“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Photograph by L. Barry Hetherington
John Chervinsky is a self-taught photographer and an engineer working in the field of applied physics. Since it first opened at the Griffin Museum of Photography in 2005, his “Experiment in Perspective” series has been traveling the country, including solo exhibits at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Art Gallery in Batavia, Ill.; the Michael Mazzeo Gallery in New York, and the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Ore. His work is held in numerous public and private collections including the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Museum of Art in Portland, Ore., and the Fidelity Investments Collection. Chervinsky spent 18 years running a particle accelerator at Harvard University and has collaborated with museums, using accelerator technology in the analysis of art. He currently works at Harvard’s Rowland Institute for Science, founded by Polaroid’s Edwin H. Land.
A Photographic Exploration into the Nature of Time, Light, Space and Gravity
I am fascinated by the concept of time. I can measure it, account for it in an experiment in the lab, and live my life in it, but I still don’t know what it is, exactly.
We are all aware of the great pioneering time and motion studies done by practitioners such as Eadweard Muybridge, Harold “Doc” Edgerton and even the experimental work of Bernice Abbott done during the late 1950s at MIT. That work investigates motion with image-capture intervals ranging from 100 nanoseconds — the time of the pulse of a fast strobe — to the several seconds it takes for a horse to trot in front of a reference grid. In fact, most contemporary photographers work somewhere within that range. What would happen, then, if we decided to work outside of that range? What would happen if we picked an image-capture interval of not seconds, but weeks?
This conceptual work in progress will investigate the physical phenomena of still and moving objects in space over time.
My process is as follows:
1) Compose and photograph a still life.
2) Crop a subset of the image and send it to a painting factory in China.
3) Wait for an anonymous artist in China to complete an actual oil painting of the cropped section, and send it to me in the mail.
4) Reinsert the painting into the original setup and re-photograph.
As with previous work, I’m interested in issues relating to perspective. I’m interested in the tensions expressed in the comparison between reality versus representation. I’m interested in what happens when I collaborate with another artist who has no idea that he or she is involved in a collaboration, and I’m interested in seeing and expressing subtle changes over time that we might otherwise take for granted.
Q: What was the thought process behind “Studio Physics”?
A: I spent some time thinking about Chris McCaw’s photographs and how he not only created very compelling and beautiful images — pushing his materials to the burning point, actually, but he works at timescales involving hours. It is a time interval that is used in photography, but it is sort of unusual. There are others who work in timescales over years and decades, either studies of people — Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” for example — or many who take “then and now” approaches of city shots. There were very few examples however, where an extended image-capture interval was expressed in a single frame.
Q: How were these pieces conceived and technically created?
A: I became aware of the presence of painting factories in China from a fellow photographer. Basically, you provide them with an image and they will create a custom oil painting of it for a small fee. It turns out that they have been doing this for hundreds of years. Anyway, I set up an artificial system of constraints for the project by shooting a still life, cropping out a section of the still life and sending a jpeg to one of those painting factories. Meanwhile, as the painting is produced and sent through the mail, change is occurring in the original setup. Some weeks later, I receive the actual painting and insert it into the still life. I rephotograph to create the final image.
Q: So you’ve artificially extended your so-called image-capture interval from seconds to weeks. However, you could have done that in any number of ways. Why use paintings, why do it in China?
A: For one thing, paintings have a physicality to them that are interesting visually; the pigment can have great texture, be imperfectly applied and hopefully draw the viewer in to realize that I’m not simply putting empty frames in front of objects. Hopefully, the use of paintings will make some art historical references too. The paintings need not necessarily be made in China, but their recent economic expansion ties the project to our time and gives the project some cultural relevance without me having to state it explicitly. I do like the fact that they are produced very far away. I do find something poetic to the act of the finished painting being passed off, hand to hand, truck to plane, crossing oceans, continents, countries until it arrives on my doorstep. The factories are literally halfway around the Northern Hemisphere from my studio in Somerville, Mass.
