design to cities, much as there is to universal myths, which connects places and people throughout space and time,” Johnson tells. “Having lived in and visited so many different places has allowed me to make connections I’m not sure I would otherwise make.” 

Represented in “Collapse” are New Orleans 2005 in “Water II” (representing Hurricane Katrina); London 1666 in “Fire II” (representing the great fire that destroyed the City of London inside the Roman city wall); and Hiroshima 1945 in “Bakuhatsu II” (representing the atomic bomb), among others. Seven of nine images are showcased on black pieces of 8-by-10-inch glass or photo film. 

“I paint in negative—all colors and densities are reversed—red on the negative prints cyan on the positive, clear on the negative prints black,” she describes. “Then I scan, enlarge and print the images digitally on photo paper.”

Unlike modern digitizing, the images Johnson creates will not pixelize as they’re enlarged. There is no grain in cliché-verre, so the size can expand on an infinite scale. 

“At 8-by-10 feet, it becomes reminiscent of pointillism [the technique of painting small, distinct dots of pure color to form an image], in that the piece changes dramatically if the viewer is up close or further away,” Johnson explains. “You can view all the small details at the large scale.”  

Johnson currently is working on the next phase of Cycle of Cities entitled “Afterlife.” It will feature natural pigments, smoking glass and layering. “Most of my work is about the tension between nature and the human-made,” she states. She’s also planning the launch of The Lab: Wilmington Community Darkroom. It will be membership-based and offer traditional darkroom amenities and a digital laboratory. Her show at S.A.L.T. hangs through September.


Cycle of Cities: Collapse

Photography by Courtney Johnson
The Gallery at S.A.L.T. Studio
805 N. 4th St. • 910-367-5720

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