An Experiment in Perspective
“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” — Marshall McLuhan
Lenses and cameras are the tools of the trade for a working photographer, but it is the field of optics, as it relates to human vision, that can carry with it multivalent symbolic possibilities for the artist. It can stand as a testament to our expansion of human knowledge and perception. It can also symbolize aspects of our weaknesses, thus leading to a greater understanding of the human condition. Are we prone to the same limitations as our trusty camera on a tripod, held to the earth, seeing the universe from a fixed and single point?
My exploration begins in my attic studio. In it are a pair of slate blackboards; they are illuminated with a single window aided by reflecting panels. One of the boards is placed in the vertical plane, the other in the horizontal. A large-format view camera points toward their line of intersection and records chalk markings, combined with real objects. I employ a mixed media approach with found and constructed objects as sculptural elements, while using chalk drawing as a spatial tool. I use Polaroid Type 55 film because it produces an instant positive for proofing and a high-quality negative for scanning and printing.
I intend for these open-ended images to appear as imaginary, or even whimsical science demonstrations or physics experiments, complete with diagramatic embellishment. They are not intended to be scientifically factual, but more that they are reflective of the ongoing philosophical debates that have raged for centuries. While it is my intent that the work’s institutional learning motif places it into the world of ideas, it is not intended to be instructional. Rather, I see “An Experiment in Perspective” as posing questions without easy answers. My intent is not to express a single narrow perspective, but to, among other things, expose the pitfalls of doing so.
Q: What was the thought process behind “An Experiment in Perspective”?
A: I developed a curiosity about art that played with the illusion of perspective. I challenged myself to figure out how to draw a circle into a corner of a room, photograph it and have it appear round in the final print. I found one of those old-style overhead transparency projectors to project a circle into a corner and trace its outline. If I stood at just the right spot with my camera, it appeared to be hovering in a different plane out from the surfaces of the walls.
Eventually, I began to consider the analogy between visual perspective and the type of perspective that refers to human thought and knowledge.
Meanwhile, working at Harvard provided me with plenty of opportunity to see these really great slate blackboards in the older lecture halls. The equations, diagrams and half erasures made them seem like works of art unto themselves. In that sense, the institutional learning motif made them an ideal backdrop. By utilizing two blackboards, one on the surface of a table, the other behind it serving as a background, I was able to construct a “perspective” laboratory of sorts. I worked by combining the chalk markings with objects. I was able to develop a symbolic framework that I used throughout the project.
Q: How were these pieces conceived and technically created?
A: The images deal very broadly with science-related and/or philosophical themes. For example, I was interested in exploring the tensions between reason and belief, issues pertaining to our environment and even as I work in a technologically driven field and believe that it’s discoveries and technical achievements that make our lives better, some of the images address the fact that our advancements can also have the potential to dehumanize us.
The chalk lines were created by taping marked transparency film to the inside of the ground glass of my view camera. That allowed me to shine a light right through it and operate the camera as a projector. I could then trace the lines with chalk around and over the “corner” of my blackboards. If the illusion was successful, the lines appeared to be floating in space, but only from the vantage point of the camera. Once the lines were drawn, I added objects and used the same camera in the traditional way to capture the final image.
Q: How open are your science colleagues to your art-making activities?
A: The ones that know me personally seem to be genuinely happy for my successes. In truth, I see deep artistic sensibilities in many of them too. However, even as things are getting better, there is an unfortunate schism that still exists between the two fields. The reasons behind making art and conducting scientific research are, by their nature, very different. Even so, there are some long-held assumptions that unhelpfully prevent individuals from either field from seeing a benefit from any kind of interaction. One would think that there would be more of an overlap, especially in areas of common interest, such as those pertaining to human creativity. For me, it serves as all the more reason for making the art that I do.
Images of John Chervinsky are on exhibit at CordenPotts Gallery in San Francisco through Nov. 2, 2013 and will also be on exhibit at wall space gallery in Santa Barbara Nov. 25, 2013 through Jan. 5, 2014.